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Local view: Constitution’s roots go back to Greek historian

This year has been a busy one for the U.S. Constitution: 227 years old and its core principles still are being tested.

Frustrated at Republican resistance, the president threatened to bypass Congress on immigration and might follow a similar path on climate policy. Questions have been raised over whether the president needs congressional approval to conduct war against terrorists. Meanwhile, the House threatened to sue the president for exceeding his constitutional authority by deviating from health care legislation. Separately, the Supreme Court ruled that certain recess appointments (made by the president when the Senate was not in formal recess) were unconstitutional.

These events and numerous op-eds have brought the phrases “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” back into public discourse. You probably remember learning about those ideas in civics class. Chances are, whatever your political affiliation, you agree with them. But where did these ideas come from? Why do they matter?

The answers to these questions revolve around a person and an idea you probably never heard of. The person: Polybius. The idea: anacyclosis.

Polybius was a Greek historian of the Roman republic. He witnessed the failed attempt by the Gracchi to save the Roman middle class. He did not live to see Rome’s transformation from republic to monarchy a century later. Anacyclosis, of which he wrote, is a cyclical theory of constitutional change.

Long before Polybius, the Greeks held that every political regime must be ruled by one person, a few people or many people. They also saw that each regime could be governed rightly or wrongly. They categorized different types of constitutions according to these criteria with kingship, aristocracy and democracy as the base forms. We still use these words today, describing modern regimes as monarchic, aristocratic and democratic.

Anacyclosis holds that every unchecked regime is quickly corrupted and that every corrupted regime eventually is forced to share power. Thus, kingship degenerates into tyranny. Tyranny is subdued by aristocracy. Aristocracy transforms into oligarchy. Oligarchs are forced to share power with the people, establishing democracy. And, finally, the multitude is corrupted by the flattery of demagogues. Polybius calls the last phase in this sequence ochlocracy, literally, “mob rule.” Whatever it’s called, the breakdown of popular rule returns political society to monarchy — as it did in Rome — repeating the sequence in a cycle.

It was because of anacyclosis that Polybius described the mixed constitution. Since every political regime degenerates when unchecked, the best constitution should therefore check each political regime. Hence Polybius elaborated the “mixed constitution,” a balanced mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.

He found the mixed constitution in Rome and outlined its checks and balances. He saw monarchy in the consuls, aristocracy in the senate and democracy in the assemblies. He believed that counterbalancing each element against the others would suppress their tendencies toward predominance and decay, promoting political equilibrium and social stability. Ultimately, however, this didn’t work for the Romans; they cycled back through to monarchy anyway.

Polybius’ beliefs have influenced many throughout history, including the framers of the American Constitution. Can you see an imprint of Polybius in our Constitution? Perhaps you can detect the principle of monarchy in the presidency, aristocracy in the Supreme Court and/or Senate and democracy in the House of Representatives.

Directly or indirectly, the doctrines of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” can be traced back to Polybius. Scholars, of course, debate the details. Some stress Montesquieu’s influence; others favor Polybius. James Madison named Montesquieu in Federalist No. 47 (1788), but John Adams cited Polybius and even described anacyclosis and the mixed constitution in 1787.

It is, in any case, beyond dispute that Polybius preceded and influenced them all, and his three-part mixed constitution resembles our federal government.

This answers our first two questions: where separation of powers and checks and balances came from and why they mattered. But as to the question of whether they still matter, maybe the answer to that is in another, bigger question: Does anacyclosis still matter?

If so, then our seasoned Constitution has yet to face its hardest test.

David Gore is an associate professor of communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth with a research interest in public discourse. Tim Ferguson is an attorney and the founder of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Institute for Anacyclosis (anacyclosis.org), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank researching historical recurrence, constitutional theory, the middle class, and other topics.

The Constitution: Learn more

A free, three-part educational series about the U.S. Constitution continues Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the West Duluth Branch Library, 5830 Grand Ave. The session is titled, “It’s a Free Country — The Bill of Rights: Privacy and Freedom of Speech.”

The final program in the series is Monday, Oct. 27 and is titled, “Built to Last — A Balance of Power: Executive, Legislative and Judicial Checks and Balances.” The Duluth Public Library is presenting the series in partnership with the League of Women Voters and Karpeles Manuscript Museum. For more information, go to duluthlibrary.org.

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