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The Rotation of Polities

I will illustrate the truth of what I say. We cannot
Six forms of polity, and their natural cycle.
hold every absolute government to be a kingship, but only that which is accepted voluntarily, and is directed by an appeal to reason rather than to fear and force. Nor again is every oligarchy to be regarded as an aristocracy; the latter exists only where the power is wielded by the justest and wisest men selected on their merits. Similarly, it is not enough to constitute a democracy that the whole crowd of citizens should have the right to do whatever they wish or propose. But where reverence to the gods, succour of parents, respect to elders, obedience to laws, are traditional and habitual, in such communities, if the will of the majority prevail, we may speak of the form of government as a democracy. So then we enumerate six forms of government,—the three commonly spoken of which I have just mentioned, and three more allied forms, I mean despotism, oligarchy and mob-rule. The first of these arises without artificial aid and in the natural order of events. Next to this, and produced from it by the aid of art and adjustment, comes kingship; which degenerating into the evil form allied to it, by which I mean tyranny, both are once more destroyed and aristocracy produced. Again the latter being in the course of nature perverted to oligarchy, and the people passionately avenging the unjust acts of their rulers, democracy comes into existence; which again by its violence and contempt of law becomes sheer mob-rule.1 No clearer proof of the truth of what I say could be obtained than by a careful observation of the natural origin, genesis, and decadence of these several forms of government. For it is only by seeing distinctly how each of them is produced that a distinct view can also be obtained of its growth, zenith, and decadence, and the time, circumstance, and place in which each of these may be expected to recur. This method I have assumed to be especially applicable to the Roman constitution, because its origin and growth have from the first followed natural causes.

1 Aristotle's classification is kingship, aristocracy, πολιτεία, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny (Pol. 4, 2). This was derived from Plato (Pol. 302, c.) who arranges the six (besides the ideal polity) in pairs, kingship, tyranny,—aristocracy, oligarchy,—democracy, good and bad. Plato has no distinct name, except δημοκρατία παράνομος, for the bad democracy which Polybius calls ὀχλοκρατία, "mob-rule." Polybius's arrangement is this— Kingship (arising from a natural despotism or monarchy) degenerates into Tyranny. Aristocracy degenerates into Oligarchy. Democracy degenerates into Mob-rule.

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  • Cross-references to this page (5):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), COMIT´IA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), DEMOCRA´TIA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), EXE´RCITUS
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), OLIGA´RCHIA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), SOCII
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
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