Liberty Matters

Montesquieu, Modern Republicanism, and Sumptuary Laws

The Greek statesmen & political writers [politiques] who lived under popular government knew of no force able to sustain them other than virtue. Those of today speak only of manufactures, of commerce, of finance, of wealth, & of luxury itself.—Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1.3.3).[23]
In his engaging sketch of the history of sumptuary laws, Henry C. Clark rightly draws attention to the seminal analysis of this subject found in the seventh book of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws. In the seventh, as in the fifth, book of that work, the French philosophe treats the relations that exist between legislation and the various forms of government that he makes the focus of attention in the eight books constituting the first part of his great tome – to wit, republicanism, monarchy, and despotism. It is his contention that each of these forms of government is distinguished not only by its structure but also by its “principle” – which is to say, by the “human passions that set it in motion” and sustain it.
If, according to Montesquieu, republics – especially, democratic republics – require sumptuary laws (1.7.1-2), it is because the passion that set in motion polities such as classical Sparta and early Republican Rome was a species of virtue grounded in a “love of the laws & the fatherland,” which demanded “a continual preference for the public interest over one’s own.” This in turn required an emphasis on equality, which Montesquieu describes as “the soul” of the democratic state. “In a democracy,” he explains, “the love of equality restricts ambition to a single desire, to the sole happiness of rendering to the fatherland greater services than the other citizens.” To produce this love, to so restrict the scope of ambition, and to inspire in the citizens of a republic the requisite spirit of self-renunciation, one must deploy “the complete power of education” and instill in the citizens a “love of frugality that restricts the desire to possess” to what a family actually needs (1.4.5, 5.3-7). Sumptuary laws are needed to reinforce this propensity, for “to people who are allowed nothing but what is necessary, there is nothing left to desire but the glory of the fatherland and the glory that is their own” (1.7.2).
If, on the other hand, in Montesquieu’s estimation, sumptuary laws have no proper place within a monarchy (1.7.4), it is because there
policy makes great things happen with as little of virtue as it can, just as in the most beautiful machines, art also employs as little of movement, of forces, of wheels as is possible. The state subsists independently of love of the fatherland, of desire for true glory, of self-renunciation, of the sacrifice of one’s dearest interests, & of all those heroic virtues which we find in the ancients & know only from hearing them spoken of.
If virtue can be discarded, it is because in a monarchy “the laws take the place of all these virtues, for which there is no need; the state confers on you a dispensation from them” (1.3.5). If monarchy can nonetheless produce good government, it is because in it honor “takes the place of the political virtue” found in republics (1.3.6).
The honor that Montesquieu has in mind is an artifact: it is a “false honor,” more consonant with “vanity” than with “pride.” It is grounded neither in merit nor in public-spiritedness, but in “the prejudice of each person & condition,” and it demands artificial “preferences & distinctions” of the sort luxurious display makes visible and palpable (1.3.6–7, 5.19, 2.19.9, 5.24.6). The consequences of this all-pervasive “prejudice” are paradoxical but undeniable. “In well-regulated monarchies,” Montesquieu contends, “everyone will be something like a good citizen while one will rarely find someone who is a good man” (1.3.6). Monarchy he compares to Newton’s “system of the universe, where there is a force which ceaselessly repels all bodies from the center & a force of gravity which draws them to it. Honor makes all the parts of the body politic move; it binds them by its own actions; & it happens that each pursues the common good while believing that he is pursuing his own particular interests” (1.3.7). In Montesquieu’s opinion, monarchies are ruled by something like what Adam Smith would later call the “invisible hand.”
There is, as Professor Clark points out, a second species of republic – in which there is no need for sumptuary laws. “It is true,” Montesquieu concedes in a brief digression, “that when democracy is based on commerce, it can very easily happen that particular individuals have great wealth & that the mores there are not corrupted.” This odd and unforeseen result comes about, he explains, because “the spirit of commerce” quite often “carries with it a spirit of frugality, economy, moderation, industry, wisdom, tranquillity, orderliness, & regularity [règle]. In this fashion, as long as this spirit subsists, the wealth that it produces has no bad effect. The evil arrives when an excess of wealth destroys this spirit of commerce; suddenly one sees born the disorders of inequality, which had not yet made themselves felt” (1.5.6).
Montesquieu suggests that within such a republic one can best sustain “the spirit of commerce” if one makes arrangements to insure that “the principal citizens engage in commerce themselves,” and he tellingly indicates that this works best where “this spirit reigns alone & is crossed by no other,” where “the laws favor it,” where “the same laws, by their dispositions, divide fortunes in proportion to their increase through commerce & thereby place each poor citizen in a condition of ease sufficient that he can work as others do & each rich citizen in a condition of mediocrity sufficient [dans une telle médiocrité] that he has need of work if he is to preserve what he has or acquire more.” In “a commercial republic,” Montesquieu concludes, the statute which “gives to all children an equal proportion in succession to their fathers” is “a very good law.” Where partitive inheritance is the norm, it makes no difference “what fortune the father has made,” since “his children, always less rich than he was” at the time of his death, “will be induced to flee luxury & to work as he did” (1.5.6).
Montesquieu does not dwell on this option in the first part of The Spirit of Laws, and in the pertinent passage he mentions no example apart from Athens. Later, however, in the 20th book within the fourth part of that work, he once again mentions the “republic based on commerce,” and he lists as examples Tyre, Carthage, Corinth, Marseilles, Rhodes, Florence, Venice, and Holland but not Athens (4.20.4-6, 17). Moreover, in the 21st book, although he describes Athens as a “commercial nation,” he quickly concedes that the Athenians succumbed to the spirit of war and aggrandizement: as he puts it, they were “more attentive to extending their maritime empire than to using it.” Athens was, in fact, so “full of projects for glory” that she never “achieved the great commerce promised by the working of her mines, the multitude of her slaves, the number of her sailors, her authority over the Greek towns, &, more than all this, the fine institutions of Solon.” In effect, she sacrificed economic to political and imperial concerns (4.21.7).
The polity that fulfills Athens’s potential is England (4.21.7), which Montesquieu describes as “a republic concealed under the form of a monarchy” (1.5.19). Of the English he wrote, “This is the people in the world, who have known best how to take advantage of these three great things at the same time: religion, commerce, & liberty” (4.20.7). And, though he discusses at great length the English form of government and the mores, manners, and practices to which it gives rise (2.11.6, 3.19.27), nowhere does he attribute to the English sumptuary laws.
The English example should give us pause – for if England is the very model of a modern democracy based on commerce, that which Montesquieu has to say concerning the English, and democracies based on commerce more generally, might well be pertinent to every modern commercial republic – none of which have sumptuary laws. It is good to remember that Montesquieu concludes his initial digression on the subject with the following warning: “The evil arrives when an excess of wealth destroys this spirit of commerce; suddenly one sees born the disorders of inequality, which had not yet made themselves felt” (1.5.6). We in the western democracies live in a time of unprecedented wealth and prosperity, but I do not think that it can be said that, in the last half-century, we have habitually exhibited “a spirit of frugality, economy, moderation, industry, wisdom, tranquillity, orderliness, & regularity.” If anything, ours is a time of unprecedented extravagance, self-indulgence, and decay in which public-spiritedness, sobriety, and the qualities of character that brought us unprecedented wealth are on the wane. What happens when commercial society and the operations of the market have been so successful in promoting prosperity that they are no longer efficacious in producing the bourgeois virtues?
[23.] All of the interlinear notes refer to Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, De l’Esprit des lois, in Œuvres complètes de Montesquieu,, ed. Roger Caillois (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1949–51), which I cite by part, book, and chapter. All translations are my own. Online at< /titles/montesquieu-complete-works-4-vols-1777>. The 7th Book: BOOK VII.: CONSEQUENCES OF THE DIFFERENT PRINCIPLES OF THE THREE GOVERNMENTS, WITH RESPECT TO SUMPTUARY LAWS, LUXURY, AND THE CONDITION OF WOMEN. </titles/837#lf0171-01_label_613>.