Chapters 16-17

The Communication of Power

by Montesquieu Icon

IN a despotic government, the power is communicated entire to the person intrusted with it. The vizir himself is the despotic prince; and each particular officer is the vizir. In monarchies, the power is less immediately applied, being tempered by the monarch as he gives it‡. He makes such a distribution of his authority, as never to communicate a part of it without reserving a greater share to himself.

Hence, in monarchies, the governors of towns are not so dependent on the governor of the province as not to be still more so on the prince; and the private officers of military bodies are not so far subject to their general as not to owe still a greater subjection to their sovereign.

In most monarchies, it has been wisely regulated, that those, who have an extensive command, should not belong to any military corps; so that, as they have no authority but through the prince’s pleasure, and as they may be employed or not, they are in some measure in the service, and in some measure out of it.

This is incompatible with a despotic government. For, if those who are not actually employed were still invested with privileges and titles, the consequence must be, that there would be a kind of men in the state who might be said to be great of themselves; a thing directly opposite to the nature of this government.

Were the governor of a town independent of the bashaw, expedients would be daily necessary to make them agree; which is highly absurd in a despotic state. Besides, if a particular governor might refuse to obey, how could the other answer for his province with his head?

In this kind of government, authority must ever be wavering; nor is that of the lowest magistrate more steady than that of the despotic prince. Under moderate governments, the law is prudent in all its parts, and perfectly well known, so that even the pettiest magistrates are capable of following it. But, in a despotic state, where the prince’s will is the law, though the prince were wise, yet how could the magistrate follow a will he does not know? he must certainly follow his own.

Again, as the law is only the prince’s will, and as the prince can only will what he knows, the consequence is, that there are an infinite number of people who must will for him, and make their wills keep pace with his.

In fine, as the law is the momentary will of the prince, it is necessary that those who will for him should follow his subitaneous manner of willing.

Chapter 17= Presents

IT is a received custom, in despotic countries, never to address any superior whomsoever, not excepting their kings, without making them a present. The Mogul never receives the petitions of his subjects if they come with empty hands. These princes spoil even their own favours.

But thus it must ever be in a government where no man is a citizen; where they have all a notion that a superior is under no obligation to an inferior; where men imagine themselves bound by no other tie than the chastisements inflicted by one party over another; where, in fine, there is very little to do, and where the people have seldom an occasion of presenting themselves before the great, of offering their petitions, and much less their complaints.

In a republic, presents are odious, because virtue stands in no need of them. In monarchies, honour is a much stronger incentive than presents. But, in a despotic government, where there is neither honour nor virtue, people cannot be determined to act but through hope of the conveniences of life.

It is in conformity to republican ideas, that Plato‡ ordered those who received presents for doing their duty to be punished with death. “They must not take presents (says he) neither for good nor for evil actions.”

The Romans had a very bad law which allowed the magistrates to accept of small presents, provided they did not exceed 100 crowns the whole year.

They, who receive nothing, expect nothing. They, who receive a little, soon covet more until at length their desires swell to an exorbitant height.

Besides, it is much easier to convict a man, who knows himself obliged to accept of no present at all, and yet will accept of something, than a person who takes more when he ought to take less, and who always finds pretexts, excuses, and plausible reasons, in justification of his conduct.

Chapter 18: Rewards conferred by the Sovereign

IN despotic governments, the principal motive of action is the hope of the conveniences of life. The prince who confers rewards has nothing to bestow but money.

In monarchies, honour alone predominates. The prince’s rewards would consist only of marks of distinction, if the distinctions established by honour were not attended with luxury, which necessarily brings on its wants. The prince, therefore, is obliged to confer such honours as lead to wealth.

But, in a republic, where virtue reigns, (a motive self-sufficient, and which excludes all others,) the recompences of the state consist only of public attestations of this virtue.

As a general rule, great rewards in monarchies and republics are a sign of their decline because they are a proof=

  • that their principles being corrupted, and
  • that the idea of honour has no longer the same force in monarchy, nor the title of citizen the same weight in a republic.

The very worst Roman emperors were those who were most profuse in their largesses, such as Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Commodus, Heliogabalus, and Caracalla.

The best emperors were Augustus, Vespasian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Pertinax, were also economists. Under good emperors the state resumed its principles; all other treasures were supplied by that of honour.


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