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Democracy - After The Polis

people political government theory

Greek political theory is a reaction to the decline of the polis, which was superseded first by the territorial Hellenistic monarchies and later by the Roman republic. Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 B.C.E.), who wrote his history to show how Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, ascribes its success to its republican institutions. He superimposes Greek categories onto Roman political experience, and using the six-fold classification of governments, sees Rome as having a mixed constitution. The consuls represent the monarchical element, the senate the aristocratic, and the popular assemblies the democratic. Wealth, ability, birth, and number were each given a role in the constitution. When the people became too violent and tumultuous, or the senate too arrogant and selfish, the republic nevertheless survived. The mixed constitution established a self-regulating system in which each element checked and balanced the other.

Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.) repeated the now-standard Greek classification of governments (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) as well as the traditional critiques of each. Although he preferred monarchy, he understood that practical prudence required a mixed form that combined the best of all three. The state is a res publica, or "public affair," and is therefore also a res populi, or "people's affair." It exists to provide justice, security, and peace. Although legitimacy and power emanate from the people, competent administration and stable authority require the wisdom and ability of the senate.

The fall of the republic and the rise of monarchy signaled the death of republican and democratic politics. The growth of quietistic philosophies such as Stoicism, the advent of Christianity, and the barbarian invasions together combined to destroy the classical world and to create a feudal and medieval civilization in which democracy and republic had no meaning.

Democratic and republican thought and practice regained their vitality and importance with the rise of the Italian communes and the concomitant rebirth of classical thought. Such an interest, when added to the historical experience of the Italian—especially Florentine and Venetian—city-states culminated in Niccolò Machiavelli's (1469–1527) rediscovery of the people (and of the "opinion of the many") as the foundation and ground for a new type of politics, both republican and democratic.

The passing of medieval society was a long process of religious, social, political, and economic transformation. It culminated in profound social, cultural, and political change: the disintegration of traditional ties, the Protestant Reformation and the resulting fragmentation of European Christianity, the spread of commerce and trade, the proliferation and dissemination of knowledge and wealth, literacy and printing.

The English Civil War (1642–1649), the Dutch rebellion (1621–1648) against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689) heralded the rise and growing importance of these new developments. The execution and deposition of kings exploded traditional beliefs in the passive acceptance of governmental authority, and revealed its basis in human will and action. Major political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679); Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot; 1583–1645); Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694); Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Monstesquieu (1689–1755); and John Locke (1632–1704) reflected these far-reaching changes by reevaluating and retranslating traditional ideas of natural law, human nature, and government. Dutch republicans such as Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) and the de la Court brothers, Jan (Johan; 1622–1670) and Pieter (c. 1618–1685), distilled ancient Roman writers, Florentine and Venetian republicans, and the work of Thomas Hobbes, and envisioned a democratic politics whereby the state is the expression of the people's will. Hobbes, with his absolute individualism and radical skepticism, expressed the breakdown of traditional forms of community and legitimate government and their reconstitution by human reason and will. Locke tried to wed natural law with emerging individualism and used them to domesticate and limit the power of the newly centralized state. His theory of government as a trust located authority with the representative of the people, who always retained their right to withhold consent to the government. Montesquieu, reacting to the growing absolutism of the French monarchy, translated the classical theory of mixed government into his concept of separation of powers. His theory of despotism and the balanced constitution was a major source for liberal constitutionalism and for the theory of limited government. Natural right, political obligation, social contract, and natural law were ideas used to explain and to justify radical and revolutionary change. Yet, at the time, their range and application was circumscribed, and the notion of the people to which they referred was interpreted narrowly.

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