Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The origins of the idea of the mixed constitution

In a previous post, I examined the recurring theme of the mixed and balanced constitution in English constitutional writings.  In this post, I want to look at some of the ancient sources of this theme.

It was Plato who introduced the idea of the mixed constitution to the Western tradition of political thought.  He thought that the ideal state should be a mixture of monarchy and democracy:
In the case before us, we called it a blunder to establish by law a government that is great or unblended....  There are two mother-forms of constitution, so to call them, from which one may truly say all the rest are derived. Of these the one is properly termed monarchy, the other democracy, the extreme case of the former being the Persian polity, and of the latter the Athenian; the rest are practically all, as I said, modifications of these two. Now it is essential for a polity to partake of both these two forms, if it is to have freedom and friendliness combined with wisdom. And that is what our argument intends to enjoin, when it declares that a State which does not partake of these can never be rightly constituted.... Since [Persia] embraced monarchy and [Athens] freedom, unmixed and in excess, neither of them has either in due measure.... (Laws, 693b-e)
The selection of officials that is thus made will form a mean between a monarchic constitution and a democratic; and midway between these our constitution should always stand. (Laws, 756e)
Similar ideas are found in the work of Plato's pupil Aristotle:
Constitutional government is, to put it simply, a mixture of oligarchy and democracy.... (Politics, 1293b)
It was in the historian Polybius' writings that we first find in developed form the idea that the best constitution is a tripartite mixture of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.  Polybius associated this model with Sparta and (in particular) the Roman empire:
Lycurgus, then, foreseeing this, did not make his constitution simple and uniform, but united in it all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil, but that, the force of each being neutralized by that of the others, none of them should prevail and outbalance another, but that the constitution should remain for long in a state of equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat, kingship being guarded from arrogance by the fear of the commons, who were given a sufficient share in the government, and the commons on the other hand not venturing to treat the kings with contempt from fear of the elders, who being selected from the best citizens would be sure all of them to be always on the side of justice; so that that part of the state which was weakest owing to its subservience to traditional custom, acquired power and weight by the support and influence of the elders. The consequence was that by drawing up his constitution thus he preserved liberty at Sparta for a longer period than is recorded elsewhere.

Lycurgus then, foreseeing, by a process of reasoning, whence and how events naturally happen, constructed his constitution untaught by adversity, but the Romans while they have arrived at the same final result as regards their form of government, have not reached it by any process of reasoning, but by the discipline of many struggles and troubles, and always choosing the best by the light of the experience gained in disaster have thus reached the same result as Lycurgus, that is to say, the best of all existing constitutions.  (Histories, 4.10)

The three kinds of government that I spoke of above all shared in the control of the Roman state. And such fairness and propriety in all respects was shown in the use of these three elements for drawing up the constitution and in its subsequent administration that it was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic, or monarchical. This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one's eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly to be a democracy.  (Histories, 5.11)
The writer Diogenes Laertius reports that the mixed constitution theory was held by the Stoics:
The best form of government they hold to be a mixture of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy. (7.1.131)
Among Roman writers, Cicero took up the theme in his philosophical writings:
For the primary forms already mentioned degenerate easily into the corresponding perverted forms, the king being replaced by a despot, the aristocracy by an oligarchical faction, and the people by a mob and anarchy; but whereas these forms are frequently changed into new ones, this does not usually happen in the case of the mixed and evenly balanced constitution [iuncta moderateque permixta conformatione rei publicae], except through great faults in the governing class.  (De Re Publica, 1.69)

As to the best form of government, I think on this point I have sufficiently answered the question of Laelius. For in answering him, I specifically noticed the three simple forms of government — monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy — and the three mal-constitutions into which they often degenerate. I said that none of these forms, taken separately, was absolutely good; and I described as preferable to each of them that mixed government which shall be composed of a proper amalgamation of these simple ingredients.  (De Re Publica, 2.66)