Separation of Powers Metaphor

The Elements of Government and the Spirit of the Laws

A Theory of Government Concerning the Elements of Government and the Separation of Powers

The four “elements” (or “powers”) that form the foundation of government can roughly be expressed as: citizens, executive, legislative, and judicial.[1][2]

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 aspects of classical element theory (as symbolized by Eastern Philosophy, Western Astrology and the Tarot) to tie it together.

A Summary of the Metaphor – A Metaphor for Naturally Occurring Social Classes in an Ideal State

First, for our metaphor, if we consider there to be four spheres of human understandingphysical (empirical, what is, nature, physis), logical (reason, logic-and-ethics in-thought, logos), ethical (ethics-and-morals in-action, ethos), and metaphysical (pure philosophy, morals, the spirit behind emotions, what should be, what might be, pathos) then we can say each of our elements directly relates to one sphere.

Here this metaphor works nicely as a basis in this way: Physics is what is, ethics is all action, logic is all thought, and metaphysics is all that is hidden (often expressed as “the soul” or “morals” or even just “emotion”; the emotion that isn’t pure energy or physical sensual reaction to stimulus). In the way that these relate, so to do the spheres below. There are no perfect words to express this, but the model below generally does the concept justice.

From there we can place important attributes related to governments in each sphere, giving us a rather complete and workable model that respects classical western philosophy (Plato and Kant specifically).

The metaphor can be expressed in its simple form like this:

  • Power (Fire: honor, will, passion, aggression, and action; pure energy, the aspect of ethics-in-action we call “duty”, AND the purely energetic core of physics; it is “the underlying force”; it is everything but pure metaphysical philosophy): The executive including leaders, the military, and police. Plato’s Auxiliaries. The Aristocracy and Timocracy (Kings, their Aristocracy, and Military). The ID.
  • Economy [of capital and labor] (Earth: all the physical from the sensual to all the tangible; incentive based; empirical, physics as it manifests): The citizens, politicians, and barons. Plato’s Producers and Luxury Class. Democracy and Oligarchy (Barons and Citizens). The Ego. TIP: One uses the other spheres to effect this empirical sphere, we can only truly known (in a Humean sort of way) what we can sense, thus this sphere is key (otherwise we would be only discussing pure action, pure thought, and pure morals (Earth is the cave wall and all the tangible).
  • Reason and Ethics-in-thought (Air: the mental; pure reason; ethics-and-morals in-thoughtlogic): The legislative, scholars, scientists, lawyers, and general intelligence. Plato’s Philosophers (also academics and teachers; the teachers and students of philosophy). The Technocracy (Intellectual aristocracy). The intellectual part of the Super-ego.
  • Spirituality and Morality (Water: the intangible and passive; faith and emotion; the metaphysical, metaphysics): The judicial, judges, and the church. Plato’s Artist class and (if he weren’t such a heathen) the Philosopher/Church class (in other words, the part of philosophy that dabbles with pure metaphysics and theology). The Theocracy (Churches; the moral aristocracy). The moral part of the Super-ego. TIP: This is the most ethereal by its nature.

TIP: If we consider left and right politics, than 1. each sphere has a left and right generally and 2. in terms of western astrology and our theory of left and right as naturally occurring, earth and water are left (they have traditionally feminine qualities) and air and fire are right (they have masculine qualities).

TIP: Another way to say this is “fire” is the core energy that creates what is, “earth” is what is, air is directing the will toward what ought to be, and water is the metaphysical principles which direct things. See Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals for a metaphor (the books starts off with this in the preface). The theory can then be drawn up as a model like the one below.

A model showing logic, physics, ethics, and metaphysics as “spheres of human understanding”.

TIP: Plato, Freud, Western Astrology, Kant, Locke, Montesquieu, whatever. We can take any excellent and true social theory and place it in the model above like they were made to go together… which is the point (we all see the same shadows on the wall, so a properly constructed container will always hold the forms no matter who detects them and what names they are given). This is a good theory because it clearly shows how to balance naturally occurring forces that manifest as everything from types of people to political parties.

NOTE: A “philosopher king” knows all the forms, just as the Tarot’s Fool does, there is no one element to place these overarching archetypes who know all the archetypes in… but if we have to choose, air and water are good choices (as they are higher order super-ego, human, chariot driver, pick your metaphor). That said, Tarot places the Magician and Fool in air, as they do Justice, this hints that air specifically is the right chioce. Also note, citizens and producers are well placed in earth, but citizens like the fool can be of any element. Lastly, because the ultimate idea is balance, we can generally say most people have “mixed” ideologies (like it is with vice and virtue, left-right, PC, and liberal and conservative; the answer is balance… and as the Tarot says, Temperance). Western astrology also says this, and is related to all the above, as one can begin to glean from the following model. Note that “pure philosophy” (what I call ethics in-action) is placed in Sagittarius, fire. Is any single theory “perfect”, probably not… but they are all generally pointing to the same thing (the nature of the human condition AKA why Astrology and Tarot work for cold reading, as we are all human and have the same general condition).

Astrological wheel with definitions

This astrological wheel shows the signs, houses, elements (by color), and modes.

Notes on the Above Theory

In Plato’s Republic he seeks to define the perfect city-state; the idea being a balance between the classes, fostered by the government, as a metaphor for the soul. This metaphor is no different, in fact it is very much directly related.

Plato tries to divide in three, we divide in four in the tradition of western astrology.

So where Plato might combine air and water as philosophy, we separate these “higher-order” aspects into a [metaphorically speaking] male (air) and female (water) forms. And, where Plato separates his auxiliary and producer class (his lower-order classes), we do too, but we say male (fire) and female (earth).

We are talking about the same things, the same virtues and vices, the same balance, the same archetypes, but we are using different (or sometimes just additional) terms and symbols.

When in Tarot we find the Chariot card or Justice card, we should understand them as Plato understood them in his Chariot metaphor or answer to the question “what is justice”. When we look to the astrological markings on those cards, we can confirm that we are all using the same set of symbols to describe the same human condition. Lots of changed between 360 BC and today, but the human condition hasn’t, and thus the metaphor still works.

No theory is perfect… but all my experience and reading tells me the above is generally correct.

The goal is to create a model that shows an “ideal mixed government, with a separation of powers, which respects liberty and equality, respects the feminine and masculine, the weak and strong, the charming and off-putting, the ambitious and pious, the rich and poor, the talented and talentless, and is ruled by law allowing each to be part of the lot best suited to them to ensure the greatest happiness and the most justice.

Imagine a world in which the earth class expected all other classes to be earth, how insane to push one’s values on another like this, that isn’t liberty and will only cause alienation!

Of course, this naturally occurring social system will manifest regardless of our actions, because all things seek balance and arise naturally. If one class tries to take over by force, nature herself will undo them (metaphorically speaking), meanwhile, by respecting the virtues of each class, we help to ensure balance.

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 Kallipolis

As noted above, Plato’s theory of the perfect Kallipolis (the perfect state) from his Republic is very similar to our model.

Plato’s theory consists of three orders: rulers (corresponding to reason and wisdom), 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 is applicable to the real 2017 Governments.[3][4]

Of course, the problem in our time is the same as Plato’s, there is no clear evidence that people care, and if they did the theory is a matter of principle over clear actionable advice.

That said, everyone loves a good astrological reading as much as they respect the Constitution or Plato, and thus we can see the wisdom of mashing these theories together.

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; or at least, more details)

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, Timoarchy, 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 morality 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.[5]

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).

Article Citations
  1. Classical Elements
  2. Separation of Powers and Checks and balances
  3. Plato
  4. Plato’s Republic
  5. Plato

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind,,, and other and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

Leave a comment

We'll never share your email with anyone else.

10 From displacement to absence of displacement, another view on myth and metaphor underlines the existence of an analogy. Indeed, both processes tend to force a resemblance between two domains, two stories. The power of myth like the power of metaphor lies in the attempt to connect two distant elements. If Aristotle was the first to mention the analogical dimension in metaphor, many have stressed such an analogy: “ A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them” (