This article throws light upon the three political ideas of Polybius. The political ideas are: 1. Classification of Constitution 2. Causes of Political Change 3. Advantages of Mixed Constitution.
Political Idea # 1. Classification of Constitution:
Polybius has classified the constitutions or governments on the line set forty by Plato and Aristotle. Polybius has said that normally governments are divided into kingship, aristocracy and democracy. Buy these three forms, in Polybius’s opinion, are not final and satisfactory. Other varieties are also found in it some states.
“We should therefore assert that there are six kinds of governments, the three above-mentioned and the three which are naturally allied to them. I mean monarchy, oligarchy and mob rule.” Therefore three sets and six kinds of government of Polybius are kingship and monarchy; aristocracy and oligarchy; finally democracy and mob rule.
The growth of monarchy is natural and unaided. Kingship is a derivative of monarchy. So according to Polybius the primary form of government is monarchy. It is based on force. Several people assembling at a particular place expressed their will in favour of a strong man to rule them and they established monarchy.
Tyranny is the offshoot of monarchy. When the king defies justice and morality he becomes a tyrant. The abolition of both monarchy and tyranny clears the way for the emergency of aristocracy. This, by its very nature, degenerates into oligarchy.
When the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being. In due course the license and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob rule.
Polybius, on the basis of his personal experience, observes that a particular form of government is not permanent or stable. For example, when democracy exceeds its limits through violence and excesses, it gives birth to a new despot who rules the community by force. The cycle of the series starts here. Each of the three primary forms of government thus contains within itself the germs of its decay and ruin.
Political Idea # 2. Causes of Political Change:
We have just now pointed out that one form of government is changed into other. It is now our task to investigate the causes of change. Polybius is of opinion that the original and in fact the natural form of government is kingship.
Kingship is hereditary. Rivalry among the members of the royal family is a general feature of many city-states. Hatred and resentment lead one to revolt against the king and ultimately he captures power. Polybius has said that mode of living, luxury; unscrupulous behaviour and deprivation of power on the part of some members of royal family are the important causes of rivalry.
However, the kingship is changed into tyranny. When there were several aspirants of the throne, competition among them was a reality which finally led to fighting among the aspirants. But it is to be remembered that the conspirators are not ordinary persons of the royal family, they are members of royal family or holders of high position.
Polybius has drawn our attention to the several causes of political change. Some rulers aggravate the situation through their unscrupulous behaviour, money- making mentality, extravagance and indulgence in wine.
When power is confined in the hands of few persons, common people express resentment on the ground that freedom and equality are abused. Everyone must have free access to power and authority. Democratic right should not be limited only too few persons.
This is the demand of the mob. Gross economic inequality, exclusion from honour and office, resort to violence on flimsy grounds and injustice perpetrated upon the people are the causes of the change of government.
Needless to say, these are the causes of revolution which Aristotle stated long before Polybius. In the words of Polybius— such is the cycle of political revolution, the course appointed by nature in which constitutions change, disappear and finally return to the point from which they started.
Political Idea # 3. Advantages of Mixed Constitution:
To get rid of the changes or transformations of governments Polybius has suggested that a combination of all various forms of governments is needed. It is essential that the best elements of all governments are to be combined together and that is why in Polybius we find an elaborate arrangement of combination which was also introduced for checks and balances. By combination Polybius has said that three different forms of government will cooperate as well as they will counteract.
First of all let us consider consuls. The consul is vested with absolute authority necessary for carrying out his purpose but in fact he requires the support of the people and senate and is not able to bring his operations to a conclusion without them. The senate also controls the supply of food, clothing, other necessary materials and money.
So the consul must depend on the senate for the fulfilment of his military objectives and ambitions. The senate also determines whether or not he shall retain command at the expiration of his term of office.
In fact, theoretically, consul has absolute power like absolute monarchy, but in practice senate checks him. The senate is like an aristocracy and two forms of governments are combined together. Again, men are indispensable for the consuls to conciliate them. There must be consent of the people behind the activities and celebration of the consul.
The senate, it now appears, has vast administrative, financial and supervisory powers. But the popular assemblies through the acts can restrict the powers and activities of the senate. It cannot carry out enquiries into the most grave and important offences against the state unless the senatus consultum is confirmed by the people.
So, the people’s assemblies exercise ultimate authority. Again, whether the power of the senate can be curtailed or expanded does not depend upon itself. Only the popular assemblies can do it. In this form of mixed constitution we find a combination of aristocracy and democracy.
Finally, assemblies are subject to a restraint on their activity. The assemblies must respect the members of the senate. In Italy, all the contracts and repairing works of public buildings are fully controlled by senate. But people’s financial interests are related with these.
In all these matters the senate is supreme. It can grant extension of time, it can relieve the contractor if any accident occurs.
There are, in fact, many ways in which the senate can either benefit or injure those who manage public property. From the senators are drawn the juries in most lawsuits. As a result, the citizens are at the mercy of senate.
Similarly, everyone is reluctant to oppose the projects of the consuls as all are generally and individually under the authority when in the field.
Evaluation of Political Ideas by Polybius:
Polybius had initiated an elaborate system of the famous doctrine of checks and balances which was later on adopted by the great architects of American constitution.
“While the writings of Plato and Aristotle contained some conception of the value of this principle (checks and balances), the Greek writers preferred a simple form of government, somewhat modified by traces of the other types. Polybius was the first writer to make a clear statement of the advantages of a mixed form of government and of the principles of checks and balances in constitutional organisation. These conceptions were recognized in theory and practice in later periods, and in a slightly changed from remain valid in modern political thought.”
Whether a mixed form of government is the guarantor of the political stability or not is a separate issue. But stability of any political system is essential and that was ‘conceived by Polybius with great farsightedness and acumen more than two thousand years ago. Again, only checks and balances can ensure stability—this we can easily take for granted. This we find in the writings of Polybius.