Chapters 6

Greek Institutions and Manners

by Montesquieu Icon

Chapter 6: Some Institutions among the Greeks

THE ancient Greeks were convinced that people who live under a popular government should be trained up to virtue.

And so they made very singular institutions in order to inspire it.

Upon seeing, in the life of Lycurgus, the laws that legislator gave to the Lacedæmonians, I imagine I am reading the history of the Sevarambes.

The laws of Crete were the model of those of Sparta. The laws of Plato reformed them.

Such legislators:

  • struck at the received customs, and
  • confounded all manner of virtues

By doing so, they had such an extensive genius to perceive that they were displaying their wisdom to the universe.

Lycurgus blended:

  • theft with the spirit of justice
  • the hardest servitude with excess of liberty
  • the most rigid sentiments with the greatest moderation

By doing so, he gave stability to his city.

He seemed to deprive her of all resources, such as arts, commerce, money, walls= ambition prevailed among the citizens, without hopes or improving their fortune.

They had natural sentiments without the tie of a son, husband, or father; and chastity was stript even of modesty and shame.

This was the road that led Sparta to grandeur and glory.

So infallible were these institutions, that it signified nothing to gain a victory over that republic, without subverting her polity.*

Crete and Laconia were governed by these laws.

Sparta was the last that fell a prey to the Macedonians, and Crete to the Romans.†

The Samnites had the same institutions, which furnished those very Romans with the subject of four and twenty triumphs.

A character so extraordinary in the institutions of Greece has shewn itself lately in the dregs and corruption of modern times.‡ A very honest legislator has formed a people, to whom probity seems as natural as bravery to the Spartans.

Mr. Penn is a real Lycurgus; and, though the former made peace his principal aim, as the latter did war, yet they resemble one another in the singular way of living to which they reduced their people, in the ascendant they had over free men, in the prejudices they overcame, and in the passions which they subdued.

Another example we have from Paraguay.

This has been the subject of an invidious charge against a society that considers the pleasure of commanding as the only happiness in life= but it will be ever a glorious undertaking to render government subservient to human happiness.§

It is glorious for this society to have been the first in pointing out to those countries the idea of religion joined with that of humanity.

By repairing the devastations of the Spaniards, she has begun to heal one of the most dangerous wounds that the human species ever received.

An exquisite sensibility to whatever she distinguishes by the name of honour, joined to her zeal for a religion which is far more humbling in respect to those who receive than to those who preach its doctrines, has set her upon vast undertakings, which she has accomplished with success.

She has drawn wild people from their woods, secured them a maintenance, and clothed their nakedness; and, had she only, by this step, improved the industry of mankind, it would have been sufficient to eternize her fame.

They, who shall attempt hereafter to introduce the like institutions, must establish the community of goods, as prescribed in Plato’s Republic; that high respect he required for the gods; that separation from strangers, for the preservation of morals; and an extensive commerce, carried on by the community, and not by private citizens. They must give our arts without our luxury, and our wants without our desires.

They must prescribe money, the effect of which is to swell people’s fortunes beyond the bounds prescribed by nature; to learn to preserve for no purpose what has been idly hoarded up; to multiply without end our desires; and to supply the sterility Edition= current; Page= [47] of nature, of whom we have received very scanty means of inflaming our passions and of corrupting each other.

“The Epidamnians†, perceiving their morals depraved by conversing with barbarians, chose a magistrate for making all contracts and sales, in the name and behalf of the city.”

Commerce then does not corrupt the constitution, and the constitution does not deprive the society of the advantages of commerce.

Chapter 7: How these singular Institutions May be Useful

INSTITUTIONS of this kind may be proper in republics, because they have virtue for their principle.

But, to excite men to honour, in monarchies, or to imprint fear, in despotic governments, less pains are necessary.

Besides, they cannot take place but in a small state*, in which there is a possibility of a general education, and of training up the body of the people like a single family.

The laws of Minos, Lycurgus, and Plato suppose a particular attention and care which the citizens should have over one another’s conduct.

But an attention of this kind cannot be expected in the confusion and multitude of affairs in which a large nation is intangled.

In institutions of this kind, money must be banished.

But, in great societies, the multiplicity, variety, embarrassment, and importance, of affairs, as well as the facility of purchasing, and the slowness of exchange, require a common measure.

In order to extend or support our power, we must have the means to annex this power by the unanimous consent of mankind.

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