When Democracy Degenerates (Zwingli)

In 1531 Ulrich Zwingli wrote what is now called “An Exposition of the Faith.” He wrote it to the French court to explain the doctrines he believed – doctrines which the other early Reformers also taught and which were ultimately based on Scripture. One point in this document Zwingli is where basically noted that he and his fellow Reformers were in favor of submitting to government; they weren’t anti-government like the Anabaptists.

One part of this “government” section that I found fascinating was where Zwingli gave a brief explanation of human governments as the Greeks taught: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He doesn’t really weigh in his opinion on these as much as explain them. What he says about democracy is very fascinating and totally relevant today. (Note: I very much appreciate democracy. I don’t have an underlying motive in sharing this quote except to say it is relevant for thought in our American context today. It’s food for thought!)

Finally they [the Greeks] recognize a democracy, which the Latins render by “res publica, republic,” a word of broader meaning than democracy, where affairs, that is, the supreme power, are in the hands of the people in general, the entire people; and all the civil offices, honors, and public functions are in the hands of the whole people. When this form degenerates, the Greeks call it σύστρεμμα ἢ σύστασις, that is, a state of sedition, conspiracy, and disturbance, where no man suffers himself to be held in check, and instead each one, asserting that he is a part and a member of the people, claims the power of the state as his own, and each one follows his own reckless desires. Hence there arise unrestrained conspiracies and factions, followed by bloodshed, plundering, injustice and all the other evils of treason and sedition.

 Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, ed. William John Hinke, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1922), 262.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015