The Mythical Alexander Tyler and His Theory of Democracy

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You have probably
received a letter in your email box sent by some well-meaning defender
of liberty. It goes something like this.

about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution,
in the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor
at The University of Edinborough) had this to say about “The Fall
of The Athenian Republic” some 2,000 years prior:

A democracy
is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent
form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until
the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous
gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority
always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits
from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy
will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always
followed by a dictatorship.

The average
age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of
history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these
nations always progressed through the following sequence:

bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.

Educated people
have a fondness for stage theories of social development. The Communist
Left embraced Marx’s theory for over a century: primitive communism,
barbarism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and stateless
communism (somewhere, over the rainbow.) The Right has produced
a number of stage theories, but none of them nearly so popular as
Marx’s, nor so inaccurate.

When I first
read the extract from Tyler’s work, I thought it sounded strangely
contemporary. He had listed the stages in a tightly written format,
rather like a direct-mail advertisement. All that was missing was
a bold-faced bullet at the beginning of each line. It just did not
“smell” right to me. But I ignored the scent. At the same time,
I did not forward a copy to anyone on my various mailing lists.

A few months
later, I received another variation. Yet this time, the quotation
was attributed to Alexander Tytler. Was this extra t a typographical

At some point,
I decided to do a quick Google research job on Tyler-Tytler and
his book on Athens, which I had never heard of in my graduate school
days or subsequently.

A Google-based
search for me begins with a name, a phrase, and the key word: “hoax.”
The juicier the quotation, the sooner I run the search. Usually,
the item is a hoax.

Second, I look
for a link to an article on Snopes: This
site specializes in email hoaxes. Sure enough, I found a version
of Tyler’s stage theory of democracy. I have reprinted it above.

Yes, there
was a Scottish historian named Alexander Fraser Tytler. He wrote
several books in the early nineteenth century, but none with the
title, The Fall of the Athenian Republic. In none of his books does
this stage theory passage appear.

Another site
traces this quotation and finds numerous variations. It concludes
that no one has identified
the source

A detailed response from
the library of the University of Edinburgh
reveals that no such
quotation appears in the library’s holdings of books by Tytler.

University Library occasionally receives enquiries, particularly
from North America, about this particular work. However, this title
is not in our Library holdings, nor does it appear in the stocks
of the other major research libraries in the UK (according to the
‘union’ catalogue COPAC)…

the chapters of Tytler’s General history … (which we
DO have) has been checked on the off-chance that The decline
and fall might have been a chapter title… but it is not…

The librarian,
being a librarian, covers his backside when he writes this:

in the enquiries we receive we are provided with a ‘quote’ (see
below) from Tytler referring to the steps that a democracy can go
thro’ prior to its fall but this is not in the General history…

We have scanned
our holdings pretty thoroughly on different occasions, going back
a few years now, but we have not found the quotation or anything
similar to it, but we cannot absolutely rule out the possibility
that we have missed it.

He goes on
to say that the U.S. Library of Congress has found no such quotation
in its collection of books by Tytler.


Robert Nisbet
analyzed the use of stage theories in his 1969 book, Social
Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development
The concept of self-originated (endogenous) evolutionary development
began — predictably — with the Greeks.

The biological
metaphor of growth and decay was popular with classical Greek thinkers,
and it has remained popular. Oswald Spengler’s Decline
of the West
was the most widely respected book written by
a high school teacher in the twentieth century. While no one actually
reads it these days, the fat book remains in print.

Arnold Toynbee’s
multi-volume history of civilization is basically a stage theory
enterprise: challenge and response. Harvard’s sociologist Pitirim
Sorokin was just about the only scholar to match Toynbee’s breadth
of historical knowledge, and he also adopted a stage theory of cultural
development: ideational (religious), sensate (materialistic), and
idealistic (a mixture of the first two).

Nisbet argues
that we need classification schemes to make sense of the world around
us. We also want to be able to see what is likely to occur in the
future. Developmental theories seem to offer us insight into the
forces of history or processes of history.

The problem,
he says, is that these processes are always being overcome or delayed
by the facts of history. So, the stages are what would take place
if the unpredictable events of history did not intervene. But they
always do.

In a profound
yet clever article published in Commentary (June 1968), “The
Year 2000 and All That,” Nisbet concluded his critique of prediction-by-computer-model
with this observation. The biologist can predict future changes
in some environmentally controlled population, but

is very different with studies of change in human society. Here
the Random Event, the Maniac, the Prophet, and the Genius have to
be reckoned with. We have absolutely no way of escaping them. The
future-predictors don’t suggest that we can avoid or escape them
— or ever be able to predict or forecast them. What the future-predictors,
the change-analysts, and trend-tenders say in effect is that with
the aid of institute resources, computers, linear programming, etc.
they will deal with the kinds of change that are not the consequence
of the Random Event, the Genius, the Maniac, and the Prophet. To
which I can only say: there really aren’t any; not any worth looking
at anyhow.


I can do no
better than to close with a citation from Chapter 18 of Ludwig von
Mises’s book, Socialism

barren dispute over the economic life of the nations of antiquity
shows how easily such classifying may lead to our mistaking the
shadow of scholastic word-splitting for the substance of historical
reality. For sociological study the stage theories are useless.
They mislead us in regard to one of the most important problems
of history — that of deciding how far historical evolution is continuous.
The solution of this problem usually takes the form either of an
assumption, that social evolution — which it should be remembered
is the development of the division of labor — has moved in an uninterrupted
line, or by the assumption that each nation has progressed step-by-step
over the same ground. Both assumptions are beside the point. It
is absurd to say that evolution is uninterrupted when we can clearly
discern periods of decay in history, periods when the division of
labor has retrogressed. On the other hand, the progress achieved
by individual nations by reaching a higher stage of the division
of labor is never completely lost. It spreads to other nations and
hastens their evolution.

It is true
that democracy undermines freedom when voters believe they can live
off of others’ productivity, when they modify the commandment: “Thou
shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” The politics of plunder
is no doubt destructive of both morality and the division of labor.
But there is no law of historical decline that says that people
cannot change their minds.

minds is what education is all about. So is evangelism. Neither
progress nor decline is guaranteed by some internal logic of society.
Logic is what people use to interpret and then change society. There
is no such thing as social logic.

21, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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