Classical And Christian Conceptions
Revolution is an invention of Western modernity. In its generally understood meaning today, it was unknown in the ancient world. Nor was it understood in our sense in the European Middle Ages, or in the early modern period. It was only in the eighteenth century, with the American and French Revolutions, that the word revolution acquired its modern connotation of fundamental and far-reaching change.
The ancient Greeks certainly had their fill of violent politics; but they had no word for revolution, nothing that truly corresponds to our modern understanding of it. The commonest terms, used by both Thucydides (d. c. 401 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), were metabole politeias ("change of constitution"), and metabole kai stasis ("change with uprising, change due to factional strife"). Plato in the Republic uses plain metabole ("change"), or occasionally a phrase such as neoterizein ten politeian, usually translated as "to revolutionize (or renew) the state." But this translation, with its connotation of purpose and novelty, is misleading. Plato (in book 8 of the Republic) is discussing the inevitable decline of the ideal state, first into a timocracy then, though a series of successively determined stages, into an oligarchy, a democracy, and so to tyranny. In this highly determinist pattern, there is no room for that consciously directed change that we associate with revolution.
The problem indeed is largely one of translation. Stasis, for instance, is regularly rendered by modern translators as "revolution." Thus book 5 of Aristotle's Politics is generally treated as a discussion of causes of revolution, while Thucydides, in various parts of The Peloponnesian War, is usually held to have given a brilliant account of the revolutionary condition of the Greek city-states at the time of the war (e.g., book 3, ch. 5: "Practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed.… Revolution broke out in city after city.").
The trouble is that, just as Plato is not speaking of revolution but of the predetermined turns of the political cycle, so Aristotle and Thucydides are not speaking of revolution but of faction or party, and the violent conflicts that spring from them. A condition of stasis is one of party warfare, one, moreover, where though there may be much noise and fury, there is little real change. Stasis derived from words meaning "standing still," "stationariness," "bring to a standstill," and in contexts (e.g., Plato's Cratylus) where it is said to be "denial of movement." When applied to politics, it conjured up a picture of opponents locked in frenzied conflict, preventing, by the very violence and fanaticism of their mutual antagonism, any real change or any genuine resolution of political problems. In so far as revolution is concerned with fundamental change and the starting of new things, where there is stasis there cannot be revolution.
Similarly the widespread classical conception of revolution is of the turns of the political cycle, mirroring, or perhaps instancing, the cycles of growth and decay in nature. It excludes all ideas of true novelty, as well as of human agency. Plato had left the cycle incomplete. The degeneration of his ideal state ended with tyranny. It was left to the Greek writer Polybius, drawing explicitly on Plato, to complete the cycle, and to make tyranny pass back into the ideal state, when the cycle would begin all over again. What drove the cycle was Fate or Fortune (tukhe). Revolutions were the turns of Fortune's impassively revolving wheel—hence inevitable and irresistible, beyond human willing or control. "Such," wrote Polybius (c. 200–118 B.C.E.), "is the course of political revolution (politeion anakyklosis), the course appointed by nature in which constitutions change, disappear, and finally return to the point from which they started."
The importance of Polybius's contribution was his influence on Roman writers, such as Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), and through them the whole later classical and early Christian world. The standard terms—metabole and stasis—from the Greek political lexicon were glossed in Latin as novae res, mutatio rerum, and commutatio rei publicae. But when it came to fitting these phenomena into a philosophy of politics Roman writers were apt to fall back on the Platonic idea of the cycle, as amplified by Polybius. For Cicero, for example, the "revolution" whereby Julius Caesar attained power was an instance of the natural cyclical process described by the Greek philosophers. It marked the turn of the circle—orbis—that described political change generally.
Christian writers of the Middle Ages were content to follow this respectable example, the more so as its Stoicism fitted in well with a cosmology that was even less inclined to allow freedom to merely human volition. By comparison with the cosmic "revolution" of Christ's coming, and the end of human history that it portended, all secular changes among humans paled into insignificance. Platonic conceptions, which in any case tended to disparage the things of this world, were highly suited to this view. The political cycles of the earthly city could be seen as the secondary counterpart to the predominant rectilinear pattern of Providential history, which was preparing the way for the consummation in the heavenly city.
It was in fact from the heavens that the word revolution descended to enter the earthly domain of politics. Astrology provided the link. The word revolutio—from revolvere, "to roll back," "to come back," "to return in due course"—was a late Latin coinage. St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) used it to refer to the migration of souls. It then came to be applied to the revolutions of the heavens, to the cyclical rotations of the planets and stars in their fixed orbits. The astronomical usage, as in Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), predominated until the late seventeenth century. But earlier it had already come to be applied to human society, through the widely shared astrological belief in the influence of the stars on human affairs. The revolutions of the heavens were the direct cause of revolutions among humans.
This confirmed rather than modified in any substantial way the concept of revolution as the turn of Fortune's wheel. For not only were the movements of the stars as independent of human agency as the dispositions of Fortune (cf. Hamlet's "Here's fine Revolution," as he muses on Yorick's skull). They operated according to the same laws of motion as the political cycles of the Greeks. Each movement was preordained and predictable, a step or phase in the complete orbital cycle that returned the star or planet to its original starting point. The revolutions of the stars were therefore as bereft of novelty as the revolutions of the seasons. As Hannah Arendt has written of the astronomical revolutio, "if used for the affairs of men on earth, it could only signify that the few known forms of government revolve among the mortals in eternal recurrence and with the same irresistible force which makes the stars follow their pre-ordained paths in the skies" (p. 35). The astronomical conception of political change dominated the uses of the term revolution from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The rivoluzioni of the North Italian cities of the fourteenth century—when the term first entered the political vocabulary to denote violent political change—were seen in the perspective of the cyclical conception derived from classical antiquity. Most commonly revolution was used in some sense of restoration, the return to a truer or purer or more original state of things. This was the meaning of its use in relation to the pro-and anti-Medicean revolts in Florence in 1494, 1512, and 1527. Widely called rivoluzioni by contemporary observers, the revolts were held by their supporters to bring back the better state of affairs displaced by their rivals. A similar meaning underlay the use of the term révolution to describe the conversion to Catholicism of the French king Henry IV in 1593. By so disarming his enemies, the Catholic League, and causing massive defections to his side, Henry was said both to have brought about an irresistible turn of the wheel of Fortune and at the same time to have restored the kingdom to an earlier condition of health (Griewank, p. 145). In this late sixteenth century usage one sees as clearly as anywhere the persistence of a concept of revolution in which the quality of novelty is conspicuously absent.
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