Céline Spector

1From a political point of view, corruption is defined as the progressive distortion of a regime that ends up changing into another. This corruption is not always harmful: with respect to gothic government, Montesquieu maintains that “it is wondrous that the corruption of a conquering people’s government should have formed the best kind of government that men have been able to think up” (“il est admirable que la corruption du gouvernement d’un peuple conquérant ait formé la meilleure espèce de gouvernement que les hommes aient pu imaginer”, EL, XI, 8). Only the corruption that leads to despotism, a regime corrupt in itself, constitutes a real danger. The question then is to determine the causes of it and focus on the means of putting off, if not preventing, its happening.

Grandeur and decadence of the Romans

2Reflection on corruption is first at the heart of the analysis of the decline of Rome. In Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, Montesquieu distances himself both from Machiavelli and from Bossuet: the corruption of the republic was not due to divisions between patricians and plebeians, but to the aggrandizement of the state. Having conquered large territories, Rome was no longer united by a common love of freedom nor by a common hatred of tyranny: “The peoples of Italy having become its citizens, each city added in its genius, its particular interests, and its dependency on some great protector, the torn city no longer constituted a whole together; and as one was a citizen of them only by a sort of fiction, and no longer had the same magistrates, the same wall, gods, temples, sepultures, they no longer saw Rome with the same eyes, and no longer had the same love of country, and Roman sentiments were no more” (“Les peuples d’Italie étant devenus ses citoyens, chaque ville y apporta son génie, ses intérêts particuliers, et sa dépendance de quelque grand protecteur, la ville déchirée ne forma plus un tout ensemble ; et comme on n’en était citoyen que par une espèce de fiction, qu’on n’avait plus les mêmes magistrats, les mêmes murailles, les mêmes dieux, les mêmes temples, les mêmes sépultures, on ne vit plus Rome des mêmes yeux, on n’eut plus le même amour pour la patrie, et les sentiments romains ne furent plus ”, IX, OC, t. II, p. 155-156).

3To this are added properly moral causes of decadence. The introduction of the “Epicurean sect” at the end of the Republic contributed much, according to Montesquieu, to “spoil the heart and spirit of the Romans”: oaths were no longer sacred; the civil religion that supported the love of country was affected (ibid., X). Corruption, in this regard, affects the morals before it provokes the corresponding institutional transformation – passage from republic to empire. Sulla put Rome in the impossibility of preserving its freedom: he corrupted the soldiers by giving them the citizens’ lands; he invented proscriptions for those who were not in his party, which prevented men from attaching themselves to the republic (XI). After that, the fate of the republic was sealed, and Pompey and Cæsar were but the instruments of its end. Pompey “corrupted the people with money and put into elections a price for the suffrage of each citizen”; then Caesar rose: “Finally the Republic was oppressed; and it is not the ambition of a few individuals that should be blamed, it is the man always more avid for power even as he acquires more, and only desires everything because he possesses much” (“Enfin la République fut opprimée ; et il n’en faut pas accuser l’ambition de quelques particuliers, il en faut accuser l’homme toujours plus avide du pouvoir à mesure qu’il en a davantage, et qui ne désire tout que parce qu’il possède beaucoup ”, XII, p. 172).

4That the causes of corruption should be linked to the natural desire for domination does not mean we should not investigate its political mechanism. Not only does the corruption of morals prepare a change of regime, but those who hold power can increase the corruption by lifting the obstacles that oppose its extension (XIII, p. 186-187). In Rome, corruption thus affected the laws as much as the Senators, become servile courtiers under the Empire (XIV), then was modified, again affecting the morals: “a new kind of corruption” appeared when the vices, luxury, idleness and dishonest judgments of the leaders took the place of their acts of violence (XVII, p. 224). Finally, Montesquieu associates the corruption of the Eastern Empire with the temporal power of the monks, which led the emperors to weakness and impotence (XXI).

The corruption of principles

5From the Considérations to L’Esprit des lois, the analysis of corruption is enriched by the introduction of the concept of “principle”, associated with the “nature” of governments: “The corruption of each government almost always begins with that of the principles” (“La corruption de chaque gouvernement commence presque toujours par celle des principes”, EL, VIII, 1). The very definition of principles is conceived in the horizon of their corruption, political corruption and not necessarily moral. Montesquieu no doubt sometimes denounces the immorality of contemporary morals, stigmatizing, in line with the Persian Letters, “the scum and corruption of our modern times” (IV, 6; see III, 5; Pensées, no. 737). But the fear of corruption that inspired the satire of the Regency years is now given a different meaning, as the analysis of the System of John Law testifies. In the Persian Letters, Rica denounced the political, moral and social corruption engendered by the madness of speculation and destabilization of hierarchies: “What greater crime than the one a minister commits when he corrupts the morals of an entire nation, degrades the most generous souls, tarnishes the glitter of dignities, darkens virtue itself, and compromises the highest birth in the general contempt?” (“Quel plus grand crime que celui que commet un ministre lorsqu’il corrompt les mœurs de toute une nation, dégrade les âmes les plus généreuses, ternit l’éclat des dignités, obscurcit la vertu même, et confond la plus haute naissance dans le mépris universel ?”, LP, [‣]; see Lettres persanes, [‣]). But in L’Esprit des lois, only political corruption is envisaged: Law, by weakening the intermediary powers, led the monarchy on the path of despotism (II, 4).

6Without ever separating typology from history, L’Esprit des lois consequently attempts to define a distinct corruption for each form of government. Contrary to Hobbes, Montesquieu excludes the discovery of rational principles that could make any constitution (apart from the case of violence from outside) “last for ever” (Leviathan, ch. XXX). But he does not simply repeat the classical, Platonic or Aristotelian notion of the corruption of regimes: the intentions and the ends of those in power (individual or common interest) recede into the background. Aristotle’s error concerning monarchies comes from “not distinguishing them by their form of constitution, but by coincidental traits, like the prince’s virtues or vices” (XI, 9). Correlatively, L’Esprit des lois no longer envisages a cycle of corruption, which would, as in The Republic, allow one to conceive the engendering of one form by another, as the state progressively becomes less perfect. The danger is no longer the deviation from an absolute norm of justice nor the distance from the ideal regime, but the fall into a worse regime which can affect all forms of government: “Monarchy degenerates ordinarily into the despotism of one alone; aristocracy, into the despotism of several; democracy, into the despotism of the people” (“La monarchie dégénère ordinairement dans le despotisme d’un seul ; l’aristocratie, dans le despotisme de plusieurs ; la démocratie, dans le despotisme du peuple”, Pensées, no. 1893). In this regard, what matters is the preservation of moderate governments. Book VIII of L’Esprit des lois puts “nature” in relation with “principle”: when the nature of a government changes, its principle is affected, and inversely, once the principle is corrupted, the constitution will be denatured.

7Democracy offers a first example of possible dysfunction of the totality/nature principle. The risk of corruption is twofold, for virtue can be lost through excess or want: the spirit of equality and extreme inequality form the two symmetrical vices that equally produce the degeneration of the body politic. Virtue is lost first by want of equality, when luxury is introduced and frugality is no longer judged either possible nor desirable: “As luxury becomes established in a republic, the spirit veers toward the individual interest. For those who need no more than what is necessary, the only thing to desire is the glory of the country and one’s own. But a mind corrupted by luxury has many other desires: soon it becomes the enemy of the laws that constrain it” (“À mesure que le luxe s’établit dans une république, l’esprit se tourne vers l’intérêt particulier. À des gens à qui il ne faut rien que le nécessaire, il ne reste à désirer que la gloire de la patrie et la sienne propre. Mais une âme corrompue par le luxe a bien d’autres désirs : bientôt elle devient ennemie des lois qui la gênent”, VII, 2). Corruption intervenes when education no longer suffices to counter man’s egoistic tendencies, and reorient his passions (cupidity, ambition) from individual interest to public interest: common values lose their meaning as seen by the new, individualist criteria of moral judgment (III, 3). Contrariwise, virtue is lost by excess of equality or “spirit of extreme equality” when men come to refuse all hierarchy and all subordination: “everyone wants to be equal to those he chooses to command him” (VIII, 2). But the spirit of equality does not consist in making everyone command but “in obeying and commanding one’s equals”. Democracy thus comes unwound when men no longer want to be equal only in their quality as citizens, but also “as magistrate, as senator, as judge, as father, as husband, as master” (VIII, 3). With the abolition of hierarchy enters the corruption of morals: “There will be no more morals, no more love of order, finally no more virtue” (“Il n’y aura plus de mœurs, plus d’amour de l’ordre, enfin plus de vertu”, VIII, 2). Montesquieu here joins the ancient critics of democracy. For Aristotle, the passionate search for equality is the major cause of revolution in democracies: freedom then changes to licence (Politics, V, 9). In the same way, Plato describes the process of corruption of morals at the moment where he envisages the passage from democracy to tyranny. This passage is due to excessive love of freedom, which penetrates even inside families and leads to anarchy: excess freedom leads thence to tyranny (Republic, VIII, 566e). The health of the regime therefore requires that excesses leading to the extremes of anarchy or tyranny (the first leading to the second) be avoided: just as the spirit of inequality leads to democracy, to aristocracy or monarchy, the spirit of extreme equality leads it to the despotism of a single man.

8The risk of abuse of power, nevertheless, is even more worrisome in the case of aristocracy and monarchy. The corruption of the aristocracy relates to that of its governing caste, which closes in on itself, hardens its domination and tends to govern above the laws, to the point of becoming despotic. Moderation, principle of the aristocracy and attenuated form of virtue, then disappears: “The aristocracy is corrupted when the power of the nobility becomes arbitrary: there can no more be any virtue in those who govern, nor in those who are governed” (“L’aristocratie se corrompt lorsque le pouvoir des nobles devient arbitraire : il ne peut plus y avoir de vertu dans ceux qui gouvernent, ni dans ceux qui sont gouvernés ”, VIII, 5). Degrees of corruption need doubtless to be taken account of, for the alteration of the principle is a gradual process. “Extreme corruption” intervenes only when the nobility becomes hereditary, all the more so as their number is reduced and the power the greater; that is when the safety of the governors and the preservation of the regime are no longer assured. There is in this a genuine leitmotiv of Montesquieu’s: increasing one’s power is tantamount to making it less secure. Corruption of the monarchy intervenes when the holder of power takes away the prerogatives of bodies or the privileges of cities, leading more surely yet to despotism (VIII, 6; see II, 4). This corruption derives then from a denaturation of the exercise of power before it affects its principle: desirous of governing by themselves and manifesting their power, princes modify the order of things and arbitrarily decide on the attribution of public charges; without the regulation introduced by the intermediary powers (parlements, provincial and municipal bodies), the prince’s will becomes pure caprice. This analysis testifies to Montesquieu’s unease in the face of the historical process of concentration of powers and increasing divergence between honor, the dominant passion of monarchy, and the honors attributed to the court by a sovereign (see LP, Letter [‣], and Letters [‣]-[‣]. However, in L’Esprit des lois the chapters devoted to the corruption of monarchy never deplore a loss of virtue, even if it were the monarch’s. The corruption of honor is linked to the corruption of the nature of the monarchy, when the grandees obey slavishly instead of resisting abuses of power: “The principle of monarchy becomes corrupted when the highest dignities are the marks of the initial servitude, when the grandees have the respect of peoples taken from them, and are made the base instruments of arbitrary power. It becomes even more corrupted when honor has been put into contradiction with honors, and one can be both covered with infamy and dignities” (“Le principe de la monarchie se corrompt lorsque les premières dignités sont les marques de la première servitude, lorsqu’on ôte aux grands le respect des peuples, et qu’on les rend de vils instruments du pouvoir arbitraire. Il se corrompt encore plus lorsque l’honneur a été mis en contradiction avec les honneurs, et que l’on peut être à la fois couvert d’infamie et de dignités”, VIII, 7). Each government risks its own kind of alteration: the corruption of honor, which leads to despotism, is not that of virtue.

9But the despotic regime – Montesquieu never ceases showing it – is intrinsically corrupt. From the point of view of its nature, the impotence of this regime is triple: first, the despot tend to indulge in sensual pleasures, which distracts him from government. Such is the structural law of despotism, which leads it to self-destruction: the more the empire is extended, the more the prince devotes himself to his seraglio, which similarly grows, so that “the more important the business, the less it is deliberated upon” (II, 5). Second, the strength is in the army, which always risks dethroning the prince; the security of the state and that of the despot can be irreconcilable. Third, the regime suffers from economic misery, especially where the prince declares himself owner of the land and heir of his subjects’ possessions: in those states, “all is fallow, all is abandoned” (V, 14; see LP, [‣]). To this corruption of its nature is added that of the principle, fear: “The principle of despotic government is endlessly corrupted, because it is corrupted by its nature” (“Le principe du gouvernement despotique se corrompt sans cesse, parce qu’il est corrompu par sa nature”, VIII, 10). To be sure, fear is indeed what allows the holder of power to hold onto it in the face of the constant risk of usurpation and revolution: “all is lost” at the moment when the despot can no longer demolish the grandees nor halt the disorders of the people (III, 9; V, 11). But fear is but an inhibitor principle and not a motivating passion capable of animating men and leading them, intentionally or not, to preserve the government. Paradoxically, despotism can only be preserved by virtue of “accidental” causes: these are the circumstances drawn from the climate, religion, the situation or the genius of the people that make it possible to attenuate the effects of its “inner vice” – thus in China (VIII, 21; XVIII, 6). The question then is no longer how this regime destroys itself, but how it preserves itself by dint of an extrinsic equilibrium. Whereas moderate governments preserve themselves thanks to their principle and perish only by dint of particular accidents, despotism is only viable on condition that it moderate its nature and its principle; it can only maintain itself by taming its ferocity momentarily, and respecting certain rules, notably set by religion, for want of genuine laws (VIII, 10; XXVI, 2).

10It remains to ask oneself, however, about the pertinence of this opposition: do moderate regimes themselves not become corrupted in proportion to structural causes (Krause, 2002)? Does the natural tendency to abuse power not stem from an “eternal experience” (XI, 4) leading republic and monarchy to their undoing? “Rivers run to lose themselves in the sea: monarchies go dissolve themselves in despotism” (“Les fleuves courent se mêler dans la mer : les monarchies vont se perdre dans le despotisme”, VIII, 17): L’Esprit des lois is oriented by this history lesson. Although corruption is a gradual alteration, at first imperceptible, leading progressively to a change of government, it ends up provoking extreme corruption: “The problem is not when the state goes from one moderate government to another, as from republic to monarchy, or monarchy to republic; but when it falls and runs headlong from moderate government to despotism” (VIII, 8; [see Courtois, 2002]). To the peoples of Europe who are “still governed by morals”, Montesquieu gives a clear warning: whether it be by an endogenous (long abuse of power) or exogenous (great conquest) cause, every regime is threatened by despotism, and the “injuries” and “infinite evils” to which it subjects human nature.

Laws and morals

11The question of corruption is therefore original, and not derivative; it makes it possible to think the relations between nature and principle, always defined in terms of their possible corruption. In L’Esprit des lois, the term appears for the first time in connection with the dominant passion of democracies, attesting the importance of the state and morals so as to sustain the laws: “[…] when, in a popular government, the laws have ceased to be carried out, as that can only come from the corruption of the republic, the state is already lost” (III, 3). Montesquieu thereby established the primacy of the principle in history: “Once the principles of the government are corrupted, the best laws become bad, and turn against the state; when the principles are sound, the bad laws have the effect of good ones; the power of the principle brings everything else […]. There are few laws that are not good, when the state has not lost its principles” (“Lorsque les principes du gouvernement sont une fois corrompus, les meilleures lois deviennent mauvaises, et se tournent contre l’État ; lorsque les principes en sont sains, les mauvaises ont l’effet des bonnes ; la force du principe entraîne tout […] Il y a peu de lois qui ne soient bonnes lorsque l’État n’a point perdu ses principes”, VIII, 11; italics added). Not only is legislative reform ineffective when the people is already corrupt (VIII, 14; XXIII, 21), but law can contribute to the corruption of morals instead of curing them: “There are two kinds of corruption: one, when the people no longer observes the laws; the other, when the people is corrupted by the laws; an incurable disease, because it is in the remedy itself” (“Il y a deux genres de corruption : l’un, lorsque le peuple n’observe point les lois ; l’autre, lorsqu’il est corrompu par les lois ; mal incurable, parce qu’il est dans le remède même”, VI, 12). The most dangerous corruption stems doubtless more from “the abuse of morals than the abuse of the laws” (XXXI, 2); but the second can be a consequence of the former. L’Esprit des lois concludes from that for the necessity of periodically bringing the republic back to its principles (VIII, 12). If corruption is inherent to its historical development (“In the course of a long government, one goes toward the bad on an imperceptible incline, and can only rise again to the good by effort” [“Dans le cours d’un long gouvernement, on va au mal par une pente insensible, et on ne remonte au bien que par un effort”]), virtue can be preserved against the corrupting forces of history only if the old customs are often recalled (V, 7).

12Montesquieu thus rejoins a thematics explored by Machiavelli (Discourse on the first ten books of Titus Livy, I, 18 ; III, 1) and his English disciples (Sydney, Davenant, Fletcher, Bolingbroke…). But this proximity should not obscure the profound divergences which separate them: for Machiavelli, severity is useful in a republic if it brings it back to the principles of its institutions and its ancient virtue (Discourse, III, 22). But in a different context, it is precisely these “great coups” of authority which Montesquieu is delighted to see disappear (XXI, 20). Correlatively, the necessity of the return to principles of virtue is now restricted to the republic, and not to monarchies. The appearance of commerce in the great European states, whose societies are marked by inequality and the impurity of their morals, appears to destine the republic for corruption (III, 3). Because it “corrupts pure morals” (XX, 1-2), the economic surge can be incompatible with the conservation of virtues. Even if L’Esprit des lois envisages the case of trading republics in which the corruption of morals is avoided thanks to the active frugality of the merchants (V, 6), the work does not attempt to generalize the appeal to a “return to principles” that would permit, if not the Machiavellian solution, the reinvigoration of corrupted virtue.

The remedies against corruption: institutions and morphology of the territory

13Given the tendential risk of corruption, which stems from a dynamic of the political, Montesquieu enumerates from there the material and institutional conditions that should permit the preservation of the principle of each government. The conservative viewpoint is due to the fact that the remedy for abuses is sometimes worse than the abuse itself: “Such is the nature of things that the abuse is very often preferable to the correction, or at least, that the good which is established is always preferable to the best which is not” (“Telle est la nature des choses que l’abus est très souvent préférable à la correction, ou, du moins, que le bien qui est établi est toujours préférable au mieux qui ne l’est pas”, Pensées, no. 1436). This is why it is better to prevent than to cure: once corruption is introduced, any new upset risks being futile or pernicious (VIII, 12). Republics, in the first place, manage to differ their corruption only thanks to a legislative arsenal (agrarian laws, sumptuary laws, laws of succession) associated with certain constraining institutions (censure, public accusation…). Associated with luxury and lust, women play a determining role in the decline of democracies: “public incontinence” associated with their vices necessarily provokes “a change in the constitution”. Such is the reason for which they must be “captivated by the morality” and overseen by a domestic tribunal, which judges cases of “moral violation” (VII, 8-10). On the other hand, in monarchies, lust contributes to the economic growth and to the power of the state, and intercourse with women to the civilization of morality: certain private vices (like vanity or gallantry) convert to public virtues (XIX, 5-11). The passage from republic to monarchy generally accompanies the depravation of morality (VII, 13). It is therefore vain to apply to monarchies the remedies that are useful for republics: the preservation of their principle cannot be by way of the maintenance of the intermediary powers – the Parlement’s right of remonstrance, seigneurial or ecclesiastical jurisdictions, retention of privileges and of legislation favorable to the nobility (II, 4; V, 9).

14Still, while only the states founded on virtue are required to struggle against moral corruption, all must respect certain morphological conditions in order to preserve their principle. The interior, here, cannot be thought about without its relation to the exterior: “If the natural property of small states is to be governed as republics, that of the medium states to be subjected to a monarch, that of the large empires to be dominated by a despot, it follows that, in order to preserve the principles of the established government, the state must be maintained at the size it already had; and that the spirit of that state will change, as its boundaries are shrunk or expanded” (“Que si la propriété naturelle des petits États est d’être gouvernés en république, celle des médiocres, d’être soumis à un monarque, celle des grands empires, d’être dominés par un despote, il suit que, pour conserver les principes du gouvernement établi, il faut maintenir l’État dans la grandeur qu’il avait déjà ; et que cet État changera d’esprit, à mesure qu’on rétrécira ou qu’on étendra ses limites”, VIII, 20). The change of spirit of the government depends on the change of form of the body politic, and the alteration of its “distinctive properties”. Thus the republic can subsist only in a small territory, where the public good remains close to the preoccupations of every man, where minds are not turned away from the country to work for the satisfaction of their individual interests (VIII, 16). The monarchy, for its part, preserves itself in a territory of medium size: any extension imposes either an increased concentration of power, or the division of the empire (VIII, 17). Finally, despotism best suits vast territories where the “quickness of resolutions” must compensate for the distance of the places where they are sent, where fear alone forces the obedience of officers distant from the center of power, where the law must be able to vary “like the accidents that always multiply in a state in proportion to its size” (VIII, 19). The lesson of Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle is reiterated here: the project of universal monarchy, recently entertained by Louis XIV, can only lead to servitude.


Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à “De l’esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: PUF, 1998, p. 203-208.

Jean-Patrice Courtois, “Temps, corruption et histoire dans L’Esprit des lois”, Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger (ed.), Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 301-312.

Sharon Krause, “The Uncertain Inevitability of Decline in Montesquieu”, Political Theory, 30, no. 5 (2002), p. 702-727.