Ever since we have had civilizations, there have been governments. As long as these governments have been around, there have been dissenters who believe that another form of government would be better. The last four centuries have presented us with a multitude of governments, each with ideas differing from the governments to precede them. In this node, I intend to give a brief history of government, and show how democracy has been the type of government that is naturally shifted to.
The first civilizations, such as Greece and Mesopotamia, were mostly despotisms. Whoever controlled the military controlled the country. When the despot died, it was up to the generals to decide who controlled the military. Internal conflicts such as this led to the collapse of several empires, including the Mongol states and Alexander the Great’s empire. Gradually, the people tired of despotism and a new form of government was born: the monarchy.
These first monarchs actually ruled a theocracy, were the king was seen as a direct agent of God or the gods. Although similar to despotisms, theocracies differed in that the populace generally supported the ruler. These theocratic views were shown in James I of England’s speech before Parliament, where he calls kings “Gods lieutenants on earth.” This idea is also echoed in Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s statement that kings were demigods in themselves, which is the true definition of theocracy. These theocracies/ monarchies were the first absolute monarchies. Even once the religious aspect of government faded away, many rulers and philosophers, such as Voltaire, still believed in absolutism, as is evident in the French monarchy up until the French Revolution.
Just as the absolute monarchy was a step from despotism, the next major change in government was the move from absolutism to constitutionalism. This view was supported by Thomas Hobbes, who believed that the monarchy was a tool to help people get along. He stated in his great work Leviathan that “the only way to erect such a common power the monarch… is to confer all their power and strength upon one man.” In short, the king rules because his subjects wish him to. This is also shown on the frontispiece to Leviathan, where the monarch rules over all. However, the king is composed of his subjects, for it is they who give power to the king. This idea of “benevolent monarchy” is stated several times throughout history. Fredrick the Great of Prussia advised fellow rulers “to recollect that they are but a man, like the least of their subjects.”
It was the writings of John Locke that set the gears for democracy rolling. He disagreed with Hobbes on the subject of who should get the power. Locke believed that “a man…cannot subject himself to the arbitrary power of another.” This belief, coupled with the actions of George III, inspired the American colonists to break away from Great Britain and start a new country. As-so-far, the United States has remained the most stable country in the world. This indicates that Lockean government is more efficient than any of the other forms of government mentioned previously.
This statement is supported by the fact that newer governments have failed miserably. Lenin tried to form a Marxist state, as he stated in a speech in Petrograd in 1917, but it was never truly Marxist. Stalin’s corruption proved even more strongly that communism simply doesn’t work. This political experiment has cost Russia dearly in world affairs. Also, Hitler tried to install a Nazi regime in Germany. It took a world war to demonstrate what a bad idea that was.
In conclusion, government has shifted towards democracy in the last four centuries, and seems to have found its balance there. However, this does not prove that democracy is the best form of government possible. It is just the best that our political philosophers and theologians have managed to come up with so far.
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