Zeitgeist Zero Hour:
Originally published June 24, 2019
Last edited September 18, 2019
By Michio Suginoo
Western Civilisation starts from just kingship/aristocracy, then travels through timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy, then finally degenerates into tyranny to complete its one life cycle. This is a notion of the constitutional (political regime) cycle formulated by Plato’s fictional Socrates in his masterpiece, ‘the Republic’, —call it Socrates Cycle. [click here for a summary on Socrates Cycle: Thus spoke Socrates] As a footnote, in this reading, we call the fictional figure interchangeably Socrates or Plato going forward.
Against Socrates Cycle, Aristotle presented his alternative view. While Socrates Cycle presents only one single path, Aristotle, presenting a variety of historical evidences, articulated that constitutional change would be a contingent and particular process and could produce any of multiple paths depending on the given circumstances, thus, would not necessarily replicate one single generalised path. Based on his survey of 158 constitutions of his time, Aristotle shaped his rich empirical knowledge and insights on constitutional changes.
When we see regime-by-regime base change of constitutional transformations, history favours Aristotle’s contingent particularity view against Socrates Cycle. Is Socrates Cycle merely a political fantasy of Socrates? Or does it have any intrinsic value?
Against Aristotle’s criticisms, I would defend the underlying intrinsic value of Socrates Cycle. Socrates’ dialectic discourse brilliantly captured “inherently corrupting”  nature of social moral order (psyche): in a big picture, along the social moral decay, civilisation can disintegrate from within, even without external threat. In his discourse, he illuminated how political order is shaped and destroyed by the transformation of social moral order. In this light, I would argue, the intrinsic value of Socrates Cycle is paramount.
At the same time, I also highly admire Aristotle’s insight in reminding us of the contingent and particular nature of our reality. Simply put, in Aristotelean perspective, being manifests itself in contingent particularity.
In Aristotle’s term, Socrates, by presenting only one single path, only illustrated one actualisation of potential universe, thus excluded multitude of other potential alternatives. In a way, it is a sort of one-single-scenario-base simulation. Nevertheless, its underlying scenario is a very special one, Socrates’ narrative of a natural (uninterrupted endogenous) moral decay of civilisation, particularly Ancient Western Civilisation. In his dialectic simulation, he populated his constitutional cycle as an incarnation of the single passage of Socratesian natural (uninterrupted endogenous) decay of social moral order. Although on appearance Socrates Cycle is a political regime cycle, it is a manifestation of the natural decay of social moral order—simply put, in its very substance, it is an uninterrupted endogenous cycle of Zeitgeist. As a footnote, this reading uses the following terms interchangeably—the soul, psyche, and moral order; and social moral order of an epoch and Zeitgeist.
Why did he choose this particular scenario out of all potentialities? In my view, with his profound insight of political instability in the ancient Greek history, Socrates (or Plato) might well have been deeply concerned with one primary cause of the political instability, moral decay—e.g. embezzlement, bribery, and illegitimate use of violence. In this light, he would naturally have become preoccupied with formulating his caveats on moral decay and demonstrated the most likely consequences of his hypothetical natural (uninterrupted endogenous) decay in social moral order on political order. In other words, his warning would be: if we let social moral order decay unmanaged, constitutional order could degenerate in accordance with Socrates Cycle. On this presumption, I would submit that he brilliantly achieved his specific goal. In other words, to achieve his goal, he did not need to expand his discourse to cover all the potential paths of the universe—that would be unproductive to begin with.
Socrates and Aristotle: complementary and confrontational
Despite the contrasting differences between these two intellects (click the link for the Comparison between Socrates v.s. Aristotle), I tend to see that their thoughts are in some respects complementary than confrontational for our analysis on the subject. That is to say, while Aristotle raises our consciousness in capturing the contingent particular nature of our reality, Socrates unveils his view of imperative nature of social moral decay. Of course, that is not to say, these two are absolutely complementary; in some respects, they disagree fundamentally and cannot reconcile each other.
Since this reading does not go over Socrates’ discourse of his constitutional cycle itself, if you would like to have its overview, please visit my content on its summary through the link here: (Socrates' Constitutional Cycle )