Discover more from The Wayward Rabbler
A Brief Introduction to Classical Political Theory
because you were probably never assigned Aristotle
“In your old states you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe. These opposed and conflicting interests, which you considered so great a blemish in your old and in our present constitution, render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations; and rending all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable. Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as their [sic] were separate views in the several orders; whilst by pressing down the whole by the weight of a real monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping and starting from their allotted places.” - Edmund Burke [Reflections on the Revolution in France]
If you had to, test-style, explain the meaning of Burke’s quote as it refers to the ancien regime in France, how well do you think you would do?
One of the purposes of this newsletter, as previously said, will be to try and teach various important things that most have clearly gone without learning. This is a large problem with classical political theory, and one which has a great impact on how an individual views his state. This is especially true of a state with what you would called a “Great Lawgiver”, like Athens, Sparta, and the United States, as opposed to states where constitutions form gradually over time, such as Rome or the United Kingdom. Its pretty clear this is yet another area where the government desires to keep the public ignorant, as if the public cannot see the brilliance of Madison’s design [which didn’t work out in the long run, clearly] they will do little to protect it.
Of course, we are taught various things about the separation of powers, and co-equal branches of government. Essentially the minimal amount they can teach you about useful political theory while explaining the actual de jure laws of this country. But there is basically just a surface level knowledge that this was thought to prevent the growth of the other parts, because of competition between branches. This isn’t incorrect, it just also isn’t informative enough to be particularly compelling.
My primary topic will be types of government and the cycle of constitutions. The concept of the sovereign was not fleshed out well until Hobbes, and while important, for our purposes today it will suffice to simply say that the sovereign is the person or group that is considered to have the power of a commonwealth.
I intend to quote heavily, as a small number of people have handled this very well.
In general, there are thought to be three main forms of government, which are monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Any function of the state can only be held by a single person, a group of high-ranking people, or the general public. There are not really any other types of human who can take power. As Aristotle wrote, “The governing class is the constitution.” [1278b10-11] That is to say, government type is determined by who holds power.
Aristotle, the first to write an extant methodological treatise on this subject, described the types of government as follows:
“The authoritative element must either be one person, or few, or many, then whenever the one, the few, or the many rule for the common benefit, these constitutions must be correct. But if they aim at the private benefit, whether of the one or the few or the multitude, they are deviations…
A monarchy that looks to the common benefit we customarily call a kingship; and rule by the few but more than one an aristocracy (either because the best people rule, or because they rule with a view to what is the best for the city-state and those who share in it). But when the multitude governs for the common benefit, it is called by the name common to all constitutions, namely, politeia…
Deviations from these are tyranny from kingship, oligarchy from aristocracy, and democracy from polity. For tyranny is rule by one person for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and democracy is for the benefit of the poor. But none is for their common profit.” [1279a33-1279b8]
Thus, Aristotle’s system is arranged as:
Kingship > Tyranny
Aristocracy > Oligarchy
Polity > Democracy
And in Aristotle’s view the goodness or badness of a government arrives from whether it tries to serve one class, or tries to serve all classes. Of course, there isn’t always a formal king, but any society ends up with a small number of most powerful people, one way or another.
The great historian Polybius [who is most notable for his contributions to political theory, despite being a wonderful historian] also follows this basic scheme, though I would note that its unclear who he is criticizing for believing there are three kinds of government, being as Aristotle would have been the main authority on this. He writes as follows:
Most of those who want to educate and instruct us in such matters say that there are three kinds of political system, which they call kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. But I think it would be perfectly reasonable to ask these people whether they mean that these are the only constitutions, or the best ones…
Our position then, should be that there are six kinds of constitution—the three commonly recognized ones I have just mentioned, and three more which are congenital with them: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy or mob-rule.” [6.3-4]
Thus for Polybius the system is this:
Kingship > Tyranny
Aristocracy > Oligarchy
Democracy > Ochlocracy
To Polybius, the main difference is simply honest and good leadership, for example he writes, “What we call democracy is a system where the majority decision prevails, but which retains the traditional values of piety towards the gods, care of parents, respect for elders, and obedience to the laws.” [6.4] I’m more of a political theory guy than a philosopher, and I do think that it largely is self-evident what is good government to any virtuous person, and it is essentially one which allows you to lead an orderly and happy life without tyrannical lunatics abusing you.
Machiavelli also explains this concept in Discourses on Livy, writing as follows:
“Some of those who have written about republics declare that in each of them is one of the three forms of government, which they call principality, aristocracy, and democracy, and they say that those who organize a city must turn to one of these types, whichever, in their view, seems most suitable. Some other and, in the opinion of many, wiser men hold the opinion that there are six kinds of governments: three of these are very bad; three others are good in themselves but so easily corruptible that they almost come to be pernicious…each of them is in a way similar to its counterpart, so that they all easily jump from one form to the other: the principality easily becomes tyrannical; the aristocracy quite easily becomes the government of the few; and democracy without difficult turns into anarchy…no remedy can prevent it from slipping into its contrary due to the similarity that exists, in this case, between the virtue and the vice.” [1.2]
[Note Machiavelli is also fighting imaginary political theorists]
Thus from Machiavelli it is:
Principality > Tyranny
Aristocracy > “The Few”
Democracy > Anarchy
For Machiavelli, the problem is essentially just that power corrupts over time, and the rulers become licentious, unfair, and greedy, and increasingly use the power of the state to keep the public in line, instead of governing through consent and cooperation.
While there are differences in the terms used [it must be noted that I’m monolingual, and aspects of this could be a function of translation decisions] it is clear that all three men believe in fundamentally the same thing. I certainly would use democracy as the good form, as people are so obsessed with democracy you will lose them instantly if it is negatively defined.
[For an alternative view, Hobbes, who was anti-Aristotle, argued, “I think no man believes, that want of government, is any new kind of government: nor by the same reason ought they to believe, that the government is of one kind, when they like it, and another, when they mislike it, or are oppressed by governments.” [Leviathan, 2.XIX.2] This is admittedly an extremely difficult argument to refute.]
It was further seen that these constitutions operate in a cycle, frankly not unlike the “Hard times create strong men” cycle, in that men who have experienced hard times tend to value the right things, whereas freedom seems little to people who don’t know oppression, and wealth seems everything to those who have never known poverty. People will act as if that has no basis in history, but even if untrue, it’s essentially what every ancient historian believed, whether or not modern historians do. [As I’ve established, I care very little about post-Enlightenment thought right now.]
Aristotle’s cycle is a bit all over the place, but I am going to share it as it is key in understanding the development of political theory:
“When there began to be many people who were similar in virtue, however, they no longer put up with kingship, but looked for something communal and established a polity. But when they began to acquire wealth from the common funds, they became less good, and it was from some such source, so one might reasonably suppose, that oligarchies arose; for they made wealth a thing of honor. Then from oligarchies they changed first into tyrannies, and from tyrannies to democracy. For by concentrating power into ever fewer hands, because of the shameful desire for profit, they made the multitude stronger, with the result that it revolted and democracies arose.”
The essential problem here is that over a long enough time the power of the state will corrupt any group of men, and they come to care only about corruption and state revenues. Though the government generally is like this, Joe Biden’s class of elderly Democrats has absolutely lost any sense of purpose besides looting the government to enrich their own class. Incidentally, these are men whose fathers experienced “hard times.”
Polybius describes this cycle brilliantly, and it makes one scared of where we are in his political cycle, bearing in mind that the “Progressive Era” represented a massive coup for the Demos [and thus for financial interests, more on that later] and very much changed our constitution. He writes:
“While those who had experienced oligarchic excess remained alive, they were content with the existing regime and were fully committed to equality to equality and the right of every citizen to speak his mind. But by the time a new crop of young men had been born and democracy was in its third generation, the principles of freedom and equality were seen as too familiar to seem important, and some people began to want to get ahead of everyone else. It was especially the rich who succumbed to this temptation and longed for power. But then, finding that their own resources and merits were not enough to enable them to get what they wanted, they squandered their fortunes on bribing and corrupting the general populace in all sorts of ways. Once this inane hunger for glory had made the common people greedy for such largess and willing to accept it, democracy in its turn was overthrown and replaced by violence and government by main force. For once people had grown accustomed to eating off of others’ tables and expected their daily needs to be met, then, when they found someone to champion their cause—a man of vision and daring, who had been excluded from political office by his poverty—they instituted government by force: they banded together and set about murdering, banishing, redistributing land, until they were reduced to a bestial state and once again gained a monarchic master.
This is the cycle of constitutions, the natural way which systems of government develop, metamorphose, and start all over again.” [6.9]
It is incredible to modern readers that he could write such a thing without the benefits of seeing how the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions turned out, but there was no shortage of examples from antiquity and property redistribution is always attractive when a tyrant is relying on the lower classes for power.
It is clear that the problems experienced here are inherent to mankind and human organization. That within any of these systems, there is an inherent source of corruption, and everyone will inherently degenerate into its negative counterpart.
The solution to this, recognized since Aristotle, is to create a mixed government which combines all of these elements. This creates a situation where there can still be a modicum of fairness while every class acts in its own interest, which is essentially inevitable. In a mixed government, all classes of citizens have a role, and feel represented and as if they are stakeholders in the government.
Since antiquity this has been seen as the genius of the laws of Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver. Ignoring that Sparta was in insane barracks-communist dystopia based on a perpetual state-slave class, its constitution lasted more or less unchanged for some say as long as 800 years, the longest we know of. This was accomplished because in Sparta there were two hereditary monarchs (by tradition this arose when a monarch had twins). The monarchs actually had quite limited power within Sparta, but had full command when leading the military in the field, thus for a time at least there were few struggles over military command. They further had a Council of Elders, men who had survived 40 years of military service and held the main power in the state. Then there were citizens who lived in equality, and the citizen body as a whole also held a great deal of power, as they were the ones who chose the Council of Elders based on virtue. Thus, a fully mixed constitution.
Similarly, the Romans had a system whereby in normal times two Consuls split the role of the prince, the Senate functioned as the aristocracy, and the commons came to be elected by tribunes. However, as Rome did not have a “great lawgiver”, these changes arose over time. This was a major feature which contributed to the greatness of Rome: the Republic’s ability to adapt to the circumstances and modify its constitution over time.
In Discourses on Livy Machiavelli explains the necessity of mixed government as follows:
“Let me say, therefore, that all the forms of governments mentioned above are defective, because of the brief duration of the three good ones, and because of the evil nature of the three bad ones. Thus, since those men who were prudent in establishing laws recognized this defect, they avoided each of these forms by itself alone and chose a form of government that combined them all, judging such a government steadier and more stable, for when in the same city there is a principality, an aristocracy, and a democracy, one keeps watch on eachother.” [1.2]
It might seem to a modern reader that all of this is unnecessary, and that obviously the most fair thing is to simply let the public be in control via voting, since majority rule is morally good. This is essentially the implicit purpose of a party being called the “Democrats” and of constantly calling America a democracy. There are two problems with this, which both are massively represented by the Democrats:
1) The public is stupid and can be easily controlled by a class of scribblers who are drawn to wealth.
2) The public can easily be controlled by access to credit due to public poverty, and demogogues can be easily bribed.
This means that in any system where the demos have unchecked power, it turns into the power of financial interests. This can easily be seen in the direct election of senators, which was [allegedly] meant to empower the people, but quite obviously only empowered the financial industry. Can you imagine someone earnestly claiming that state senates selecting United States senators would possibly choose worse, more corrupt senators than we have now? But, relentless propaganda has blinded people that they think fairness somehow dictates they accept a government ran by financial interests where they personally have few protections from the depredations of moneylenders.
Landed interests and monied interests are in natural competition, as landed interests value stability whereas financial interests are always ready to profit from any sort of instability or change in society. This was no difference when they bought off French intellectuals in 1790 then it is of woke capitalism: they know if they can undermine social stability and cohesion they can always profit, and they believe in nothing else. It makes sense that they should want to break and destabilize society: when you don’t have a family from where else do you take a loan? If your property is destroyed in war, how do you survive?
What’s worse, is that all three parts of a mixed government have their own reliance on moneylenders, but fortunately it’s essentially impossible for moneylenders to please them all at once, which is the only thing which can restrain this race of men from corrupting a republic. You have to accept that the commons can be bought off by money lenders, but there will still be conflict within the commons. Democratic selection creates a system where at least enough honest people can get through for moneylenders to lack full control over the people’s representatives. But this becomes less true the higher the office and the more people in represents. This is why it is not uncommon for a few good people here and there to get to the House of Representatives, but it’s incredibly uncommon for anyone but a wholly owned subsidiary of the banking class to enter the Senate, the Presidency, or the governorship of large states.
The aristocracy is also commonly in debt, but it’s much harder for the moneylenders to just choose the correct people, and further there is at least some chance of aristocrats being trained in noblesse oblige and legitimately being substantially better educated and more responsible than the general public. But if the general public is “selecting” members of an upper house it guarantees that the moneylenders are picking members of the upper house, which fully breaks a mixed government, and creates a system of vast oppression launched both by the corrupt government and the moneylenders who control it: a real public-private partnership.
These are the basics of mixed government that our founders understood, because they were actually educated in the classics. This is why democracy has to be in balance and the direct power of the people has to be limited. We are not “perfecting” our democracy by making more of it, indeed we are weakening the oppositional government which allowed us to grow strong under liberty, and the people have been enslaved because their de jure power was thrown out of balance and thus their de facto power was severely limited, in one of the great ironies of political theory.
I hope this most basic understanding of parts, functions, and corruptions of mixed government is of use to someone in a society that is built on a lies about democracy fed to you by financial interests and their minions.
I leave you with an incredibly relevant Burke quote on that exact topic:
“Writers, especially when they act in a body and with one direction, have great influence on the public mind; the alliance, therefore, of these writers with the monied interest had no small effect in removing the popular odium and envy which attended that species of wealth. These writers, like the propagators of all novelties, pretended to a great zeal for the poor and the lower orders, whilst in their satires they rendered hateful, by every exaggeration, the faults of courts, of nobility, and of priesthood. They became a sort of demagogues. They served as a link to unite, in favor of one object, obnoxious wealth to restless and desperate poverty”
[Note: Burke’s Reflections is essentially unformatted, and thus there is no useful mode of citation in my normal style. As it is originally in English, the context of any quotes can easily be found in a search engine.]