Of the Principles of the Three Kinds of Government
1. Difference between the Nature and Principle of
Government. Having examined the laws in relation to the nature of each
government, we must investigate those which relate to its principle.
There is this difference between the nature and principle1
of government, that the former is that by which it is constituted, 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 no less to relate to the principle than to the nature of
each government. We must, therefore, inquire into this principle, which
shall be the subject of this third book.
2. 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 thence naturally derived. I shall begin
with a republican government, and in particular with that of democracy.
3. 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 is it 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
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 inffamed by the success of the most daring of their
members;2 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 receiving that blessing. She had only the feeble remains
of virtue, which were continually diminishing. Instead of being roused
from her lethargy by Cæsar, Tiberius, Caius Claudius, Nero, and
Domitian, she riveted every day her chains; if she struck some blows, her
aim was at the tyrant, not at the tyranny.
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 has
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, that which was a maxim of
equity he calls rigour; that which was a rule of action he styles
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 has 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
licence of many.
Athens was possessed of the same number of forces when she triumphed so
gloriously as when with such infamy she was enslaved. She had twenty
thousand citizens3 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 them4 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 Athens5
she had even then lost nothing but time. We may see in Demosthenes how
difficult it was to awaken her; she dreaded Philip, not as the enemy of
her liberty, but of her pleasures.6
This famous city, which had withstood so many defeats, and 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 forces of Athens 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 be 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.7
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.
4. Of the Principle of Aristocracy. As virtue
is necessary in a popular government, it is requisite also in an
aristocracy. True it is that in the latter it is not so absolutely
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 that they are acting
against themselves. Virtue is therefore necessary in this body, from the
very nature of the constitution.
An aristocratic 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.8
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
Now such a body as this can restrain itself only in 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 upon 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
5. 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 tradition.
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
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 so very rare; but I venture to
affirm that in a monarchy it is extremely difficult for the people to be
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 exceedingly
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 man10
among the people. Cardinal Richelieu, in his political testament, seems to
hint that a prince should take care not to employ him.11
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.
6. 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, supplies the place of the political virtue of which I
have been speaking, and is everywhere 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 man12
a good intention is necessary,13
and we should love our country, not so much on our own account, as out of
regard to the community.
7. Of the Principle of Monarchy. A
monarchical government supposes, 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 in no way dangerous, because it may be continually
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
centre, 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 persons.
Is it not very exacting to oblige men to perform the most difficult
actions, such as require an extraordinary exertion of fortitude and
resolution, without other recompense than that of glory and applause?
8. 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 abide with honour? The one glories in the contempt of
life; and the other is founded on 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,14
is the prevailing principle in monarchies; here it gives life to the whole
body politic, to the laws, and even to the virtues themselves.
9. 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 devolves entirely upon those whom
he is pleased to entrust 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 for one single moment
to uplift his arm, when he cannot instantly demolish those whom he has
entrusted with the first employments,15
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
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 subject
should be safe, and the pasha'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 resolution, because he had been too sparing of
History informs us that the horrid cruelties of Domitian struck such a
terror into the governors that the people recovered themselves a little
during his reign.18 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.
10. 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;19
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,20
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 allege 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.
11. 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.
1. This is a very important
distinction, whence I shall draw many consequences; for it is the key of
an infinite number of laws.
3. Plutarch, Pericles; Plato,
4. She had at that time twenty-one
thousand citizens, ten thousand strangers, and four hundred thousand
slaves. See Athenæus, vi.
5. She had then twenty thousand
citizens. See Demosthenes in Aristog.
6. 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
7. This lasted three years.
8. 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.
9. 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 which
relates to revealed truths. This will appear better in v. 2.
10. This is to be understood in the
sense of the preceding note.
11. We must not, says he, employ
people of mean extraction; they are too rigid and morose. — Testament
12. This word good man is
understood here in a political sense only.
13. See Footnote 1.
14. See Perry, p. 447.
15. As it often happens in a military
16. Ricaut on the Ottoman Empire. I,
17. See the history of this
revolution by Father du Cerceau.
18. Suetonius, Life of Domitian,
viii. His was a military constitution, which is one of the species of
19. See Sir John Chardin.
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