Constant complaints and distractions make it difficult to write a coherent post. I’m reminded of First Samuel 15:14 But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” Of course, Saul was supposed to utterly destroy the Amalekites and all they had, so his possession of these herds was a troubling distraction to Samuel. Do you find the daily news troubling and distracting? I most certainly do. I mean what can one do about it, after all?
This has led to “analysis paralysis” in my posting. The last thing I want to do is add a squirrel barking to the bleating and lowing and yelling and screaming. That’s not wise, and if we’re hunting for wisdom we should be considering what’s going on and if there’s anything that can be done to make it better.
Towards that end, I’ve recently found a friend in Polybius (ca 200-118 BCE; Roman Historian) and his surviving albeit fragmentary works. While his presentation of history and political analysis is a bit arrogant, even bombastic – I mean who throws Plato’s Republic under the bus in two sentences – Polybius does!, his thinking about the cycle of governments at least agrees with mine as though he was an American. Perhaps our founders read his work.
What he writes puts at least a potential context on what we experience today, and we don’t have to blame the news media or the internet to see what he saw over 2,000 years ago. There seems to be a natural cycle of government systems “constitutions”. First, there are mobs and chaos and lots of violence until one person emerges as a broadly supported good ruler. That person is made King or Queen. As time moves forward and especially as the crown is passed down hereditary lines, duty to the people is replaced by greed and personal gain leading to tyranny. This causes upheaval, usually by the aristocrats faithful to country and people who overthrow the tyrant and create an aristocracy. Time, hereditary passage of wealth and power, and other factors turn the aristocracy into an oligarchy replacing one tyrant with a handful of tyrants. This leads to wide scale unrest and the oligarchy is overthrown in favor of a democracy. The democracy then polarizes or turns into “tribes” that are power and control driven rather than being truly driven by what is best for the whole country, and democracy decays into mob rule and chaos. The cycle then repeats.
Polybius goes on to compare constitutions of various countries (before 118 BCE we must note). He discusses provisions for power sharing, checks and balances, division into limited roles of king (consul – think President), Aristocrats (Senate), and the People (think house of Representatives), and how constitutions maintain a system of government longer without violent decline. In dismissing Plato, he writes that one should not compare a statue, regardless of its beauty, to a living being. In other words, Plato is a pile of theories, let’s look at what’s happened in the real world which is exactly the point of States’ Rights in our constitution – have each state empowered to be a laboratory for democracy and adopt what works well into the federal constitution if it pleases the people and the states. Of course, Polybius will conclude that the Roman constitution is superior, but not perfect, and his reason for writing is to understand how Rome came to dominate the circum-Mediterranean world in just 57 years or so.
Roman politics were quite different than ours. The parties (Optimates and Populares) were divided along aristocratic (Optimates) and commoner (Populares) sentiments with the Senate being composed of Optimates representing largely the wealthy landowners and the Plebian Assembly the Populares. Only male citizens were allowed to vote, and until Sulla’s civil war and constitutional reform (91-87 BCE) Roman citizenship was largely centered on the city of Rome and not the rest of Italy: the republic had become non-representative of its homeland as the demography and geography of Rome expanded to include all of Italy. By the way, this is at least one reason we have a census. Perhaps the other recalls James Otis, a representative to the Stamp Act congress from Massachusetts, popularizing the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny” in about 1764. Or course, the crown ignored the colonies’ complaints, and we know what happened after that.
Back in Rome, one gets the sense from Polybius that he knows that the republic will fall, that it’s just a matter of time, and that constitutions prolong the peace but do not produce, based on the examples of his day, uninterrupted tranquility. And the causality is often not what one supposes – the mass of poor disenfranchised people overthrowing the wealthy and making things more equal and equitable. No, often it is quite the opposite, And the cause of its excessive and immoderate intemperance was the unlimited abundance of supplies of all kinds which its inhabitants enjoyed. For the land was one with a deep soil, and well watered, and as such produced abundant crops of every kind of fruit every year. And he was a wise man and spoke truly who said– “The greatest cause of all iniquity Is found in overmuch prosperity.” (Philo of Alexandria, b. 20 BCE, d. 50 CE, De Abrahamo 1:134)
Both Italy and Greece suffered enormously from intra-territorial conflicts from before 700 BCE until the ascendance of Rome in about 147 BCE – but the Roman Republic was founded in 509 BCE, it was durable, until about 27 BCE that is. You see, the Roman republic had learned a hard lesson with the Punic wars – the wars with the Carthaginians from which they gained expertise at naval warfare: it is essential to keep wars out of their base territory, out of Italy.
Polybius writes shortly before the Republic of Rome would begin to collapse under its own weight. First came Sulla’s reforms and civil wars, but this did not end the civil wars, no, the “First Triumvirate” of leadership following Sulla (Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey) with the republic in place would lead to a war between Pompey and Caesar during which Caesar entered Roman territory with his troops as he “crossed the Rubicon”. He and Pompey would battle it out throughout Italy and beyond with Caesar ultimately prevailing and being declared dictator for life.
The optimates didn’t care for Caesar who was a very popular figure and murdered him for the sake of the republic (a dictator could not be challenged and was essentially a king), however, both in making Caesar dictator and subsequently killing him, they sealed the fate of the republic. The second Triumvirate (Antony, Octavian (aka Augustus), and Lepidus) that then took the helm of the republic resulting in a war between Antony and Octavian largely over Egypt which saw the death of Antony (and Cleopatra VII) and the victory of Octavian then styled Augustus. While Augustus at least followed all the forms of the republic, except for term limitations, his descendants and then the following dynasties had nearly absolute power as emperors – but not, we should note, absolute power as the dictator had.
In Polybius’ cycle, you see Rome’s democratic republic fell as popular leaders supported by mobs of people had taken over resulting in the final stage and return of kings – with some limitations, but essentially kings nonetheless. In the west, the empire survived until about 487 CE and in the East (Byzantine Empire) it survived to at least 687 CE perhaps to 1400 CE but that’s highly debated.
Is Polybius germane to our times? Consider the concerns of the day and whether or not they are about improving the standard of life of the poor and afflicted, removing oppression, and establishing a more perfect, just, and equitable union. Are we healing the sick or arguing about what sickness is? You see, I think Philo has it spot on. Indeed, Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE) wrote that religious festivals were invented to give people something to do when they were not occupied with crops and other work – so that they would not rebel! I also think that Polybius gives us a healthy warning because we seem to be dipping into that final phase before the republic is gone, the phase of mob rule. Truth is unimportant, belonging is everything, and the most absurd notions rule the day in various groups around the political spectrum who are so determined to dislike each other that they often won’t even share the same room much less discuss their differences.
In other words, and combining Philo, Livy, and Polybius – we’ve too much money, too much time on our hands, and rather than selfless help of the other we choose to fight among ourselves. We are become, perhaps, too self-centered and unaware of our impact on others. Too eager for our team to win, to have kingly rule, and too hesitant to call ourselves and ours to account. Have we lost sight of the goal – all created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I’m sorry to say that I think we are losing that vision.
This is not just an American issue. Look at the nations and see how many have strong, almost kingly leaders arising. Sometimes, even in a democracy, the will of the people is not good for the nation.
And you realize this is, in large measure, what got Socrates killed. Yes, the notion that the will of the people is a wonderful thing except when the people are too deluded, too ignorant, or too selfish to make good decisions.
Be wise, not popular. Seek the truth.