The Lonely Despot

If I were an ambitious despot, I would spend most of my hours concerned about free will. The fact that even if I put my subjects in chains, whipped them and put guns to their heads, these tortured and threatened subjects would still be able to think and believe anything they wished. This would keep me up at night. Every insurrection begins as an idea. One idea begets another idea, and then another idea, until one such idea is so attractive that someone acts. What to do, what to do, what to do? I am sure I would learn the secret all despots come to know: that humans are limited in their desire, that not everyone can be attracted to all things equally, but humans can be afraid of anything. And since I cannot control what my subjects love, I would try to suggest what they should fear. Fortunately for me, the despot, the future is unknown. I must keep this future a frightening and dangerous place, a place in which they cannot hope to be safe without my vigilance, without my firm omnipotent control.

Yet even if I were a very skilled despot, even if I had a vast and loyal secret police trained and enthusiastic in the practice of intimidation, even if my subjects spied on one another, distrusted one another, there would still be many nights I would lay awake concerned about the limits of my influence. Being such an expert on the matter, I would know that fear is only a distraction, as if I had set off a terrifying fireworks display upon which all their eyes were now trained. How do you keep their eyes upon it? What if just one person turns away and sees I have no clothes?

If I were a despot, I would lay awake wondering, perhaps, how it was possible that I in my palace surrounded by my guards was as capable of fear as the same lowest urchin? I would wonder if my subjects could believe this. I would wonder if they learned of their dear leader’s fear if they would love me, and not just fear me. But then I would remember that I cannot control what anyone loves, and I would feel their rejection of me, and I would hate this rejection and how small and vulnerable and ugly it made me feel, and I would close my eyes and return to the nightmare of fear.

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