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Saturday, October 05, 2013

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government (2: Three Kinds of Government)

In Federalist Paper #15 James Madison asked a simple question: “Why has government been instituted at all?” Philosophers, historians and theologians have been trying to answer that one since the dawn of history. Why do we have government? Different authors give different answers. This shouldn’t surprise us. People just prefer different kinds of things. For example, Hobbes says government is the best solution to our problems. Rousseau says it’s the main source of our troubles. Who’s right? Montesquieu tries to get at the root of the question: why do we have government? To begin with, he says “There is this difference between the nature and principle of government…” The nature of a government is how it is constructed; the principle of a government is why people follow it. In Montesquieu’s words “One is its particular structure, and the other the human passions which set it in motion.” It’s kind of like a car. The nature of government is like the chassis, the body, and the engine. The principle of government is like gas. Montesquieu believes that the “principle” of a government is really what makes it go.
So what supplies the gas to make a government go? Montesquieu says it depends on the nature (or kind) of government you have. In its simplest form government can be ruled by the many, the few, or by one single ruler. Rule by the many (what Montesquieu calls “the collective body of the people”) includes the type of republic we call democracies. Aristocracy is rule by the few. It’s also a republic but is governed by a few particular families. Rule by one can be either (a) a constitutional monarch where one prince holds supreme power “but in the execution of it should be directed by established laws” or it can be (b) “a despotic government, where a single person should rule according to his own will and caprice.” Monarchs have to abide by certain laws. Despots can do pretty much whatever they want to do. These are the basic “natures” or structures of government. Montesquieu thinks each one needs a particular kind of gas to work.
The gas for democracy is virtue. Montesquieu thinks virtue is what makes democracy tick. But exactly what does he mean by virtue? And is there really a link between virtue and successful government? Let’s take a step back. In an earlier reading Aristotle said that “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Is there really a link between happiness and virtue? Are they talking about the same thing here? Possibly. Both Montesquieu and Aristotle believe that man is a social creature by nature. A man who tries to live up to certain virtues will, by definition, be a good citizen BUT (and this is important) this rule only applies to democracies. Montesquieu is talking about political virtue as the gas that runs the system.
In an aristocracy a different kind of gas would be needed: moderation. Why? Aristocracies are very competitive. A few particular families run the whole show. But no individual family is strong enough to have complete control. In the Iliad we found Achilles and Agamemnon locked in what was essentially a bitter political power struggle. Neither side showed the kind of moderation that was needed to make this aristocratic government work smoothly. If Agamemnon had been king of all the Greeks, then things would be different. The kind of gas needed to run a monarchy is different too: honor, not moderation, is what’s needed. Why honor? A constitutional monarch has no rivals. His lock on power is already assured by law. But this law also serves as a check on his political power. A constitutional monarch has to obey the laws too, just like any other citizen. The difference is this: he’s king, you’re not. These rules don’t apply to despotic kings. Despots can do pretty much anything they please; if citizens don’t like it, tough. The gas that runs despotism is fear. Xerxes was this kind of ruler in Herodotus’ history of “The Persian Wars.”
So why do we have government? Virtue, moderation, honor, and fear are four great answers.


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