Chapters 8-9

How the Laws Should be in an Aristocracy

by Montesquieu Icon

IF the people are virtuous in an aristocracy, they enjoy very near the same happiness as in a popular government, and the state grows powerful.

But, as a great share of virtue is very rare where men’s fortunes are so unequal, the laws must tend as much as possible to infuse a spirit of moderation, and endeavour to re-establish that equalit y which was necessarily removed by the constitution.

The spirit of moderation is what we call virtue in an aristocracy; it supplies the place of the spirit of equality i n a popular state.

As the pomp and splendor, with which king s are surrounded, form a part of their power, so modesty and simplicity of manners constitute the strength of an aristocratic nobility*. When they affect no distinction, wh en they mix with the people, dress like them, and with them share all their pleasures, the people are apt to forget their subjection and weakness.

Every government has its nature and princ iple. An aristocracy must not, therefore, assume the nature and principle o f monarchy; which would be the case, were the nobles to be invested with pe rsonal privileges distinct from those of their body. Privileges ought to be for the senate, and simple respect for the senators.

In aristocratical governments, there are two principal sources of disorder= excessive inequality between the governo rs and the governed; and the same inequality between the different members of the body that governs. From these two inequalities hatreds and jealousie s arise, which the laws ought ever to prevent or repress.

The first inequality is, chiefly, when th e privileges of the nobility are honourable only as they are ignominious to the people. Such was the law, at Rome, by which the patricians were forbid den to marry plebeians* a law that had no other effect than to render the patricians, on the one side, more haughty, and, on the other, more odious. The reader may see what advantages the tribunes derived from thence in their harangues.

This inequality occurs, likewise, when th e condition of the citizens differs with regard to taxes= which may happen four different ways; when the nobles assume the privilege of paying none; when they commit frauds to exempt themselves.

When they engross the public money, under pretence of rewards or appointments for their respective employments.

When they render the common people tributary, and divide among their own body the profits arising from the several subsidies. This last case is ver y rare; an aristocracy so instituted would be the most intolerable of all g overnments.

While Rome inclined towards an aristocracy, she avoided all these inconveniences. The magistrates never received any emoluments from their office= the chief men of the republic were taxed lik e the rest, nay, heavier.

Sometimes, the taxes fell upon them alone. In fine, far from sharing among themselves the revenues of the state, all they could draw from the public treasure, and all the wealth that fortune flung into their laps, they bestowed freely on the people, to be excused from ac cepting public honours.

It is a fundamental maxim, that largesses are pernicious to the people in a democracy, but salutary in an aristocrat ical government. The former make them forget they are citizens, the latter bring them to a sense of it.

If the revenues of the state are not dist ributed amongst the people, they must be convinced, at least, of their bein g well administered= to feast their eyes with the public treasure is, with them, the same thing almost as enjoying it. The golden chain displayed at V enice, the riches exhibited at Rome in public triumphs, the treasures prese rved in the temple of Saturn, were, in reality, the wealth of the people.

It is a very essential point, in an arist ocracy, that the nobles themselves should not levy the taxes. The first ord er of the state, in Rome, never concerned themselves with it; the levying o f taxes was committed to the second; and even this, in process of time, was attended with great inconveniences.

In an aristocracy of this kind, where the nobles levied the taxes, the private people would be all at the discret ion of persons in public employments, and there would be no such thing as a superior tribunal to check their power. The members, appointed to remove t he abuses, would rather enjoy them= the nobles would be like the princes of despotic governments, who confiscate whatever estates they please.

Soon would the profits, hence arising, be considered as a patrimony, which avarice would enlarge at pleasure. The fa rms would be lowered, and the public revenues reduced to nothing. This is t he reason that some governments, without having ever received any remarkabl e shock, have dwindled away to such a degree, as not only their neighbours, but even their own subjects, have been surprized at it.

The laws should likewise forbid the noble s all kind of commerce= merchants of such unbounded credit would monopolize all to themselves. Commerce is a profession of people who are upon an equa lity; hence, among despotic states, the most miserable are those in which t he prince applies himself to trade.

The laws of Venice debarE280A1 the nobles from commerce, by which they might, even innocently, acquire exorbitant wealth.

The laws ought to employ the most effectu al means for making the nobles do justice to the people. If they have not e stablished a tribune, they ought to be a tribune themselves.

Every sort of asylum, in opposition to th e execution of the laws, destroys aristocracy, and is soon succeeded by tyr anny.

They ought always to mortify the lust of dominion. There should be either a temporary or perpetual magistrate to kee p the nobles in awe; as the Ephori at Sparta, and the State-Inquistors at V enice, magistrates subject to no formalities. This sort of government stand s in need of the strongest springs= thus a mouth of stoneC2A7 is open to every informer at Ve nice; a mouth to which one would be apt to give the appellation of tyranny.

These arbitrary magistrates in an aristoc racy bear some analogy to the censorship in democracies, which, of its own nature, is equally independent. And, indeed, the censors ought to be subjec t to no enquiry in relation to their conduct during their office; they shou ld meet with a thorough confidence, and never be discouraged. In this respe ct, the practice of the Romans deserved admiration; magistrates of all deno minations were accountable for their administration, except the censors.

There are two very pernicious things in a n aristocracy; excess either of poverty or of wealth in the nobility. To pr event their poverty, it is necessary, above all things, to oblige them to p ay their debts in time. To moderate the excess of wealth, prudent and gradu al regulations should be made; but no confiscations, no agrarian laws, no e xpunging of debts; these are productive of infinite mischief.

The laws ought to abolish the right of pr imogeniture among the noblesThere should be no substitutions, no powe rs of redemption, no rights of majorasgo, or ad option. The contrivances, for perpetuating the grandeur of families, in mon archical governments, ought never to be employed in aristocraciesE280A1.

When the laws have compassed the equality of families, the next thing is to preserve a proper harmony and union amon gst them. The quarrels of the nobility ought to be quickly decided; otherwi se the contests of individuals become those of families. Arbiters may termi nate, or even prevent the rise of, disputes.

The laws must not favour the distinctions raised by vanity among families, under pretence that they are mor e noble or ancient than others. Pretences of this nature ought to be ranked among the weaknesses of private persons.

We have only to cast an eye on Sparta. There we may see how the Ephori contrived to check the foibles of the kings, as well as those of the nobility and common people.


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