Sententia Cotidiana XIV

Today’s thought for the day is inspired by the following passage from the Greek historian, Polybius.


“They also entrusted them [a commission consisting of Gnaeus Octavius, Spurius Lucretius,

and Lucius Aurelius] with the task of looking into Macedonian affairs. For the Macedonians,

because they were unused to being governed by a democratic politeia, were in a state of

internal discord.” (Polybius, Histories, 31.2.12)


Following Roman victory in the Third Macedonian War (168 BCE), the Romans broke up the ancient kingdom of Macedon into four democratically governed states. This made it easier for the Romans to maintain their influence in the region.


However, I think Polybius’ observation has remarkable modern pertinence.


Firstly, there is the question whether one power should intervene to alter the government of another. The example is not completely comparable. The Romans did not set out to change the Macedonian regime, modelled on their own. They set out to maintain their influence in Greece and, once victorious, demolished the chief enemy for convenience. But the parallel is clear and it raises the following questions.


Can political change through external agency ever be justified? One could argue that this depends on the motivation of the agent and the view of the people whose government is to be changed, and maybe how radical the change is to be. Will the change create a relationship of dependency between agent and people? This was clearly the Romans’ intention. Does this inevitably happen even when not the intention? Does the relationship become crucial to the maintenance of a new political community? Recent history might certainly suggest so, even though the idea might originally have been to secure a new setup that offered a freer political process with greater chance of engagement for the people of the country in question.


On this matter, Alexander Downes[1] argued that such a change could lead to splinter cells of hostile groups, which fostered civil war and unrest. He also argues that, however well intentioned, the agent and the people might be singing from rather different hymn sheets.


This last point leads to the second point of relevance of Polybius’ remark. Agent and people might not only have different views on what they want, they are also likely coming from very different political and cultural mindsets, which do not necessarily fully understand one another. The Macedonians were not used to democracy as a means of rule. The had no history of it (other than the kings invading and controlling several democratic states in Greece, who used the procedure to their advantage) and, therefore, no experience of it. The result, they descended into chaotic civil squabbles. It is clearly a naïve assumption that establishment of democratic assemblies, practices, and infrastructure is sufficient to make a people democratic. The regime might look like a democracy, but it might function very differently.


The core point, however, is less about democracy than the reality of a sudden and dramatic change of a people’s customs or government. What was there before cannot be simply swept away. People become used to the way of life permitted by a regime, whether that means they have been active participants in their society or are used to a minority (not necessarily oppressive) government.


Take a silly example. Imagine you have held your pen a certain way for years and suddenly in adulthood, you are forced to adopt a new hold. It will not be a smooth transition. If you persevere to achieve this, your writing will suffer on the journey. Or if you do not believe the enforced change to be beneficial, you might resist, or make only a half-hearted attempt. Is this what happened to the Macedonians? Suddenly, they were free to make a difference in their society. But at first this did not prove constructive, and more direction was needed.


Another rather prosaic, but apt analogy, is when you’re told by friends and family that something you are doing is proving harmful or is not helping you. You don’t yet see it for yourself, so you don’t listen at first. Then something makes you realise they are right and you begin to alter or drop whatever it is. It will not necessarily be easy, but you have now seen the benefit of doing so for yourself. Now, I am not saying for a minute that the external agent is always right in the change they wish to see, whoever they are. Far from it. What I am saying is perhaps the only true change comes from within a people, from their experience and their decisions in light of that experience, and the realisation that they no longer are happy with the status quo. Drive from within will create a stronger outcome, something that I think Polybius would have agreed with.


It is very clear why Polybius was considered so insightful by early International Relations Theorists.[2]

[1] Downes, A., (2021) Catastrophic Success: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Goes Wrong (Cornell); see also, his 2013 article written with Jonathan Monten: ‘Forced to Be Free: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization’, International Security, 37(4), 90-131. Retrieved August 30, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24480621.


[2] See, for example, Hans Morgenthau (1948) Politics Among Nations (New York); see also

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