Opinion

It happened in Rome. It happened in Greece. Is it happening here?

A man dressed as a ancient Roman centurion walks by the Colosseum in the center of Rome on April 15, 2015.
A man dressed as a ancient Roman centurion walks by the Colosseum in the center of Rome on April 15, 2015. AFP/Getty Images

English may be the global lingua franca, but political discourse is conducted in Greek and Latin. Politics, citizen, constitution, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, monarchy, aristocracy, republic – virtually our entire political vocabulary comes from the Greeks and Romans. Millennia ago, the Greeks reduced the variations of political society to a few archetypes. The political organization of every state arising since Antiquity can be described using Greek terms.

Our political aspirations are encompassed by ‘democracy.’ We despise ‘oligarchy’ and ‘plutocracy.’ We fear ‘tyranny.’ We’ve adopted these archetypes into our political discourse. Our political reality and imagination are expressed through them.

The adoption of Greek terms is not limited to the English-speaking peoples. Some variant of ‘democracy’ exists in most alphabetical languages. Democracy is transliterated as demokratiya in Russian, dimuqratia in Arabic, and demokrasi in Malay. Whatever the language, the Greek archetypes express similar hopes, fears, frustrations, and aspirations.

But the greatest of Greek archetypes remains virtually unknown to those who otherwise express their political existence in Greek terms. The supreme political archetype is ‘Anacyclosis.’ Whether described as ‘the cycle of political revolution’ (Paton) or the ‘cycle of constitutional revolutions’ (Shuckburg) or ‘the cycle of the constitutions’ (Momigliano), the meaning is clear: Anacyclosis is the macro-level sequence of political change that binds together all the other Greek archetypes we’ve adopted.

We’ve incorporated monarchy, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy into our political vocabulary, adapting them to our experience. But we’ve failed to adopt the word and idea that orders them together in their natural evolutionary sequence. By its Greek pedigree, Anacyclosis is the quintessential archetype of political evolution.

Anacyclosis is the culmination of Greco-Roman political thought, discovered during the culmination of Greco-Roman political development. It was most clearly articulated in Antiquity by the Greek historian Polybius, writing of the Roman Republic’s meteoric rise to power. The generations after Polybius watched helplessly as the sequence he described progressed in Rome, as before in Greece, turning Rome from a democratic-plutocratic republic into a monarchy ruled by emperors. After Anacyclosis ran its course in the West, it took eighteen centuries for democracy to return.

Twice in the past three thousand years, civilization – both Ancient and Western – began in many fragmented monarchies. Twice, monarchies ended in tyrannies. Twice, power was diffused to landed aristocracies. Twice, aristocracy curtailed tyrannies. Twice, aristocracies hardened into oligarchies. Twice, the people revolted against oligarchies. Twice, wealth was diffused to create middle classes. Twice, the middle classes brought democracies into existence.

If only the parallels ended there. But they don’t. Twice, the prosperity created during democracy created plutocracies of ‘new money’. Twice, the plutocracies of leading cultures plundered citizens and foreigners, expanding their hegemony. Twice, the people became economically distressed as wealth was concentrated and society was stratified. Twice, civil society was polarized as middling virtues, like moderation, disintegrated alongside the middle classes.

What else will be said to happen to civilization twice? That the middle classes were swept away? That forces of democracy and plutocracy fought for control? That democracy was subverted by a contest between ambitious demagogues? That a great republic descended into violent revolution? That the tournament of demagogues ended with one champion? That democracy died, leaving only its rituals behind? And that this sequence of evolution had been predicted before it happened?

Democracy in America is showing its age, stumbling toward the next step of political evolution: the contest of demagogues. A demagogue now presides over America. He will not be the last. He will not be the worst. It is long past time to reclaim from Antiquity the word that anticipates democracy’s fate, as it narrates the course of Western Civilization itself: Anacyclosis.

Timothy R. Ferguson founded The Institute for Anacyclosis in Chapel Hill.


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