Chapters 13

The Despotic Government: Fear

by Montesquieu Icon

Chapter 13: Despotic Power

WHEN the savages of Louisiana want fruit, they cut the tree to the root, and gather the fruit.*

  • This is an emblem of despotic government.

Chapter 14: How the Laws are relative to the Principles of despotic Government

THE principle of despotic government is fear.

A timid, ignorant, and faint-spirited people have no occasion for many laws.

Everything should depend here on two or three ideas. Hence, there is no necessity that any new notions should be added.

When we want to break a horse, we take care not to let him change his master, his lesson, or his pace.

  • Thus an impression is made on his brain by two or three motions, and no more.

If a prince is shut up in a seraglio, he cannot leave his voluptuous abode without alarming those who keep him confined. They will not bear that his person and power should pass into other hands. He seldom, therefore, wages war in person, and hardly ventures to intrust the command to his generals.

A prince of this stamp, unaccustomed to resistance in his palace, is enraged to see his will opposed by armed force.

Hence, he is generally governed by wrath or vengeance. Besides, he can have no notion of true glory. War, therefore, is carried on, under such a government, in its full natural fury, and less extent is given to the law of nations than in other states.

Such a prince has so many imperfections, that they are afraid to expose his natural stupidity to public view. He is concealed in his palace, and the people are ignorant of his situation. It is lucky for him that the inhabitants of those countries need only the name of a prince to govern them.

When Charles 12th was at Bender, he met with some opposition from the senate of Sweden= upon which he wrote word home that he would send one of his boots to command them. This boot would have governed like a despotic prince.

If the prince is a prisoner, he is supposed to be dead and another mounts the throne. The treaties made by the prisoner are void. His successor will not ratify them. Indeed, (as he is the law, the state, and the prince,) when he is no longer a prince, he is nothing= were he not, therefore, deemed to be deceased, the state would be subverted.

One thing which chiefly determined the Turks to conclude a separate peace with Peter I. was the Muscovites telling the vizir, that, in Sweden, another prince had been set upon the throne.

The preservation of the state is only the preservation of the prince, or rather of the palace where he is confined. Whatever does not directly menace this palace, or the capital, makes no impression on ignorant, proud, and prejudiced, minds; and, as for the concatenation of events, they are unable to trace, to foresee, or even to conceive, it.

Politics, with its several springs and laws, must here be very much limited. The political government is as simple as the civil.

The whole is reduced to reconciling the political and civil administration to the domestic government, the officers of state to those of the seraglio.

Such a state is happiest when it can look upon itself as the only one in the world, when it is environed with deserts, and separated from those people whom they call barbarians. Since it cannot depend on the militia, it is proper it should destroy a part of itself.

Fear is the principle of despotic government. Its end is tranquillity. But this tranquillity cannot be called a peace but is really the silence of those towns which the enemy is ready to invade.

Its strength is in the army that founded it. The army must thus be preserved, no matter how formidable the prince is. How then can we reconcile the government’s security to that of the prince’s person?

The Russian government industriously endeavours to temper its arbitrary power, which it finds more burthensome than the people themselves. It has=

  • broken their numerous guards,
  • mitigated criminal punishments,
  • erected tribunals,
  • entered into a knowledge of the laws, and
  • instructed the people.

But there are particular causes that will probably once more involve them in the very misery which they now endeavour to avoid.

In those states, religion has more influence than anywhere else. It is fear added to fear. In Muslim countries, the people’s veneration for their sultan is partly from Islam.

Islam amends, in some measure, the Turkish constitution. The subjects, who have no attachment of honour to the glory and grandeur of the state, are connected with it by the force and principle of Islam.

The despotic governments wherein the king is the proprietor of all the lands and heir to all his subjects is the one that labours most under its own weight. This leads to the neglect of agriculture. Industry is ruined if the prince intermeddles likewise in trade. Under this government=

  • nothing is repaired or improved
  • houses are built only for habitation
  • there is no digging of ditches, or planting of trees
  • everything is drawn from, but nothing restored to, the earth
  • the ground lies untilled, and the whole country becomes a desert.

The laws, which abolish the property of land and the succession of estates, will not diminish the avarice and cupidity of the great. They will rather stimulate this cupidity and avarice.

The great men will be prompted to use a thousand oppressive methods, imagining they have no other property than the gold and silver which they are able to seize upon by violence or to conceal.

To prevent, therefore, the utter ruin of the state, the avidity of the prince should be moderated by some established custom.

In Turkey, the sovereign is satisfied with the right of 3% on the value of inheritances.

Most of the estates of Turkey are held precariously because he=

  • gives the greatest part of the lands to his soldiery,
  • disposes of them as he pleases
  • seizes on all the inheritances of the officers of the empire at their decease
  • has the property of the possessions of those who die without issue, and the daughters have only the usufruct

By the laws of Bantam, the king seizes on the whole inheritance, even wife, children, and habitation. In order to elude the cruellest part of this law, they are obliged to marry their children from 8 to 10 years old and sometimes younger, to the end that they may not be a wretched part of the father’s succession.

In countries where there are no fundamental laws the succession to the empire cannot be fixed. The crown is then elective, and the right of electing is in the prince, who names a successor either of his own or of some other family. In vain would it be to establish here the succession of the eldest son= the prince might always choose another. The successor is declared by the prince himself, or by a civil war. Hence a despotic state is, upon another account, more liable, than a monarchical government, to dissolution.

As every prince of the royal family is held equally capable of being chosen, hence it follows that the prince who ascends the throne immediately strangles his brothers, as in Turkey; or puts out their eyes, as in Persia; or bereaves them of their understanding, as in the Mogul’s country; or, if these precautions are not used, as in Morocco, the vacancy of the throne is always attended with the horrors of a civil war.

By the constitutions of Russia† the Czar may choose whom he has a mind for his successor, whether of his own or of a strange family, Such a settlement produces a thousand revolutions, and renders the throne as tottering as the succession is arbitrary. The right of succession being one of those Edition= current; Page= [79] things which are of most importance to the people to know, the best is that which most sensibly strikes them, such as a certain order of birth. A settlement of this kind puts a stop to intrigues, and stifles ambition= the mind of a weak prince is no longer enslaved, nor is he made to speak his will as he is just expiring.

When the succession is established by a fundamental law, only one prince is the successor, and his brothers have neither a real nor apparent right to dispute the crown with him. They can neither pretend to, nor take any advantage of, the will of a father. There is then no more occasion to confine or kill the king’s brother than any other subject.

But, in despotic governments, where the prince’s brothers are equally his slaves and his rivals, prudence requires that their persons be secured; especially in Mahometan countries, where religion considers victory or success as a divine decision in their favour; so that they have no such thing as a monarch de jure, but only de facto.

There is a far greater incentive to ambition in countries where the princes of the blood are sensible, that, if they do not ascend the throne, they must be either imprisoned or put to death, than amongst us, where they are placed in such a station as may satisfy, if not their ambition, at least their moderate desires.

The princes of despotic governments have ever perverted the use of marriage. They generally take a great many wives, especially in that part of the world where absolute power is in some measure naturalized; namely, Asia. Hence they come to have such a multitude of children, that they can hardly have any great affection for them, nor the children for one another.

The reigning family resembles the state.

It is too weak itself, and its head too powerful= it seems very numerous and extensive, and yet is suddenly extinct. Artaxerxes put all his children to death for conspiring against him. It is not at all probable that fifty children should conspire against their father, and much less that this conspiracy should be owing to his having refused to resign his concubine to his eldest son.

It is more natural to believe that the whole was an intrigue of those oriental seraglios, where fraud, treachery, and deceit, reign in silence and darkness; and where an old prince, grown every day more infirm, is the first prisoner of the palace.

After what has been said, one would imagine that human nature should perpetually rise up against despotism. But, notwithstanding the love of liberty, so natural to mankind, notwithstanding their innate detestation of force and violence, most nations are subject to this very government. This is easily accounted for. To form a moderate government, it is necessary to combine the several powers; to regulate, temper, and set them in motion; to give, as it were, ballast to one, in order to enable it to counterpoise the other.

This is a master-piece of legislation, rarely produced by hazard, and seldom attained by prudence. On the contrary, a despotic government offers itself, as it were, at first sight; it is uniform throughout; and, as passions only are requisite to establish it, this is what every capacity may reach.

Chapter 15= The same Subject continued

Despotic power generally prevails in warm climates where the passions disclose themselves earlier and are sooner extinguished. The understanding is sooner ripened; they are in less danger of squandering away their fortunes.

There is less facility of distinguishing themselves in the world; less communication between young people, who are confined at home; they marry much earlier, and consequently may be sooner of age, than in our European climates. In Turkey, they are of age at 15.

They have no such thing as a cession of goods; in a government where there is no fixed property people depend rather on the person than on his estate.

The cession of goods is naturally admitted in moderate governments, but especially in republics, because of the greater confidence usually placed in the probity of the citizens, and the lenity and moderation arising from a form of government which every subject seems to have preferred to all others.

Had the legislators of the Roman republic established the cession of goods†, they never would have been exposed to so many seditions and civil discords; neither would they have experienced the danger of the evils nor the inconveniency of the remedies.

Poverty, and the precariousness of property, in a despotic state, render usury natural, each person raising the value of his money in proportion to the danger he sees in lending it. Misery, therefore, pours in Edition= current; Page= [82] from all parts into those unhappy countries; they are bereft of every thing, even of the resource of borrowing.

Hence it is, that a merchant, under this government, is unable to carry on an extensive commerce= he lives from hand to mouth; and, were he to encumber himself with a large quantity of merchandises, he would lose more by the exorbitant interest he must give for money than he could possibly get by the goods. Hence they have no laws here relating to commerce; they are all reduced to what is called the bare police.

A government cannot be unjust without having hands to exercise its injustice. Now, it is impossible but these hands will be grasping for themselves. The embezzling of the public money is, therefore, natural in despotic states.

As this is a common crime, under such a government, confiscations are very useful. By these the people are eased; the money drawn by this method being a considerable tribute, which could hardly be raised on the exhausted subject= neither is there, in those countries, any one family which the prince would be glad to preserve.

In moderate governments it is quite a different thing. Confiscations would render property uncertain, would strip innocent children, would destroy a whole family, instead of punishing a single criminal. In republics, they would be attended with the mischief of subverting equality, which is the very soul of this government, by depriving a citizen of his necessary subsistence.

There is a Roman law‡ against confiscations, except in the case of crimen majestatis, or high treason of the most heinous nature. It would be a prudent thing to follow the spirit of this law, and to limit confiscations to particular crimes*. In countries where a local custom has rendered real estates alienable, Bodin very justly observes, that confiscations should extend only to such as are purchased or acquired∥.


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