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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. Plato. That the cosmos itself goes through a series
of changes is clearly stated by Plato in the Statesman
(269D). During one period, he says, God accompanies
the course of the world but “when the periods have
run the measure of time allotted to it by him, he leaves
it, and automatically it moves in the opposite direction,
for it is a living creature endowed with thought by
him who constituted it in the beginning.” As in the
Timaeus, God organized the world; He did not create
it. Its history has two periods, one in which God is
its guide and one in which it changes its course and
moves under its own power. The reason for the reversal
is its corporeal nature. Only the incorporeal has the
power of remaining unchanged. Hence when the world
is left to itself, it can only reverse its direction and
this happens “through myriads of times.” The change
of direction entails a “very great destruction of all
animals,” and only a few humans are left alive. After
this, history is just the reverse of what we are used to.
The living grow younger and finally disappear and a
new race is born of the earth. All this is related by
Plato in the form of a myth, but it was a myth more
or less harmonious with Greek folklore, and the birth
of the postdiluvian race from stones. The occurrence
of catastrophes in the past which annihilated almost
all life was not an uncommon belief. One finds a similar


story in Ovid's account of the Deluge in his Metamor-
(Book I).

Plato's account of such catastrophes is given in
Timaeus (22C) where he tells the story of Solon's
meeting with an Egyptian priest who says: “There have
been and will be many and diverse destructions of men.
The greatest by fire and water, and the lesser by thou-
sands of other means.” When a flood occurs, only those
who live on mountain tops are saved, but those who
live in cities are borne into the sea by the rushing
waters. Happily Egypt is preserved for it has no high
mountains from which torrents can descend; its waters
well up from below. But in other parts of the world
the celestial waters pour down and drown all but the
“illiterate and uncultured,” who naturally have no
memory of what has transpired in ancient times. That
is why the Greeks speak of one flood, whereas there
have been several. A similar account of cataclysms is
given in Critias (111B) and in The Laws (677). The
latter version also includes the story of man's progress
after the Deluge. The main difference between this
version and that given in the Statesman is that the race
whose history begins the new period is not earth-born
but descends from those few shepherds who lived on
the hills.

The details of these stories are fanciful but it is likely
that the principal fact of multiple cataclysms was taken
seriously by Plato. For he had no conception of the
“infinite perfectibility of mankind,” such as was enter-
tained by Condorcet and others in the eighteenth cen-
tury. He knew that any change this side of Heaven
must come to an end. But since there was no logically
deducible end for human affairs, and since they could
not continue unchanged forever, the best way to ex-
plain their cessation was by a conflagration, a deluge,
or a plague. Such catastrophes could in turn be ex-
plained by a myth and that myth we have seen in our
previous reference to the Statesman. Put in its barest
terms, Plato's view is that all history is advance and
retrogression. These occur in cycles. But only the most
prominent features of them are repeated, not the de-
tails; and, if we are to believe Solon's Egyptian priest,
the calamity varies in its severity, Egypt being specially
favored. It is clear that none of this anticipates the
notion of the Great Year.

2. Aristotle. The general idea of cyclical history is
repeated by Aristotle, but only in passing, as if it was
so generally accepted that it needed no support. He
flatly says in the Metaphysics (1074b. 11) that the arts
and sciences have been lost and regained many times;
in the Politics (1264a. 1) that all ideas of any value
have already been discovered and tried; and in De caelo
(270b. 19) that the same doctrines have been discovered
innumerable times. But he gives no account of how
and why men lost their acquired knowledge, no story
of cataclysmic destruction of races or nations. Nor does
he attempt to connect the periodic recurrence of ideas
with any set of cosmic cycles. In the Meteorologica
(352a. 32) he does mention Deucalion's Deluge, but
limits its extent to the Greek world, though later
(352b-353a) he speaks of geological changes as occur-
ring at all times, but not in identical cycles. In the
Politics (1269a. 3) he accepts the theory of cataclysms
as possibly true and that of primitive men as either
born of the earth or survivors from some catastrophe.
In the Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata (910a. 35) the
Deluge is again mentioned. Aristotle apparently dealt
with periodic catastrophes in his lost work On Philoso-
(frag. 8) in which he also described the rebirth
of civilization after the Deluge. But none of this is
precise and we have no speculations about the length
of cycles nor about the similarities of their details.
Aristotle's works do, however, show how widely ac-
cepted was the idea of periodic cataclysms and the
periodic rediscovery of the arts and sciences.

Aristotle is also responsible for the idea (which was
to be developed by Polybius) of the degeneration of
forms of government. There are, he says in his Politics
(Book III, Ch. 7, 1279a. 23ff., and 1279b. 1ff.), three
kinds of good government: the rule of one man, Mon-
archy; of a few, Aristocracy; and of many, Consti-
tutional Democracy. Corresponding to these are three
forms of bad government; tyranny, which is govern-
ment in the interest of the ruler; oligarchy, in the
interest of the rich; democracy, in the interest of the
needy. But he is careful to point out that the number
of people in the governing body is not so important
as wealth. Government by the rich is an oligarchy even
if the rich are numerous; government by the poor is
a democracy even if the poor are few. So far nothing
has been said about historical changes in governmental
forms. But later (1286b. 7) he points out that the first
governments were monarchical. They degenerated into
oligarchies, then into tyrannies, and finally into de-
mocracies. But Aristotle does not say that monarchies
will arise anew out of democracies. The process is not
eternal, though one suspects that after a flood or con-
flagration the kind of government that will arise will
again be monarchical.

3. Polybius. The Aristotelian formula was taken up
by Polybius (ca. 204-122 B.C.). For him, as he says in
his History (Book VI, 3), there are six kinds of govern-
ment, as in Aristotle, but they occur in a definite series.
By a natural growth monarchy comes first and turns
into “kingship” by the aid of art and the correction
of defects. Both are government by one man. Monarchy
inevitably turns into tyranny against which aristocracy
is organized. Aristocracy in turn degenerates into oli-


garchy. Revulsion against oligarchy produces democ-
racy which in its turn becomes mob-rule. All this pro-
ceeds as by a natural law.

Governments, says Polybius, are instituted after the
human race has been destroyed by floods and famines,
“as tradition tells us has more than once happened and
as we must believe will often happen again, all arts
and crafts perishing at the same time.” Then the survi-
vors herd together because of their weakness. The
strongest and most courageous rules over the others
and thus monarchy arises. Primitive monarchy is the
rule of force. But once order is established, notions of
goodness, justice, evil, and injustice arise because of
the conduct of ungrateful children “and others.” There
thus is formed an idea of duty and a benefactor wins
gratitude and respect.

At that point the monarch is obeyed because of his
administration of justice and then reason replaces force.
The people trust in the descendants of their kings from
the conviction that their qualities are inherited. But
the heirs yield to their appetites, even wearing special
clothes, and live so that their conduct gives rise to envy
and offense, hatred and resentment. At this point tyr-
anny takes over. The noblest members of the commu-
nity, however, being unable to tolerate tyranny, con-
spire to overthrow the government, succeed, and
establish an aristocracy. Unfortunately the children of
the best may be bad. They give in to love of money,
to lust, to pleasures of all sorts; and aristocracy becomes
oligarchy. Oligarchy then becomes intolerable and
turns into democracy; and, for the same reason that
kings become tyrants, aristocrats, oligarchs, democrats
become mob-leaders.

Thus Polybius anticipates Lord Acton's dictum that
power corrupts. But to Polybius' way of thinking the
cycle is established by natural law: it is the course
appointed by nature in which constitutions, states, the
arts change, disappear, and finally return to the point
from which they started. Polybius is so convinced of
this position that he says it may be used as a basis for
prophecy. The only remedy is a mixed constitution.
He found one, he thought, in Rome, where the Consuls
were monarchs, the Senators aristocrats, the Many
democrats. Nevertheless the course of history was one
of constant decay.

4. The Italian Renaissance. Reflections upon the
course of human events were reoriented during the
Middle Ages when the moral behavior of states was
of more importance than natural law. But early in the
Renaissance the ideas of Polybius were revived. Before
Polybius was translated from Greek to Latin and
printed in 1473, we find in Giovanni Villani's Chronicle
of Florence
the cyclic pattern emphasized. Whether
Villani (ca. 1275-1348) could have read Polybius in
Greek is doubtful since the Greek manuscripts came
later to Italy. Villani's cycle depends on the supposed
psychological fact that success engenders pride, pride
sin, and sin brings on decline.

It was Machiavelli who carried on the tradition of
Polybius. In his Discourses (Book I, Ch. ii) he argues
that the mixed form of government is the best and that
it was found in Rome. He bases his argument on the
same points as those made by Polybius. Also Francesco
Guicciardini in his Ricordi argues that the future re-
peats the past and that only the names of things change.
But the history of this particular idea, which is one
of the bases for the program of mixed constitutions
belongs elsewhere We shall here merely point to its
outcome in the Constitution of the United States.