Poland

1Two Latin epigraphs accompany the rubric Polonicarum rerum scriptores of the catalogue of Montesquieu’s library at La Brède (Catalogue, no. 3147-3149). The first is attributed to Grotius (but the source has not been identified): Plebs prærogativis semetipsa donavit quibus sibi noceret [‘The people gave itself prerogatives by which it harmed itself’]. The second quotation is taken from the Annals of Tacitus: Magis sine domino quam in libertate [‘Rather without master than in liberty’]. These two maxims perfectly reflect Montesquieu’s harsh judgment of Poland.

2The kingdom, where part of the people possess the right to elect and to dethrone the bearer of the crown, is hard to classify in the framework of the political models studied by Montesquieu. To be sure, the country “without a master” is not a member of the circle of European monarchies. It is even less a hybrid “where the republic is hidden under the form of the monarchy” (EL, V, 19). Montesquieu thus classifies Poland among aristocracies, but qualifying it as “the most imperfect” of all (EL, II, 3). Indeed, he does not find there the virtue that is in his eyes the principle of the republican government. Quite the contrary, he sees flourishing in Poland the “abjection of the grandees with respect to those who have some influence at court” (Pensées, no. 250, prior to 1731). As for “that part of the people which obeys”, not only is it in no way equal to the nobility, but it even finds itself “in civil slavery” relative to those who command (EL, II, 3). That is why the example of Poland only confirms Montesquieu’s opinion that the corruption of the principle of aristocracy necessarily comes to a republic which “subsists only with respect to nobles, and among them solely. It is in the body that governs, and the despotic state is in the body that is governed” (“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”, EL, VIII, 5). The situation of the Polish serfs, “pressed” by their lords, avid for products “which their luxury demands” (EL, XX, 23), brings Montesquieu back to the idea of slavery. The philosopher thus places Poland among the “subjugated” countries where the peasants have been “made into slaves”, associating it with Muscovy, Hungary, Bohemia, Silesia, and some countries of Germany situated near the Baltic Sea (Pensées, no. 777).

3The Polish nobility’s penchant for luxury products is one of the important signs of the fundamental flaw in their political system, for it proves the absence of a spirit of “moderation” which is, according to Montesquieu, the soul of any aristocratic government. The philosopher is not very eloquent on this subject, but he still notes that fortunes “are extremely unequal” (EL, VII, 1) in Poland, where “a few lords possess entire provinces” (EL, XX, 23). The imperfection of the Polish aristocratic government is further exacerbated by the ill use which that people makes of its freedom. In a general way, he asserts that “democracy and aristocracy are not free states by their nature” (EL, XI, 4). Poland gives him an adequate illustration. Indeed, while the object of its laws is “the independence of each individual”, the flows of the liberum veto still lead to “the oppression of all” (EL, XI, 5). And as according to Montesquieu the corruption of the principles of the government makes the best laws bad, even the practice of “insurrection”, established to prevent abuses of power, leads in Poland to “drawbacks” that “make clear that only the people of Crete was in a position to employ such a remedy successfully” (EL, VIII, 11). That is why, through the mouth of the Persian Rica, Montesquieu postulates that Poland “makes such poor use of its freedom and the right to elect its kings, that it seems it wants to console thereby its neighbors who have lost both” (“use si mal de sa liberté et du droit qu’elle a d’élire ses rois, qu’il semble qu’elle veuille consoler par là les peuples ses voisins qui ont perdu l’un et l’autre”, LP, 130 [136]).

4Several times Montesquieu regrets in L’Esprit des lois the disastrous situation of the Polish economy. Great fortunes exist there, he suggests, but the majority of the nation languishes in a poverty that prevents “there being as much luxury as in a richer state” (EL, VII, 1). The image of the “deserts of Poland” where Charles XII roamed (EL, X, 14 [13]) reflects the country’s deplorable state. Not only is the people indigent, but it acts more and more like a nation “that is willing to lose the hope of getting rich” by consciously limiting its commercial exchanges (EL, XX, 9). However, Montesquieu affirms that trade is harmful to countries lacking what he calls “movable effects”. Poland, which belongs to this category, can offer the exterior market nothing but the wheat of its lands, whereas the Polish nobility remains very desirous of luxury and export products. Instead of stimulating production and consumption of the national product, the Polish lords “press the laborer to have more wheat that they can send to foreigners, and procure for themselves the things which their luxury demands”, thus ruining the country. “If Poland traded with no nation, its peoples would be happier. Its grandees, who would have nothing but their wheat, would give it to their peasants to live; domains too large would be onerous to them, they would share them with their peasants; with everyone finding pelts or wool in his flocks, there would no longer be an immense expenditure to make for clothing; the grandees, who always love luxury, and could find it only in their own country, would encourage the poor to work. I say that this nation would flourish better, unless it became barbarous because of it: something which the laws could prevent” (EL, XX, 23).

5Montesquieu thus hopes for the economic blossoming of Poland because he links its comfort with the prosperity of the whole of Europe: “A prince thinks he will be greater by the ruin of the next state. On the contrary! Things are such in Europe that all states depend on each other. France needs the opulence of Poland and Muscovy” (Pensées, no. 318; transcribed about 1731).

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