The Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Revolution

In the first place we must assume as our starting-point that in the many forms of government which have sprung up there has always been an acknowledgment of justice and proportionate equality, although mankind fail attaining them, as I have already explained. Democracy, for example, arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal. Oligarchy is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal; being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely. The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things; while the oligarchs, under the idea that they are unequal, claim too much, which is one form of inequality. All these forms of government have a kind of justice, but, tried by an absolute standard, they are faulty; and, therefore, both parties, whenever their share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution. Those who excel in virtue have the best right of all to rebel (for they alone can with reason be deemed absolutely unequal), but then they are of all men the least inclined to do so. There is also a superiority which is claimed by men of rank; for they are thought noble because they spring from wealthy and virtuous ancestors. Here then, so to speak, are opened the very springs and fountains of revolution; and hence arise two sorts of changes in governments; the one affecting the constitution, when men seek to change from an existing form into some other, for example, from democracy into oligarchy, and from oligarchy into democracy, or from either of them into constitutional government or aristocracy, and conversely; the other not affecting the constitution, when, without disturbing the form of government, whether oligarchy, or monarchy, or any other, they try to get the administration into their own hands. Further, there is a question of degree; an oligarchy, for example, may become more or less oligarchical, and a democracy more or less democratical; and in like manner the characteristics of the other forms of government may be more or less strictly maintained. Or the revolution may be directed against a portion of the constitution only, e.g., the establishment or overthrow of a particular office: as at Sparta it is said that Lysander attempted to overthrow the monarchy, and King Pausanias, the Ephoralty. At Epidamnus, too, the change was partial. For instead of phylarchs or heads of tribes, a council was appointed; but to this day the magistrates are the only members of the ruling class who are compelled to go to the Heliaea when an election takes place, and the office of the single archon was another oligarchical feature. Everywhere inequality is a cause of revolution, but an inequality in which there is no proportion- for instance, a perpetual monarchy among equals; and always it is the desire of equality which rises in rebellion.

Aristotle, Politics (Book V).

A great democratic revolution is taking place among us. Everyone sees it, but not everyone judges it in the same way. There are those who regard it as something new and, believing it to be an accident, still hope to arrest it, while others deem it irresistible because in their view it is the oldest, most continuous, most permanent fact known to history. (…)

If, starting in the eleventh century, we examine the state of French society at fifty-year intervals, we see a twofold revolution taking place. The noble has moved steadily down the social ladder, and the commoner has moved steadily up. One is descending, the other rising. Every fifty years they move closer together; soon they will touch.

None of these changes is peculiar to France. Wherever we look in the Christian world, we see the same ongoing revolution. Everywhere a diversity of historical incident has redounded to democracy’s benefit. Everyone played a part: those who strove to ensure democracy’s success as well as those who never dreamt of serving it; those who fought for it as well as those who declared themselves its enemies. Driven pell-mell down a single path, all worked toward a single goal, some in spite of themselves, others unwittingly—blind instruments in the hands of God.

The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact. It has the essential characteristics of one: it is universal, durable, and daily proves itself to be beyond the reach of man’s powers. Not a single event, not a single individual, fails to contribute to its development.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Book II).


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach (1845).

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