Chapter 3-5

The laws of an Aristocracy, Monarchy, Despotism

September 29, 2015 by Montesquieu

Chapter 3: The laws of an Aristocracy, Monarchy, Despotism

In an aristocracy the supreme power is lodged in the hands of a certain number of persons.

  • These are invested both with the legislative and executive authority.
  • The rest of the people are, in respect to them, the same as the subjects of a monarchy in regard to the sovereign.

They do not vote here by lot; for this would be productive of inconveniencies only.

  • In a government where the most mortifying distinctions are already established, though they were to be chosen by lot, still they would not cease to be odious=
  • it is the nobleman they envy, and not the magistrate.

When the nobility are numerous, there must be a senate to regulate the affairs which the body of nobles are incapable of deciding, and to prepare others for their decision.

  • In this case it may be said, that the aristocracy is in some measure in the senate, the democracy in the body of the nobles, and the people are a cypher.
  • It would be a very happy thing, in an aristocracy, if the people, in some measure, could be raised from their state of annihilation. Thus, at Genoa, the bank of St. George being administered by the people* gives them a certain influence in the government, from whence their whole prosperity is derived.

The senators ought by no means to have a right of naming their own members; for this would be the only way to perpetuate abuses. At Rome, which in its early years was a kind of aristocracy, the senate did not fill up the vacant places in their own body= the new members were nominated by the* censors.

In a republic, the sudden rise of a private citizen to exorbitant power produces monarchy, or something more than monarchy. In the latter, the laws have provided for, or in some measure adapted themselves to, the constitution; and the principle of government checks the monarch= but, in a republic, where a private citizen has obtained an exorbitant power,† the abuse of this power is much greater, because the laws foresaw it not, and consequently made no provision against it.

There is an exception to this rule, when the constitution is such as to have immediate need of a magistrate invested with an exorbitant power.

Such was Rome with her dictators; such is Venice with her state-inquisitors= these are formidable magistrates, who restore, as it were by violence, the state to its liberty. But how comes it that these magistracies are so very different in these two republics?

It is because Rome supported the remains of her aristocracy against the people; whereas Venice employs her state-inquisitors to maintain her aristocracy against the nobles. The consequence was, that at Rome the dictatorship could be only of a short duration, as the people act through passion, and not with design. It was necessary that a magistracy of this kind should be exercised with lustre and pomp; the business being to intimidate, and not to punish, the multitude.

It was also proper that the dictator should be created only for some particular affair, and for this only should have an unlimited authority, as he was always created upon some sudden emergency. On the contrary, at Venice they have occasion for a permanent magistracy; for here it is that schemes may be set on foot, continued, suspended, and resumed; that the ambition of a single person becomes that of a family, and the ambition of one family that of many.

They have occasion for a secret magistracy, the crimes they punish being hatched in secrecy and silence. This magistracy must have a general inquisition; for their business is not to remedy known disorders, but to prevent the unknown.

In a word, the latter is designed to punish suspected crimes; whereas the former used rather menaces than punishment, even for crimes that were openly avowed.

In all magistracies the greatness of the power must be compensated by the brevity of the duration. This most legislators have fixed to a year= a longer space would be dangerous, and a shorter would be contrary to the nature of government; for who is it that, in the management even of his domestic affairs, would be thus confined? At Ragusa* the chief magistrate of the republic is changed every month, the other officers every week, and the governor of the castle every day. But this can take place only in a small republic environed† by formidable powers, who might easily corrupt such petty and insignificant magistrates.

The best aristocracy is that in which those who have no share in the legislature are so few and inconsiderable, that the governing party have no interest in oppressing them. Thus, when‡ Antipater made a law at Athens, that whosoever was not worth Edition= current; Page= [19] two thousand drachms should have no power to vote, he formed, by this method, the best aristocracy possible; because this was so small a sum, as excluded very few, and not one of any rank or consideration in the city.

Aristocratical families ought, therefore, as much as possible, to level themselves, in appearance, with the people. The more an aristocracy borders on democracy, the nearer it approaches to perfection; and, in proportion as it draws towards monarchy, the more it is imperfect.

But the most imperfect of all is that in which the part of the people that obeys is in a state of civil servitude to those who command; as the aristocracy of Poland, where the peasants are slaves to the nobility.

Chapter 4= The Relation of Laws to the Nature of monarchical Government

THE intermediate, subordinate, and dependent powers constitute the nature of monarchical government; I mean of that in which a single person governs by fundamental laws. I said, the intermediate, subordinate, and dependent powers= and indeed,

In monarchies, the prince is the source of all power, political and civil.

These fundamental laws necessarily suppose the intermediate channels through which the power flows; for, if there be only the momentary and capricious will of a single person to govern the state, nothing can be fixed, and of course there is no fundamental law.

The nobility is=

  • the most natural intermediate and subordinate power
  • essential to a monarchy.

Its fundamental maxim is, No monarch, no nobility; no nobility, no monarch= but there may be a despotic prince.

Some people have tried to suppress the nobility’s jurisdiction in some countries in Europe. They did not perceive that they were driving at the very thing that was done by the parliament of England.

Abolish the privileges of the lords, the clergy, and cities in a monarchy and you will soon have either=

  • a popular state, or
  • a despotic government.

The courts of a considerable kingdom in Europe have, for many ages, been striking at the patrimonial jurisdiction of the lords and clergy. We do not pretend to censure these sage magistrates; but we leave it to the public to judge how far this may alter the constitution.

I hope that the privileges of the clergy be fixed. The question is not, whether their jurisdiction was justly established; but, whether it be really established; whether it constitutes a part of the laws of the country, and is in every respect relative to those laws; whether, between two powers acknowledged independent, the conditions ought not to be reciprocal; and whether it be not equally the duty of a good subject to defend the prerogative of the prince, and to maintain the limits which from time immemorial he has prescribed to his authority.

The ecclesiastic power is so dangerous in a republic. Yet it is extremely proper in a monarchy, especially the absolute kind. The Church was the only barrier against arbitrary power in Spain and Portugal, since the subversion of their laws.

The ocean’s waves are stopped by weeds and pebbles that lie scattered along the shore. Likewise, the power of monarchs is restrained by the smallest obstacles and their natural pride is subdued by supplication and prayer.

The English, to favour their liberty, have abolished all the intermediate powers of which their monarchy was composed. They have a great deal of reason to be jealous of this liberty= were they ever to be so unhappy as to lose it, they would be one of the most servile nations upon earth.

Mr. Law, through ignorance both of a republican and monarchical constitution, was one of the greatest promoters of absolute power in Europe. Besides the violent and extraordinary changes owing to his direction, he would fain suppress all the intermediate ranks, and abolish the political communities.

He was dissolving* the monarchy by his chimerical reimbursements, and seemed as if he even wanted to redeem the constitution.

It is not enough to have intermediate powers in a monarchy. There must be also a depositary of the laws. This depositary can only be the judges of the supreme courts of justice, who promulge the new laws, and revive the obsolete.

The natural ignorance of the nobility, their indolence, and contempt of civil government, require there should be a body invested with a power of reviving and executing the laws, which would be otherwise buried in oblivion.

The prince’s council are not a proper depositary. They are naturally the depositary of the momentary will of the prince, and not of the fundamental laws. Besides, the prince’s council is continually changing. It is neither permanent nor numerous; neither has it a sufficient share of the confidence of the people; consequently it is incapable to set them right in difficult conjunctures, or to reduce them to proper obedience.

Despotic governments, where there are no fundamental laws, have no such kind of depositary. Hence, religion generally has so much influence in those countries, because it forms a kind of permanent depositary. If this cannot be said of religion, it may of the customs that are respected instead of laws.

Chapter 5= The Laws relative to the Nature of a despotic Government

FROM the nature of despotic power it follows, that the single person, invested with this power, commits the execution of it also to a single person.

A man, whom his senses continually inform that he himself is every thing, and his subjects nothing, is naturally lazy, voluptuous, and ignorant.

In consequence of this, he neglects the management of public affairs.

But, were he to commit the administration to many, there would be continual disputes among them; each would form intrigues to be his first slave, and he would be obliged to take the reins into his own hands.

It is, therefore, more natural for him to resign it to a vizir,* and to invest him with the same power as himself. The creation of a vizir is a fundamental law of this government.

It is related of a pope, that he had started an infinite number of difficulties against his election, from a thorough conviction of his incapacity.

At length he was prevailed on to accept of the pontificate, and resigned the administration entirely to his nephew.

He was soon struck with surprize, and said, “I should never have thought that these things were so easy.”

The same may be said of the princes of the East, who, being educated in a prison, where eunuchs corrupt their hearts and debase their understandings, and where they are frequently kept ignorant of their high rank, when drawn forth in order to be placed on the throne, they are at first confounded; but, as soon as they have chosen a vizir, and abandoned themselves in their seraglio to the most brutal passions, pursuing, in the midst of a prostituted court, every capricious extravagance, they could never have dreamt to find matters so easy.

The more extensive the empire, the larger the seraglio; and consequently the more voluptuous the prince. Hence the more nations such a sovereign has to rule, the less he attends to the cares of government; the more important his affairs, the less he makes them the subject of his deliberations.