The theory of anacyclosis (ἀνακύκλωσις in Greek) represents the culmination of ancient Greek political thought on the evolution of political communities. It is a “unified theory” of political history in that it attempts to explain the evolution and dissolution of all regime types, including democracy. The theory is most clearly and succinctly expressed in the writings of the historian Polybius, though many aspects of the theory were described by earlier thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. Recognized by Machiavelli for its explanatory power, Polybius’ model was studied by the Founding Fathers of the United States and profoundly influenced their vision of the republic they were founding.
The word anacyclosis has been variously translated as “the cycle of political revolution” and “the cycle of the constitutions.” In short, the theory states that the six regime archetypes that the Greeks identified and which we still use today (monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and ochlocracy or mob-rule) each represent different stages of one long process of political evolution. There is good reason to think that Polybius and his predecessors arrived at this theory empirically. After observing the rise and fall of many hundreds of city-states, most of which cycled through several of the governmental forms mentioned above, Greek political thinkers concluded that these transitions from one form to another were not random. Rather, they seemed to follow simple and recognizable patterns. For example, tyrants were frequently overthrown by groups of aristocrats, while popular revolutions frequently overthrew oligarchies and ushered in democratic rule. Interestingly, the reverse of these trends (aristocracies being overthrown by tyrants or democracies turning into oligarchies) were statistically less likely to occur.
Through such observations, Polybius extrapolated the likely complete course of political evolution for an independent state whose lifecycle is not cut short by war or disaster. According to our interpretation of his model, the cycle proceeds as follows. Political communities are first ruled by kings. Kingship is eventually corrupted into tyranny. The last tyrant is deposed or forced to share power with an aristocracy. Aristocracy degenerates into an oppressive oligarchy. Occasionally, an independent middle economic stratum – a middle class – emerges; hoi mesoi in Aristotelian terms. If this middle class is entrenched, democracy emerges. In time, however, a plutocracy emerges, stratifying society between opulent and dependent. The hopes of the dependent masses fuel an intensifying competition among their political patrons, transforming democracy into mob-rule, perhaps better described as rule by demagogues. This tournament of demagogues rages among a narrowing field of popular leaders until a single champion arises victorious, dragging political society back to some form of monarchy, thus completing the cycle.
At the Anacyclosis Institute, we believe that this ancient model contains much truth. We also believe that the astonishing longevity of the US Constitution, specifically designed to resist the Polybian cycle, speaks to the validity of many aspects of the theory. Nevertheless, while inspired by the anacyclosis model, we do not believe that human history rigidly follows any fixed evolutionary sequence. What we do believe is that a careful study of history can tell us a lot about where we are and where we are headed. We now have many more tools at our disposal than Polybius had for the study of historical patterns, including archaeology, economics, demographic models, and complexity theory. One of our objectives is to use these tools to develop a more comprehensive model of political change. Pending the completion of that task, however, a revised version of the ancient narrative provides a convenient template against which to chart the general outline of political evolution. The Anacyclosis Institute is committed to encouraging and supporting all new research that attempts to understand the trends, forces, and patterns of history for the benefit of humanity.