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The idea of evolution and its impact on Western political and legal theory in antiquity

Rigby, H.J.R. (2012) The idea of evolution and its impact on Western political and legal theory in antiquity. The Western Australian Jurist, 3 . pp. 127-166.

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The term ‘evolution’ is defined as a process of change and development over time, typically tending towards greater complexity (although not necessarily greater improvement) and one that is unidirectional and non-cyclical. Nevertheless, the idea of evolution as conceived throughout western history has not always comported with this definition, with evolution often being understood teleologically as destined for some clear end, be it total perfection or total destruction, depending on one’s worldview or wishes. Heraclitus’ notion of constant change or ‘flux’, although a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the definition of evolution planted the seed of the idea of evolution in western thought. Plato, like Heraclitus, saw all social change as degeneration and decay from a past Golden Age, but, unlike Heraclitus, did not view such change as merely governed by fate, but rather capable of being controlled and ultimately arrested once the ideal state, ‘the Republic’, was realised. Apart from his Republic being a template for totalitarians attracted to distorted (often racist) ideas of evolution, Plato’s greatest influence on the western idea of evolution was, arguably, the desire to arrest it, primarily to recapture a privileged past, thus making him the ‘Godfather of western conservative elitism’. Like Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s final cause doctrine has also influenced totalitarians and their teleological ideas of evolution, while the Epicureans, Stoics, and Sceptics of Ancient Greece have variously influenced social, political and legal evolutionary thought in the attitudes they espouse rather than any actual ideas (although Epicurus could be credited with one of the world’s first social evolution theories). Finally, in ancient Rome, the first real western jurisprudence emerged and apart from some prototype social contract theories, the idea of evolution was not much in evidence in this era, although of course the Roman legal system itself was in fact a striking example of an evolving legal system that has since inspired and formed the basis of western jurisprudence.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Law
Publisher: Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), School of Law, Murdoch University
Copyright: The author
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