Montesquieu himself divides the principal forms of government into three broad groupings in his seminal work The Spirit of the Laws. At one extreme he places the “republican” government, at the other the despotic. The “monarchical” he places somewhere in the center (Spirit of the Laws bk. II, ch. 1). The ordering alone belies Montesquieu’s stance; of course other evidence is more explicit.
To begin, Montesquieu does little to disguise his distaste for despotic governments. Even Usbek, Rhedi and Rica, Montesquieu’s invented Persian aristocrats in The Persian Letters—whose nobility flows from a despotic Asian government—find fault with the despotic system, as if to underline the system’s lack of merit. Usbek says of European states, “A week’s imprisonment, or a small fine, impress the mind of a...
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Government in moderation is Montesquieu’s prescription for political success. He finds obvious and glaring faults with the despotic system, from the cruelty despots show their subjects to the instability of the despotic government as an institution. The republican system, as Montesquieu sees it, is not without its merits. But he seems certain that such a system is doomed to succumb to human caprice. Monarchy, though, strikes a balance in Montesquieu’s eyes. It neither rests upon the resolve of the citizenry, nor allows a prince the kind of unchecked control that subjects a population to the whims of a single man.
Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède. The Persian Letters. Trans. C. J. Betts. London: The Penguin Group, 1973.
—. The Spirit of the Laws. Ed. J.V. Prichard. Trans. Thomas Nugent. London: Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1914.
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