Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

LAWS (SPIRIT OF).

It would be admirable, if from all the books upon laws by Bodin, Hobbes, Grotius, Puffendorf, Montesquieu, Barbeyrac, and Burlamaqui, some general law was adopted by the whole of the tribunals of Europe upon succession, contracts, revenue offences, etc. But neither the citations of Grotius, nor those of Puffendorf, nor those of the “Spirit of Laws,” have ever led to a sentence in the Châtelet of Paris or the Old Bailey of London. We weary ourselves with Grotius, pass some agreeable moments with Montesquieu; but if process be deemed advisable, we run to our attorney.

It has been said that the letter kills, but that in the spirit there is life. It is decidedly the contrary in the book of Montesquieu; the spirit is diffusive, and the letter teaches nothing.

False Citations in the “Spirit of Laws,” and False Consequences Drawn from Them by the Author.

It is observed, that “the English, to favor liberty, have abstracted all the intermediate powers which formed part of their constitution.”

On the contrary, they have preserved the Upper House, and the greater part of the jurisdictions which stand between the crown and the people.

“The establishment of a vizier in a despotic state is a fundamental law.”

A judicious critic has remarked that this is as much as to say that the office of the mayors of the palace was a fundamental office. Constantine was highly despotic, yet had no grand vizier. Louis XIV. was less despotic, and had no first minister. The popes are sufficiently despotic, and yet seldom possess them.

“The sale of employments is good in monarchical states, because it makes it the profession of persons of family to undertake employments, which they would not fulfil from disinterested motives alone.”

Is it Montesquieu who writes these odious lines? What! because the vices of Francis I. deranged the public finances, must we sell to ignorant young men the right of deciding upon the honor, fortune, and lives of the people? What! is it good in a monarchy, that the office of magistrate should become a family provision? If this infamy was salutary, some other country would have adopted it as well as France; but there is not another monarchy on earth which has merited the opprobrium. This monstrous anomaly sprang from the prodigality of a ruined and spendthrift monarch, and the vanity of certain citizens whose fathers possessed money; and the wretched abuse has always been weakly attacked, because it was felt that reimbursement would be difficult. It would be a thousand times better, said a great jurisconsult, to sell the treasure of all the convents, and the plate of all the churches, than to sell justice. When Francis I. seized the silver grating of St. Martin, he did harm to no one; St. Martin complained not, and parted very easily with his screen; but to sell the place of judge, and at the same time make the judge swear that he has not bought it, is a base sacrilege.

Let us complain that Montesquieu has dishonored his work by such paradoxes — but at the same time let us pardon him. His uncle purchased the office of a provincial president, and bequeathed it to him. Human nature is to be recognized in everything, and there are none of us without weakness.

“Behold how industriously the Muscovite government seeks to emerge from despotism.”

Is it in abolishing the patriarchate and the active militia of the strelitzes; in being the absolute master of the troops, of the revenue, and of the church, of which the functionaries are paid from the public treasury alone? or is it proved by making laws to render that power as sacred as it is mighty? It is melancholy, that in so many citations and so many maxims, the contrary of what is asserted should be almost always the truth.

“The luxury of those who possess the necessaries of life only, will be zero; the luxury of those who possess as much again, will be equal to one; of those who possess double the means of the latter, three; and so on.”

The latter will possess three times the excess beyond the necessaries of life; but it by no means follows that he will possess three times as many luxuries; for he may be thrice as avaricious, or may employ the superfluity in commerce, or in portions to his daughters. These propositions are not affairs of arithmetic, and such calculations are miserable quackery.

“The Samnites had a fine custom, which must have produced admirable results. The young man declared the most worthy chose a wife where he pleased; he who had the next number of suffrages in his favor followed, and so on throughout.”

The author has mistaken the Sunites, a people of Scythia, for the Samnites, in the neighborhood of Rome. He quotes a fragment of Nicholas de Demas, preserved by Stobæus: but is the said Nicholas a sufficient authority? This fine custom would moreover be very injurious in a well-governed country; for if the judges should be deceived in the young man declared the most worthy; if the female selected should not like him; or if he were objectionable in the eyes of the girl’s parents, very fatal results might follow.

“On reading the admirable work of Tacitus on the manners of the Germans, it will be seen that it is from them the English drew the idea of their political government. That admirable system originated in the woods.”

The houses of peers and of commons, and the English courts of law and equity, found in the woods! Who would have supposed it? Without doubt, the English owe their squadrons and their commerce to the manners of the Germans; and the sermons of Tillotson to those pious German sorcerers who sacrificed their prisoners, and judged of their success in war by the manner in which the blood flowed. We must believe, also, that the English are indebted for their fine manufactures to the laudable practice of the Germans, who, as Tacitus observers, preferred robbery to toil.

“Aristotle ranked among monarchies the governments both of Persia and Lacedæmon; but who cannot perceive that the one was a despotism, the other a republic?”

Who, on the contrary, cannot perceive that Lacedæmon had a single king for four hundred years, and two kings until the extinction of the Heraclidæ, a period of about a thousand years? We know that no king was despotic of right, not even in Persia; but every bold and dissembling prince who amasses money, becomes despotic in a little time, either in Persia or Lacedæmon; and, therefore, Aristotle distinguishes every state possessing perpetual and hereditary chiefs, from republics.

“People of warm climates are timid, like old men; those of cold countries are courageous, like young ones.”

We should take great care how general propositions escape us. No one has ever been able to make a Laplander or an Esquimaux warlike, while the Arabs in fourscore years conquered a territory which exceeded that of the whole Roman Empire. This maxim of M. Montesquieu is equally erroneous with all the rest on the subject of climate.

“Louis XIII. was extremely averse to passing a law which made the negroes of the French colonies slaves; but when he was given to understand that it was the most certain way of converting them, he consented.”

Where did the author pick up this anecdote? The first arrangement for the treatment of the negroes was made in 1673, thirty years after the death of Louis XIII. This resembles the refusal of Francis I. to listen to the project of Christopher Columbus, who had discovered the Antilles before Francis I. was born.

“The Romans never exhibited any jealousy on the score of commerce. It was as a rival, not as a commercial nation, that they attacked Carthage.”

It was both as a warlike and as a commercial nation, as the learned Huet proves in his “Commerce of the Ancients,” when he shows that the Romans were addicted to commerce a long time before the first Punic war.

“The sterility of the territory of Athens established a popular government there, and the fertility of that of Lacedæmon an aristocratic one.”

Whence this chimera? From enslaved Athens we still derive cotton, silk, rice, corn, oil, and skins; and from the country of Lacedæmon nothing. Athens was twenty times richer than Lacedæmon. With respect to the comparative fertility of the soil, it is necessary to visit those countries to appreciate it; but the form of a government is never attributed to the greater or less fertility. Venice had very little corn when her nobles governed. Genoa is assuredly not fertile, and yet is an aristocracy. Geneva is a more popular state, and has not the means of existing a fortnight upon its own productions. Sweden, which is equally poor, has for a long time submitted to the yoke of a monarchy; while fertile Poland is aristocratic. I cannot conceive how general rules can be established, which may be falsified upon the slightest appeal to experience.

“In Europe, empires have never been able to exist.” Yet the Roman Empire existed for five hundred years, and that of the Turks has maintained itself since the year 1453.

“The duration of the great empires of Asia is principally owing to the prevalence of vast plains.” M. Montesquieu forgets the mountains which cross Natolia and Syria, Caucasus, Taurus, Ararat, Imaus, and others, the ramifications of which extend throughout Asia.

After thus convincing ourselves that errors abound in the “Spirit of Laws”; after everybody is satisfied that this work wants method, and possesses neither plan nor order, it is proper to inquire into that which really forms its merit, and which has led to its great reputation.

In the first place, it is written with great wit, while the authors of all the other books on this subject are tedious. It was on this account that a lady, who possessed as much wit as Montesquieu, observed, that his book was “l’esprit sur les lois.” It can never be more correctly defined.

A still stronger reason is that the book exhibits grand views, attacks tyranny, superstition, and grinding taxation — three things which mankind detest. The author consoles slaves in lamenting their fetters, and the slaves in return applaud him.

One of the most bitter and absurd of his enemies, who contributed most by his rage to exalt the name of Montesquieu throughout Europe, was the journalist of the Convulsionaries. He called him a Spinozist and deist; that is to say, he accused him at the same time of not believing in God and of believing in God alone.

He reproaches him with his esteem for Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and the Stoics; and for not loving Jansenists — the Abbé de St. Cyran and Father Quesnel. He asserts that he has committed an unpardonable crime in calling Bayle a great man.

He pretends that the “Spirit of Laws” is one of those monstrous works with which France has been inundated since the Bull Unigenitus, which has corrupted the consciences of all people.

This tatterdemalion from his garret, deriving at least three hundred per cent. from his ecclesiastical gazette, declaimed like a fool against interest upon money at the legal rate. He was seconded by some pedants of his own sort; and the whole concluded in their resembling the slaves placed at the foot of the statue of Louis XIV.; they are crushed, and gnaw their own flesh in revenge.

Montesquieu was almost always in error with the learned, because he was not learned; but he was always right against the fanatics and promoters of slavery. Europe owes him eternal gratitude.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25