III.10 The difference between obedience under moderated governments and under despotic governments

In des­po­tic sta­tes, the nature of the govern­ment requi­res extreme obe­dience, and the will of the prince, once known, must have its effect as infal­li­bly as one billiard ball stri­king ano­ther.

There are no atte­nua­tions, modi­fi­ca­tions, accom­mo­da­tions, equi­va­lent sub­sti­tu­tions, nego­tia­tions, remons­tran­ces, nothing equal or bet­ter to pro­pose : man is a crea­ture who obeys a crea­ture who wills.

There one can no more express his fears over a future event than he can blame his fai­lu­res on the whim of for­tune : the lot of men, as of beasts, is ins­tinct, obe­dience, and punish­ment.

It ser­ves no pur­pose to appeal to natu­ral fee­lings, to res­pect for a father, to affec­tion for one’s chil­dren and wives, to the laws of honor, to one’s state of health : the order has been given, and that is enough.

In Persia, when the king has condem­ned someone, the mat­ter can no lon­ger be men­tio­ned to him, nor can mercy be sought. If he was drunk or out of his sen­ses, the order must all the same be car­ried out1 : other­wise he would be contra­dic­ting him­self, and the law can­not contra­dict itself. Such has from all time been their man­ner of thin­king ; since the order which Ahasuerus gave to exter­mi­nate the Jews could not be revo­ked, it was deci­ded to give them per­mis­sion to defend them­sel­ves.2

There is, howe­ver, one thing to which one can some­ti­mes appeal against the will of the prince, and that is reli­gion.3 You will aban­don your father, and even kill him, if the prince orders you to do so ; but you will not drink wine if he wills it and orders you to. The laws of reli­gion are of a higher pre­cept, because they are impo­sed on the prince as they are on his sub­jects. But the same does not hold for natu­ral law : the prince is assu­med to be no lon­ger a man.

In mode­ra­ted monar­chi­cal sta­tes, autho­rity is limi­ted by its dri­ving force, which is to say honor, which rei­gns like a monarch over the prince and the peo­ple. No one would pre­sume to invoke before him the laws of reli­gion ; a cour­tier would feel ridi­cu­lous. It is the laws of honor that will be cons­tantly invo­ked. As a result there are neces­sary modi­fi­ca­tions in obe­dience : honor is natu­rally sub­ject to pecu­lia­ri­ties, and obe­dience will fol­low all of them.

Although the man­ner of obeying is dif­fe­rent under these two govern­ments, power is never­the­less the same. In wha­te­ver direc­tion the monarch turns, he tips and upsets the balance, and is obeyed. The whole dif­fe­rence is that in a monar­chy the prince pos­ses­ses know­ledge, and the minis­ters are infi­ni­tely more able and expe­rien­ced than in the des­po­tic state.

See Chardin [VI, 18–19].

[See chapter 8 of the book of Esther.]

Ibid., [i.e., see Chardin.