Anacyclosis: The Historical Cycle of Being Ruled by One, the Few, and the Many

By Penny Hoffmann

Throughout history we have seen different governments rise and fall cyclically. This is known as “anacyclosis”. Some have been beneficial to their societies and the ones around it, whilst others have caused their own downfall.

There has long been the questioning of whether history naturally repeats itself. Throughout the past, present and future, literature has been produced that reflects society’s views on the formation of governments. In these, there has been a consensus that tyranny is not an effective form of government as it causes large scales of death.

In The Rotation of Polities, a Histories by Greek historian Polybius, the theme of anacyclosis, or a government cycle, is first presented in past literature from around 146BC. The book conveys that there are three “good” forms of government, which are monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and three degenerate forms that derive from these, which are tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy respectively.

From these, there is a natural rotation of government. How these governments are presented indicates what people thought at that time, and that there are good and bad governments each from being ruled by one, by the few and by the many.

Polybius recognized that there can be a way to slow down anacyclosis in order to prevent the degenerate forms of government from taking over, and this is accomplished by incorporating aspects of the three “good” forms of government in a society.

In present texts, the negative connotation for tyranny that develops from anacyclosis also rears its head. An example of this is the poem “In Detention” by Cris Van Wyk. The poem is based on 1980’s apartheid in South Africa and is written from the perspective of someone who was affected and not in support of the abuse of power.

It details the deaths of political activists who were purposely murdered and their cause of death then covered up with false stories about suicide, slipping on a bar of soap while washing, and falling from a nineth-floor window.

The beginning reads, “He fell from the ninth floor, he hanged himself, he slipped on a piece of soap while washing”. The generic explanations are false because, as an example, the prisoners were likely not able to fall from a ninth floor because they were chained and cuffed.

The explanations at the beginning then develop in complexity: “He fell from a piece of soap while slipping, he hung from the ninth floor, he washed from the ninth floor while slipping, he hung from a piece of soap while washing”. The poem is sarcastic, satirical and repetitive in nature and becomes increasingly unreasonable to make obvious the truth that is being covered with comforting lies.

Literature that is based on the future almost never have a positive prediction, and regularly feature oppressive governments. 1984 by George Orwell is one example. This novel also revolves around the theme of anacyclosis as the main character, Winston, is experiencing a change of government into a degenerate form of the Polybian model of Anacyclosis: tyranny, which encompasses totalitarianism.

This change of government is presented in a negative light, and is accomplished by positioning the readers to see the book through the lens of a member of the public who is being impacted by the tyrannical government and is secretly not accepting the oppression – that is, not until the end of the novel.

The novel acts as a warning of this change of government and stage in the anacyclosis cycle for the near future as “Big Brother”, the dictator of Oceania, was inspired by 20th century tyrannical figures such as Adolf Hitler in Germany and Josef Stalin in Soviet Russia. The audience is made to identify and sympathize with Winston, who implies that mandatory increased “security” in order to control a population’s views and promote solidarity is not a safe method of government.

From past, present and future literature such as Polybius’ past Histories, Rotation of Polities; Cris Van Wyk’s present poem, In Detention; and George Orwell’s future novel, 1984, a reoccuring theme of anacyclosis and the negative standpoint for tyranny is present. This conveys that, historically in the past and present, anacyclosis that results in tyranny was cyclical and represented negatively, and that for the future, cyclical tyranny is expected and still represented negatively.