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The views and arguments of classical Greek thinkers continue to shape discussions about government, even governments that preexisted the Greeks. Six basic forms predominate: tyranny (rule of one for his own good), oligarchy (rule of a few for their own good), democracy (rule of many for their own good), monarchy (kingship), aristocracy (rule by a few prominent citizens), and good democracy (or “polity,” rule of one, few, or many for the common good).
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Serious discussion of the forms of government (or, as we also may call them, regimes or constitutions) that shape cities and countries begins with the classical Greek thinkers. It is in light of their discussion that we first analyze even those governments that preexisted the Greeks. Those early governments were either monarchies or extended villages that did not rise to the level of complexity that the Greeks discovered was necessary for a true city or country.
Greek Discussions of Government
Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) was the first person to examine human affairs philosophically, and he saw that the core of ordinary human affairs was political. His arguments and views were developed by Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 BCE) in his dialogues. Distinguishing what belongs to the historical Socrates and what to Plato himself is largely a fruitless enterprise, less important than attending to the discussions themselves.
Plato’s purpose in analyzing forms of government was to understand what political life truly is, not what it merely appeared to be under changing circumstances. The rational search for what truly is the defining element of philosophy and the sciences that later flow from it. The philosophical effort generally begins with Socrates’ predecessors, the so-called pre-Socratics, notably Parmenides (b. c. 515 BCE).
The Greek thinkers argued that politics is the core of human affairs because the polis, the Greek city, is sufficient in its size and complexity to allow the full display of human characteristics in their possible excellence, or virtue. Justice is central among the ethical virtues, and it is the central excellence toward which political organizations and rule aim. Anything smaller or less complex than a city, such as a village, falls short of virtue because it does not allow sufficient leisure or sufficient freedom of discussion among equals about what is better and worse in developing character, conducting war and peace, or pursuing rational arts and skills such as medicine. Smaller units remain too economic in their focus, dealing as they do largely with meeting necessities, and too paternalistic in their rule, being primarily extended families. Anything larger than the city, moreover, such as the Persian Empire that the Greeks fought or the Egyptian Empire that Greek historians such as Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BCE) examined, adds nothing vital to possible human excellence, even if it is sufficiently complex and diversified—which many large agrarian territories are not.
The central place of the city means that the Greek discussion of forms of government focuses on it; the fact that the city encompasses the full range of human virtue means that the discussion, if true, is in principle adequate for understanding larger units such as our contemporary countries. The most complete classic discussion of forms of government occurs in works such as Plato’s Republic and Statesman and, especially, in the Politics of Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Aristotle’s discussion sets forth the framework in which analyses of constitutions have been conducted from his time forward. Forms of government are divided by how many rule and whether or not the rule is just and serves the common good (rather than the private or class good of the rulers). The six basic forms are tyranny (rule of one for his own good), oligarchy (rule of a few for their own good), democracy (rule of many for their own good), monarchy, aristocracy, and good democracy (or “polity,” rule of one, few, or many for the common good).
Aristotle develops this basic classification in a number of ways that make it increasingly subtle and complex. Oligarchy is not merely rule of the few generally but is usually rule of the few who are wealthy, and democracy is rule of the many whose central characteristic is that they are poor. Aristocracy is rule of the few who are ethically virtuous and possess practical wisdom, or “prudence.” Varieties of democracy exist that depend on which group from among the relatively poor dominates: farmers, merchants, or the urban poor, for example. Moreover, mixtures exist between the rich and the poor, where the gradations of wealth are so subtle that no group dominates, or where a middle class is superior to either the rich or the poor. Aristotle’s view is that such mixed regimes are the best forms of government one is likely to achieve in practice.
Good government, moreover, is generally characterized by the existence of law (as opposed to arbitrary commands) that citizens accept willingly, rather than government that is imposed involuntarily. The basic laws that distribute functions and offices, moreover, are good when they balance properly the claims to rule that are made by the ethically virtuous and prudent, the wealthy, and the many poor who are free soldiers. All contribute something important to the life or to the good life (the virtuous life) of the community. The good legal and practical balance that we see in mixed regimes or in the better democracies imitates the genuine but rare excellence of rule for the common good of one or a few who are virtuous.
Most governments will be either democracies or oligarchies, with varying degrees of pretension to excellence. Aristotle bases his discussion not only on the intellectual possibilities but on examining the forms of government of many cities, of which only his description of the Athenian constitution fully survives. Together with Plato (and Socrates’ contemporary, the historian Thucydides, d. c. 400 BCE), he is especially concerned with the two leading regimes of fifth- and fourth-century BCE Greece, Athens and Sparta, the leading democracy and oligarchy or, some would argue, aristocracy, respectively.
Plato and Aristotle treat the form of government not as a narrow administrative entity but as vital for the overall life of the city: Everything in the city is organized to promote the ruling class’s way of life. (We might as easily speak of, say, the democratic way of life as of the democratic regime.) The constitution shows us who rules, and all rulers make law according to a principle of distributive justice, equal to equals and unequal to unequals. This principle normally is made concrete by the unequal wealth or equal freedom in terms of which democrats and oligarchs, respectively, distribute offices and, through law, permit or encourage activities. This is why a significant place among the rulers for the virtuous—those of excellent character and practical judgment—is, for Aristotle, so vital, because to promote and serve the conditions for their excellence is also to serve the community as a whole. One of democracy’s advantages is that by allowing many activities it permits the philosophic or scientific life and, thereby, intellectual excellence. This democratic equality exists at some expense to outstanding moral excellence, however, and in any event, as the trial and death of Socrates makes clear, the Greeks of the time thought that an inevitable tension existed between the unbridled questioning engaged in by thinkers and the beliefs and opinions that cities and countries must take for granted. This difficulty is especially pronounced to the degree that religious belief belongs to or, indeed, forms, a community’s laws.
Monarchies before and after the Roman Republic
Aristotle’s and Plato’s analyses are the basis of subsequent discussion. Factually, monarchies—kingships or tyrannies—were the rule in the Aegean and surrounding areas after the conquest of the Greek city-states by Philip of Macedon (382–336 BCE), as they had been in China and Egypt. The most famous such regime was the empire of Alexander of Macedon (356–323 BCE). The outstanding exception was the Roman republic (509–27 BCE). Rome is analyzed and described extensively by residents and observers such as Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) and Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 BCE) and by later thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) and the founders of the United States in the eighteenth century. The Roman Senate made Rome in one sense aristocratic or oligarchic, and growing power for the people added a democratic element. One might even say that short-term dictatorships and consulates involved a monarchical element. Rome was on the whole a mixed regime, emphatically republican (that is, not a monarchy) in its operation and self-understanding until it was replaced by the Roman Empire.
Various kingships and religious empires followed the Roman Empire. The new element was revealed religion, especially Christianity and Islam. The place of priests and the link between rule and worship always was important in Greek cities and in Rome. Aristotle downplayed the question of piety in his political analysis proper, but the connection or even possible identity between obedience to law and to divine commands was clear. Apparently new after Rome was universal and imperial religion and its connection to political life. Christianity in particular gave rise to new questions about the connection between monarchies and the organized priesthood, culminating in the papacy. The leading Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), did not emphasize these questions, however, but followed as best he could Aristotle’s analysis of regimes. We might think of feudal regimes as monarchies that were buttressed by the Church with an admixture of oligarchy. Ties to the land and the link between land and politics, moreover, often made medieval political divisions more hereditary than was common in Greece, with its active democracies, or in the Roman republic, where the democratic elements supplemented the more hereditary Senate.
Machiavelli’s analysis of Rome was one element of the new understanding of forms of government and, especially, of their operation, that triumphed in the West from 1500 onward. It began as a return to Roman and Greek republicanism spurred by concern with the effects of monarchical and priestly dominance, and culminated in the Enlightenment, in the thought of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), Montesquieu (1689–1755), and others and in the revolutionary governments of England and the United States.
These governments are best called liberal democracies or representative democracies, democracies that seek to protect and employ politically and economically the unequal degrees of wealth, learning, and moral responsibility that their equal freedom and competition often call forth. Such regimes were not fully developed until the founding of the United States, which features the first fully written constitution, and the culmination of Great Britain’s Glorious Revolution of the late seventeenth century in Britain’s party government of the nineteenth century. Liberal democracies are at the root of much that we consider democratic today. In one guise or another they are dominant in Europe and North America and in many countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Liberal democracies are variants of the rule of the people; like Greek democracy, they emphasize freedom, self-government, and an orientation toward equality. They differ, however, in several respects. They are based on the equal rights of all individuals rather than, as with the Greeks, on the mere fact of their freedom, defended militarily. As opposed to Greece and Rome, they therefore inevitably press away from slavery, which often was consequent to defeat in battle, even if, as in the United States, they begin by accepting it. They also press toward factual equality in rights for women; women in Greek democracies enjoyed more liberty, especially within the family, than in many other regimes then and now, but were not equal governors of the city. Liberal democracies, moreover, are based on consent of the governed as a matter of right and choice, not only as a necessity with which governments must deal. They are oriented to economic growth and acquisition, moreover, rather than toward equal distribution of resources or to aristocratic character and the use of leisure and wealth to develop and express this character. They help foster this acquisitive orientation and the intellectual and scientific efforts that aid it through religious toleration, whose effect is to control public religious strife by making religion basically a private affair. They also encourage the forming of countries of great size and diversity because they foster the existence of a variety of competing interests in order to encourage economic growth and to discourage democracy from degenerating to the poor lording or seeking to lord it over the wealthy or the wealthy or any other minority group lording it over the poor.
Because of all this the function of government in representative democracies becomes limited to regulating private freedom and competition, helping to advance equal rights and opportunity, and providing national security. These limited functions are compatible with extensive efforts and a plethora of laws. Nonetheless, these limits mean that state and society or public and private come to be split much more cleanly than in Greek cities or in the Middle Ages. Types of government no longer shape the whole country or city, but tell us how states are structured to serve society. Indeed, large and complex liberal democratic countries are governed indirectly through representatives rather than ruled directly in assemblies, as was the case with Greek democracies. Representation, however, is less a mechanical device to deal with size than a means to create distance between immediate popular passions and government’s decisions. It also permits the special skills, character, sense of responsibility, and enterprise of those who excel to benefit their countries rather than to be at odds with them.
This benefit also is promoted by federal structures and a variety of economic enterprises that enable many to rise to the fore and not compete disastrously over static resources and positions of leadership. In fact, unlike Greek democracies but with some similarity to the Roman republic as interpreted by Machiavelli and others, modern liberal democracies harness competition to useful ends rather than seeking complete political agreement. By doing this they attempt to increase the longevity of democratic republics; previous democracies were short-lived because for the rich or others whose skills could not be accommodated in a democracy revolution was an attractive choice.
This competition is not only economic or federal, but is internal to governments themselves. Liberal democracies implement and feature political mechanisms such as separation of powers, which checks or limits overweening power should it arise anywhere in government, and political parties, which encourage legitimate opposition to the sitting government.
These principles and institutions were developed by Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson (1743– 1826), James Madison (1751–1836), Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), John Jay (1745–1829), and others, primarily in the eighteenth century. Versions of the governments they set in motion became during the twentieth century the dominant governments in Europe, the English-speaking world, and much of Asia. Variants include cabinet or parliamentary systems such as the one in Great Britain, in which the executive and legislative are essentially jointly elected, the U.S. presidential system, which separates the electoral sources of executive and legislative power, and mixed variants in other European states. Some countries even maintain constitutionally limited monarchs. These governments all basically agree in the chief features mentioned above, however, as well as in others such as an independent judiciary, extensive freedom from government interference of speech and press, and an independent civil service.
The domination of liberal democracy did not come easily, nor is it altogether secure. Many French revolutionaries at the end of the eighteenth century supported a smaller, more direct democracy in which civic virtue, not economic enterprise, and more unitary government, not separation of powers and representation, were the watchwords. Such governments, advocated by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712– 1778), hearkened back in size, although not in subtly developed liberty or sensible expectation, to Aristotle. Rousseau’s thought also set the stage intellectually for the attempt to connect government to the nation and to think of states as needing to be nation-states. The kingdoms that made up Germany, for example, were amalgamated by Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) into a national government, a monarchy that in some respects moved in the direction of constitutional principles. Similar activity occurred in Italy. Such a connection between government and nation was not essential in the original multiethnic representative governments of the United States or United Kingdom, nor in ancient Greek cities, which were not defined by their dominant ethnic groups or tribes.
Socialism and Communism
The other counter to liberal democracy’s spread in Europe was socialism and Communism. Socialism in its benign form is a large degree of state ownership of economic resources that, however, does not seek to change liberal democracy fundamentally. The division between state and society, or the limited purpose of government is, on the whole, still meant to obtain. Such socialism has proved in general to be inefficient economically and to restrict free entrepreneurship. British and Israeli government by their Labor parties after World War II and Swedish government for much of the last half of the twentieth century are examples of its successes and failures. Other forms of socialism, associated with, say, Robert Owen (1771–1858) in the nineteenth century, do seek a more thoroughgoing economic and sometimes noneconomic commonality than the individualism that liberal democracy defends, but such socialist communities never have mastered extensive territories and have lived short lives. Like anarchism and many variations of socialism associated with African and Asian rulers after World War II, they have had minimal effect beyond a single generation in a single place.
The notable exceptions to the very short life of socialist communities are Communism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites in Eastern Europe, and Communist China. Together with fascism, Communism is the most powerful contemporary version of tyranny and one of the major rivals of liberal democracy. The key analytic question with Communism and fascism is whether they herald or display a new form of tyranny that differs in principles from ancient tyranny, or whether they are at root variants of it. The key practical question is whether liberal democracy has succeeded in overcoming them over the mid or long term.
Many contemporary tyrannies differ little from ancient tyranny except in size and in the modern weaponry and communications that enable them to be especially murderous. This is true of several twentieth-century regimes in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Communism and fascism, however, seem different enough to have earned the name totalitarian. They differ from ancient tyranny in being based or claiming to be based on principles or ideas (what, under their influence, we call ideologies), in the utter totality of their control of all areas of public, private, and professional life, in the amount of fear and terror they employ, in their level and degree of political and social bureaucracy and organization, in their imperial aggression, in their pretense to great longevity, permanence, and imperial sway, and (sometimes) in their ethnic base.
Their effect, nonetheless, is not different from that of ancient tyranny in the sense that what is bad about tyranny is at root similar in the ancient and modern understanding. The harm does not differ but, rather, is exacerbated by modern totalitarianism’s completeness and scope. Ancient tyranny is rule over the unwilling by one (or in an extended sense by a few and even perhaps by many) solely for their private good, that is, solely for satisfying their desires, for exercising their cruelty, or even for giving unbridled reign to their wish to be admired or worshipped. As Plato discusses it, the tyrant seeks to enjoy any pleasure in any manner, even, perhaps especially, the most extreme. As Aristotle explains it, tyranny uses ways and means whose goal is to prevent free men from exercising their own political spirit. It restricts privacy and friendship because it seeks to limit discussion and opposition and to increase fear. It stunts not only freedom, but virtue as well.
The stunting of freedom and virtue and the proclivity to murder opponents and take what is theirs—in a word, extreme injustice—are the hallmarks both of ancient tyranny and modern totalitarianism. Contemporary fascism—Nazism in particular— employed complex political organization and bureaucracy to smother citizens and potential opponents, fully controlled education, communications, and culture, and, as the rulers’ willfulness or supposed necessity required, arbitrarily directed the economy, science, and religion. The immediate justification for these practices was the hardening, development, and dominance of the Aryan race or, more visibly, the destruction of the Jews and the Nazis’ other invented enemies. Such arbitrary narrowness, irrationality, and cruelty attempted to justify itself intellectually through Hitler’s writings and those of Nazi ideologues.
Communism under Lenin (1870–1924), Stalin (1879–1953), and Mao Zedong (1893–1976) was similar to Nazism in method, goal, and effect. It sought total control of all areas of life, stunted freedom, virtue, and independent political action, aggressively expanded its sway over other countries, and believed or pretended to believe itself justified by the arguments of Karl Marx (1818–1883) about the inevitability and propriety of Communist rule. It differed from fascism in claiming its principles to be universal rather than seeking domination of one particular race. Like Nazism, however, its reality was more in its effects than in its pretenses, in its denying liberty and virtue, and in the tens of millions killed under its regimes. Like fascism it is essentially ancient tyranny writ large with extraordinary scope for its brutality and with large numbers of people complicit with the rulers. The chief new element is the intellectual justification, which, however insincere, adds to the scope and defense of the brutality and impinges directly on freedom of thought by claiming truth in all things. However, even this element of tyranny’s intellectual or pseudo-philosophical justification was not unknown to ancient thinkers.
Totalitarianism fell, among other reasons, because of external opposition in the mid and late twentieth century to the Nazis and Communists. This opposition was organized into alliances and international structures in World War II and the Cold War that brought together but did not eliminate separate, free, governments. The history of international political structures is still another element in the history of forms of government. The founders of the United States, most notably the authors of The Federalist, studied ancient and early modern federations as part of their attempt to devise a federal republic. The philosopher Immanuel Kant and others at the end of the eighteenth century devised plans for and predicted the emergence of federations among liberal republics that would help preserve peace. Such plans became the basis for the League of Nations after World War I and for the United Nations after World War II. Such alliances and structures, and still others such as the European Community, have not developed in the direction of a world state, however, nor has this been widely advocated. A world state necessarily limits free political participation and would seem to be an aid rather than a counter to tyranny should its control fall into the wrong hands.
Totalitarianism also fell because of the essential unnaturalness and therefore instability and distastefulness of its combination of extreme economic, scientific, and bureaucratic organization, complete common ownership, and overwhelming cruelty, arbitrariness, and irrationality. Together and separately these elements are unstable and undesirable. The effect of Nazi and Communist aggression and ideology, however, made their wide or even universal spread possible, especially had they not been countered. Would the unnaturalness of overwhelming brutality, stultifying organization, and completely common ownership have guaranteed their fall, or was the vigorous and armed opposition of free peoples also necessary to prevent their victory?
Contemporary theocracy forces us to raise such questions again; our final topic concerns theocracies or religious regimes generally. Some regimes that are dominated by notions of divine law and do not practice liberal toleration may nonetheless avoid willful or tyrannical demands of their citizens. This can occur if the law respects the free, virtuous, and reasonable as part or indeed the bulk of what is divine in man, and, therefore, if the law permits or encourages actions that stem from these qualities. Such regimes can be monarchies, oligarchies, or even democratic republics as long as the domination of divine law permits extensive differentiation between priests and governors, or between church and state.
An imperial religion that irrationally opposes free thought and inquiry, however, and the virtues of character such as pride and enterprise and the activities that follow from them, is hardly different in its effect from tyranny or totalitarianism. In their opposition to equality of rights and in their wish for total control of thought and action, some contemporary Islamic extremist leaders are quite similar to fascists; indeed, some were taught by or have allied themselves with ethnic particularists. In other cases, the hoped-for totality of control together with extreme violence and doctrines that reject reasonable discussion are similar to the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao. In any event, theocratic tyranny or totalitarianism is at the beginning of the twenty-first century perhaps the chief opponent of liberal democracy.
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