Paradox I: That an absolute Tyranny is the best Government


John Hall’s opening paradox explores an issue that had been perceived as a threat impending over monarchy for centuries: tyranny (Panau and Schadee 2018). However, when Hall’s collection was first published (1560), a discussion on tyranny was especially topical: King Charles I had been executed just one year before, on 30 January 1649, precisely on the charge of being a tyrant.[1] By the time the paradoxes were first published by his editor and would-be biographer John Davies, Hall had already manifested his republican stance in his newly-founded Mercurius Britanicus, an openly anti-royalist newsbook. It therefore comes as no surprise that tyranny is paradoxically presented as the “best government” with a convert irony throughout the text.

Although the paradox bears the word “tyranny” in the title, the term occurs only once in the text (“tyrannies”, 11) and so does “tyrannical” (13), whereas the term “monarchy” appears six times (7, 9, 10, 11, 102, 192). However, in Hall’s argumentation “monarchy” becomes a byword for tyranny. In the first paragraph, Hall himself starts substituting “tyranny” with “monarchy”: not any monarchy but “lordly and absolute monarchy”, so Hall argues, “is the best and most natural government” (7-8). This sentence is not only the overarching thesis informing the whole paradox, but it also echoes the title, thereby establishing an implicit equation between “tyranny” and “monarchy”.

Hall deploys a wide range of arguments discussed through different argumentative strategies. For instance, he often starts from assumedly shared assumptions such as his claim of monarchs’ infallibility (55-57). Alternatively, Hall pre-empts and disproves possible criticisms, as in the final paragraphs, in which he rebuts the accusations to the monarchs of being “vicious” (121), “ravenous” (134), “usurpers” (151), and too indulgent towards “flatterers and favourites” (168-9). Furthermore, Hall frequently stresses the divine origin of monarchical power (36-7; 46-8; 189-90) and draws comparisons with the strictly hierarchical structure of both nature (30-33) and the universe (198-9).

Another strategy deserving attention is what modern logicians would term as the “bandwagon argument”. A subcategory of the argumentum ad populum, the bandwagon argument is a logical fallacy according to which “a standpoint should be accepted because a large number of people think it is acceptable” (van Emeren et al. 2014, 170). Although there was no specific word to define this fallacy until 1772, its essential reasoning was certainly known to early modern thinkers via Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas (Walton 1999, 62). In one passage, Hall adopts this strategy in connection with the law of nature: in the second paragraph (14-22), he starts from the premise that the law of nature corresponds to what “most nations do agree in” (15) and underlines that “most people do desire to be under the sway of one” (17). Similarly, he observes that “many more [politicians] have accounted it [absolute monarchy] the only best way of rule” (29-30). The use of this type of argument is in itself paradoxical: by appealing to communis opinio, Hall is paradoxically countering popular opinion itself in its traditional condemnation of tyranny.



Works Cited


Panau, Nikos, and Hester Schadee, eds. 2018. Evil Lords: Theories and Representations of Tyranny from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, David L. 1998. A History of the Modern British Isles, 1603-1707. Oxford: Blackwell.

van Emeren, Frans H. et al. 2014. Handbook of Argumentation Theory. Dordrecht: Springer.

Walton, Douglas. 1999. Appeal to Popular Opinion. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

[1] Charles I was sentenced to death as “a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good people of this nation” (Smith 1998,163).