Front Page Titles (by Subject) BOOK III.: OF THE PRINCIPLES OF THE THREE KINDS OF GOVERNMENT. - Complete Works, vol. 1 The Spirit of Laws
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BOOK III.: OF THE PRINCIPLES OF THE THREE KINDS OF GOVERNMENT. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 1 The Spirit of Laws 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 1.
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OF THE PRINCIPLES OF THE THREE KINDS OF GOVERNMENT.
Difference between the Nature and Principle of Government.
AFTER having examined the laws relative to the nature of each government, we must investigate those which relate to its principle.
There is this difference between* the nature and principle of government, that the former is that by which it is constituted, and the latter that by which it is made to act. One is its particular structure, and the other the human passions which set it in motion.
Now, laws ought to be no less relative to the principle, than to the nature, of each government. We must therefore enquire into this principle, which shall be the subject of this third book.
Of the Principle of different Governments.
I have already observed, that it is the nature of a republican government, that either the collective body of the people or particular families should be possessed of the supreme power: of a monarchy, that the prince should have this power, but, in the execution of it, should be directed by established laws: of a despotic government, that a single person should rule according to his own will and caprice. This enables me to discover their three principles, which are naturally derived from thence. I shall begin with a republican government, and in particular with that of democracy.
Of the Principle of Democracy.
THERE is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government: the force of laws, in one, and the prince’s arm, in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole: but, in a popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue.
What I have here advanced is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of historians, and is extremely agreeable to the nature of things. For, it is clear, that, in a monarchy, where he, who commands the execution of the laws, generally thinks himself above them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government, where the person, entrusted with the execution of the laws, is sensible of his being subject to their direction.
Clear it is, also, that a monarch, who, through bad advice or indolence, ceases to enforce the execution of the laws, may easily repair the evil; he has only to follow other advice, or to shake off this indolence. But when, in a popular government, there is a suspension of the laws, (as this can proceed only from the corruption of the republic,) the state is certainly undone.
A very droll spectacle it was, in the last century, to behold the impotent efforts of the English towards the establishment of democracy. As they, who had a share in the direction of public affairs, were void of virtue; as their ambition was enflamed by the success of the most daring of their members† ; as the prevailing parties were successively animated by the spirit of faction; the government was continually changing; the people, amazed at so many revolutions, in vain attempted to erect a commonwealth. At length, when the country had undergone the most violent shocks, they were obliged to have recourse to the very government which they had so wantonly proscribed.
When Sylla thought of restoring Rome to her liberty, this unhappy city was incapable of that blessing. She had only the feeble remains of virtue, which were continually diminishing: instead of being roused out of her lethargy by Cæsar, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero, Domitian, she riveted every day her chains; if she struck some blows, her aim was at the tyrant, but not at the usurpation.
The politic Greeks, who lived under a popular government, knew no other support than virtue: the modern inhabitants of that country are entirely taken up with manufacture, commerce, finances, opulence, and luxury.
When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before is become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and, as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, what was a maxim of equity, he calls rigour; what was a rule of action, he stiles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear. Frugality, and not the thirst of gain, now passes for avarice. Formerly, the wealth of individuals constituted the public treasure, but now this is become the patrimony of private persons. The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few and the licentiousness of many.
Athens was possessed of the same number of forces, when she triumphed so gloriously, and when, with so much infamy, she was inslaved. She had twenty thousand citizens§ when she defended the Greeks against the Persians, when she contended for empire with Sparta, and invaded Sicily. She had twenty thousand when Demetrius Phalereus numbered them* , as slaves are told by the head in a market-place. When Philip attempted to lord it over Greece, and appeared at the gates of Athens† , she had even then lost nothing but time. We may see, in Demosthenes, how difficult it was to awake her: she dreaded Philip, not as the enemy of her liberty, but of her pleasures∥ . This famous city, which had withstood so many defeats, and, after having been so often destroyed, had as often risen out of her ashes, was overthrown at Chæronea, and, at one blow, deprived of all hopes of resource. What does it avail her, that Philip sends back her prisoners, if he does not return her men? It was ever after as easy to triumph over the Athenian forces as it had been difficult to subdue her virtue.
How was it possible for Carthage to maintain her ground? When Hannibal, upon his being made prætor, endeavoured to hinder the magistrates from plundering the republic, did not they complain of him to the Romans? Wretches, who would fain be citizens without a city, and beholden for their riches to their very destroyers! Rome soon insisted upon having three hundred of their principal citizens as hostages; she obliged them next to surrender their arms and ships; and then she declared war† . From the desperate efforts of this defenceless city, one may judge of what she might have performed in her full vigour, and assisted by virtue.
Of the Principle of Aristocracy.
AS virtue is necessary in a popular government, it is requisite, also, under an aristocracy. True it is, that, in the latter, it is not so absolutely requisite.
The people, who, in respect to the nobility, are the same as the subjects with regard to a monarch, are restrained by their laws: they have, therefore, less occasion for virtue than the people in a democracy. But how are the nobility to be restrained? They, who are to execute the laws against their colleagues, will immediately perceive they are acting against themselves. Virtue is, therefore, necessary in this body, from the very nature of the constitution.
An aristocratical government has an inherent vigour, unknown to democracy. The nobles form a body, who, by their prerogative, and for their own particular interest, restrain the people; it is sufficient, that there are laws in being, to see them executed.
But, easy as it may be for the body of the nobles to restrain the people, it is difficult to restrain themselves* . Such is the nature of this constitution, that it seems to subject the very same persons to the power of the laws, and, at the same time, to exempt them.
Now, such a body as this can restrain itself only two ways; either by a very eminent virtue, which puts the nobility, in some measure, on a level with the people, and may be the means of forming a great republic; or by an inferior virtue, which puts them, at least, upon a level with one another; and on this their preservation depends.
Moderation is, therefore, the very soul of this government; a moderation, I mean, founded on virtue, not that which proceeds from indolence and pusillanimity.
That Virtue is not the Principle of a monarchical Government.
IN monarchies, policy effects great things with as little virtue as possible. Thus, in the nicest machines, art has reduced the number of movements, springs, and wheels.
The state subsists independently of the love of our country, of the thirst of true glory, of self-denial, of the sacrifice of our dearest interests, and of all those heroic virtues which we admire in the ancients, and to us are known only by story.
The laws supply here the place of those virtues; they are by no means wanted, and the state dispenses with them: an action, performed here in secret, is, in some measure, of no consequence.
Though all crimes be, in their own nature, public, yet there is a distinction between crimes really public and those that are private, which are so called, because they are more injurious to individuals than to the community.
Now, in republics, private crimes are more public; that is, they attack the constitution more than they do individuals: and, in monarchies, public crimes are more private; that is, they are more prejudicial to private people than to the constitution.
I beg that no one will be offended with what I have been saying; my observations are founded on the unanimous testimony of historians. I am not ignorant that virtuous princes are no such very rare instances; but I venture to affirm, that, in a monarchy, it is extremely difficult for the people to be virtuous* .
Let us compare what the historians of all ages have asserted concerning the courts of monarchs; let us recollect the conversations and sentiments of people of all countries in respect to the wretched character of courtiers; and we shall find, that these are not airy speculations, but truths, confirmed by a sad and melancholy experience.
Ambition in idleness, meanness mixed with pride, a desire of riches without industry, aversion to truth, flattery, perfidy, violation of engagements, contempt of civil duties, fear of the prince’s virtue, hope from his weakness, but, above all, a perpetual ridicule cast upon virtue, are, I think, the characteristics by which most courtiers, in all ages and countries, have been constantly distinguished. Now, it is exceeding difficult for the leading men of the nation to be knaves, and the inferior sort to be honest; for the former to be cheats, and the latter to rest satisfied with being only dupes.
But, if there should chance to be some unlucky honest man† among the people, cardinal Richelieu, in his political testament, seems to hint that a prince should take care not to employ him‡ . So true is it, that virtue is not the spring of this government. It is not, indeed, excluded, but it is not the spring of government.
In what Manner Virtue is supplied in a monarchical Government.
BUT it is high time for me to have done with this subject, lest I should be suspected of writing a satire against monarchical government. Far be it from me; if monarchy wants one spring, it is provided with another. Honour, that is, the prejudice of every person and rank, supplieth the place of the political virtue of which I have been speaking, and is every where her representative: here it is capable of inspiring the most glorious actions, and, joined with the force of laws, may lead us to the end of government as well as virtue itself.
Hence, in well-regulated monarchies, they are almost all good subjects, and very few good men; for, to be a good man† , a good intention is necessary* , and we should love our country not so much on our own account as out of regard to the community.
Of the Principle of Monarchy.
A monarchical government supposeth, as we have already observed, pre-eminences and ranks, as likewise a noble descent. Now, since it is the nature of honour to aspire to preferments and titles, it is properly placed in this government.
Ambition is pernicious in a republic; but in a monarchy it has some good effects; it gives life to the government, and is attended with this advantage, that it is no way dangerous, because it may be continually checked.
It is with this kind of government as with the system of the universe, in which there is a power that constantly repels all bodies from the center, and a power of gravitation, that attracts them to it. Honour sets all the parts of the body politic in motion, and, by its very action, connects them; thus each individual advances the public good, while he only thinks of promoting his own interest.
True it is, that, philosophically speaking, it is a false honour which moves all the parts of the government; but even this false honour is as useful to the public as true honour could possibly be to private people.
Is it not a very great point, to oblige men to perform the most difficult actions, such as require an extraordinary exertion of fortitude and resolution, without any other recompence than that of glory and applause?
That Honour is not the Principle of despotic Government.
HONOUR is far from being the principle of despotic government: mankind being here all upon a level, no one person can prefer himself to another; and as, on the other hand, they are all slaves, they can give themselves no sort of preference.
Besides, as honour has its laws and rules; as it knows not how to submit; as it depends, in a great measure, on a man’s own caprice, and not on that of another person; it can be found only in countries in which the constitution is fixed, and where they are governed by settled laws.
How can despotism bear with honour? This glories in the contempt of life, and that is founded in the power of taking it away. How can honour, on the other hand, bear with despotism? The former has its fixed rules and peculiar caprices, but the latter is directed by no rule, and its own caprices are subversive of all others.
Honour, therefore, a thing unknown in arbitrary governments, some of which have not even a proper word to express it* , is the prevailing principle in monarchies; here it gives life to the whole body politic, to the laws, and even to the virtues themselves.
Of the Principle of despotic Government.
AS virtue is necessary in a republic, and, in a monarchy, honour, so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous.
Here, the immense power of the prince is devolved intirely upon those whom he is pleased to intrust with the administration. Persons, capable of setting a value upon themselves, would be likely to create disturbances. Fear must, therefore, depress their spirits, and extinguish even the least sense of ambition.
A moderate government may, whenever it pleases, and without the least danger, relax its springs: it supports itself by the laws and by its own internal strength. But, when a despotic prince ceases one single moment to lift up his arm, when he cannot instantly demolish those whom he has intrusted with the first employments† , all is over: for, as fear, the spring of this government, no longer subsists, the people are left without a protector.
It is probably in this sense the Cadis maintained that the Grand Seignior was not obliged to keep his word or oath, when he limited thereby his authority‡ .
It is necessary that the people should be judged by laws, and the great men by the caprice of the prince; that the lives of the lowest subjects should be safe, and the bashaw’s head ever in danger. We cannot mention these monstrous governments without horror. The Sophi of Persia, dethroned, in our days, by Mahomet, the son of Miriveis, saw the constitution subverted, before this revolution, because he had been too sparing of blood* .
History informs us, that the horrid cruelties of Domitian struck such a terror into the governors, that the people recovered themselves a little under his reign§ . Thus a torrent overflows one side of a country, and, on the other, leaves fields untouched, where the eye is refreshed by the prospect of fine meadows.
Difference of Obedience in moderate and despotic Governments.
IN despotic states, the nature of government requires the most passive obedience; and, when once the prince’s will is made known, it ought infallibly to produce its effect.
Here they have no limitations or restrictions; no mediums, terms, equivalents, or remonstrances; no change to propose: man is a creature that blindly submits to the absolute will of the sovereign.
In a country like this, they are no more allowed to represent their apprehensions of a future danger than to impute their miscarriage to the capriciousness of fortune. Man’s portion here, like that of beasts, is instinct, compliance, and punishment.
Little does it then avail to plead the sentiments of nature, filial respect, conjugal or parental tenderness, the laws of honour, or want of health; the order is given, and that is sufficient.
In Persia, when the king has condemned a person, it is no longer lawful to mention his name or to intercede in his favour. Even if the prince were intoxicated, or non compos, the decree must be executed* ; otherwise he would contradict himself, and the law admits of no contradiction. This has been the way of thinking in that country in all ages: as the order, which Ahasuerus gave, to exterminate the Jews, could not be revoked, they were allowed the liberty of defending themselves.
One thing, however, may be sometimes opposed to the prince’s will§ , namely, religion. They will abandon, nay, they will slay, a parent, if the prince so commands, but he cannot oblige them to drink wine. The laws of religion are of a superior nature, because they bind the sovereign as well as the subject. But, with respect to the law of nature, it is otherwise; the prince is no longer supposed to be a man.
In monarchical and moderate states, the power is limited by its very spring, I mean, by honour, which, like a monarch, reigns over the prince and his people. They will not alledge to their sovereign, the laws of religion; a courtier would be apprehensive of rendering himself ridiculous. But the laws of honour will be appealed to on all occasions. Hence arise the restrictions necessary to obedience: honour is naturally subject to whims, by which the subject’s submission will be ever directed.
Though the manner of obeying be different, in these two kinds of government, the power is the same. On which side soever the monarch turns, he inclines the scale, and is obeyed. The whole difference is, that, in a monarchy, the prince receives instruction, at the same time that his ministers have greater abilities, and are more versed in public affairs, than the ministers of a despotic government.
Reflections on the preceding Chapters.
SUCH are the principles of the three sorts of government: which does not imply, that, in a particular republic, they actually are, but that they ought to be, virtuous: nor does it prove, that, in a particular monarchy, they are actuated by honour; or, in a particular despotic government, by fear; but that they ought to be directed by these principles, otherwise the government is imperfect.
[* ]This is a very important distinction, from whence I shall draw many consequences, for it is the key of an infinite number of laws.
[§ ]Plutarch, Life of Pericles. Plato, in Critia.
[* ]She had, at that time, twenty-one thousand citizens, ten thousand strangers, and four hundred thousand slaves. See Athenæus, book 6.
[† ]She had then twenty thousand citizens. See Demosthenes in Aristog.
[∥ ]They had passed a law which rendered it a capital crime for any one to propose applying the money designed for the theatres to military service.
[† ]This lasted three years.
[* ]Public crimes may be punished, because it is here a common concern; but private crimes will go unpunished, because it is the common interest not to punish them.
[* ]I speak here of political virtue, which is, also, moral virtue, as it is directed to the public good: very little of private moral virtue, and not at all of that virtue wich relates to revealed truths. This will appear better, book V. chap. 2.
[† ]This is to be understood in the sense of the preceding note.
[‡ ]We must not, says he, employ people of mean extraction, they are too rigid and morose.
[† ]This word, good man, is understood here in a political sense only.
[* ]See the note, p. 30.
[* ]See Perry, p 447.
[† ]As it often happens in a military aristocracy.
[‡ ]Ricault on the Ottoman empire.
[* ]See the history of this revolution, by father Ducerceau.
[§ ]His was a military constitution, which is one of the species of despotic government.
[* ]See sir John Chardin.