Republic and Empire

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

The history of the world has been the struggle of republic and empire, Jerry Pournelle says:

Each has its champions.

It used to be fashionable to say “the Republic of the United States,” and our Pledge of Allegiance preserves that language. The name of republic holds magic no less than does the name of empire.

Some of that magic has been lost. In this enlightened time, we are all officially in favor of democracy, and we are pleased to call this the era of democracy. We are taught not only that all democracies are good, but that the worth of a government depends on how democratic it is. The notion that a government can be “good” but not democratic will strike many as bizarre.

It has not always been thus. If we believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that the purpose of government is to assure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we might do well to recall what Acton said in tracing the history of freedom in Athens:

Two men’s lives span the interval from the first admission of popular influence, under Solon, to the downfall of the State. Their history furnishes the classic example of the peril of democracy under conditions singularly favorable. For the Athenians were not only brave and patriotic and capable of generous sacrifice, but they were the most religious of the Greeks. They venerated the Constitution which had given them prosperity, and equality, and freedom, and never questioned the fundamental laws which regulated the enormous power of the Assembly. They tolerated considerable variety of opinion and great license of speech; and their humanity towards their slaves roused the indignation even of the most intelligent partisan of aristocracy. Thus they became the only people of antiquity that grew great by democratic institutions. But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralizing influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens. It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason. The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and, in part, the executive power. The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State—the lawgiver is above the law.

It followed that the sovereign people had a right to do whatever was within its power, and was bound by no rule of right or wrong but its own judgment of expediency. On a memorable occasion the assembled Athenians declared it monstrous that they should be prevented from doing whatever they chose. No force that existed could restrain them, and they resolved that no duty should restrain them, and that they would be bound by no laws that were not of their own making. In this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant, and their government, the pioneer of European freedom, stands condemned with a terrible unanimity by all the wisest of the ancients.

They ruined their city by attempting to conduct war by debate in the marketplace. Like the French Republic, they put their unsuccessful commanders to death. They treated their dependencies with such injustice that they lost their maritime Empire. They plundered the rich until the rich conspired with the public enemy, and they crowned their guilt by the martyrdom of Socrates.

The repentance of the Athenians came too late to save the Republic. But the lesson of their experience endures for all time, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.

— John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity”

Classical writers spent much time analyzing the forms of government. Machiavelli put it better than most:

I must at the beginning observe that some of the writers on politics distinguished three kinds of government, viz., the monarchical, the aristocratic, and the democratic; and maintain that the legislators of a people must choose from these three the one that seems most suitable. Other authors, wiser according to the opinion of many, count six kinds of government, three of which are very bad, and three good in themselves, but so liable to be corrupted that they become absolutely bad. The three good ones are those we just named; the three bad ones result from the degradation of the other three, and each of them resembles its corresponding original, so that the transition from the one to the other is very easy.

Thus monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; and the popular government lapses readily into licentiousness. So that a legislator who gives to a state which he founds, either of these three forms of government, constitutes it but for a brief time; for no precautions can prevent either one of the three that are reputed good, from degenerating into its opposite kind; so great are in these attractions and resemblances between the good and the evil.

— Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses

This view of government was held universally among writers on history and politics from Aristotle to very nearly the present day.


To [the ancients], human history was no more than the endlessly sad tale of the cycle from tyranny to aristocracy, aristocracy to oligarchy, oligarchy to democracy, and democracy to a chaos ended only by the imposition of an emperor, whose successor will be a tyrant; and on, per omnia secula seculorem.

However, there might be a remedy to the tragedy of the cycles. Cicero puts it this way:

When there is a king, everybody except the king has too few rights, and too small a share in what is decided; whereas under an oligarchy, freedom scarcely extends to the populace, since they are not consulted and are excluded from power. When, on the other hand, there is thoroughgoing democracy, however fairly and moderately it is conducted, its egalitarianism is unfair since it does not make it possible for one man to rise above another.

I am speaking about these three forms of government—monarchy, oligarchy, democracy—when they retain their specific character, not when they are merged and confused with one another. In addition to their liability to the flaws I have just mentioned, each of them suffers from further ruinous defects. For in front of every one of these constitutional forms stands a headlong slippery path to another and more evil one. Thus beneath the endurable, or if you like, lovable Cyrus—to take him as an example—lurks the cruel tyrant Phalaris, influencing him towards the arbitrary transformation of his own nature: for any autocracy readily and easily changes into that sort of tyranny. Then the government of Marseille, conducted by a few leading men, is very close to that clique of the Thirty which once tyrannized Athens. And as for the Athenian democracy, its absolute power turned into rule by the masses; that is to say, into manic irresponsibility.

You may well ask which of them I like best, for I do not approve of any of them when it is by itself and unmodified: my own preference is for a form of government which is a combination of all three.

— Cicero, “Dialogues on Government”

Cicero believed that the Roman Republic had achieved that mixed form; that the Roman constitution was as near perfection as mankind could achieve. Yet even as he wrote, the Republic was falling, and Cicero was eventually murdered by agents of Octavius Caesar, later called Augustus. A single lifetime was sufficient to witness the glory of the Republic extinguished in civil war; the dictatorship of Julius Caesar; and the monarchy of Augustus.

Read the whole thing.

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