Dominic Lacey: Anacyclosis: the theory of political evolution

In a well attended meeting on Tuesday 14th March and Dominic Lacey delivered his paper on Plato’s theory of political evolution.  The value of most people having clearly read what he had written in advance has seldom been so obvious for it stimulated a really thoughtful and extended discussion as we reflected on populism, the rise of Trump and the unsolved problems that big data are raising as middle ranking jobs are lost.  To see his paper again here it is.

There are many systems of government that a nation can adopt. Ancient Greek philosophers sought to categorise the different types of government that the Greek city states had, what sort of human character gave rise to them, and how a government can change from one system to another. The theory is described in detail in Plato’s seminal work “Republic”, and was expounded on by later philosophers. The name “anacyclosis” itself comes from Polybius.

Some of the forms of government discussed by the Greeks include many which people will be familiar with, for example monarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Others are less well known, such as timarchy and ochlocracy and are better understood in the context of ancient Greek civilisation. Most continue to have relevance today and are actively used around the world.

The two philosophers had different ways of ordering the different systems of government. Plato arranged them in a hierarchy from the most ideal to the least, but Polybius contended that some systems of government were merely degenerate versions of others. A big difference between the two philosophers is that Plato’s theories of governmental degeneracy are explained linearly in his Five Regimes, but Polybius’s are portrayed much more cyclically.

Much of the Western world has some form of democratic government, but this has not always been the case and may not be in the future. In order to understand the threats to democracy, it is important to consider the processes of anacylosis and apply them to modern day politics. This helps to identify the flaws in democracy itself and how they may be alleviated.

The aim of this talk is to outline the different systems of government identified by the Greek philosophers, differing theories of anacyclosis and in particular, how it is occurring today. Time permitting I will also try to show how the anacylosis can be observed to run in reverse.

The different systems of government

Plato identified 5 main types of government.  These are:
·      Aristocracy – rule by the best;

·      Timarchy – rule by the strongest;

·      Oligarchy – rule by the wealthy;

·      Democracy – rule by the people;

·      Tyranny – rule by unjust.

Polybius added one other type of government, which is Ochlocracy – rule by the mob.  Plato does not really go into much detail on this one.

I will describe each of these in turn.


Plato describes aristocracy as being rule by the best.  That is, those with the most suitable character and strength of body and mind will be those who form the ruling class.

Much of Plato’s work revolves around his concept of the Good. That is “Good”, with a capital G.  This is to be roughly interpreted as an objective, greater Good, and the aristocrat is expected to put aside his desire for personal gain in order to establish a State that is objectively Good and Just. Plato’s aristocrats are not allowed to own private property (although unlike in Communism, ordinary citizens can do so).

Plato places much emphasis on both breeding and training on who should become aristocrats.  In his Republic, these people are referred to as Guardians.  These people must be born with the innate qualities of character that allow them to be trained to be “philosopher kings”.  This does not preclude lower born people from becoming aristocrats.  The aristocracy is supposed to function like a meritocracy, where anyone who is born possessing the necessary qualities can qualify for training, irrespective of parentage.

The training process is a long one, and includes military service. As such physical training is regarded highly along with mental training.

These people who are born both gifted and who receive long training to prepare themselves for government are regarded as those who are most fit to rule.

This is clearly a very demanding set of criteria and it is likely that only a very few people would be considered worthy enough to rule under such a system.

Plato does not go into great detail on monarchy, but merely describes the monarch as being the sole person who is fit to rule under the aristocratic regime, in the event that only one person meets the stringent criteria. Monarchy should not be exclusively regarded as a hereditary monarchy as we are more familiar with today – monarchies can be elective too.


Timarchy is viewed as the first stage of degeneration of the aristocracy.  It begins by a corruption of the blood of the aristocratic class.  This is to say, that people who are not born which the proper qualities are nonetheless accepted into the training process to become rulers.

Despite their training, because they are not of Good character (again, that is “Good” with a capital G), the timarchs will come to value their power for its own sake and use it to some extent for personal gain.  Their training and military service will make them warlike and unrestrained.  However they are not wholly bad and are still regarded as possessing some virtue, particularly in athleticism and courage. These were important in Ancient Greece, as exemplified by the original Olympic Games which showcased military disciplines like running, javelin and pankration wrestling.

The best example of such a system of government in Plato’s time would be Sparta, the famous militaristic city-state.  Timarchy could be regarded as a semi-virtuous military dictatorship.  They are not common today.


Oligarchy is a society controlled by the wealthy.  It arises when people who abuse power for personal gain value material wealth above both mental and physical accomplishment (which our aristocrats or timarchs would otherwise seek).  Plato regards oligarchy as a further degeneration of timarchy, where rulers are now permitted to possess private property.

Because the oligarchic man values material wealth, they will seek to accumulate as much of it as they possibly can.  This will tend to exacerbate divisions between the rich ruling class and the poor governed class and fuel economic inequality.  I am sure at this stage those of you who have read Karl Marx’s Capital or Communist Manifesto can see where this will end up, although Plato wrote Republic over 2200 years earlier than when Marx was around. Some food for thought there.


Unlike Karl Marx, who predicted a dictatorship of the proletariat, Plato suggested that democracy would arise out of the class struggle that occurred within an oligarchic society.  I’m sure that we could have an entire session discussing the similarities and differences of those two systems of government, but that is beyond the scope of today’s presentation.

Democracy is a society governed by the people. It involves the election of rulers by the governed, and can have varying degrees of suffrage. It is primarily concerned with the pursuit of freedom, and typically arises out of the suffering of the working classes who are oppressed by an oligarchic ruling class.

In Plato’s time, the most obvious example of democracy was Athens. We could talk all day about the characteristics of Athenian democracy as it was a complex system but I have not researched it fully. The democracy was not open to participation to all, as only adult male landowners who were not slaves could vote. This was only around 15% of the population at the time.

Today’s democracies are more often than not have universal suffrage, where any citizen can vote irrespective of sex or wealth, provided they are of age. In some respects the Athenian democracy has something of a hangover from the oligarchic regime by maintaining the requirement for property ownership in order to vote.


One of Plato’s overriding themes with the lesser forms of government is that their downfall is caused by an excess of whatever thing that the ruling class desires most instead of the Good.

In an oligarchy, it is easy to see that the excessive desire for wealth among oligarchs causes the downfall of the oligarchy itself.  Similarly, in a democracy, the excessive desire for liberty and freedom amongst its rulers (and the governed) causes the downfall of the democracy.

The excessive freedoms that arise from the most advanced stages of democracy lead people to seek unnecessary desires. The citizens in a democracy tend to exercise their freedom by doing what they want, when they want. Eventually this becomes a very chaotic way of structuring a society and the society descends into anarchy.  To restore order to the society, a champion must seize power. The champion often becomes a tyrant because he is not used to wielding such power.

The tyrant is the epitome of the unjust man, and will do everything in his power to satiate his own desires at the expense of the governed.  He is the total opposite of the aristocrat, who puts aside his own desires to become an effective governor.  Eventually, the tyrant is killed by the mob for the injustices he has set upon the people.

The most obvious omission from Plato in his Republic is what happens next.  He does not indicate what happens after this last stage.  This is where Polybius comes into play, as his version of governmental decay is cyclical, and includes restoration. Polybius’ main work is The Histories and describes the Roman Republic during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, when it was expanding its territory into Greece and Carthage. Polybius is credited with coining the term “anacyclosis”, because his version is in its nature, cyclical.

Polybius’ anacyclosis

As I said earlier, Polybius identified “good” and “bad” versions of the same type of government, whereas Plato had a fixed hierarchy from good to bad.

There are three main forms of government that Polybius identifies:

·      Rule by the one;

·      Rule by the few; and

·      Rule by the many.

Each of these in turn has their good and bad version.  That is to say, monarchy is the good version of rule by the one, and tyranny is the bad version. Likewise, aristocracy is the good version of rule by the few, and oligarchy is the bad version. And finally, democracy is the good version of rule by the many, and ochlocracy – also known as “mob rule” – is the bad version.

Rule by the one

Monarchy is Polybius’ initial state, where the executive is comprised of a single virtuous ruler.  The mode of degeneration is largely the same as Plato describes, where the monarch loses sight of what is good and just, becomes physically and morally corrupt and ultimately abuses his power for his own personal benefit. He becomes a tyrant.

Rule by the few

Polybius describes aristocracy very differently to Plato. Rather than an initial form Polybius’ aristocracy arises out of the governmental degeneracy of tyranny. The noble classes, who do not have absolute power and so, have not become corrupted (absolutely!) by it, will seek to challenge the rule of the tyrant and overthrow him, establishing their government of the few.

In turn, they will also experience power, and whilst there are many of them, some will begin to use their power for their own gain. They will work with each other to maximize their gain and form wealthy cliques. The oligarchy is born.

Rule by the many

The oligarchy descends into democracy in exactly the same way as Plato describes. The oligarchs abuse their power to the point where there is a popular revolution to establish a democracy. I shan’t repeat myself by describing this process again.

However, I said earlier that Plato’s view was that an excess of liberty in a democracy led to anarchy.  This led to a tyrant seizing power in order to establish order.

Polybius’ ochlocracy is this pseudo-anarchic intermediate state before a new single ruler establishes themself. I say pseudo-anarchic because anarchists would contend that anarchy has no rulers, whereas ochlocracy is really a degenerated form of democracy. It is where the rulers of a democracy are swayed or intimidated by the power of the mob, and the mob gets what they want. The better judgment of the democratic rulers becomes ignored, and the direction of the state under different parties representing the fickleness of the mob throws the country into chaos.

In Polybius’ view, out of this chaotic state, a single ruler will come into power but unlike Plato, Polybius contends that this ruler can sometimes be virtuous, which leads to a restoration of the monarchy.

Historical examples of transition – British anacylosis

This is all well in theory, but are there any periods in history where anacyclosis can be observed to have occurred? I would argue, yes there is, especially in British history. I am going to look at how the Polybius sequence can be seen to have played out in British history.

We start with Monarchy. The Monarchy in Britain goes back as far as the Kingdom of Wessex and our very own Alfred the Great of the 9th century AD. There are of course many historical leaders with the title “Great”, from Alexander to Catherine, and they provide an example of how a single ruler in the form of a monarch can indeed be great.

The Saxon kings were of course replaced with Norman ones after 1066, but the institution of monarchy remained. The Kingdom of Wessex now covered all of England, but you get the idea. The stuff in between with the Danelaw territories I will leave to the history society, as it isn’t really relevant.

The next two stages of anacylosis could be argued to have occurred in quick succession. In the Polybius sequence, tyranny comes after monarchy, and the tyrant of course is King John. John rebelled against his brother King Richard whilst he was crusading, lost the Norman territories after mistreating the local nobles, was excommunicated by the Pope, and eventually caused the Baron’s Revolt of 1215 by mistreating the English nobles and pursing wasteful fiscal policies.

After tyranny comes aristocracy, and the beginnings of this can be seen with the signature of the Magna Carta, limiting the powers of the king and increasing the rights of the feudal lords. There were subsequent wars and power struggles over this but the Magna Carta set the wheels in motion.

It is not especially clear at what point the aristocracy descended into oligarchy, but it is well known that serfdom was prolific during the Middle Ages. Feudal lords oppressed their subjects to the point of rebellion, including the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

The English Civil War and the subsequent Glorious Revolution in 17th century laid the foundations for the next transition in the Polybian sequence to democracy. Parliament now reigns supreme, and the monarch is a mere figurehead of state with no significant executive power.

This marks the end of the cycle so far, but as we have seen, we are not yet at the point of Ochlocracy – although it may seem like that to some! Fortunately there are people studying this, such as the Institute for Anacylosis, which can be found online at

Institute for Anacyclosis

To make matters even more complicated, the Institute for Anacylosis has its own version of anacylosis, which is an enhancement of Polybius’s. You can see the sequence on the wheel of anacylosis on your handouts.

The Institute for Anacylosis includes Chiefdom as a precursor to Monarchy. This is fairly simple in so far as tribes have chieftains and as tribes grow into nations, chieftains become kings. I will not dwell on this because it isn’t particularly important.

You will however see that Ochlocracy does not feature, but is instead replaced with two new ones – Plutocracy and Demagarchy. These are rule by the rich, and rule by demagogues respectively.

You may at this point be thinking, haven’t we already covered rule by the rich with oligarchy? Yes we have, but Plato’s oligarchy is different to the Polybian oligarchy. Remember that Plato’s oligarchy arose when his Guardians, who were not permitted to own private property, became able to do so and began to hoard it due to their corrupt use of power.

Polybian oligarchy is different because it is not necessarily concerned about money – it is more concerned with the degeneration of aristocracy from justice to injustice. Similarly, the Institute for Anacylosis does not regard oligarchy in its own sequence as being rule by the rich. This comes later in the form of Plutocracy, which emerges out of democracy. It is where we are headed next, and has already begun to manifest itself in the greatest of democracies, the United States of America. Indeed, President Trump has been described as a demagogue, and you only have to look at the American Plutocracy to see why he was elected (popular vote notwithstanding).

This next piece are extracts from the “crisis” webpage of the Institute of Anacylosis, and describes the interplay between democracy, plutocracy and demagoguery:

“The development of a middle class anticipates the establishment of democracy.

While the rise of the middle class emancipates the common people, its decline has the opposite effect.  The people of the middle class must be free so they are not property or slaves.  They must have enough property that they do not depend on others for their livelihood.  They must not have so much property that they do not need to work for a living.  They must have enough opportunity that they can work for a living.  And they must be industrious so that they do work for a living. Where the traits of the middle class do not prevail, insecurity or dependency necessarily would.”

“The wealth of the middle class is now being siphoned into the upper class while its people are being drained into the lower class.  These trends are troubling because their consequences are not hard to foresee.  If they continue, our society will be stratified between many poor and few rich. At some point our middle class will become too weak to reconcile their mutual animosities.  As these animosities grow, our society will be increasingly divided by a contest between the rich and the poor.  This contest will be conducted by the popular leaders, or demagogues.”

“Under the policies of the plutocrats, wealth will be ever more concentrated in the rich.  But as greater numbers fall out of the middle class, their insecurity and dependency will also grow.  This will further increase the role of government and the power of the demagogues.  In time, the middle class will be exhausted.  It will merge with the poor.  The moderate elements of the rich will realize at last that the excesses of the plutocrats have imperiled their own interests.  In their obsession with increasing their hoards, they neglected the walls which defend them.

The middle class is the only thing standing between democracy and class warfare.  Demagogues agitate for the redistribution of wealth wherever they exist.  They rally the poorer elements of society to their cause.  In the age of democracy, their pandering is stifled not by the laws of the rich, but by the customs of the middle class.  The customs of industry and modesty derive from the middle class.  A respect for property rights is inherent to the middle class.  The masses must nevertheless have property in order to respect and defend it.”

It should be apparent then, that if we wish to preserve democracy, then we must also preserve the middle class so that it can provide emancipation to the people and act as a buffer between the strife of the rich and the poor.

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