1The term aristocracy derives from the Greek word aristoi (“the best”). The definitions of aristocratic government found in such Greek and Roman authors as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero emphasize rule by a small number chosen with a view to the common good. Plato, for example, characterizes aristocracy as a regime where superior individuals emerge as best suited to exercise power. Aristotle affirms that aristocracy is the “rule of many men, who are all of them good” (Politics, 1988, III, 15, 8, 1286b4-5, 76).
2Although Montesquieu thoroughly immersed himself in the writings of Plato and Aristotle during the 1730s, and although Books II through VIII of L’Esprit des lois often reveal the influence of these two writers, Montesquieu does not follow their lead in defining aristocracy because for him it is not government by superior individuals endowed with natural merit giving them the right to exercise power. Thus one commentator on Montesquieu observes that for him aristocracy resembles, not Aristotle’s discussion of aristocracy, but rather his analysis of oligarchy, a corrupted form of aristocracy where a few individuals rule in their own self-interest. In his depiction of aristocracy, Montesquieu assumes that the interest of the rulers and the ruled will not naturally coincide, and thus the ruling class will need to preserve their power and determine the strategy allowing them to mask their superiority (Lowenthal, 1962, p. 493; Carrithers, 1991).
3In one of his Pensées Montesquieu acknowledges that he is not among those judging Plato’s Republic chimerical since Sparta had been modeled on it (Pensées, no. 1208). Rather than following classical perspectives Montesquieu makes moderation—and not wisdom, justice, or moral virtue—the principle of aristocratic republics. Those who wield power in aristocracies do not rule as philosopher-kings conforming to the form of the Good owing to their superior intelligence and training. Rather they rule as imperfect men whose self-interest has to be restrained by tyrannical magistrates modeled on the Spartan Ephors, or the Venetian State Inquisitors. Montesquieu can be justly considered a convinced modern (Binoche, p. 115; Carrithers, 2002; Manent, pp. 11-49; Pangle, p. 236-237) who strips aristocracy of its elitist trappings and moral pretension. In L’Esprit des lois, he is principally inspired, not by Plato and Aristotle, or the classical models of Sparta, Carthage or Rome, but by modern Venice, and to a lesser extent Genoa, Ragusa, Lucca, and Poland (Carrithers, 1991; Fink, 143).
4Given the prevalence of aristocratic republics in the classical period and their persistence in modernity, it is not surprising that Montesquieu offered a thorough analysis of this regime. As will be demonstrated, he had no particular admiration for such republics and did not believe they could furnish a model to be followed by moderns. In Books II-VIII of L’Esprit des lois, he is far from complimentary; in Book XI he describes the contemporary Italian aristocracies that he was able to observe during the course of his travels as examples of despotism.
The Nature and Principle of Aristocratic Republics
5Aristocracy is the second form of republic considered in L’Esprit des lois. Whereas democracy is the regime where “the people as a body have sovereign power” (le peuple en corps exerce la souveraine puissance), in aristocracy only “a part of the people” (une partie du people) exercises power (EL, II, 2). As Montesquieu describes the institutions of the regime, the body of nobles “make the laws and see to their execution” (font les lois et […] les font exécuter), the people playing no political role. In all but the very smallest aristocracies there will be an assembly of all noblemen and a senate whose role is to regulate “the affairs that the body of nobles cannot decide” (les affaires que le corps des nobles ne saurait décider) and to prepare “those on which it decides” (celles dont il décide). Thus one could say that “aristocracy is, in a way, in the senate, that democracy is in the body of nobles, and that the people are nothing” (l’aristocratie est en quelque sorte dans le sénat, la démocratie dans le corps des nobles, et que le peuple n‘est rien) (EL, II, 3).
6The major difficulty in aristocratic republics is not restraining the populace but rather controlling the power of the nobles; the only executive offices Montesquieu discusses in detail are those that have that function, like the Spartan Ephors and the Venetian State Inquisitors. He says nothing regarding the necessity of a chief magistrate, like the Venetian Doge, or the Florentine Gonfalonier, or even the Roman consuls. Speaking of executive offices in general, he indicates that most of them should be filled through election rather than drawing lots. Since whomever becomes a magistrate in an aristocratic republic will be resented by the people merely because he will be a member of the ruling elite, there is no reason to suffer the inconveniences of random sortition, and the people can be counted on to make an excellent choice (EL, II, 2, 3; Manin, p. 70-73). As for the length of term for magistracies, Montesquieu concludes they must be limited since “the greatness of the power must be offset by the brevity of its duration” (il faut compenser la grandeur de la puissance par la brièveté de sa durée) (EL, II, 3).
7Even more important to regime stability than the institutions appropriate for aristocratic republics is the principle of government, or animating spirit of such republics. Montesquieu identifies political virtue as the principle of aristocratic republics, acknowledging, however, that in such republics virtue will very often take the form of moderation. Nonetheless, he says he can readily imagine a situation where the body of the nobles who wield legislative and executive power display a “great virtue that makes the nobles in some way equal to their people” (grande vertu, qui fait que les nobles se trouvent en quelque façon égaux à leur peuple). This allows for the formation of a “great republic” (grande république) (III, 4). Even when virtue assumes the form of moderation, it always consists of wishing the common interest to prevail over particular interest. Moderation does not derive, in other words, from “faintheartedness and from laziness of soul” ([d’]une lâcheté et d’une paresse de l’âme) (III, 4); it should not be considered (contra Barckhausen, 1907, p. 58) a fourth principle laying the foundations of a fourth form of government (Shackleton, 1961, p. 273). At one point Montesquieu suggests that in an aristocracy the whole populace should display virtue (V, 8). In other passages, however, he implies that only members of the ruling class need to possess selfless devotion to the state since the people are constrained by the laws. Still other texts affirm that a “lesser virtue” (vertu moindre), which he labels “moderation,” is easier to attain in aristocracies than true political virtue in democratic regimes. Thus Montesquieu terms moderation “the soul of these governments” (l’âme de ces gouvernements) (III, 4). Whether virtue retains its pure form or is reduced to moderation, its purpose is to assist the ruling group in restraining their natural impulse to ignore the laws and apply them only to the people (III, 4). Moderation is required in aristocracy to incline the ruling patriciate to mask as much as possible their political and social superiority, the goal being to foster the common people's attachment to a government that excludes them from power (V, 8).
8In spite of the importance he attributes to principles of government, Montesquieu does not think that moderation is sufficient to achieve stability in aristocracies. In fact, tyrannical magistrates are needed to control the nobles: “There must be, for a time or forever, a magistrate to make the nobles tremble, like the ephors in Lacedaemonia and the state inquisitors in Venice, whose magistracies are subject to no formalities” (Il faut qu’il y ait, pour un temps ou pour toujours, un magistrat qui fasse trembler les nobles, comme les ephores à Lacédémone, et les inquisiteurs d’État à Venise, magistratures qui ne sont soumises à aucune formalités). Also needed are magistrates who act completely on their own authority and render account to no one, like the censors at Rome (V, 8). In a democracy, a temporary dictator can be given power when a threat of sedition arises “because the people act from impetuosity and not from design” (parce que le peuple agit par sa fougue et non pas par ses desseins). Aristocratic republics, however, require a more secretive and permanent institution since the danger which threatens liberty is presented by nobles whose designs remain hidden (II, 3).
The Preservation of Aristocratic Republics
9In order to preserve regime stability the ruling class must mask its political, social, and economic superiority. “If the pomp and splendor surrounding kings is a part of their power, modesty and simplicity of manners are the strength of nobles in an aristocracy” (Si le faste et la splendeur qui environment les rois font une partie de leur puissance, la modestie et la simplicité des manières font la force des nobles aristocratiques) (V, 8). The sense of honor that prevails among the nobility in monarchies will not be proper; the nobles in aristocratic republics must seek to blend in with the people. “When the nobles affect no distinction, when they blend with the people, dress like them, and share all their pleasures with them, the people forget their own weakness” (Quand ils n’affectent aucune distinction, quand ils se confondent avec le peuple, quand ils sont vêtus comme lui, quand ils lui font partager tous leurs plaisirs, il oublie sa faiblesse) (ibid.). Nobles should not be prohibited from marrying commoners, as was legislated in Rome, since such a rule strengthens arrogance within the ruling class and hatred among the commoners (ibid.).
10In stressing the need to minimize the distance between rulers and ruled, Montesquieu was following classical thought. His viewpoint was reminiscent, for example, of Aristotle’s belief that “oligarchies as well as aristocracies may last, not from any inherent stability in such forms of government, but because the rulers are on good terms…with the unenfranchised…not maltreating any who are excluded from the government.” The rulers, Aristotle continued, “should treat one another and their fellow-citizens in a spirit of equality (Politics, 1988, V, 8, 1308a, 124), and they should even take an oath with “an express declaration—‘I will do no wrong to the people.’” Moreover, if they insult the people, they “should be punished more severely than if he had wronged one of his own class” (Politics, 1988, V, 8, 1309a, 127).
11Also essential to conserving aristocratic republics is the maintenance of a sufficient degree of equality among the ruling nobility. The ruling class must be neither too rich nor too poor (V, 8). In order to prevent “exorbitant wealth” (les richesses exorbitantes) the right of primogeniture must be avoided “so that fortunes are always restored to equality by the continual division of inheritances” (afin que par le partage continuel des successions, les fortunes se remettent toujours dans l’egalité). In a passage deleted from the manuscript (OC, vol. III, p. 69) he also mentioned, citing Amelot de La Houssaye, the prohibition of nobles “acquiring any land on the mainland” (d’acquérir aucun fief en terre ferme). To avoid poverty, they must be constrained to pay their debts. No doubt aristocracies aim for a much less strict form of equality than democracies, but extreme inequality between the nobles and the people or in the ranks of the nobility must be avoided as much as possible. Moreover, since ordinary citizens are accorded no political role “(i)t is a very fine thing in an aristocracy for the people to be raised from their nothingness” (ce sera une chose trop heureuse […] si, par quelque voie indirecte, on fait sortir le peuple de son anéantissement) (II, 3). Montesquieu praises the Bank of St. George in Genoa since it was partially administered by prominent commoners, and “gives the people a certain influence in government, which brings about their whole prosperity” (donne à celui-ci une certaine influence dans le gouvernement, qui en fait toute la prospérité) (II, 3). In the same manner, he praises the Venetian government for barring the nobility from participating in commerce since their monopolies would inordinately augment their wealth (V, 8). Montesquieu does not mention that Venetian nobles took steps to get around this prohibition (Amelot de La Houssaye, 1676, p. 60; Carrithers, 1991, p. 261), but this omission does not compromise his general argument.
12Ensuring that the nobility pay taxes is indispensable. According to Montesquieu, there are four taxation situations to be avoided: where noblemen pay no taxes at all; where they are legally subject to taxes but avoid paying them through fraud; where the nobles do pay taxes but devise ways to compensate themselves for the economic loss this entails by arranging excessive remuneration for “the tasks that they do” (les emplois qu’ils exercent); and finally where the nobles pay taxes but also regard the taxes paid by others as their private patrimony. “This last case is rare; when it occurs, an aristocracy is the harshest of all governments” (Ce dernier cas est rare; une aristocratie, en cas pareil, est le plus dur de tous les gouvernements). And Montesquieu continues, “While Rome leaned toward aristocracy, it avoided these defects very well” (Pendant que Rome inclina vers l’aristocratie, elle évita très bien ces inconvénients): the magistrates received no salaries, and “the principal men of the republic” (les principaux de la République) were taxed more heavily than the others. Such a policy was able to develop in Rome since the patricians did not control taxation: were this not the case, the nobles would be “like princes of despotic states, who confiscate the goods of whomever they please” (comme les princes des États despotiques, qui confisquent les biens de qui il leur plait) (V, 8). Montesquieu also suggests that public distributions of money to the people and the public display of the state’s wealth greatly contribute to the stability of this regime: the people see that the nobility do not despoil the state treasury (ibid.). Montesquieu appears to agree with Aristotle: “(T)he people do not take any great offence at being kept out of the government — indeed they are rather pleased than otherwise at having leisure for their private business — but what irritates them is to think that their rulers are stealing the public money” (Politics, 1988, V, 8, 1308b, 126).
The Corruption of Aristocratic Republics
13Like Machiavelli, Montesquieu links the corruption, or decline, of each form of government to the weakening of its principles. When moderation is imperiled, what contributed to union stirs up dissension: “In this case the republic continues to exist only with regard to the nobles and only among them. The body that governs is a republic and the body that is governed is a despotic state; they are the two most ill-matched bodies in the world” (Dans ce cas la république ne subsiste qu’à l’égard des nobles, et entre eux seulement. Elle est dans le corps qui gouverne, et l’État despotique est dans le corps qui est gouverné; ce qui fait les deux corps du monde les plus désunis) (VIII, 5).
14 Extreme corruption is reached when the ruling class becomes hereditary: aristocracy is transformed into oligarchy. No longer needing the approval of the governed, the hereditary nobility no longer rule in the common interest, and the nobles “can scarcely remain moderate” (ne peuvent plus guère avoir de modération) (VIII, 5). Paradoxically, to the extent that their power increases, their position within the state weakens because the resistance to their power increases. Montesquieu suggests that Venice devised very good laws to ensure that nobles remain moderate even when their status became hereditary, including presumably the creation of the state inquisitors, but he remains skeptical that hereditary, oligarchical power will not become arbitrary (VIII, 5).
15Montesquieu’s preference for an elected rather than hereditary aristocracy was already evident in his Considerations on the […] Romans in 1734. This work explores why the people of Rome had been so restive under the aristocratic rule of the patricians following the expulsion of the kings, concluding that, unlike kings, “the nobles who govern are visible to all, and are not so elevated that odious comparisons are not constantly made” (les nobles qui gouvernent sont sous les yeux de tous, et ne sont pas si élevés, que des comparaisons odieuses ne se fassent sans cesse) (VIII, OC, vol. II, p. 146). This realization leads him to endorse elections as preferable to rule by hereditary elites. “Those republics where birth confers no part in the government are in this respect the most fortunate, for the people are less likely to envy an authority they give to whomever they wish and take back whenever they fancy” (Les républiques où la naissance ne donne aucune part au gouvernement sont à cet égard les plus heureuses; car le peuple peut moins envier une autorité qu’il donne à qui il veut, et qu’il reprend à sa fantaisie) (ibid.).
16In describing the nature, principle, laws, and customs of aristocratic republics, Books II through VIII of L’Esprit des lois subscribe to the political science that endeavors to understand institutions rather than judging them. In Book XI, Montesquieu turns a critical eye on aristocratic republics, comparing them to the English political system. Whatever his youthful enthusiasm for republics, evidenced by his pronouncement in the Lettres persanes that republics are “the sanctuary of honor, of reputation and virtue” (le sanctuaire de l’honneur, de la réputation et de la vertu” (LP, [‣] ), his exposure to actual republics during his travels in Italy in 1728-29 altered his thinking dramatically (Voyages, passim). In his Considerations on the […] Romans, he makes no attempt to hide his scorn for the contemporary aristocratic republics of Italy: “And, among us, the republics of Italy, which boast of the perpetuity of their government, ought only to boast of the perpetuity of their abuses. Thus, they have no more liberty than Rome had in the time of the decemvirs” (Et, parmi nous, les républiques d’Italie, qui se vantent de la perpétuité de leur gouvernement, ne doivent se vanter que de la perpétuité de leurs abus; aussi n’ont-elles pas plus […] de liberté que Rome n’en eut du temps des décemvirs) (VIII, p. 152).
17Montesquieu considers aristocracy inferior to democracy. “The more an aristocracy approaches democracy, the more perfect it will be, and to the degree it approaches monarchy the less perfect it will become” (Plus une aristocratie approchera de la démocratie, plus elle sera parfaite; et elle le deviendra moins, à mesure qu’elle approchera de la monarchie) (EL, II, 3). Thus a commentator observes that “the people obey those who wield power as do the subjects of a king: it [aristocracy] thus resembles a monarchy. But it is a false resemblance: an aristocracy that would copy monarchy would fall into the worst excess, and in order to right the balance would have to approximate democracy” (le peuple obéit à ceux qui ont le pouvoir comme des sujets à un roi: elle [l’aristocratie] ressemble donc à une monarchie. Mais c’est une ressemblance trompeuse: une aristocratie qui copierait la monarchie tomberait dans les pires excès et, pour se corriger de ses travers, elle doit se rapprocher de la démocratie.) Consequently, democracy is the “principal form of the republic” (forme principale de la république) (Larrère,1979, pp. 93, 95). Thus “(m)ost imperfect of all is the aristocracy in which the part of the people that obeys is in civil slavery to the part that commands, as in the Polish aristocracy, where the peasants are slaves of the nobility ” (la plus imparfaite de toutes [les aristocraties] est celle où la partie du peuple qui obéit est dans l’esclavage civil de celle qui commande, comme l’aristocratie de Pologne, où les paysans sont esclaves de la noblesse) (II, 3). Hence one understands better why Montesquieu recommends that the people be guided by tribunes to protect their interests, as was the situation in Rome. In the absence of tribunes, the laws themselves must protect the interests of the people. Accordingly, Montesquieu does not count on moderation to counter the ambitions of the nobles in spite of his eulogy of the virtue of moderation as the cardinal virtue of the legislator (EL, XXIX, 1).
18Like Aristotle, Montesquieu does not view aristocratic republics as inherently unstable. He thinks that they are more stable than democracies: “Aristocratic government has a certain strength in itself that democracy does not have. In aristocratic government, the nobles form a body, which, by its prerogative and for its particular interest, represses the people; having laws is enough to insure that they will be executed” (Le gouvernement aristocratique a par lui-même une certaine force que la démocratie n’a pas. Les nobles y forment un corps qui, par sa prérogative et pour son intérêt particulier, réprime le peuple: il suffit qu’il y ait des lois, pour qu’à cet égard elles soient exécutées) (III, 4). Hence aristocracies can avoid the tendency toward mob rule that rendered the classical democracies so unstable and conferred on democracy where the many rule such a negative reputation. To achieve stability, however, such republics must find ways to ensure that the ruling class does not oppress the people just as in the democratic republic there must be safeguards against the people abusing their power to disadvantage the nobles (Spector 2004, p. 48).
19When he drafts the chapter on the English constitution after finishing his Roman history, Montesquieu adopts a very critical stance toward aristocratic republics, asserting that the aristocratic republics of Italy undermine liberty by failing to properly separate governmental powers. He acknowledges that in Venice executive, legislative, and judicial powers are at least distributed among “various tribunals…that temper one another” (divers tribunaux qui se tempèrent) since the Great Council passes laws, the Senate executes them, and the Forty has the power of judging (EL, XI, 6). He nonetheless concludes that “the ill is that these different tribunals are formed of magistrates taken from the same body” (le mal est que ces tribunaux différents sont formés par des magistrats du même corps). Unlike England, Venice possesses no mixed constitution where monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic interests are represented. Instead there is one class of rulers, and this hereditary body of nobles “can plunder the state by using its general wills; and, as it also has the power of judging, it can destroy each citizen by using its particular wills” (peut ravager l’État par ses volontés générales, et, comme il a encore la puissance de juger, il peut détruire chaque citoyen par ses volontés particulières). In Venice liberty was eviscerated since “all power is one; and, although there is none of the external pomp that reveals a despotic prince, it is felt at every moment” (toute la puissance y est une; et, quoiqu’il n’y ait point de pompe extérieure qui découvre un prince despotique, on le sent à chaque instant) ( XI, 6).
20Without a doubt Montesquieu esteems Venice for achieving the most that can be hoped for in aristocratic republics, but he did so in the context of France and England developing better regimes. It is in his justly famous chapter on the English system of liberty that his true attitude toward Venice emerges, and he is certain that henceforth Venice's reputation—and the image of aristocratic republics in general—will decline. By the time of the American Founding, the government of Venice had become a symbol for tyranny. One looks in vain among American commentators for the least regard for that formerly highly regarded republic (Storing, 1981, II, p. 157; III, p. 63, 82; IV, p. 106, 252; VI, p. 230).
Aristotle, The Politics, ed. Stephen Everson, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Nicolas-Abraham Amelot de La Houssaye, Histoire du gouvernement de Venise, Paris, 1676.
Montesquieu, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, texte établi et présenté par Françoise Weil et Cecil Courtney. Introductions et commentaires de P. Andrivet et C. Volpilhac-Auger, in Œuvres completes de Montesquieu, tome II, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2000.
Montesquieu, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Roman and on Their Decline, ed. and trans. David Lowenthal, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1999.
Montesquieu, My Thoughts, trans. and ed. by Henry C. Clark, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 2012.
Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, trans. and ed. George R. Healy, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1964.
Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Miller and Harold Stone, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Herbert J. Storing ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, 7 vol., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Henri Barckhausen, Montesquieu, ses idées et ses œuvres, Paris, 1907.
Joseph Dedieu, Montesquieu et la tradition politique anglaise en France, Paris, 1909.
Lawrence Meyer Levin, The Political Doctrine of Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois: Its Classical Background (1936), Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1973.
Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu. A Critical Biography, Oxford University Press, 1960.
Zera Fink, The Classical Republicans. An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England, Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 1962.
David Lowenthal, “Montesquieu and the Classics: Republican Government in The Spirit of the Laws,” in Ancients and Moderns, Essays in the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss, ed. Joseph Cropsey, New York, Basic Books, 1964.
Thomas Pangle, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism, University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Catherine Larrère, “Les typologies des gouvernements chez Montesquieu,” in Textes et documents, Publication de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de Clermont-Ferrand, 1979, pp. 87-103. Repr. in Revue Montesquieu 5 (2001), p. 157-172. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article327
David W. Carrithers, “Not So Virtuous Republics: Montesquieu, Venice, and the Theory of Aristocratic Republicanism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, LII, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1991), pp. 245-268.
Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à De l’esprit des lois de Montesquieu, Paris, PUF, 1998.
Pierre Manent, The City of Man, trans. Marc A. LePain, Princeton University Press, 1998.
Céline Spector, Montesquieu. Pouvoirs, richesses et sociétés, Paris, PUF, 2004.