Posts tagged ‘Anacyclosis Polybius’

The Cycles of Government and the US Constitution

I was in a course this weekend on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.  One term that was new to me was Polybius's theory of government called Anacyclosis (Polybius was a contemporary of the Roman Republic and actually lived during the time when the seeds of the Republic's downfall were being planted).  Others before and after Polybius had similar ideas but apparently Polybius gets a lot of the credit.  There are two interesting ideas in this theory that I think will have a lot of resonance to folks today.  First, he believed that governments followed a cycle from one-man rule to aristocracy to democracy and back.  Second, and perhaps more interesting, he believed that each of these three forms of government had a good and bad form, and that the good form was inherently unstable and always degenerated into the bad form.

Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the cycle:

Polybius' sequence of anacyclosis proceeds in the following order: 1. monarchy, 2. kingship, 3. tyranny, 4. aristocracy, 5. oligarchy, 6. democracy, and 7. ochlocracy.

According to Polybius' elaboration of the theory, the state begins in a form of primitive monarchy. The state will emerge from monarchy under the leadership of an influential and wise king; this represents the emergence of "kingship". Political power will pass by hereditary succession to the children of the king, who will abuse their authority for their own gain; this represents the degeneration of kingship into "tyranny".

Some of the more influential and powerful men of the state will grow weary of the abuses of tyrants, and will overthrow them; this represents the ascendancy of "aristocracy" (as well as the end of the "rule by the one" and the beginning of the "rule by the few").

Just as the descendants of kings, however, political influence will pass to the descendants of the aristocrats, and these descendants will begin to abuse their power and influence, as the tyrants before them; this represents the decline of aristocracy and the beginning of "oligarchy". As Polybius explains, the people will by this stage in the political evolution of the state decide to take political matters into their own hands.

This point of the cycle sees the emergence of "democracy", as well as the beginning of "rule by the many". In the same way that the descendants of kings and aristocrats abused their political status, so too will the descendants of democrats. Accordingly, democracy degenerates into "ochlocracy", literally, "mob-rule". In an ochlocracy, according to Polybius, the people of the state will become corrupted, and will develop a sense of entitlement and will be conditioned to accept the pandering of demagogues.

Eventually, the state will be engulfed in chaos, and the competing claims of demagogues will culminate in a single (sometimes virtuous) demagogue claiming absolute power, bringing the state full-circle back to monarchy.

He believed that the Roman Republic worked because it was a merger of all three forms of government.  If this seems like a goofy theory, like the balancing of humors for health; or if it seems wrong because we are all taught today that democracy is superior to the other two forms, consider this:  In the US, think of the Presidency as kingship, the Senate (as originally configured in the Constitution) as aristocracy, and the House of Representatives as democracy.  Our Constitution is arguably based in part on Polybius's theory.