Tytler’s Cycle

Notes on a Vision of History

Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee FRSE (15 October 1747 – 5 January 1813) a Scottish advocate and judge, formulated the following idea over 200 hundred years ago:

“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 world’s 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 selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.”

This reminds me strongly of the idea of the great “Kali Yuga” cycle of the Hindus, of which there is an echo in Plato’s republic, in the decline from the Philosopher Kings to democracy and tyranny. Though it strikes me as having some truth, it gives me a strange feeling that something is missing towards the end of the sequence- perhaps between complacency/apathy/dependence?

Apart from the stage he calls “courage” it all seems so mechanical – should we just regard this as philosophising? Or can there be something – for those who question, or who have a practical inkling of levels and energies – to learn from this?

Friends on the internet in the USA quoted this as if everybody was familiar with it, evidently because it was widely circulated on the internet after the 2000 U.S. presidential election. I discovered this on Wikipedia:

“There is no reliable record of Tytler having written any part of the text. In fact, it actually comprises two parts which didn’t begin to appear together until the 1970s. The first paragraph’s earliest known appearance is in an op-ed piece by Elmer T. Peterson in the December 9, 1951 The Daily Oklahoman, which attributed it to Tytler:

“‘Two centuries ago, a somewhat obscure Scotsman named Tytler made this profound observation: ‘A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.’

“The list beginning ‘From bondage to spiritual faith’ is commonly known as the ‘Tytler Cycle’ or the ‘Fatal Sequence’. Its first known appearance is in a 1943 speech by H. W. Prentis, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, and appears to be original to him. It is also published in the text of an address by Prentis delivered at the February 1943 convocation of the General Alumni Society of the University of Pennsylvania.”

Wherever our contemporary civilisation is going I’d still like to think we could be making it up as we go along, as if something depends on us, but this small doom-laden cyclic concept takes away not only the notion of choice but even that anything on a certain scale can be random.

It is challenging and irritating to discover that somebody else has formulated the political systems of civilisation into such a rigidly predictable repeating cycle of fate and with such a short timespan – 200 years is only a few generations. Furthermore it seems to indicate that we in our Western societies at this moment have returned quite inescapably to the “What’s in it for me?” phase. We might say that what is absent is Compassion, Conscience, Concern for the welfare of our fellows …

My only personal experience of modern day non-democracy (no elections) was on my brief visit to Sarawak in Malaysia where they have a sort of friendly tyrant family system, and I witnessed no discontent. That country and that region currently has enough of its own resources to manage more or less without immense debts as far as I could see. Its local wealthies do provide jobs and wages for its less well-off.

Then, could this cycle be relevantly applied to the evolving of one’s own inner development or possibilities, within an individual life?

S. Tomalin