Montesquieu’s Political Writings

Selections from Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness

of the Romans and Their Decline (1734)

“There are general causes, whether moral or physical, which act upon every monarchy, which advance, maintain, or ruin it. All accidents are subject to these causes. If the chance loss of a battle, that is, a particular cause, ruins a state, there is a general cause that created the situation whereby this state could perish by the loss of a single battle. In a word, the principal trend carries along with it the outcome of all particular accidents."

"The Romans arrived at their domination of other peoples, not only by their command of the art of war, but also by their prudence, wisdom, perseverance, by their love of glory and homeland (patrie). After these virtues disappeared under the emperors, the art of war remained. Because of it, the Romans, despite the weakness and tyranny of their rulers, were able to keep what they had acquired earlier. But when corruption made itself felt even in the army, Rome became the prey of all other peoples."

“But underlying the unanimity of Asiatic despotism, that is, every government where power is not checked, there is always a more serious type of division. The tiller of the land, the soldier, the merchant, the magistrate, the noble are related only in the sense that some of them oppress the others without meeting any resistance. If this be union, it can be so not in the sense that citizens are joined to one another, but rather that sense in which corpses are united when buried in a mass grave."

"It is true that a point was reached when the republic could no longer be governed by the laws of Rome. But it has always been the case that those good laws responsible for the expansion of a small republic, turn out to be a burden since it has succeeded in expanding far beyond its former bounds. This occurs because the nature of these original laws was such as to produce a great people, rather than to govern it.”

Charles de Secondat, Baron de las Brede et de Montesquieu (1689–1755)

He is against monarchy. He believed in rule by an aristocracy. He had a feudal conception of liberties inhering in parlements, in which the people had virtual representation by the nobility of the robe and the nobility of the sword. He thought England a model of good government. Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers of this country inferred from his writings that a federation of states could solve the relative problems of bigness and smallness of territory, governed by the state. The Roman republic of Antiquity was a model for the founding fathers and Montesquieu. What he emphasized was that commercial society and democratic forms coincide, thinking of England in particular.

He believed that natural law inhered in human nature and could be scientifically demonstrated, even in the morals and customs of a people as being of necessity and rational. Montesquieu argued against Machiavelli. Force only delegitimizes power in the ruler. There should be a separation of powers to prevent despotism.

History rules by its precedents in universal laws and particular empirical manifestations. We are all citizens of the world, not just of our resident nations. In the end, corruption destroys every res publica, though degeneration through wise legislation can postpone the inevitable decline. Patrie or love of the homeland leads to pietism and good civic virtue to retard decline.

Bigness in government is an issue in that the conquest of territories with allies leads to overextension beyond its economic means to support; hence, empires bankrupt themselves.

History is that of the spirit of a people, not mere laws. History nonetheless is universal because there are precepts of natural law that are ethical, scientific and objective that cross cultural boundaries. There are laws and customs relative to geography, time, ethnicity, et cetera—but the laws of nature are general and bind nations together in humanity. Natural law supersedes positivist or secular laws, in which there is a synthesis of general and particular. This dialectic emerged in Hegel’s writings.

The parlements were juridical in character and the offices served the people. Religion is the binding force that brings people to recognize a sovereign. His religiosity as a virtue is Deistic in nature.

In the Roman republic, mercenary armies led by ambitious generals developed loyalty of their soldiers to themselves. The love of equality led to Rome’s demise. Citizenship becomes a fiction when there were no longer common mores. Assemblies became conspiracies in which there was sedition and anarchy. He found divisiveness productive of civic virtue. It had causation. In the end, Rome fell because of its excessive size. The auxiliaries fighting for Rome turned against it.

Others learned the art of war that had been the exclusive virtue of Rome. Rome co-opted territories and barbarian tribes who later evolved because they mastered the martial arts and poverty motivated them to excel. Hence, the form of government in Rome changed to dictators who could not maintain the authority and legitimacy of the government. Taxes, burgeoning as the state weakened, became intolerable to the people.

Even chance is ruled by maxims found in a people’s virtues and oss thereof. Group conflict had causation that undermined the public safety and interests. The “general spirit” of the society underwent decay.

Montesquieu downplayed the role of heroes. Too, he detested balance of power politics or Realpolitik.

He believed in a strong civil society, the rights to property, and agroscience to maximize individual liberties.

In history he emphasized corruption, not the inevitability of progress peculiar to Enlightenment reason.

Rome had a policy of divide and conquer, seize territories of neighbors; practice deception in diplomacy by noble lies, use allies to fight and pay tribute, and lastly master martial arts through science.

The two feuding factions were the patricians in the senate and the plebeians with their tribunes; the latter called for meritocracy and the recall from public service of the incompetent. The magistrates of the plebeians turned on the patricians. The censors from the people regulated the mores of society to create standards of public morality. Too, plebeians and patricians defended traditions with their gods. The plebeians curtailed the abuse of power by maintaining the spirit of the people, the senate’s force, and the authority of the magistrates.

Montesquieu found his ultimate ideal modeled in the England of his time in which checks and balances within governments corrected errors in policy. Its unwritten constitution, the oldest in the world, balanced conflicting interests in civil society to maintain the liberties of the people and vigor of intellect, demonstrated in contemporary mastery of the martial arts.

Natural law provided the standard of reason, while relative positive laws had different manifestations across culture. He was free of racism. Much was geographically determined insofar as he thought size dictated the nature of government. The bigger the territory, the more absolutist in character.

Montesquieu’s Political Philosophy in The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

Religion, mores, and patriotism (patrie) form the trinity of values inherent in a political culture that constitute its spirit (Geist). When those values are absent, there is only fear, and Asiatic despotism is the invariable result. Russia, China, Turkey, and Persia are his primary examples.

He believed in direct democracy if democracy were possible in a republican form. However, his decided class preference was for rule by the excellent or aristocracy. He did concede that there could be a confederation of republics that would result in a country of great size—and democratic at that. That influenced the thinking of James Madison when he wrote the Federalist Papers.

Montesquieu advocated natural laws as inherent in the state of nature. Convenience for the sake of commercial life brought men together in civil society and they then wrote a social contract. Men are amiable in Montesquieu’s scheme of things. Positive law, historically circumscribed in statutory law, gave the universality of natural law its particular dimensions. There was always ambiguity in the struggle between natural and positive law. For instance, natural law condemned slavery; positive law institutionalized it. He could never resolve that dilemma.

The three forms of government, democracy (patrie—love of nation), aristocracy (arête—excellence) and monarchy (virtu—heroism’), formed the three normative states acceptable to Montesquieu—with their underlying principles governing national behaviors; the opposite was Asiatic despotism in the person of the tyrant, where fear and violence ruled over a people in a vast land that was essentially ungovernable.

“Power must check power,” said Montesquieu, to stabilize and institutionalize a rationally organized state. Madison said that “Ambition must check ambition” in the Federalist Papers. Montesquieu influenced the American Revolution with his ideas of the separation of power and checks and balances in a mixed constitution because he took his model from the King and Parliament in Great Britain.

Montesquieu admired the direct democracy of Athens more than the representative democracy of England because of the massive corruption in the latter’s government and electoral process.

The spirit of the laws is affected by climate, terrain, the general spirit of the people (their virtus), mores (their internal belief systems, attitudes, and values), and manners (externally manifested civility in the public sphere). Each country is unique and that determines their national psyche.

Montesquieu was a defender of the older military and legal nobility of the French Parlement because he thought they best embodied excellence in qualities of leadership. He defended this class against the monarchy and its agents. There were intermediary bodies in France that he thought were indispensable to political liberty: parlements in the provinces; the nobility; local courts; the church; provincial government; towns; guilds; and professional associations. They would balance one another against possible oppression from the central government and its administration to serve as a barrier against despotism. That political tension defined the onset of the French Revolution, when Louis XVI convened the ancien régime’s Parlement (to raise new taxes) that had long been in disuse with its Estates General (the three orders of clergy, nobility, and bourgeoisie). The Revolution started as a revolt by the nobility against taxation and ended as a middle-class revolt against the whole monarchical form of government, with the idea of creating a universal man motivated by liberty, equality, and fraternity. By the end of the nineteenth century, republican government prevailed (a belated victory for the Jacobin radicals).