It does not take much pro­bity for a monar­chi­cal or des­po­tic govern­ment to main­tain or sus­tain itself. The force of the laws in the first, and the ever-threa­te­ning arm of the prince in the second, deter­mine or contain eve­ry­thing. But a popu­lar state needs to be dri­ven by some­thing more, which is VIRTUE.1

What I say is confir­med by the whole body of his­tory, and is per­fectly conso­nant with the nature of things. For it is clear that in a monar­chy, where the per­son who exe­cu­tes the laws holds him­self above them, less vir­tue is requi­red than in a popu­lar govern­ment, where the per­son who exe­cu­tes the laws is aware that he him­self is sub­ject to them and that he will feel their weight.

It is clear that the monarch who, through bad coun­sel or negli­gence, cea­ses to see that the laws are exe­cu­ted can easily repair the damage : he has only to get a new coun­sel­lor, or cor­rect his own negli­gence. But when, in a popu­lar govern­ment, the laws have cea­sed to be exe­cu­ted, since this can result only from cor­rup­tion of the repu­blic, the state is already undone.

What a spec­ta­cle it was in the last cen­tury to wit­ness the inef­fec­tual attempts of the English to esta­blish demo­cracy for them­sel­ves ! As those who were invol­ved in poli­tics had no vir­tue, as their ambi­tion was sti­mu­la­ted by the suc­cess of the one who had been the most daring,2 and as the spi­rit of one fac­tion was bea­ten back only by the spi­rit of ano­ther, the govern­ment was cons­tantly chan­ging ; the dis­traught peo­ple was see­king demo­cracy and fin­ding it now­here. Finally, after many uphea­vals, rever­sals, and tre­mors, they had to set­tle on the very govern­ment they had bani­shed.

When Sulla wan­ted to res­tore free­dom to Rome, Rome could no lon­ger accom­mo­date it ; she had no more than a trace of vir­tue remai­ning ; and as she had less and less, ins­tead of awa­ke­ning after Cæsar, Tiberius, Caius,3 Claudius, Nero, and Dometian, she was ever more ensla­ved ; all the blows fell on the tyrants, and none on tyranny.

The Greek poli­ti­cal wri­ters who were living under popu­lar govern­ment reco­gni­zed no force that could sus­tain them other than vir­tue. Those of today speak to us of nothing but manu­fac­tu­ring, trade, finance, wealth, and even luxury.

When that vir­tue cea­ses, ambi­tion enters the hearts that can receive it, and ava­rice enters them all. The objects of desire change : what they loved, they love no lon­ger ; they were free with the laws, and now wan­ted to be free against the laws ; every citi­zen is like a slave who has esca­ped from his mas­ter’s house ; what was a maxim is now cal­led rigi­dity ; what was a rule is cal­led cons­traint ; what was atten­tion is cal­led fear. Frugality is now their ava­rice, and not the desire of acqui­ring. Formerly the pro­perty of indi­vi­duals cons­ti­tu­ted the public trea­sury, but now the public trea­sury beco­mes the patri­mony of indi­vi­duals. The repu­blic is a car­cass, and its strength is no more than the power of a few citi­zens and the license of all.

Athens encom­pas­sed the same for­ces while it domi­na­ted with such glory and while it ser­ved with such igno­miny. She had twenty thou­sand citi­zens4 when she defen­ded the Greeks against the Persians, riva­led Lacedæmon for hege­mony, and atta­cked Sicily. She had twenty thou­sand when Demetrius of Phalerum coun­ted them5 the way sla­ves are coun­ted in a mar­ket. When Philip dared to pre­vail in Greece, when he appea­red at the gates of Athens,6 she still had lost nothing but time. We can see in Demosthenes what pains it took to awa­ken her : Philip was fea­red there as the enemy not of free­dom, but of plea­su­res.7 That city, which had over­come so many defeats, which retur­ned to life after its des­truc­tions, was conque­red once and for all at Chæronea.8 What does it mat­ter if Philip sends all the pri­so­ners home ? He is not sen­ding men. It was still as easy to over­come the Athenian for­ces as it would have been dif­fi­cult to over­come her vir­tue.

How could Carthage have mana­ged to sus­tain itself ? When Hannibal, as præ­tor, wan­ted to pre­vent the magis­tra­tes from pilla­ging the repu­blic, did they not go and accuse him before the Romans ? These wret­ches wan­ted to be citi­zens in the absence of a state, and owe their wealth to the hands of their des­troyers ! Rome soon deman­ded three hun­dred of their prin­ci­pal citi­zens as hos­ta­ges ; she made them turn over their wea­pons and ves­sels, and then decla­red war on them. By what des­pair wrought in a disar­med Carthage9 we can gauge what she could have done with her vir­tue when she was at full strength ?

[See clarification of this term in Annex 1.]


[Caius Cæsar, i.e., Caligula.]

Plutarch in Pericles, Plato in Critias.

There were twenty-one thousand citizens, ten thousand foreigners, and four hundred thousand slaves. See Athenæus, book VI.

It had twenty thousand citizens. See Demosthenes, Against Aristogeiton.

They had made a law to punish by death anyone who proposed to turn the money destined for the theatres to the purposes of war.

[Philip II of Macedonia there defeated the Thebans and Athenians in 357 BCE.]

This war lasted three years.