In his dialogue “De re publica,” Marcus Tullius Cicero explained, through the fictionalized voice of Scipio Africanus, that there are three basic types of government. The first is the monarchy, in which the king rules. The second is the aristocracy, in which a select class of privileged delegates rules. The third is the democracy, in which the people rule themselves. Each type of government has its strengths and weaknesses, and through those weaknesses, a cyclical process occurs in which one type of government devolves into the next.
Scipio, who is inclined to favor monarchy as the best of the three pure forms, nevertheless explains that as a monarchy becomes tyrannical, it becomes increasingly intolerable to the aristocrats, who overthrow the king and replace him with an elite ruling class. The aristocracy can rule effectively as long as its members are honest and place the interests of the state and the people before their own, but over time, their descendants lose their sense of honor and responsibility and gradually decline into decadence and venality. Eventually, they are overthrown by the people, who are offended by the preferential treatment that the ruling class provides itself at their expense, but rapidly exchange their new-found liberty for destructive, chaotic madness.
Africanus then paraphrases Plato in describing the eventual result of democratic freedom:
“In the interest of universal freedom there is no distinction between citizen and foreigner; a teacher is afraid of his pupils and truckles to them; they teach their teachers with contempt. Youngsters assume the authority of older men; the latter lower themselves to take part in youngsters’ amusements for fear of becoming unpopular and disliked. As a result even slaves behave with excessive freedom, wives enjoy the same rights as their husbands. … As the death of an aristocracy comes from its own excessive power, so freedom plunges an over-free populace into slavery. All excess, whether the over-luxuriance has occurred in the weather, or on the land, or in people’s bodies, turns as a rule into its opposite. The process is especially common in states.”
Having explained the futility of choosing between the three forms of government due to their cyclical relationship, Cicero then has Scipio suggest that a fourth kind of government is ideal. This is “that mixed and moderate government which is composed of the three particular forms” which he has already described. It is not hard to see how Cicero’s concept of this judiciously blended republican government influenced America’s Founding Fathers, as the three branches of the U.S. government clearly echo the three Ciceronian forms.
The problem that America faces today is one that Cicero did not describe in his dialogue. While he believed the fourth government would provide the optimal blend of stability and equality, he failed to consider that it might also combine to simultaneously offer the worst of each of the three cardinal forms. It is not only the evils of the democratic form quoted above that will be disturbingly familiar to Americans today; the tyrannical aspects of the monarchical form and the corrupt aspects of the aristocratic form are visible as well.
The dictatorial nature of the executive branch is exemplified by the ongoing scandal of the Transportation Security Administration, which has the unchecked power to literally strip Americans and rob them of their possessions without an arrest, much less a warrant. The corruption of the aristocracy can perhaps be best seen in the mass mortgage foreclosure fraud on the part of the financial elite. Despite literally thousands of openly admitted cases of blatant forgery, perjury and fraud involving billions of dollars, not a single banker has been charged or convicted of a crime, not even when one of the nation’s largest debt collection services was found to have been making use of affidavits signed in 2010 by a woman who died in 1995.
“De re publica” should be taken as serious warning that all is far from well with America. Cicero’s own beloved Roman Republic collapsed into civil war and dictatorship only five years after he wrote the treatise. While Americans have long believed that they are a nation apart, no state can hope to permanently evade the cyclical revolutions of history and it is impossible to read the 2,064-year-old description of societies passing from one stage in the process to the next without recognizing that one such transformation appears to be taking place right now.