Sunday, January 16, 2011

1. Aristotle and Polybius

This essay covers a vast amount of historical territory in a very short space, but nevertheless attempts to provide a basis on which to proceed into American history after the Civil War. There are four basic sections, the first spans the Classical and early modern era, highlighting influential developments in political thought from Aristotle and Polybius to the American Revolution. The second section starts with the Revolution and treats political and ideological issues of that event and then pursues some of the central arguments leading to the ratification of the Constitution. The third section begins with Washington's presidency and jumps to the presidency of Andrew Jackson in surveying constitutional issues relevant to the separation of powers. The last section briefly highlights critical developments in the antebellum period leading to the American Civil War. This is not a comprehensive treatment, by any stretch of the imagination. It is designed to familiarize students with a political discourse inherent to U.S. history and the historical forces involved in that discourse.

Discussion of politics in the western world invariable proceeds from the writings of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (fl. 300 BCE). His articulation of the “three forms of government”: Rule by One, Rule by the Few, Rule by the Many, Aristotle provided the groundwork for nearly all subsequent discussion of constitutional political systems in the so-called western tradition.. In this formulation, governments invariably exist on a continuum from a benevolent to a malevolent manifestation of one of these three forms – a “virtuous” or “corrupt” form of each. The terms given to these manifestations are respectively, for Rule by one, “monarchy” and “tyranny”; for Rule by the Few, “aristocracy” and “oligarchy”; Rule by the Many, “polity” and “mob rule”. For the latter, these terms may be made more familiar by substituting “democracy” and “tyranny of the majority”. Governments that employ a combination of the One, Few, and Many are called “mixed” governments.

Polybius, another Greek who wrote about the Roman system around 100 BCE, mentioned three things that are important for this course. First, he described the Roman Senate, where representatives were sent by citizens (adult white male property owners) to deal with affairs important to the public at large. In Latin, the term for these affairs is “res publica,” or “things public,” from whence is derived the word “republic”. Second, he wrote about the Roman legal system and the rule of law, (Latin ius, iuris, s/pl) where disputes were settled in courts instead of by violence. Experts in “jurisprudence,” i.e., “lawyers,” were employed to argue one’s case. Thirdly, Polybius put his finger on the central problem inherent to western style governments and implied in Aristotle’s Three Forms. Polybius wrote that there are “Cycles of Government,” where governments seem to cycle through the three forms outlined by Aristotle. Governments, he said, seem to always be moving toward the corrupt side of the ledger, ever turning towards tyranny and collapse. A new form of government is then formed which, again, invariably moves toward corruption. This problem seems incurable, he wrote, and the inherently corrupting force of power must be checked systematically because people will always yield to its temptations. This essentially states the problem facing the colonial revolutionaries in the 1770s, the Founders of the Constitution in 1787, and for that matter any group of people trying to create a systemic governing body for themselves.

Also influential in the formation of the political discourse in the United States is the English Common Law. Sometimes called the “Ancient Constitution,” the Common Law is, essentially, a series of English legal traditions and precedents dating back one thousand years and more that define how disputes are to be resolved. Statute law in the United States, federal and state, often leans heavily on the English Common Law, particularly in areas that have long been points of contention, like water law or marriage law, for example. The Common Law is another example of political continuity between England and her former colonies.

“The Enlightenment” was a philosophical movement away from faith and the established institutions of the Church, and toward the use of science and reason in problem solving. Many well-known scientists (Isaac Newton) and philosophers (David Hume) fit into this category. But most significantly for this course are the writings of the English political theorist John Locke. In his books entitled Two Treatises on Government, published in the late seventeenth century, he writes of the “Social Contract” between a government and the people. Influenced by the notion of “Natural Rights,” which itself was probably influenced by Europeans’ views of Native Americans, he came up with this proposal to scientifically deal with the problem of corruption and government. According to Locke’s Social Contract, government was created by the citizens (again, adult white male property owners) to protect their Natural Rights, which he said were “life, liberty, and property.” If the government failed to do this, it was the obligation of the citizens to replace it. Thomas Jefferson followed this Lockean construction when he wrote the colonial Declaration of Independence in 1776. Jefferson, interestingly, substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in the Declaration, which was a reflection of his sympathetic view of deism, an Enlightenment view of divinity that left much responsibility in the hands of humans (i.e., science and reason > faith and religion). The “pursuit of happiness” was seen by deists as a way to get nearer to God.


  • Aristotle, Politics
  • Polybius, General History of Polybius
  • Walbank, F.W., Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic World: Essays and Reflections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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