V.14 How laws are relative to the principles of despotic government

The prin­ci­ple of des­po­tic govern­ment is fear ; but timid, igno­rant, and down­trod­den peo­ples do not require many laws.

Everything should be cen­te­red on two or three ideas, the­re­fore no new ones are nee­ded. When you train an ani­mal, you make sure not to have him change mas­ter, rou­tine, and pace ; you impress two or three motions on its brain, not more.

When the prince is clo­se­ted, he can­not leave the sojourn of delights without dis­maying all those who are retai­ning him there. They can­not bear to let his per­son and his power pass into other hands. Therefore he rarely wages war in per­son, and hardly dares do it through his lieu­te­nants.

Such a prince, accus­to­med in his palace to mee­ting no resis­tance, resents being resis­ted arms in hand ; he is thus usually dri­ven by either anger or ven­geance. Besides, he can have no notion of true glory. Wars must the­re­fore be waged in all their natu­ral fury, and the law of nations has less appli­ca­tion there than elsew­here.

Such a prince has so many flaws that one would have to fear expo­sing his natu­ral stu­pi­dity for eve­ryone to see. He is hid­den, and no one knows his cur­rent state. Happily, men are such in this coun­try that they need no more than a name to govern them.

Charles XII, being at Bender, and fin­ding some resis­tence in the Swedish senate, wrote that he would send them one of his boots to com­mand them. That boot would have gover­ned like a des­po­tic king.

If the king is a pri­so­ner, he is assu­med to be dead, and ano­ther ascends the throne. Treaties made by the pri­so­ner are igno­red : his suc­ces­sor would not ratify them ; in rea­lity, as he is the laws, the state and the prince, and the minute he is no lon­ger prince he is nothing, if he were not pre­su­med dead the state would be des­troyed.

One of the things that most per­sua­ded the Turks to make their sepa­rate peace with Peter I was that the Muscovites told the vizier that in Sweden ano­ther king had been pla­ced on the throne.1

The pre­ser­va­tion of the state is no more than the pre­ser­va­tion of the prince, or rather of the palace where he is enclo­sed. Nothing which does not directly threa­ten that palace or capi­tal city makes any impres­sion on igno­rant, arro­gant, and pre­ju­di­ced minds ; and as for the sequence of events, they can­not fol­low, fore­see, or even think about it. Politics, its resour­ces, and its laws must be very cir­cum­scri­bed there, and the poli­ti­cal govern­ment is as sim­ple as the civil govern­ment.2

It all comes down to reconci­ling the poli­ti­cal and civil govern­ment with the domes­tic govern­ment, the offi­cers of the state with those of the sera­glio.

Such a state will be in the best situa­tion when it can regard itself as alone in the world, and when it is sur­roun­ded by deserts and sepa­ra­ted from the peo­ples it calls bar­ba­rians. Unable to count on the mili­tia, it will do well to des­troy a part of itself.

As the prin­ci­ple of des­po­tic govern­ment is fear, its end is tran­qui­lity ; but it is not a peace, it is the silence of those cities that the enemy is about to occupy.

Strength lying not in the state but in the army that foun­ded it, the defense would require the pre­ser­va­tion of that army ; but it is fear­some to the prince. How then to reconcile the secu­rity of the state with the secu­rity of the per­son ?

Just look, I ask you, at the inge­nuity with which the Muscovite govern­ment is see­king its way out of des­po­tism, which is even more bur­den­some to itself than to its peo­ples. They have qua­shed the great corps of troops, they have ligh­te­ned punish­ment for cri­mes, they have ins­ti­tu­ted tri­bu­nals, they have begun to know laws ; they have ins­truc­ted the peo­ples. But there are par­ti­cu­lar cau­ses which might bring it back to the mis­for­tune it was trying to flee.

In these sta­tes, reli­gion has more influence than in any other ; it is a fear added to fear. In Mohammedan empi­res, it is reli­gion in part that gives these peo­ples the impres­sive res­pect they have for their prince.

It is reli­gion that somew­hat cor­rects the Turkish cons­ti­tu­tion. Subjects who are not atta­ched by honor to the glory and gran­deur of the state are atta­ched to them by the force and prin­ci­ple of reli­gion.

Of all des­po­tic govern­ments, there is none that more damns itself than one in which the prince decla­res him­self owner of all the lan­ded pro­perty and the heir of all his sub­jects. Abandonment of culti­va­tion of the land is always the result ; and if in addi­tion the prince is a mer­chant, every kind of enter­prise is under­mi­ned.

In these sta­tes no one repairs or impro­ves any­thing.3 They build hou­ses only for their life­time, they dig no dit­ches and plant no trees ; they take eve­ry­thing from the earth, and put nothing back ; all is fal­low, all is bar­ren.

Do you think that laws that sup­press owner­ship of land and the inhe­ri­tance of pro­perty will reduce the ava­rice and cupi­dity of the great ? No, they will sti­mu­late that cupi­dity and that ava­rice. They will be moti­va­ted to com­mit a thou­sand pro­vo­ca­tions, because they will believe that only the gold and sil­ver they can steal or hide is really theirs.

In order that all not be lost, it is well for the prince’s avi­dity to be tem­pe­red by some duties. Thus, in Turkey, the prince is content to col­lect a duty of three per­cent on the value of the suc­ces­sion.4 But inas­much as the sul­tan gives most of the lands to his mili­tia, and dis­po­ses of them as he sees fit ; as he sei­zes all the suc­ces­sions of offi­cers of the empire ; as, when a man dies without male heirs, the sul­tan gets the pro­perty, and the daugh­ters only the usu­fruct ; there are times when most of the state’s pro­per­ties are owned tem­po­ra­rily.

By the law of Bantan,5 the king takes the entire estate, even the wife, the chil­dren, and the house. In order to elude the cruel­lest pro­vi­sion of that law, they are for­ced to marry off the chil­dren at eight, nine or ten years of age, and some­ti­mes ear­lier, so they will not find them­sel­ves an unfor­tu­nate part of the father’s estate.

In sta­tes where there are no fun­da­men­tal laws, there is no way suc­ces­sion to the empire can be fixed. The crown is at the prince’s dis­cre­tion, inside or out­side his family. It would be futile were it esta­bli­shed that the eldest would suc­ceed him ; the prince could always choose someone else. The suc­ces­sor is decla­red by the prince him­self, or by his minis­ters, or by a civil war. Thus that state has one more rea­son for dis­so­lu­tion than a monar­chy.

Each prince of the royal family having equal eli­gi­bi­lity, it hap­pens that the one who ascends to the throne imme­dia­tely has his bro­thers stran­gled, as in Turkey, or has their eyes put out, as in Persia, or dri­ves them mad, as does the Mogol ; or if these pre­cau­tions are not taken, as in Morocco, every vacancy of the throne is fol­lo­wed by a hor­ren­dous civil war.

By the cons­ti­tu­tions of Muscovy,6 the Tsar can choose who­me­ver he wishes as his suc­ces­sor, either within his family or without. Such an esta­blish­ment of suc­ces­sion cau­ses a thou­sand revo­lu­tions and makes the throne as shaky as the suc­ces­sion is arbi­trary. The order of suc­ces­sion being one of the things it most behoo­ves the peo­ple to know, the best one is the most obvious, such as family, and a cer­tain order of birth. Such a pro­vi­sion pre­vents plots and sti­fles ambi­tion ; the mind of a weak prince is no lon­ger cap­tu­red, nor are the dying made to speak.

When the suc­ces­sion is esta­bli­shed by a fun­da­men­tal law, a sin­gle prince is suc­ces­sor, and his bro­thers have no right, real or appa­rent, to chal­lenge him for the throne. A spe­ci­fic will of the father can be nei­ther pre­su­med nor given prio­rity. It is the­re­fore no more rele­vant to arrest the king’s bro­ther or put him to death than any other sub­ject at all.

But in des­po­tic sta­tes, where the monarch’s bro­thers are equally his sla­ves and his rivals, pru­dence would dic­tate secu­ring their per­sons, espe­cially in Mohammedan coun­tries, where reli­gion regards vic­tory or suc­cess as a judg­ment of God, in such a way that there no one is monarch de jure, but only de facto.

Ambition is much more aggra­va­ted in sta­tes where prin­ces of the blood see that if they do not ascend to the throne they will be impri­so­ned or put to death, than here, where the prin­ces of the blood enjoy a situa­tion which, if less satis­fying to ambi­tion, is per­haps more satis­fying to mode­rate desi­res.

The prin­ces of des­po­tic sta­tes have always abu­sed mar­riage. They ordi­na­rily take seve­ral wives, espe­cially in that part of the world where des­po­tism is, so to speak, natu­ra­li­zed, which is Asia. They have so many chil­dren by them that they can hardly have any affec­tion for them, nor the chil­dren for their bro­thers.

The rei­gning family is like the state : it is too weak, and its head is too strong ; it appears exten­ded, and redu­ces to nothing. Artaxerxes had all his chil­dren put to death for cons­pi­ring against him.7 It is not plau­si­ble for fifty chil­dren to cons­pire against their father, and even less so for them to cons­pire because he did not want to yield his concu­bine to his eldest son. It is sim­pler to believe that it is all some intri­gue of those Oriental sera­glios, those pla­ces where arti­fice, cruelty, and ruse silently reign and cover them­sel­ves in utter dark­ness ; where an old prince, beco­ming more imbe­ci­lic by the day, is the first pri­so­ner of the palace.

After all we have just said, it would seem that human­kind would cons­tantly be rising up against des­po­tic govern­ment. But des­pite men’s love of liberty, des­pite their hatred of vio­lence, most peo­ples are sub­mis­sive. That is easy to unders­tand. To form a mode­rate govern­ment, you have to com­bine the autho­ri­ties, order them, tem­per them, and make them work ; you must give, so to speak, some bal­last to the one so it will be able to stand up to ano­ther : that is a mas­ter­piece of legis­la­tion which chance rarely achie­ves, and pru­dence is rarely allo­wed to achieve. A des­po­tic govern­ment, on the contrary is, so to speak, in plain view ; it is eve­ryw­here uni­form ; as it takes only pas­sions to esta­blish it, anyone can do it.

Continuation of Pufendorf’s Histoire universelle, on the treaty of Sweden (ch. x).

According to Mr. Chardin, there is no council of state in Persia [VI, 25].

See Ricault, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, p. 196.

See, on the inheritance of the Turks, Lacedæmon ancient and modern. See also Ricault, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire.

Recueil des voyages qui ont servi à l’établissement de la Compagnie des Indes, vol. I. The law of Bago is less cruel ; if there are children, the king is heir only to two-thirds (Ibid., vol. III, p. 1).

See the different constitutions, especially that of 1722.

See Justinus.