The Mythical Alexander Tyler and His Theory of Democracy

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

At 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:

From 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 error?

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.

Edinburgh 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)…

Locally, 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:

Often 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… either.

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

It 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 (1922).

The 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.

Changing 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.

October21, 2006

Gary 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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