Sunday, February 10, 2008

On the Republic of Cicero and Polybius

The ancients recognized three different types of simple government monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy which may be thought of as the rule of the one, the few, and the many respectively. Each was thought susceptible to a degradation into a similar but despotic form of itself. Where monarchy would degrade into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into license and mob rule. Polybius noted this in book six, concerning the Roman constitution, from his history of the rise of Rome. Later Cicero confirmed this sentiment in his treatise on the Republic. They both came to the conclusion that the best way to avert these dangerous tendencies in each of the simple forms is to form a government comprised of all three, so that each branch may balance the other two. This mixed constitution, it may be recognized, is the basis of our own and is defended by the dictates of reason and the testimony of history.

Of the three simple forms of government Cicero judged monarchy the best, since the virtues of a leader may render his reign beneficent to the liberties of the people. In the end, however, he concluded that even this form of government is likely to be be rendered tyrannical since the condition of the state depends wholly on the virtues of a single man. The despotism following the destruction of the Roman Republic attests to this natural tendency; the history of modern times no less so.

According to Cicero democracy is the form of government least like a republic. Unlike those other forms the mob can assume the mask of the people. A tyrant may be slain or an oligarchy expelled but neither can be done to the great mass of the people who vote for the destruction of the lives and properties of other men. They mistake license for liberty, emotion for reason, and begin to destroy any people that calls up their envy. There is another awful tendency in democracy in that it quickly degrades into tyranny. The people raise to eminence an unscrupulous demagogue to the highest levels of power and once raised he convinces the people to surrender their liberty and at once becomes a tyrant.

The greatest men may then object to this abuse and form a government where the ``best'' people rule. The people may then become jealous or they may be abused encouraging an overthrow of the aristocracy; thus is born a never ending cycle of revolution where the degraded state of any simple form leads to its contrary. An oligarchy inspires a democracy, tyranny an aristocracy, and so forth. The only remedy, Cicero and Polybius assert, is to form the constitution in such a way as to counter these tendencies so that the monarchical element may check the aristocratic and the democratic and visa versa.

Though this form is the most advantageous to the liberty of the people and vital to the preservation of free government, it is justly recognized that the foundation of any good state is the virtue and knowledge of the people. Without which, not even the most perfectly shaped government will long endure. This is an important lesson which if not learned quickly speeds up the dissolution of our rights and the forging of our chains; always keeping in mind that the object of government is not for every man to have a share, but rather the preservation of liberty.

1 comment:

Myrhaf said...

Welcome to the blogosphere. Long may you run.