The Spirit of the Laws

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Laws, in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things.

The Spirit of the Laws (French: De l'esprit des lois; also called The Spirit of Laws) (1748) by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu is a treatise on political theory.



Book I: Of Laws in General

  • Laws, in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things. In this sense all beings have their laws: the Deity His laws, the material world its laws, the intelligences superior to man their laws, the beasts their laws, man his laws. They who assert that a blind fatality produced the various effects we behold in this world talk very absurdly; for can anything be more unreasonable than to pretend that a blind fatality could be productive of intelligent beings?
    • Ch. 1: Of the Relation of Laws to Different Beings
  • But the intelligent world is far from being so well governed as the physical. For though the former has also its laws, which of their own nature are invariable, it does not conform to them so exactly as the physical world. This is because, on the one hand, particular intelligent beings are of a finite nature, and consequently liable to error; and on the other, their nature requires them to be free agents. Hence they do not steadily conform to their primitive laws; and even those of their own instituting they frequently infringe.
    • Ch. 1: Of the Relation of Laws to Different Beings
  • Brutes are deprived of the high advantages which we have; but they have some which we have not. They have not our hopes, but they are without our fears; they are subject like us to death, but without knowing it; even most of them are more attentive than we to self-preservation, and do not make so bad a use of their passions.
    • Ch. 1: Of the Relation of Laws to Different Beings
  • As soon as man enters into a state of society he loses the sense of his weakness; equality ceases, and then commences the state of war. Each particular society begins to feel its strength, whence arises a state of war between different nations. The individuals likewise of each society become sensible of their force; hence the principal advantages of this society they endeavour to convert to their own emolument, which constitutes a state of war between individuals.
    • Ch. 3: Of Positive Laws
  • Better it is to say that the government most comformable to nature is that which best agrees with the humor and disposition of the people in whose favor it is established.
    • Ch. 3: Of Positive Laws

Book II: Of Laws Directly Derived from the Nature of Government

  • The public business must be carried on with a certain motion, neither too quick nor too slow.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Republican Government, and the Laws in Relation to Democracy
  • In monarchies, policy effects great things with as little virtue as possible.
    • Ch. 5: Of the Laws in Relation to the Nature of a Despotic Government

Book III: Of the Principles of the Three Kinds of Government

  • Honor sets all the parts of the body politic in motion, and by its very action connects them; thus each individual advances the public good, while he only thinks of promoting his own interest.
  • As virtue is necessary in a republic, and in a monarchy honour, so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous.
    • Ch. 9: Of the Principle of Despotic Government

Book IV: That the Laws of Education Ought to be in Relation to the Principles of Government

  • Excessive obedience supposes ignorance in the person that obeys: the same it supposes in him that commands, for he has no occasion to deliberate, to doubt, to reason; he has only to will.
    • Ch. 3: Of Education in a Despotic Government
  • It is not the young people that degenerate; they are not spoiled till those of maturer age are already sunk into corruption.
    • Ch. 5: Of Education in a Republican Government

Book V: That the Laws Given by the Legislator Ought to be in Relation to the Principle of Government

  • At our coming into the world, we contract an immense debt to our country, which we can never discharge.
    • Ch. 3: What is Meant by a Love of the Republic in a Democracy
  • [Britain is] a nation that may be justly called a republic, disguised under the form of a monarchy.
    • Ch. 19: New Consequences of the Principles of the Three Governments

Book VI: Consequences of the Principles of Different Governments with Respect to the Simplicity of Civil and Criminal Laws, the Form of Judgments, and the Inflicting of Punishments

  • The wickedness of mankind makes it necessary for the law to suppose them better than they really are.
    • Ch. 17: Of the Rack

Book VII: Consequences of the Different Principles of the Three Governments with Respect to Sumptuary Laws, Luxury and the Condition of Women

  • Les républiques finissent par le luxe; les monarchies, par la pauvreté.
    • Translation: Republics end through luxury; monarchies through poverty.
    • Ch. 4: Of Sumptuary Laws in a Monarchy

Book VIII: Of the Corruption of the Principles of the Three Governments

  • La corruption de chaque gouvernement commence presque toujours par celle des principes.
    • The deterioration of a government begins almost always by the decay of its principles.
    • Ch. 1: General Idea of this Book
    • Variant translations:
    • The corruption of each government generally begins with that of the principles.
      • As translated by Thomas Nugent (1752)
    • The decay of every government almost always dates from the decay of the principles on which it is founded.
      • As quoted in Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1893), edited by James Wood, p. 224
  • The principle of democracy is corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality, and when each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him. Then the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges. When this is the case, virtue can no longer subsist in the republic.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Corruption of the Principles of Democracy
  • Democracy has, therefore, two excesses to avoid — the spirit of inequality, which leads to aristocracy or monarchy, and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads to despotic power, as the latter is completed by conquest.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Corruption of the Principles of Democracy

Book IX: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to a Defensive Force

  • If a republic be small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection.
    • Ch. 1: In What Manner Republics Provide for their Safety
  • It is difficult for the united states to be all of equal power and extent.
    • Ch. 3: Other Requisites in a Confederate Republic

Book X: Of Laws in Relation They Bear to the Offensive Force

  • La société est l'union des hommes, et non pas les hommes...
    • Translation: Society is the union of men and not the men themselves; the citizen may perish, but man remains.
    • Ch. 3: Of the Right of Conquest

Book XI: Of the Laws Which Establish Political Liberty, with Regard to the Constitution

  • There is no word that has admitted of more various significations, and has made more different impressions on human minds, than that of Liberty. Some have taken it for a facility of deposing a person on whom they had conferred a tyrannical authority; others for the power of choosing a person whom they are obliged to obey; others for the right of bearing arms, and of being thereby enabled to use violence, others in fine for the privilege of being governed by a native of their own country or by their own laws.
    Some have annexed this name to one form of government, in exclusion of others: Those who had a republican taste, applied it to this government; those who liked a monarchical state, gave it to monarchies. Thus they all have applied the name of liberty to the government most conformable to their own customs and inclinations: and as in a republic people have not so constant and so present a view of the instruments of the evils they complain of, and likewise as the laws seem there to speak more, and the executors of the laws less, it is generally attributed to republics, and denied to monarchies. In fine as in democracies the people seem to do very near whatever they please, liberty has been placed in this sort of government, and the power of the people has been confounded with their liberty.
    • Ch. 2: Different Significations of the Word Liberty
  • Liberty is the right of doing whatever the laws permit, and if a citizen could do what they forbid he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow-citizens would have the same power.
    • Ch. 3: In What Liberty Consists
  • Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?
To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. A government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits.
  • Ch. 4: The Same Subject continued
  • The political liberty of the subject is a tranquillity of mind, arising from the opinion each person has of his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.
    • Ch. 6: Of the Constitution of England
  • In every government there are three sorts of power: the legislative; the executive in respect to things dependent on the law of nations; and the executive in regard to matters that depend on the civil law.
    By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted. By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies, establishes the public security, and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call the judiciary power, and the other, simply, the executive power of the state.
    When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
    Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
    There would be an end of every thing, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.
    The executive power ought to be in the hands of a monarch, because this branch of government, having need of dispatch, is better administered by one than by many: on the other hand, whatever depends on the legislative power, is oftentimes better regulated by many than by a single person.
    But, if there were no monarch, and the executive power should be committed to a certain number of persons, selected from the legislative body, there would be an end of liberty, by reason the two powers would be united; as the same persons would sometimes possess, and would be always able to possess, a share in both.
    • Ch. 6: Of the Constitution of England

Book XII: Of the Laws that Form Political Liberty, in Relation to the Subject

  • This punishment of death is the remedy, as it were, of a sick society.
    • Ch. 4: That Liberty is Favoured by the Nature and Proportion of Punishments
  • It is an important maxim, that we ought to be very circumspect in the prosecution of magic and heresy. The accusation of these two crimes may be vastly injurious to liberty.
    • Ch. 5: Of Certain Accusations That Require Particular Moderation and Prudence
  • The laws do not take upon them to punish any other than overt acts.
    • Ch. 11: Of Thoughts
  • Great punishments, and consequently great changes, cannot take place without investing some citizens with an exorbitant power.
    • Ch. 18: How Dangerous it is in Republics to be too Severe in Punishing

Book XIII: Of the Relation Which the Levying of Taxes and the Greatness of the Public Revenues Bear to Liberty

  • The public revenues are a portion that each subject gives of his property, in order to secure or enjoy the remainder.
    • Ch. 1: Of the Public Revenues
  • The effect of wealth in a country is to inspire every heart with ambition: that of poverty is to give birth to despair. The former is excited by labour, the latter is soothed by indolence.
    • Ch. 2: That it is Bad Reasoning to Say that The Greatness of Taxes is Good in its Own Nature
  • It is a general rule that taxes may be heavier in proportion to the liberty of the subject, and that there is a necessity for reducing them in proportion to the increase of slavery. This has always been and always will be the case. It is a rule derived from nature that never varies.
    • Ch. 12: Relation Between the Weight of Taxes and Liberty

Book XIV: Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of Climate

  • Politics are a smooth file, which cuts gradually, and attains its end by slow progression.
    • Ch. 13: Effects Arising from the Climate of England

Book XV: In What Manner the Laws of Civil Slavery Relate to the Nature of Climate

The state of slavery is in its own nature bad...
  • Slavery, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel. … where it is of the utmost importance that human nature should not be debased or dispirited, there ought to be no slavery. In democracies, where they are all upon equality; and in aristocracies, where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavors to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have.
    • Ch. 1: Of Civil Slavery
  • I would as soon say that religion gives its professors a right to enslave those who dissent from it, in order to render its propagation more easy.
    This was the notion that encouraged the ravagers of America in their iniquity. Under the influence of this idea they founded their right of enslaving so many nations; for these robbers, who would absolutely be both robbers and Christians, were superlatively devout.
    Louis XIII was extremely uneasy at a law by which all the negroes of his colonies were to be made slaves; but it being strongly urged to him as the readiest means for their conversion, he acquiesced without further scruple.
    • Ch. 4: Another Origin of the Right of Slavery
It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
  • De petits esprits exagèrent trop l'injustice que l'on fait aux Africains.
    • Weak minds exaggerate too much the injustice done to the Africans.
    • Ch. 5: Of the Slavery of the Negroes
    • Montesquieu precedes the following statement with several others thereby making the statement sarcastic or satirical when read in context, lampooning the attitudes of the supporters of slavery:
    • Were I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the negroes, these should be my arguments:
      • The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans, for clearing such vast tracts of land.
      • Sugar would be too dear if the plants which produce it were cultivated by any other than slaves.
      • These creatures are all over black, and with such a flat nose that they can scarcely be pitied.
      • It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body.
      • It is so natural to look upon color as the criterion of human nature, that the Asiatics, among whom eunuchs are employed, always deprive the blacks of their resemblance to us by a more opprobrious distinction.
      • The color of the skin may be determined by that of the hair, which, among the Egyptians, the best philosophers in the world, was of such importance that they put to death all the red-haired men who fell into their hands.
      • The negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their wanting common sense?
      • It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
      • Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans. For were the case as they state it, would the European powers, who make so many needless conventions among themselves, have failed to enter into a general one, in behalf of humanity and compassion?
Montesquieu proceeds in Ch. 6 to state: "It is time to inquire into the true origins of the right of slavery. It ought to be founded on the nature of things; let us see if there be any cases where it can be derived thence..." he then examines systems of despotism which result in various levels of contractual slavery, and in Ch. 7 concludes:
  • There are countries where the excess of heat enervates the body, and renders men so slothful and dispirited that nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcilable to reason; and the master being as lazy with respect to his sovereign as his slave is with regard to him, this adds a political to a civil slavery.
    Aristotle endeavors to prove that there are natural slaves; but what he says is far from proving it. If there be any such, I believe they are those of whom I have been speaking.
    [Those who accept it as a contractual arrangement, in a general system of despotism.]
    But as all men are born equal, slavery must be accounted unnatural, though in some countries it be founded on natural reason; and a wide difference ought to be made between such countries, and those in which even natural reason rejects it, as in Europe, where it has been so happily abolished.

Book XVIII: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to the Nature of the Soil

  • Mankind by their industry, and by the influence of good laws, have rendered the earth more proper for their abode.
    • Ch. 7: Of Human Industry
  • The culture of lands requires the use of money.
    • Ch. 15: Of People Who Know the Use of Money
  • The prejudices of superstition are superior to all others, and have the strongest influence on the human mind.
    • Ch. 18: Of the Power of Superstition

Book XIX: Of Laws in Relation to the Principles Which Form the General Spirit, Morals and Customs of a Nation

  • I shall be obliged to wander to the right and to the left, that I may investigate and discover the truth.
    • Ch. 1: Of the Subject of this Book
  • Liberty itself has appeared intolerable to those nations who have not been accustomed to enjoy it. Thus pure air is sometimes disagreeable to such as have lived in a fenny country.
    • Ch. 2: That it is Necessary People's Minds Should be Prepared for the Reception of the Best Laws
  • There are two sorts of tyranny: one real, which arises from oppression; the other is seated in opinion, and is sure to be felt whenever those who govern establish things shocking to the existing ideas of a nation.
    • Ch. 3: Of Tyranny
  • It is the business of the legislature to follow the spirit of the nation, when it is not contrary to the principles of government; for we do nothing so well as when we act with freedom, and follow the bent of our natural genius.
    • Ch. 5: How Far We Should be Attentive Lest the General Spirit of a Nation be Changed
  • All lazy nations are grave; for those who do not labour regard themselves as the sovereigns of those who do.
    • Ch. 9: Of the Vanity and Pride of Nations
  • A revolution formed by liberty becomes a confirmation of liberty. A free nation may have a deliverer: a nation enslaved can have only another oppressor. For whoever is able to dethrone an absolute prince has a power sufficient to become absolute himself.
    • Ch. 27: How the Laws Contribute to Form the Manners, Customs, and Character of a Nation

Book XX: Of Laws in Relation to Commerce, Considered in its Nature and Distinctions

  • Fain would I glide down a gentle river, but I am carried away by a torrent.
    • Ch. 1: Of Commerce
  • Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.
    • Ch. 1: Of Commerce
  • Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who traffic with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling: and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Spirit of Commerce
  • It is a true maxim that one nation should never exclude another from trading with it, except for very great reasons.
    • Ch. 9: Of the Prohibition of Commerce
  • The avarice of nations makes them quarrel for the movables of the whole universe.
    • Ch. 23: To What Nations Commerce is Prejudicial

Book XXI: Of Laws in Relation to Commerce, Considered in the Revolutions it has met with in the World

  • Commerce is sometimes destroyed by conquerors, sometimes cramped by monarchs; it traverses the earth, flies from the places where it is oppressed, and stays where it has liberty to breath: it reigns at present where nothing was formerly to be seen but deserts, seas, and rocks; and where it once reigned now there are only deserts.
    • Ch. 5: Other Differences
  • The history of commerce is that of the communication of the people.
    • Ch. 5: Other Differences
  • Slowness is frequently the cause of much greater slowness.
    • Ch. 6: Of the Commerce of the Ancients
  • The first Greeks were all pirates.
    • Ch. 7: Of the Commerce of the Greeks
  • Great commanders write their actions with simplicity; because they receive more glory from facts than from words.
    • Ch. 11: Of Carthage and Marseilles
  • The compass opened, if I may so express myself, the universe.
    • Ch. 21: The Discovery of Two Worlds, and in What Manner Europe is Affected by it

Book XXII: Of Laws in Relation to the Use of Money

  • Money is a sign which represents the value of all merchandise.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Nature of Money
  • I shall ever repeat it, that mankind are governed not by extremes, but by principles of moderation.
    • Ch. 22: The Same Subject continued

Book XXIII: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to the Number of Inhabitants

  • Men who have absolutely nothing, such as beggars, have many children.
    • Ch. 11: Of the Severity of Government
  • There are countries where a man is worth nothing; there are others where he is worth less than nothing.
    • Ch. 17: Of Greece and the Number of its Inhabitants
  • Christianity stamped its character on jurisprudence; for empire has ever a connection with the priesthood.
    • Ch. 21: Of the Laws of the Romans Relating to the Propagation of the Species
  • A man is not poor because he has nothing, but because he does not work.
    • Ch. 29: Of Hospitals
  • The alms given to a naked man in the street do not fulfil the obligations of the state, which owes to every citizen a certain subsistence, a proper nourishment, convenient clothing, and a kind of life not incompatible with health.
    • Ch. 29: Of Hospitals

Book XXIV: Of Laws in Relation to Religion Considered in Itself, and in its Doctrines

  • It is a misfortune to human nature, when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.
    • Ch. 4: Consequences from the Character of the Christian Religion, and that of the Mahometan
  • Human laws, made to direct the will, ought to give precepts, and not counsels; religion, made to influence the heart, should give many counsels, and few precepts.
    • Ch. 7: Of the Laws of Perfection in Religion
  • Penances ought to be joined with the idea of labour, not with that of idleness; with the idea of good, not with that of supereminence; with the idea of frugality, not with that of avarice.
    • Ch. 12: Of Penances
  • As both religion and the civil laws ought to have a peculiar tendency to render men good citizens, it is evident that when one of these deviates from this end, the tendency of the other ought to be strengthened. The less severity there is in religion, the more there ought to be in the civil laws.
    • Ch. 14: In What Manner Religion has an Influence on Civil Laws
  • The most true and holy doctrines may be attended with the very worst consequences when they are not connected with the principles of society: and on the contrary, doctrines the most false may be attended with excellent consequences when contrived so as to be connected with these principles.
    • Ch. 19: That it is not so much the Truth or Falsity of a Doctrine Which Renders it Useful or Pernicious to Men in Civil Government, as the Use or Abuse of it
  • When religion appoints a cessation from labour it ought to have a greater regard to the necessities of mankind than to the grandeur of the being it designs to honour.
    • Ch. 23: That it is Dangerous for Religion to Inspire an Aversion for Things in Themselves Indifferent

Book XXV: Of Laws in Relation to the Establishment of Religion and its External Polity

  • Men are extremely inclined to the passions of hope and fear; a religion, therefore, that had neither a heaven nor a hell could hardly please them.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Motives of Attachment to Different Religions
  • Les hommes, fripons en détail, sont en gros de très honnêtes gens.
    • Translation: Men, who are rogues individually, are in the mass very honorable people.
    • Ch. 2: Of the Motives of Attachment to Different Religions

Book XXVI: Of Laws in Relation to the Order of Things Which They Determine

  • We ought not to decide by divine laws what should be decided by human laws; nor determine by human what should be determined by divine laws.
    • Ch. 2: Of Laws Divine and Human

Book XXIX: Of the Manner of Composing Laws

  • Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.
    • Ch. 16: Things to be Observed in the Composing of Laws

Book XXX: Theory of the Feudal Laws Among the Franks in Relation they Bear to the Establishment of the Monarchy

  • Nothing is a greater obstacle to our progress in knowledge, then a bad performance of a celebrated author; because, before we instruct we must begin with undeceiving.
    • Ch. 15: That What They Called Census was Raised only on the Bondmen and not on the Freemen

Book XXXI: Theory of the Feudal Laws Among the Franks in Relation they Bear to the Revolutions of their Monarchy

  • Very good laws may be ill timed.
    • Ch. 21: The Same Subject continued