A Theory of Government Concerning the Elements of Government and the Separation of Powers
Below we present a theory of government (a model for understanding government) about the spirit of the laws and the separations of the powers, using classical element theory to tie it together.
A Summary of the Metaphor
The metaphor can be expressed in its simple form like this:
- Power (Fire: honor, will, and action; pure energy): The executive including leaders, the military, and police.
- Economy [of capital and labor] (earth: all the physical; incentive based; empirical): The citizens, politicians, and barons.
- Reason and Ethics (air: the mental; pure reason): The legislative, scholars, scientists, lawyers, and general intelligence.
- Spirituality and Morality (water: the intangible; faith and emotion; the metaphysical): The judicial, judges, and the church.
TIP: See a related theory of the four general ruling powers of any nation: churches, barons, kings, and citizens. There are many ways to break up the aspects of the human condition into four primary parts. This page is a synthesis of them presented as a metaphor.
TIP: The above creates what I would call four categories in which to place virtues. These four primary virtue categories can be defined as being related to honor, economy, intellect, and wisdom. As this is a loosely defined aspect of the theory. Honor drives monarchies and armies and includes virtues of manners and a sense of duty. Economy drives markets and contains virtues related to equality and charity and the physical like physical health. Intellect drives thought is all that is rational including virtues related to law and science. Wisdom is that which is empathic or spiritual and includes virtues like morality. So the virtues of mind, body, soul, and “spirit” (where spirit is referring to will and drive; the virtues related to honor). See a list of vices and virtues.
TIP: These have also been called “powers” or “branches” in the separation of powers theory (from the Greeks to the philosophers of the European Enlightenment), and also “estates” (for instance in early 1700’s with France’s Estates of the Realm). We are always generally talking about the same thing because these are real systems that describe real governments.
At Rome, the people had the greatest share of the legislative, a part of the executive, and part of the judiciary, power; by which means they had so great a weight in the government, as required some other power to balance it. – Montesquieu expressing the need for separations of the powers and checks and balances in his Spirit of the Laws. Also, in this section, warning that YES, even the citizens can be tyrannical (see Lenin’s revolution). The answer is balance, not Pure Democracies (and certainly not pure Despotic governments)… even Sparta and Athens had, in practice, a socialist and free-trading-republic respectively.
NOTE: Montesquieu calls honor “the spring” (the foundational mechanic) of monarchies (fire), fear the spring of despots (the deviant spring of all elements), the love of law and reason the spring of republics (air), and the love, equality the spring of democracies (water). Pair this with Adam Smith’s moral sentiment, AKA self-interest in socioeconomics, (earth)… and we have an analogy that works well with our element model. See types of governments.
Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances: Crash Course Government and Politics #3 N
TIP: In practice, the legislative is a mix of reason and ethics and economy (so air and earth). Meanwhile, the judicial is a mix of morality and ethics and reason (so air and water). Likewise, one expects citizens and rulers (and thus all people) to possess qualities of all the elements. We are applying the metaphor to “mixed” systems. We represented this by, for instance, putting “lawyers” in air and “politicians” in earth.
Definitions For Understanding the Classical Elements
For this to make sense, lets offer some definitions and insight into the classical elements:
- The classical elements have long stood as symbols for the aspects of the human condition. We discuss this topic here and explain why astrology and Tarot, which also use element theory as a metaphor, seem to work here. They work as a cold reading system because they are used as symbols for real aspects of the human condition, and thus have psychological merit regarding social science. They are not “magic.”
- Basic accepted definitions of the classical elements (of western tradition, see here) are Fire (pure energy or motion and will), Earth (the physical world, that which “has” motion), Air (pure reason, and that which can be reasoned), and Water (spirit and emotion, and that which is beyond reason).
Learn more about the western classical elements as a metaphor for the human condition.
Definitions for Understanding the Separations of Power and Branches of Government
Now some definitions and insight into the Separations of Power and Branches of Government:
- Basic accepted definitions of the branches of government: Executive (the part of government that acts directly), Legislative (that which creates laws), Judicial (that which judges laws).
- Aspects of government that have always driven society and are arguably foundations of government (but aren’t branches) are Economy (here meaning the economy of physical things, including money, products, and production) and Church (America has separation of church and state, but historically “Church” acted as Judges of sorts).
Learn more about the branches, separations, and checks and balances.
Comparing our Model to Plato’s Ideal Polity
Plato’s theory of the perfect polity (the perfect state) from his Republic, which is very similar to our model, consists of three orders: rulers (corresponding to the reasonable soul), producers (corresponding to desire), and warriors (corresponding to courage).
In Plato’s model rulers are thus air and water, producers earth, and warriors fire.
When you consider how I said Judicial is both air and water and legislative earth and air, and how I said a leader (although fire) possesses all qualities (ideally) you can see how Plato and I are getting at the same thing using different models.
Our model takes into account Montesquieu’s separations (executive, legislative, judicial) and the classical rulers of kingdoms (churches, barons, kings, military, people, republics) to present a model that resonates with Plato, but also the real 2016 Governments.
TIP: Below we will start equating the forms of government (like monarchy, republic, democracy, etc.) with the model. See our list of forms of government page for a quick list, see our types of government page for a detailed discussion. See also our page on liberty, equality, and law as we’ll also tie those concepts together.
The Classical Elements as a Metaphor for Government (Full Theory)
Below is the full version of the metaphor presented above, this time we will add a bit more detail and note philosophers who favored a style.
NOTE: Vitally, in the metaphor below, one should think about how these separations (of government power, but also of the human condition, and thus aspects and members of society) balance and check each other.
- Power (Fire): Machiavelli, James, I/IV, Hobbes, and Burke. Monarchy, Aristocracy, or Junta. Force-in-action holds together the social structure, be it a strong leader of a Republic, a Junta, a despot, or a benevolent prince. The prince is a father figure, authority and hierarchy are order. A preference for civil law (a well-ordered state). The executive including leaders, the military, and police. The economy of power. See Realism.
- Economy (earth): Smith, Marx, and Engles. Democracy, Oligarchy, Anarchy. The idea that the physical economy forms the social structure. The people, politicians, and barons. Includes producers, merchants, consumers, and financiers. To the victor go the spoils, as if by divine nature the invisible hand rules the economy and thus the state, all truth arises from the physical. A preference for natural law over civil law or central authority. The economy of things. See Empiricism.
- Reason and Ethics (air): Aristotle, Buchanan, Hume, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Republic or Technocracy. The idea that law and reason can be used to understand the natural laws and then can be used to organize society around a social structure that adheres to the state of nature and ensures an effective state. Reason and the law are kings. Society should be based on science (political, legal, economic, etc). A preference for civil law over natural law should exist, but a focus on ethics is mandatory. Science and education fall under air, but they aren’t limited to it. The legislative, scholars, scientists, lawyers, and general intelligence. The economy of ideas. See Rationalism.
- Spirituality and Morality (water): Plato, Aquinas, and Filmer. Theocracy or Krytocracy. The idea that the divine law forms the social structure, and that a King plays the role of Hierophant (bridge between God and the people). God/morals are the highest power (that which is the most correct cannot be reasoned perfectly). A preference for moral law, morality and ethics over natural or civil law. The judicial, judges, and the church. The economy of morals and faith. See Idealism.
Notes on the Metaphor
The legislative is bicameral in America, for metaphor’s sake, we can equate the lower popular house (in America the House of Congress) to earth and the higher elite house (in America the Senate) to air.
Likewise, we could think of the levels of the Judicial this way, with lawyer-like duties being air-like and judging itself being a matter of morality and ethics that can’t be known for sure (and require judgment calls).
The philosophers never used this analogy directly although great thinkers like Plato and Montesquieu came close.
The Danger of Imbalance
In practice, it can be said that almost all historical systems tend to put one of the four “elements” first, often giving it too much power and importance. This creates an imbalance of the elements, which in turn leads to “deviance.” This is a term coined by Aristotle, who uses “deviant” as an incorrect form of government in which special interest is put before the law and “general will.” In the terms of this metaphor, the interest of a single “element” is put before the interest of all.
It isn’t just about how much power a branch has, it’s about how they treat the other branches. A benevolent monarch with absolute right can theoretically put the people first, although, as we know from air travel, you always put on your own oxygen mask first. Likewise, a perfectly balanced government, where each branch is deviant (putting special interest before the law and general will) has its own batch of obvious problems.
Ex. A society that devalues reason and overvalues faith leaves itself open to folly and the persecution of its people; or on the flip side of this, one that devalues faith leaves itself open to immoral rational ideas like eugenics.
Of course, the main point of the metaphor is its use as a tool for examining historical and contemporary governments so I won’t harp on every example.
How Do we Detect Imbalance?
Generally, I would think we want to look for signs to detect an imbalance. Is there economic inequality? If so, it is likely that earth is part of the problem. Is the leader or military being tyrannical? Then fire is out of balance. Is the Spanish inquisition forcing conversions? Then water and air are imbalanced. Etc. If problems are arising out of an entity, we can spot it, the powers are separated to be checked and controlled.
My only warning would be things are complex and paradoxical, and overreacting is rarely useful.
How to Balance the Elements?
So firstly, I think James Madison balanced them well for America.
He separated church and state, gave weak power to the executive, and used a bicameral legislator where the house is popular and senate elite. This makes the judicial weak in reach but strong in power when called on, and gives power, right, and liberty to the people, especially when we consider the Constitution Amended with the Bill of Rights and the Virginia Plan).
It is hard to argue with America’s founding philosopher, but let’s present the founding philosopher in general Plato’s theory:
Plato suggests an absolutist state where the order would be, in terms of our metaphor, water and air rule fire and earth. In other words, a state ruled by philosophers in which the state took on the role of parent. This system, where ethics and morals of the high educated are placed first, sounds good on paper. Since that isn’t realistic, Plato goes on to suggest the Republic where the powers are separated, and the law is put first. The Greeks were the first to use a separation of powers, later the Romans did effectively as well.
For me, I truly believe that the ends are more important than the means. The powers must check and balance and remain separate, but the exact balance likely differs by state and is not a fixed thing. Ethics and morals should come first, but not at the expense of order and power, and certainly not at the expense of the economy and people.
I don’t have a perfect theory of how to balance the powers, but I think most of what we need to know can be gleaned from the theory just discussed and past philosophers. We know a Constitutional Mixed Republic is a good start, but the art of balancing powers goes far beyond just the government’s form, many other metrics must be considered (see, that politics can be a science).