The circle strikes back

To explain to his countrymen the rise of the Roman Republic, the Greek historian Polybius thought it would be necessary to explain political time. It wasn’t as linear as his people had thought.

Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (Penguin Edition cover)

Right-wing nationalism, and its champion Vladimir Putin, want us to know that political time, and with it political agency, is in the long run out of our hands. We are Greeks, but he is strong. I think we live in another age of Polybius, who set out in his Histories to broach the political facts of life with his countrymen.

As the political children of Greece, we find it hard to understand Rome’s cyclical understanding of political time. When Hannah Arendt in her 1963 book On Revolution speaks of the Greeks, she speaks of us:

The Roman feeling of continuity was unknown in Greece, where the inherent changeability of all things mortal was experienced without any mitigation or consolation1 . . .

But maybe our love of democracy will force us to reassess change, to reexamine whether the future is necessarily progress, and to reroute our path to the future. Maybe the future isn’t a straight line from the present.

Progressives generally understand political time as linear. According to Yale sociologist Philip Gorski, their historical consciousness is “governed by the metaphors of ‘progress,’ ‘development,’ and ‘evolution.'”2 Progressives acknowledge setbacks that wrinkle the line, that make the line jagged, lumpy, what have you. Two steps back, three steps forward. Always forward. Is that a realistic account of political history?

Of course it’s not realistic, a progressive may respond, if by “realistic” one means the status quo or, worse, some kind of larger, Hegelian system that reduces us all to spectators. No, political time is aspirational. Aspiration breathes in the future and breaths out the present. We may not progress as much as we want, but without political aspirations for our societies (a line from here to there, if you like), our societies will never change.

And perhaps we’re talking only about time zones. The East understands time in more cyclical terms, certainly, and the West understands it in more linear terms. Whatever understanding of time a culture adopts controls it. But Polybius wasn’t having any of this.

Cyclical time is not just across the sea in Rome, Polybius told his countrymen. The regime-change cycle is part of “the inevitable law of nature.” The cycle can be seen most clearly in the history of a people, like the Romans, “whose origin and growth, have from the very beginning followed natural causes.”3 The Greeks, presumably, had not done that.

But part of the Greeks’ unnatural history, Polybius assured his people, was by wise design. Polybius believed, for instance, that Lycurgus had shared Polybius’s insights into the regime-change cycle and had built against the cycle by giving Sparta a balanced constitution with monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements, the three positive phases within the cycle.4

One might say, then, that a wise constitution has the deleterious, long-term effect of blinding those living under it to Polybius’s “inevitable law of nature,” i.e., to the six-stage cycle of regime change, which Polybius summarizes here:

Our position, then, should be that there are six kinds of constitution — the three commonly recognized one I have just mentioned [monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy], and three more which are congenital with them: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy or mob-rule. In the natural, spontaneous course of events, the first system to arise is monarchy, and this is followed by kingship, but it take the deliberate correction of the defects of monarchy fo it to develop into kingship. Kingship changes into its congenital vice — that is, into tyranny — and then it is the turn of the aristocracy, after the dissolution of tyranny. Aristocracy necessarily degenerates into oligarchy, and when the general populace get impassioned enough to seek redress for the crimes committed by their leaders, democracy is born. And in due time, once democracy turns to violating and braking the law, mob-rule arises and completes the series.5

It may be difficult for us to accept that Montesquieu’s and Madison’s separation-of-powers theories grew out of the theory of Polybius, whom Arendt called “perhaps the first writer to become aware of the decisive factor of generations following one another through history.”6 Polybius understood separation of powers as a means of merely slowing down, but not ending, nature’s depressingly cyclical pattern of regime change.

To the extent that we still have a democracy, Polybius’s cycle would indicate that we’re moving into the kind of mob rule Putin leads in Russia. It might be worth looking more closely at Polybius’s account of this most relevant transition among the six:

[The people] convert the state into a democracy instead of an oligarchy and themselves assume the superintendence and charge of affairs. Then so long as any people survive who endured the evils of oligarchical rule, they can regard their present form of government as a blessing and treasure the privileges of equality and freedom of speech. But as soon as a new generation has succeeded and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become by this time so accustomed to equality and freedom of speech that they cease to value them and seek to raise themselves above their fellow-citizens, and it is noticeable that the people most liable to this temptation are the rich.7

Democracy, then, tends to digress into mob rule in part because of the failure of a generation — particularly the failure of the rich among that generation — to appreciate “equality and freedom of speech.”

Can anything save us from plutocracy? From Arendt’s perspective, ironically, the poor have saved us from not only the political excesses of the rich but also from Polybius’s entire regime cycle. She credits John Locke as well as the Old World’s idea of the New World with ending Polybius’s cycle for all time in the form of modern revolution. How? For Arendt, “the ancient cycle of sempiternal recurrences had been based upon an assumedly ‘natural’ distinction of rich and poor.” The Old World had understood the New World as a “symbol of a society without poverty,” and the possibility of such a society freed the European poor to understand potential societal roles as more than a zero-sum game. Locke’s state of nature then provided an important theoretical support for modern revolution since it did not associate labor with poverty, as economic thought had done for centuries, but recognized labor as “the source of all wealth.” Consequently:

the factual existence of American society prior to the outbreak of the Revolution had broken this cycle [of regime change] once and for all.8

For the first time in history, the poor act politically. To Arendt, modern revolution was, in a sense, something new under the sun.

Yet even if Arendt is correct in her assessment that the circle is broken, a linear historical narrative advanced either by the left or by the right can be as enervating as a cyclical one. What remains? Perhaps a return to Abraham Lincoln’s covenantal understanding of political time. Gorski’s book American Covenant, published this year, attributes a different geometric shape to Frederick Douglass’s and Lincoln’s notion of political time:

The historical consciousness of Douglass and Lincoln was spiral, rather than circular or linear. Like the literalists but unlike the progressives, the civil religionists emphasized the periodic return to sources. They envisioned the future by not only revisiting but also reinterpreting the past: there lay the break with the literalists. Like the progressives and unlike the literalists, the civil religionists also emphasized the possibility of moral progress in human history. But for them, “progress” involved a vindication of the past, a realization of its aspirations, and not simply a break with the past or a supersession of its principles: there lay the break with the radical secularists. In this view, time was neither a line nor a circle, but a spiral, widening upward and outward toward higher principles and greater inclusiveness.9

The elections in 2018 and 2020 are important, but they are not as important as the fight for, and the reexamination of, political time itself. Hopefully, not many Americans will get out of this tough era with their political thinking and activity — or lack of either — unchallenged. Like Polybius, who had extensive contacts among Romans, we might make friends with and learn from those who seem, to our limited lights, complicit in democracy’s decline. And in the new year, may we find time to reflect and places to act.

[Featured image: The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (c. 1775-1851).]

  1. Arendt, Hanna. On Revolution at 18.
  2. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present at 108.
  3. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin Edition, at 305.
  4. Polybius, supra, at 310.
  5. Polybius, The Histories, Oxford Edition, at 373.
  6. Arendt, supra, at 18.
  7. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin Edition, supra, at 309.
  8. Arendt, supra, at 13.
  9. Gorski, supra, at 108.