Montesquieu
 

V.8 How the laws should relate to the principle of the government in an aristocracy

If, in the aris­to­cracy, the peo­ple are vir­tuous, they will enjoy some­thing like the well-being of the popu­lar state, and the state will become power­ful. But as it is rare for there to be much vir­tue where men’s for­tu­nes are so une­qual, the laws must tend to pro­vide as much spi­rit of mode­ra­tion as they can, and seek to re-esta­blish the equa­lity which the cons­ti­tu­tion of the state neces­sa­rily sup­pres­ses.

The spi­rit of mode­ra­tion is what is cal­led vir­tue in the aris­to­cracy, where it sub­sti­tu­tes for the spi­rit of equa­lity in the popu­lar state.

While the pomp and splen­dor that sur­rounds kings are part of their autho­rity, modesty and sim­pli­city of man­ners are the strength of aris­to­cra­tic nobles.1 When they affect no dis­tinc­tion, when they mix with the peo­ple, when they dress the same way, when they share all their plea­su­res with them, the peo­ple for­get their weak­ness.

Every govern­ment has its nature and its prin­ci­ple. An aris­to­cracy must the­re­fore not take on the nature and prin­ci­ple of monar­chy ; that would hap­pen if the nobles had some per­so­nal, indi­vi­dual pre­ro­ga­ti­ves dis­tinct from those of their cor­pus : pri­vi­le­ges must be for the senate, and sim­ple res­pect for the sena­tors.

There are two prin­ci­pal sour­ces of disor­ders in aris­to­cra­tic sta­tes : extreme ine­qua­lity bet­ween the gover­nors and the gover­ned, and the same ine­qua­lity bet­ween the dif­fe­rent mem­bers of the gover­ning body. From these two ine­qua­li­ties flow ani­mo­si­ties and jea­lou­sies which the laws must pre­vent or check.

The first ine­qua­lity is prin­ci­pally when the pri­vi­le­ges of the prin­ci­pals are hono­ra­ble only because they are humi­lia­ting to the com­mon peo­ple. Such was the law in Rome for­bid­ding patri­cians from joi­ning in mar­riage with ple­beians,2 which had no other effect than to make the patri­cians both more arro­gant and more contemp­ta­ble. The advan­ta­ges the tri­bu­nes drew from this is obvious in their spee­ches.

This ine­qua­lity will also come about if the sta­tus of citi­zens is various with regard to sub­si­dies, which comes about in four ways : when the nobles grant them­sel­ves the pri­vi­lege of paying none ; when they create loo­pho­les to exempt them­sel­ves3 ; when they claim the funds them­sel­ves under the pre­text of recom­pen­ses or sala­ries for the offi­ces they exer­cise ; and finally, when they make the peo­ple tri­bu­tary, and divide up the taxes they levy on them. This lat­ter case is rare ; in such a case an aris­to­cracy is the har­shest of all govern­ments.

While Rome ten­ded toward aris­to­cracy, she avoi­ded these pit­falls very well. The magis­tra­tes never drew sala­ries from their magis­tracy. The prin­ci­pals of the repu­blic were taxed like the others ; they were taxed even more, and some­ti­mes they were the only ones taxed. In short, far from sha­ring the reve­nues of the state among them­sel­ves, eve­ry­thing they could draw from the public trea­sury, all the wealth that for­tune sent their way, they dis­tri­bu­ted to the peo­ple, to be for­gi­ven for their honors.4

It is a fun­da­men­tal maxim that wha­te­ver per­ni­cious effects dis­tri­bu­tions made to the peo­ple have in a demo­cracy, they have just as many good effects in the aris­to­cra­tic govern­ment. The for­mer cause the spi­rit of the citi­zen to be lost, the others lead back to it.

If the reve­nues are not dis­tri­bu­ted to the peo­ple, they must be made to see that they are well admi­nis­te­red ; to dis­play them is, in a way, to allow the peo­ple to enjoy them. The gol­den chain they hung in Venice, the riches car­ried into Rome in the trium­phal mar­ches, and the trea­su­res that were kept in the tem­ple of Saturn were veri­ta­bly the riches of the peo­ple.

It is above all essen­tial in the aris­to­cracy that it not be the nobles who levy the tri­bu­tes. In Rome, the first order of the state had nothing to do with them ; the second was put in charge of them, and even that later had signi­fi­cant draw­backs. In an aris­to­cracy where the tri­bu­tes were rai­sed by the nobles, all indi­vi­duals would be at the dis­cre­tion of the admi­nis­tra­tors ; there would be no super­ior court to cor­rect them. Those among them who were assi­gned to sup­press the abu­ses would pre­fer to bene­fit from the abu­ses. The nobles would be like the prin­ces of des­po­tic sta­tes, who confis­cate the pro­perty of who­me­ver they wish.

Soon the pro­fits they might make would be regar­ded as a patri­mony, which ava­rice would extend at will. The tax farms would be lowe­red ; the public reve­nues would be redu­ced to nothing. That is how some sta­tes, without expe­rien­cing any fai­lure that could be noted, fall into a state of weak­ness unan­ti­ci­pa­ted by their neigh­bors that takes even their citi­zens by sur­prise.

The laws must also for­bid them com­merce : such accre­di­ted mer­chants would create all sorts of mono­po­lies. Commerce is the pro­fes­sion of equal per­sons ; and the most mise­ra­ble of des­po­tic sta­tes are those whose prince is a mer­chant.

The laws of Venice5 for­bade com­merce, which could even inno­cently give them exor­bi­tant wealth, to the nobles.

The laws must employ the most effec­tive means for the nobles to dis­pense jus­tice to the peo­ple. If they have no tri­bune, then the laws them­sel­ves must be a tri­bune.

Any kind of asy­lum against the exe­cu­tion of the laws sinks an aris­to­cracy, and tyranny is not far behind.

They must in all times mor­tify the arro­gance of domi­na­tion. There must be tem­po­ra­rily or per­ma­nently a magis­trate who makes the nobles trem­ble, like the Ephors in Lacedæmon and the state inqui­si­tors in Venice, magis­tra­cies which are sub­ject to no for­ma­li­ties. This govern­ment needs truly vio­lent resour­ces. A stone mouth lies open to every infor­mant in Venice6 ; you would say it is the mouth of tyranny.

These tyran­ni­cal magis­tra­cies in the aris­to­cracy are rela­ted to the cen­sure of demo­cracy, which by its nature is not less inde­pen­dent. Indeed the cen­sors must not be exa­mi­ned for the things they have done during their cen­sor­ship ; they must be given confi­dence, never dis­cou­ra­ge­ment. The Romans were admi­ra­ble : all magis­tra­tes could be requi­red to explain their conduct,7 except for cen­sors.8

Two things are per­ni­cious in aris­to­cracy : extreme poverty of the nobles, and their exor­bi­tant wealth. To pre­vent their poverty, they must above all be obli­ged early to pay all their debts. Moderating their wealth calls for wise and subtle pro­vi­sions, not confis­ca­tions, agra­rian laws, or abo­li­tion of debts, which cause infi­nite harm.

The laws must sup­press pri­mo­ge­ni­ture among the nobles9 so that through the conti­nual divi­sion of suc­ces­sions, for­tu­nes will be cons­tantly revert to equa­lity.

There must be no sub­sti­tu­tion, no lineage right of redemp­tion, no fee tail, no adop­tion. All the means inven­ted to per­pe­tuate the gran­deur of fami­lies in monar­chi­cal sta­tes are inconcei­va­ble in an aris­to­cracy.10

When the laws have equa­li­zed the fami­lies, it remains for them to main­tain union bet­ween them. Disputes bet­ween nobles must be swiftly resol­ved, other­wise contes­ta­tions bet­ween per­sons turn into contes­ta­tions bet­ween fami­lies. Arbitrators can bring law­suits to an end, or pre­vent them from ari­sing.

Finally, the laws must not favor the dis­tinc­tions that vanity pla­ces bet­ween fami­lies under pre­text that they are nobler or more ancient : that must be clas­si­fied among the petty quar­rels of indi­vi­duals.

One has only to look at Lacedæmon to see how the Ephors suc­cee­ded in atte­nua­ting the weak­nes­ses of the kings, the gran­dees, and the peo­ple.

In recent times the Venetians, who in many respects have conducted themselves very wisely, pronounced, in a dispute between a Venetian noble and a mainland gentleman for a place of honor in a church, that outside Venice a Venetian noble had no pre-eminence over another citizen.

It was included by the decimvirs in the last two tables (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, book X).

As in some aristocracies in our times ; nothing so weakens the state.

See in Strabo (book XIV) how the Rhodians behaved in this respect.

Amelot de la Houssaye, Histoire du government de Venise [Catalogue no. 3084], part III. The Claudian law forbade senators from having any vessel at sea of more than forty almuds capacity. Livy, book XXI.

Informants cast their billets into it.

See Livy, book XLIX. A censor could not even be troubled by another censor : each made his evaluation without ascertaining his colleague’s opinion ; and when this was altered, censorships was, so to speak, overturned.

In Athens, the logistæ, who called all magistrates to account, did not give an account for themselves.

It was so instituted in Venice (Amelot de la Houssaye, p. 30 and 31).

It seems that the objective of some aristocracies is less to maintain the state than what they call their nobility.