4.1 Forms of Government
Montesquieu holds that there are three types of governments: republican governments, which can take either democratic or aristocratic forms; monarchies; and despotisms. Unlike, for instance, Aristotle, Montesquieu does not distinguish forms of government on the basis of the virtue of the sovereign. The distinction between monarchy and despotism, for instance, depends not on the virtue of the monarch, but on whether or not he governs "by fixed and established laws" (SL 2.1). Each form of government has a principle, a set of "human passions which set it in motion" (SL 3.1); and each can be corrupted if its principle is undermined or destroyed. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They may govern through ministers, or be advised by a senate, but they must have the power of choosing their ministers and senators for themselves. The principle of democracy is political virtue, by which Montesquieu means "the love of the laws and of our country" (SL 4.5), including its democratic constitution. The form of a democratic government makes the laws governing suffrage and voting fundamental. The need to protect its principle, however, imposes far more extensive requirements. On Montesquieu's view, the virtue required by a functioning democracy is not natural. It requires "a constant preference of public to private interest" (SL 4.5); it "limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens" (SL 5.3); and it "is a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful" (SL 4.5). Montesquieu compares it to monks' love for their order: "their rule debars them from all those things by which the ordinary passions are fed; there remains therefore only this passion for the very rule that torments them. ... the more it curbs their inclinations, the more force it gives to the only passion left them" (SL 5.2). To produce this unnatural self-renunciation, "the whole power of education is required" (SL 4.5). A democracy must educate its citizens to identify their interests with the interests of their country, and should have censors to preserve its mores. It should seek to establish frugality by law, so as to prevent its citizens from being tempted to advance their own private interests at the expense of the public good; for the same reason, the laws by which property is transferred should aim to preserve an equal distribution of property among citizens. Its territory should be small, so that it is easy for citizens to identify with it, and more difficult for extensive private interests to emerge. Democracies can be corrupted in two ways: by what Montesquieu calls "the spirit of inequality" and "the spirit of extreme equality" (SL 8.2). The spirit of inequality arises when citizens no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country, and therefore seek both to advance their own private interests at the expense of their fellow citizens, and to acquire political power over them. The spirit of extreme equality arises when the people are no longer content to be equal as citizens, but want to be equal in every respect. In a functioning democracy, the people choose magistrates to exercise executive power, and they respect and obey the magistrates they have chosen. If those magistrates forfeit their respect, they replace them. When the spirit of extreme equality takes root, however, the citizens neither respect nor obey any magistrate. They "want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges" (SL 8.2). Eventually the government will cease to function, the last remnants of virtue will disappear, and democracy will be replaced by despotism. In an aristocracy, one part of the people governs the rest. The principle of an aristocratic government is moderation, the virtue which leads those who govern in an aristocracy to restrain themselves both from oppressing...
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