Montesquieu

In aris­to­cracy, the sove­reign autho­rity is in the hands of a cer­tain num­ber of per­sons. It is they who make the laws and have them car­ried out, and the rest of the peo­ple are at most, with res­pect to them, like sub­jects in a monar­chy with res­pect to the monarch.

Suffrage there should not be assi­gned by lots ; one would reap only its draw­backs. Indeed, in a govern­ment which has already ins­ti­tu­ted the most one­rous dis­tinc­tions, if a man were cho­sen by lot he would not be less repu­gnant : it is the noble­man they envy, and not the magis­trate.

When the nobles are nume­rous, there needs to be a senate to set­tle mat­ters which the body of nobles can­not decide, and pre­pare the ones on which it does decide. In this case one can say that in a sense the aris­to­cracy is in the senate, demo­cracy in the body of nobles, and the peo­ple is nothing.

It will be a very happy thing in the aris­to­cracy if by some indi­rect path the peo­ple are made to rise from their nonexis­tence : thus in Genoa the Bank of St. George, which is direc­ted in part by the prin­ci­ples mem­bers of the peo­ple,1 gives it a cer­tain influence in the govern­ment which makes for all its pros­pe­rity.

Senators must not have the right to fill vacan­cies in the senate : nothing would be more likely to per­pe­tuate abu­ses. In Rome, which in the ear­liest times was a sort of aris­to­cracy, the senate did not desi­gnate its own repla­ce­ments ; new sena­tors were named ins­tead by the cen­sors.2

Exorbitant autho­rity confer­red all at once on a citi­zen in a repu­blic crea­tes a monar­chy or some­thing more than a monar­chy. In these, the laws have pro­vi­ded for the cons­ti­tu­tion, or accom­mo­da­ted them­sel­ves to it ; the prin­ci­ple of the govern­ment checks the monarch ; but in a repu­blic where a citi­zen has an extra­or­di­nary power confer­red on him­self,3 the abuse of that power is grea­ter, because the laws, which have not anti­ci­pa­ted it, have done nothing to check it.

The excep­tion to this rule is when the cons­ti­tu­tion of the state is such that it needs for a magis­tracy to have exor­bi­tant power. Such was Rome with its dic­ta­tors ; such is Venice with its state inqui­si­tors : these are fear­some magis­tra­cies that recall the state vio­lently to free­dom. But how is it that these magis­tra­cies turn out so dif­fe­rently in these two repu­blics ? It is because Rome was defen­ding the remains of its aris­to­cracy against the peo­ple, whe­reas Venice uses its state inqui­si­tors to main­tain its aris­to­cracy against the nobles. Whence it fol­lo­wed that in Rome the dic­ta­tor­ship nee­ded to last but a short while, because the peo­ple act by their impulse and not by their desi­gns. This magis­tracy had to make an impact, because it had to inti­mi­date the peo­ple and not punish them, because the dic­ta­tor was crea­ted only for a sin­gle mat­ter, and had unli­mi­ted autho­rity only because of that mat­ter, because it was always crea­ted for an unan­ti­ci­pa­ted situa­tion. In Venice, on the contrary, a per­ma­nent magis­tracy is requi­red, in which plans can be ini­tia­ted, pur­sued, sus­pen­ded, and resu­med ; where one man’s ambi­tion beco­mes that of a family, and the ambi­tion of a family that of many. They need a concea­led magis­tracy, because the cri­mes it puni­shes, always deep, are concei­ved in secret and in silence. This lat­ter magis­tracy must have a gene­ral inqui­si­tion, because it it not cal­led upon to check the evils that are known, but to pre­vent even those that are not known. In short, it is ins­ti­tu­ted to avenge the cri­mes it sus­pects, and the for­mer made more use of threats than of punish­ments even for cri­mes confes­sed by their per­pe­tra­tors.

In every magis­tracy the magni­tude of its autho­rity needs to be balan­ced by the bre­vity of its dura­tion. A year is the time which most legis­la­tors have set : a lon­ger time would be dan­ge­rous ; a shor­ter one woud go against the nature of the func­tion. Who would want to govern his domes­tic affairs in this way ? In Ragusa,4 the head of the repu­blic chan­ges every month, the other offi­cers every week, the gover­nor of the châ­teau daily. This can work only in a small repu­blic5 sur­roun­ded by awe­some powers that would easily cor­rupt petty magis­tra­tes.

The best aris­to­cracy is one where the por­tion of the peo­ple who have no share in power is so small and so poor that the domi­nant por­tion has no inte­rest in oppres­sing them. Thus, when Antipater6 decreed in Athens that those who had less than two thou­sand drach­mas would be exclu­ded from the right of suf­frage, he crea­ted the best pos­si­ble aris­to­cracy, because that cens7 was so small that it exclu­ded only a few, and no one of any stan­ding in the city. Aristocratic fami­lies should the­re­fore be of the peo­ple inso­far as pos­si­ble. The clo­ser an aris­to­cracy comes to demo­cracy, the more per­fect it will be ; and it will become pro­gres­si­vely less per­fect the clo­ser it comes to monar­chy.

The most imper­fect of all is one where that part of the peo­ple that obeys are the civil sla­ves of the part that com­mands, like the aris­to­cracy of Poland, where the pea­sants are sla­ves of the nobi­lity.

See Mr. [Joseph] Addison, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, p. 16.

At first they were named by the consuls.

That is what overturned the Roman republic ; see Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline, Paris, 1748.

Tournefort, Relation d’un voyage du Levant.

In Lucca, magistrates are instituted for only two months.

Diodorus Siculus, book XVIII, p. 601, Rhodoman edition.

[See Glossary.]