VIII.5 On the corruption of the principle of aristocracy

Aristocracy beco­mes cor­rupt when the power of the nobles beco­mes arbi­trary ; there can be no more vir­tue in those who govern, nor in those who are gover­ned.

When the ruling fami­lies observe the laws, it is a monar­chy with seve­ral monarchs, and which is by its nature very good ; almost all those monarchs are bound by the laws. But when they do not observe them, it is a des­po­tic state with seve­ral des­pots.

In this case the repu­blic sub­sists only with res­pect to the nobles, and among them only. It lies in the gover­ning body, and the des­po­tic state lies in the gover­ned body, which makes for the two most disu­ni­ted bodies anyw­here.

Extreme cor­rup­tion is when the nobles become here­di­tary1 ; after this they can know no mode­ra­tion. If they are few in num­ber, their power is grea­ter, but their secu­rity decli­nes ; if they are in grea­ter num­ber, their power is les­ser and their secu­rity grea­ter : and so it is that power keeps gro­wing and secu­rity decrea­sing right up to the des­pot, on whose head sits the sur­feit of power and of dan­ger.

A great num­ber of nobles in the here­di­tary aris­to­cracy will the­re­fore make the govern­ment less vio­lent ; but as there will be lit­tle vir­tue, they will fall into a spi­rit of non­cha­lance, of indo­lence, of insou­ciance, as a result of which the state will have no more strength or drive.2

An aris­to­cracy can main­tain the strength of its prin­ci­ple if the laws are such that they make the nobles more aware of the perils and fati­gues of com­mand than of its delights, and if the state is in a situa­tion such that it has some­thing to fear, and that secu­rity lies within, and uncer­tainty without.

As a cer­tain confi­dence is the glory and secu­rity of a monar­chy, a repu­blic on the contrary must fear some­thing.3 Fear of the Persians main­tai­ned the laws for the Greeks. Carthage and Rome inti­mi­da­ted each other, and streng­the­ned them­sel­ves. The strange thing is that the more secu­rity sta­tes have, the more prone they are, like waters too pla­cid, to being cor­rup­ted.

Aristocracy turns into oligarchy.

Venice is one of the republics which thanks to its laws has best corrected the disadvantages of hereditary aristocracy.

Justinus attributes to the death of Epaminondas the extinction of virtue in Athens. Devoid of emulation, they spent their income on festivals, frequentius scænam quam castra visentes [‘more frequently in attendance at table than at camp’]. For the time, the Macedonians emerged from obscurity (book VI).