Montesquieu
 

III.5 That virtue is not the principle of monarchical government

In monar­chies, poli­tics makes great things hap­pen with as lit­tle vir­tue as it can ; as in the most admi­ra­ble machi­nes, art uses as few move­ments, for­ces and wheels as pos­si­ble.

The state sub­sists inde­pen­dently of love of coun­try, of the desire for true glory, of self-renun­cia­tion, of the sacri­fice of one’s dea­rest inte­rests, and of all those heroic vir­tues that we find in the Ancients, and about which we have only heard.

Laws there sub­sti­tute for all those vir­tues for which there is no need ; the state dis­pen­ses you from them : in a sense, an act com­mit­ted without a sound has no conse­quen­ces.

Although all cri­mes are by nature public, we still dis­tin­guish truly public cri­mes from pri­vate ones, so cal­led because they are com­mit­ted more against an indi­vi­dual than against the entire society.

Nevertheless, in repu­blics pri­vate cri­mes are public : that is, they threa­ten the cons­ti­tu­tion of the state more than they do indi­vi­duals ; and in monar­chies public cri­mes are more pri­vate : that is, they threa­ten indi­vi­dual for­tu­nes more than the cons­ti­tu­tion of the state itself.

I beg the rea­der take no offense at what I have said : I am repea­ting what all the his­to­ries say. I know very well that it is not rare for prin­ces to be vir­tuous ; but I am saying that in a monar­chy it is very unli­kely that the peo­ple will be.1

Do but read what the his­to­rians of all times have said about the courts of monarchs ; do but remem­ber the conver­sa­tions of men of all coun­tries about the deplo­ra­ble cha­rac­ter of cour­tiers : these things are not the result of spe­cu­la­tion, but of sad expe­rience.

Ambition in idle­ness, base­ness in arro­gance, the desire to get rich without work, aver­sion to truth, flat­tery, betrayal, trea­chery, the shir­king of all enga­ge­ments, scorn for the duties of the citi­zen, fear of the prince’s vir­tue, expec­ta­tion of his weak­nes­ses ; and more than all that, the per­pe­tual mockery cast on vir­tue : these repre­sent, I believe, the cha­rac­ter of most cour­tiers, nota­ble in all pla­ces and in all times. Now it is most impro­ba­ble that the prin­ci­pals of a state could be disho­nest men and their infe­riors men of good will, that the for­mer could be decei­vers while the lat­ter merely consent to being dupes.

Now if among the com­mo­ners there hap­pens to be some unhappy but upright man,2 Cardinal de Richelieu, in his Political Testament,3 implies that a monarch must take care not to employ him.4 So true is it that it is not vir­tue that dri­ves this govern­ment !

I am speaking here of political virtue, which is moral virtue in the sense that it tends in general toward the good, very little of the private moral virtues, and none at all of that virtue which relates to revealed truths. This will be seen in book V, ch. ii,

Understand this in the sense of the previous note.

This book was written under the eyes and on the memoirs of Cardinal de Richelieu by Messrs de Bourzeis and ….., who were attached to him.

One must not, it is written there, make use of people of low station : they are too austere and too difficult.