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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
The Classification of Governments
by Wormuth, Francis D.

Greek political experience made the classification of states into government by one, by the few, and by the many familiar at an early date. Probably the arguments for and against each form reported by Herodotus, writing in the second half of the fifth century before Christ, were equally familiar. Monarchy, it was said, is the government of the very best man in the state; on the other hand, it was argued that power corrupts the king, leads him on to savage violence and violation of the laws. Oligarchy is the government of the worthiest and will produce good counsels, but it leads to faction and strife. Democracy practises equality and makes power accountable to the people, but a mob is ignorant and destructive.1 All these arguments have been repeated thousands of times since.

Socrates, if we can trust Xenophon,2 believed it possible to distinguish the virtuous condition of these forms from the vicious. When a single ruler governed over willing subjects according to law, he was a king; but when he ruled over unwilling subjects in violation of law, he was a tyrant. When the magistrates were chosen "from those who discharged the obligations prescribed by law," this was an aristocracy, the government of the best; when the title to office depended on property, the government was a plutocracy.

But Socrates recognized only one form of democracy, "where all the citizens without distinction held the reins of office."

We need not consider the classification of governments set up in Plato's Republic,3 for he himself abandoned it and it played no part in subsequent history. In the Statesman he established, in addition to the perfect government of royal art, a sixfold classification. There were three possible forms of the second-best state — monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy — all ruling according to law. Paralleling these were the three vicious forms — tyranny, oligarchy, and again democracy — all without the restraints of law.4 The same classification holds in the Laws,5 and the same principle of subordination to law: "For that state in which the law is subject and has no authority, I perceive to be on the highway to ruin; but I see that the state in which the law is above the rulers, and the rulers are the inferiors of the law, has salvation, and every blessing which the gods can confer."6 But laws which seek the interests of particular classes rather than the whole state are not just, and states following such laws are not true states at all; they belong among the corrupt forms.7 How is such corruption to be avoided? To solve this problem Plato proposes a seventh form, not the perfect state of the Republic and the Statesman, but a new form which he calls by the generic name of all valid governments, a polity. Believing, in his old age, in the weakness of human character, Plato thinks that "there ought to be no great and unmixed powers."8 Now there are "two mother forms of states," monarchy and democracy, and "if you are to have liberty and the combination of friendship with wisdom, you must have both these forms of government in a measure; the argument emphatically declares that no city can be well governed which is not made up of both." In fact, however, as Aristotle later pointed out, "The constitution proposed in the Laws has no element of monarchy at all; it is nothing but oligarchy and democracy, leaning rather to oligarchy."9 The institutions of the Laws were evidently adapted from the constitution of Solon, for the citizenry is divided into four classes on the basis of wealth, and an attempt is made to weight the system to the advantage of the wealthier classes.

Probably Solon should be called the father of the mixed constitution. He said of himself:10

I stood with a mighty shield in front of both classes, And suffered neither of them to prevail unjustly.

Thucydides ascribed the same purpose to the constitution of the Five Thousand established in Athens in 411 b.c. after the overthrow of the Four Hundred: "For the fusion of the high and the low was effected with judgment, and this was what first enabled the state to raise up her head after her manifold distractions."11 Plato in the Laws called Sparta and Cnosus polities,12 and in the time of Aristotle the idea of the mixed state seems to have been a commonplace. He tells us: "Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedaemonian because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy, while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors; for the Ephors are selected from the people."13 Aristotle himself opines that "they are nearer the truth who combine many forms; for the constitution is better which is made up of more numerous elements."14

In his Politics Aristotle offers a number of alternative classifications of government,15 but the basic one seems to be a sixfold classification adapted from Plato.16 The three legitimate forms are monarchy, aristocracy, and polity — the polity here is Plato's mixed state. The perverted forms are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. The true states are those which promote the public interest; the corrupt forms, which do not deserve the name of constitutional governments, seek private advantage. The test of legality is not decisive, for oligarchies and democracies, which are perverted states, may abide by their vicious laws.17

It will be observed that in Aristotle the polity displaces democracy as one of the legitimate forms. Aristotle thought the polity the best form for most states.18 Power rests with the middle class,19 and it is therefore the state of the heavy-armed soldiers.20 The polity is an attempt to reconcile the conflicting claims of rich and poor; it undertakes to mingle the elements of oligarchy and democracy. This is done by combining the institutions, the methods of public deliberation, and the ways of choosing magistrates and jurors employed in an oligarchy with those practised in a democracy.21

Apparently the mixed state enjoyed great popularity in the fourth and third centuries. Archytas the Pythagorean thought that the strong city "must have something of democracy, something of oligarchy, something of royalty and aristocracy."22 Diogenes Laertius tells us of the Stoics that: "The best form of government they hold to be a mixture of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy (or the rule of the best)."23 The treatise On Politics reported by Photius in his Bibliotheca24 may be a part of this Stoic literature. But there survives no substantial discussion of the mixed state for the period between Aristotle and Polybius. It is of course to Polybius that later ages owe the conception. In the second century before Christ this Greek historian felicitated the Romans on having achieved, by struggle and experience, the institutions contrived by Lycurgus for Sparta, "the best of all existing constitutions."

Polybius justifies his mixed state in terms of a theory of revolutions. Kingship, the earliest government, inevitably becomes corrupt and passes into tyranny. The best men in the community then unseat the tyrant and institute an aristocracy. But their descendants are corrupted by the opportunity to gratify their desires and so become oligarchs. Thereupon the community overthrows the oligarchy and institutes a democracy. Next the people are debauched by evil leaders, and the collapse of the society brings in a monarch once more. But it is possible to step outside this cycle by creating a government composed of a mixture of the three simple forms.

"Lycurgus, then, foreseeing this, did not make his constitution simple and uniform, but united in it all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil, but that, the force of each being neutralized by that of the others, neither of them should prevail and outbalance another, but that the constitution should remain for long in a condition of equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat... ,"25 The Romans had likewise incorporated all three forms in their state. "For if one fixed one's eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly a democracy."26

This version of the mixed state differs drastically from those of Plato and Aristotle. The idea of balance is not absent in the thought of the two earlier writers, but with them it was not to be achieved by pitting different organs of the government against each other. Rather, it was the result of infusing into every institution both the principle of property and the principle of numbers. With Polybius, however, distinct powers were vested in distinct organs and each was able either "to counteract or co-operate with the others." This is the form which the theory of the mixed state took thereafter.

Cicero in his Republic adopted the classification of governments of Polybius and offered a somewhat modified and muddied version of Polybius' theory of revolutions.27 He believed too that "none of the simple forms is best, but that a state properly compounded of all three types is better than any one by itself." Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing in the Augustan period, gave explicit recognition only to the three simple forms of government,28 but he described Romulus as instituting a "division of authority" very like the constitution of Polybius.29 Thereafter the "composite form of state" was in disrepute with Roman writers. Seneca was a confirmed monarchist. Whereas Cicero had spoken of the state as united by a "bond of law," Seneca said that the emperor is "the bond by which the commonwealth is united."30 A state reaches its best condition under the rule of a just king;31 "Nature herself conceived the idea of king, as we may recognize from the case of bees and other creatures."32 Plutarch recognized only the three simple forms of government and thought monarchy the best.33 Tacitus, despite his nostalgia for the virtuous earlier days, remarked dryly: "For every country and city must be ruled either by the populace, or by the few, or by one man; a form of government selected and compounded out of these elements may be commended more easily than brought into being; nor could it endure were it set up."34

Roman political thought now underwent an evolution comparable to that which had produced a philosophy of kingship in Hellenistic Greece.35 Monarchy had been discussed in academic fashion before Alexander, and the Persian monarchy had had its admirers, but, as Aristotle said, only democracies could exist in fourth-century Greece.36 The conquests of Alexander, however, resulted in the revival of monarchy. Speaking of the state of affairs in the empires quarried out of the Alexandrian territories, Professor Goodenough has said, "the King is personally the constitution of his realm, ... all the laws of localities under him must be ultimately moulded by and express his will."37 To make this palatable his subjects attributed to him the character of divinity and also the Cynic or Socratic attributes of the wise man.

The philosophy of kingship which was used to justify the Roman Empire was more Stoic than Cynic. Dio Chrysostom, in four discourses delivered before Trajan, elaborated the doctrine. There are three forms of government based on law and justice, and three lawless forms. But aristocracy is neither practicable nor expedient, and a lawful democracy is highly improbable. The most practicable government is "where we have a city, or a number of peoples, or the whole world, well ordered by one man's judgment and virtue."38 The primacy of Zeus in heaven and that of the rulers of herds of cattle and swarms of bees "indicate clearly that it is natural for the stronger to govern and care for the weaker."39 The true king "orders and governs his people with justice and equity in accordance with the laws and ordinances of Zeus."40 These laws and ordinances are the familiar Stoic law of reason.

I might well speak next of the administration of the universe and tell how the world — the very embodiment of bliss and wisdom — ever sweeps along through infinite time in infinite cycles without cessation, guided by good fortune and a like power divine, and by foreknowledge and a governing purpose most righteous and perfect, and renders us like itself since, in consequence of the mutual kinship of ourselves and it, we are marshalled in order under one ordinance and law and partake of the same polity. He who honors and upholds this polity and does not oppose it in any way is law-abiding, devout and orderly; he, however, who disturbs it, as far as that is possible to him, and violates it or does not know it, is lawless and disorderly, whether he be called a private citizen or a ruler, although the offence on the part of the ruler is far greater and more evident to all.41


(1) The History of Herodotus, III, 80-82 (George Rawlinson, trans.: Everyman's Library), i, 250-252.

(2) Memorabilia, IV, 6, 12, in H. G. Dakyns, trans., The Works of Xenophon (London, 1897), III, Pt. I, pp. 173-174.

(3) Republic, 445, 544-569, 580.

(4) Statesman, 302-303.

(5) Laws (Jowett trans.), 712.

(6) Ibid., 715.

(7) Loc. cit.

(8) Ibid., 693.

(9) Politics (W. D. Ross, ed.), 1266'.

(10) Plutarch's Lives, Solon, 18, 4 (B. Perrin, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), p. 453. See the Politics, 1273b.

(11) The Peloponnesian War, VIII, 98 (R. Crawley, trans.: Everyman's Library), p. 607.

(12) Laws, 693, 712.

(13) Politics, 1265b.

(14) Ibid., 1266a.

(15) For an attempt to reconcile Aristotle's statements, see M. J. Adler and Walter Farrell, "The Theory of Democracy," in The Thomist (1943), vi, 255, and passim.

(16) Ibid., 1279b; Nicomachean Ethics, 1160a.b.; see Rhetoric, 1365b.

(17) Politics, 1291b-1292a, 1298b.

(18) Ibid., 1294a-1296b.

(19) Loc. cit.

(20) Ibid., 1279b, 1297b.

(21) Ibid., Book IV, chaps. 7-9, 11-16.

(22) Quoted in Edwin L. Minar, Early Pythagorean Politics (Baltimore, 1942), p. 113.

(23) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII, 131 (R. D. Hicks, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), ii, 235-237.

(24) Bibliotheca, fr. 37 (Bekker, ed., 1824), p. 8.

(25) Histories, VI, 7-10 (W. R. Paton, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), pp. 283-311.

(26) Ibid., VI, 11,12-13.

(27) G. H. Sabine and S. B. Smith, trans., Cicero's On the Commonwealth (Columbus, Ohio, 1929), Introduction, pp. 56-62.

(28) Roman Antiquities, II, 3, 7-8 (E. Gary, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), i, 323.

(29) Ibid., II, 14; 1-4.

(30) On Mercy, I, 4, 1, in Moral Essays, I (J. W. Basore, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), p. 369.

(31) On Benefits, II, 20, 2.

(32) On Mercy, I, 19, 2.

(33) "On Monarchy, Democracy, and Oligarchy," in Moralia (H. N. Fowler, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), x, 305-311. Cf. Lives, Solon, 18, 1.

(34) Annals, IV, 33 (G. G. Ramsay, trans.: London, 1904), i, 291-292.

(35) William S. Ferguson, "Legalized Absolutism en Route from Greece to Rome," in American Historical Review (1912), xviii, 29.

(36) Politics, 1286b.

(37) Erwin R. Goodenough, "The Political Philosophy of Hellenistic Kingship," in Yale Classical Studies, I (New Haven, 1928), p. 91.

(38) Dio Chrysostom, The Third Discourse on Kingship, 42-47 (J. W. Cohoon, trans.: Loeb Classical Library), i, 123-125.

(39) Ibid., 50.

(40) The First Discourse on Kingship, 45.

(41) Ibid., 42-43. See also The Thirty-sixth Discourse, 19-20, 29-32, 38.


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