A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws"

Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de
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Thomas Jefferson, trans.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: William Duane
Pub. Date

Book IV

The Laws Relating To Education, Should Be Congenial with the Principles of the Government.


Those governments which are founded on reason, can alone desire that education should he exempt from prejudice.... profound and general.
Spirit of Laws, Book IV.


The title of this book, is the declaration of a great truth, which is founded on another, no less true, which may be expressed in these terms: government is like every thing else, to preserve it you must love it. Our education, therefore, ought to instil into us sentiments and opinions in unison with the established institutions, without which we may become desirous of overturning them: now we all receive three kinds of education.... from our parents.... from our teachers.... and from the world. All three, to act properly, should tend to a common end. These sentiments are correct, but they comprise all the utility which is to be found in this book of Montesquieu; who declares, that in despotic states the children are habituated to servility; that in monarchies, at least among courtiers, a refined politeness, a delicate taste, an artificial sensibility of which vanity is the principal cause, are contracted; but he does not inform us how education disposes them to acquire these qualities, nor which of them are common to the rest of the nation.


To what he calls the republican government he gives as its principle self denial, which he says, is a principal thing. In consequence he manifests for many of the institutions of the ancients, considered with regard to education, an admiration in which I cannot participate: I am much surprized to see this in a man who has reflected so much: the strength of first impressions must have been very great on his mind, and is an exemplification of the importance of a correct elementary education.


For myself, I avow, that I will not blindly adopt all that was said to me in explaining Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, or even Aristotle. I frankly acknowlege, that I do not admire Sparta, any more than La Trappe, nor the laws of Crete, (even if I were satisfied that we are well acquainted with them) any more than the rules of St. Benedict. It does not accord with my conceptions, that in order to live in society, a man must render violence to himself and to nature, and speak only the language of mystics. I look upon all the effects of that gloomy enthusiasm, as false virtue, as splendid imposition, which, by exciting men to hardihood and devotedness, renders them at the same time malignant, austere, ferocious, sanguinary, and above all unhappy. This, in my opinion, never was nor ever can be the object of society. Man requires cloathing, not hair cloth; his dress ought to comfort and protect him, without causing pain, unless for some useful and necessary end: the same principles apply to education and to government.


Now if all this were not true, or if no attention were paid to it; and if happiness and good sense (inseparable things) were to be considered of no account; and that institutions were, according to Montesquieu, to be regarded only as relative to the duration of the established government, I should equally condemn those forced passions, and unnatural regulations. Fanaticism is itself a state of violence, and by address, under favorable circumstances, it may be kept up for a longer or a shorter period; but in its nature it cannot last; nor can any government erected on such a foundation, long endure.*5


Montesquieu informs us, that in reserving to himself the right of judging on the different forms of political society, he only notices in laws what appears favorable or unfavorable to each of the several forms. He then reduces them all into three kinds, despotic, monarchical, and republican; the last of which he subdivides into two species, democratic and aristocratic, describing the democratic as essentially republican; after which he describes the despotic government as abominable and absurd, and precluding all laws: the republican, by which is understood the democratic government, he describes as insupportable and almost as absurd; at the same time that he expresses the greatest admiration of the principles of this form of government: whence it follows, that the aristocracy under several chiefs, to which however under the name of moderation he attributes so many vices, and the aristocracy under a single chief, which he calls monarchy, and to which under the appellation of honor he imputes a still greater portion of vices, are the only forms which meet his approbation: indeed these two are the only kinds among those he describes, which he says are not absolutely against nature. Of this enough, since it will be admitted that nothing can prove more clearly the errors of the classification of governments: we shall therefore return to our own, and offer a few considerations on the subject of education, which Montesquieu has thought proper to leave untouched.


I lay it down as a fundamental principle, that in no case has the government a right to take children from their parents, to educate or dispose of them without their consent or participation, it being contrary to our natural feelings, and society ought to follow and not resist nature; beside that whenever we attempt to alter any thing from its natural direction, it is sure to return with celerity to its primitive position; we cannot long contend with it, either in the physical or moral order of the world: he must therefore be a very rash legislator who dares to oppose the paternal instinct, much more the maternal which is still stronger; no example can excuse his imprudence, particularly in our times.


This being established, the only counsel that can be given to government on the subject of education, is to provide such gentle means or regulation, as that the three kinds of education, which men successively receive, from their parents, from their teachers, and from intercourse with society, shall be in unison with each other, and all tend towards the maintenance of the principles of the government.


With regard to the second stage or instruction, that derived from teachers, it may have a very powerful and direct influence, through the various public institutions for education which are established or favored, and by the elementary books which are there admitted or excluded; for whatever may be the character of such establishments, it generally happens through necessity or habit, that the greater part of the citizens are educated and their minds formed in public seminaries of education: and as for the smaller number who receive a private education, even they are strongly influenced by the spirit of the public institutions.


The education received from parents and from intercourse with the world, are altogether subject to the force of public opinion: the government cannot dispose of these despotically, because they cannot be subjected to command; but it may attach them in its favor, by means which are always in its power to influence public opinion; and it is well known how effectual these means are, particularly when employed with address and allowed due time to operate; for the two great principles of moral action, fear and hope, are always more or less within the power of the government, and in every sense and relation.


Without having recourse to those violent and arbitrary acts, too much admired in certain ancient institutions, and which, like every thing founded on fanatacism, or enthusiasm, can have but a temporary duration, governments possess a multitude of means, by which they may direct every kind of education so as to conform to their views. It only remains to enquire how each form of government should employ its influence, commencing with those which we have called special, or which admit of exclusive rights, and amongst them that denominated monarchical.


In a hereditary monarchy, where the prince is acknowleged to possess particular rights (and consequently interests) distinct from those of the nation, which are founded either on conquest, or on the respect due to an ancient possession; or on the existence of a tacit, or express compact, where the prince and his family are considered as a contracting party; or on a supernatural character, or a divine mission; or on all these together: he ought to inculcate and propagate the maxims of passive obedience, and a profound veneration for the established forms.... a confidence in the perpetuity of the political establishments.... and a great dislike for the spirit or innovation and enquiry, or the discussion of political principles.


With these views he ought above all things to call to his view, religious ideas, which taking possession of the mind from the cradle, make durable and deep impressions, form habits, and fix opinions, long before the age of reflexion; nevertheless he should take care previously to attach the priesthood to his interests, by making them dependant upon his favor; otherwise they being the propagators of those ideas, may employ them to their exclusive benefit, establish an interest in the state hostile to his, and form a source of distraction instead of a means of stability. This precaution taken, among the religions out of which he may have to select, he ought to give the preference to that which imposes the most effective submission on the mind, and prohibits all enquiry; which gives to precedent, custom, tradition, faith, and credulity, the force of authority; and propagates the greatest portion of dogmas and mysteries; he ought by every means to render his selected sect exclusive and dominant, though in such a manner as not to excite alarms or too great prejudices against it; and if he cannot find a sect which completely fulfils all these objects, he should, as in England, give the decided preference to that which approaches the nearest to this description.


These first objects accomplished, and these first ideas established in the mind, the second care of the prince should be to devise such attractions as may render the people affable and gay, light and superficial; the belles lettres and fine arts, works of imagination and dramatic exhibitions; the taste for society, and the advantages of those accomplishments best adapted to succeed in the fashionable world; all these afford ample means in the hands of the government capable of contributing powerfully to the intended effect: erudition and the exact sciences can produce no bad consequences, therefore those amiable and useful studies, may be encouraged or honored; the brilliant career of the French in all these elegant acquirements, the admiration which has followed them, and the vanity which has arisen out of them, are certainly the principal causes which have for a long time diverted them from serious business and philosophical researches, propensities which a prince should always repress and discourage. If he succeeds in these courses, he has nothing more to do, to insure the stability of his reign than to encourage in all classes a spirit of individual vanity, and a desire for distinction; for this purpose, it will be only necessary to establish a variety of ranks and titles, privileges, and distinctions, attaching the greatest value to such as permit the holder to approach nearest to his person.


Without entering into any more details, this I believe is the manner in which education in a hereditary monarchy ought to be conducted, always keeping in view the precaution to disseminate information very moderately among the lower classes of people, confining them almost exclusively to religious knowlege; for this class requires to be kept in a state of mental inferiority and ignorance, and the indulgence of their animal passions, lest from attending to and admiring what is above them, the desire of altering or changing their miserable condition should grow up in their minds, as well as to prevent their entertaining ideas of the possibility of a change, which would render them the blind and dangerous instruments of fanatical or hypocritical reformers, any more than of those reformers whose views may be benevolent and enlightened.


Nearly the same may be said with respect to an elective monarchy, but with this difference, that it approaches nearer the hereditary aristocracy, of which we shall presently speak. For an elective monarchy, always a government of little stability, would be without any solidity unless supported by a strong aristocracy, and otherwise would soon become a popular and turbulent tyranny, and of short duration.


The government in which the nobles are acknowleged to be in possession of rights of sovereignty, and where the rest of the nation is considered as legally under their subjection, have in many respects the same interests relative to education, as the hereditary monarchies: they differ however in a remarkable manner. The institution of a nobility is not so imposing as that of a monarchy, which partakes something of the nature of religious superstition; nor is their power so concentrated or firm; they cannot with the same confidence or plausibility employ the machinery of religious ideas; for if the priesthood should attain too much influence, they might become formidable rivals, as their credit with the people might balance the authority of the government; and by forming a party among the nobles, the priests might divide them, thereby destroy their power, and assume it themselves: such a government, therefore, must use this dangerous means with great circumspection and discretion.


If, as at Berne, they have to deal with a clergy destitute of wealth, power, ambition, or enthusiasm, professing a simple religion, which possesses little power over the imagination, they may, without danger, make use of religious means, peaceably to direct the people, and to keep them in a mixt condition characterised by innocence and reason, and conformable to their interests, in an insulated position, admitting but of few relations with foreign nations, and favoring the system of moderation and half confidence.


But if, as at Venice, the nobles have to act with a rich, ambitious, turbulent clergy, dangerous on account of their dogmas and dependance on a foreign sovereign, they must above all things provide against their enterprizes. They should not suffer the spirit of religious institutions to obtain too great influence, for it would soon be turned against them; nor dare they combat it by enlightening the people, for this would soon destroy the spirit of dependance and servility; they can, therefore, only weaken the force of superstitious power, by plunging the people into disorder, intemperance, and vice; neither dare they to make a stupid flock of them under the direction of their pastors, but they must rather degrade them into a miserable and depraved mob, subject to the constant yoke of a rigid police, but still sufficiently prone to superstition; these are the only means of preserving their authority: contiguity to the sea, the influence of extensive commerce, and various laborious occupations, are useful in these circumstances.


Here we may perceive, that an aristocracy, with regard to the education of the people, ought to act like a monarchical government; though it is not the same, with respect to the superior order of society; for in an aristocracy, the governing body requires, that its members should obtain instruction, as solid and profound as possible; a disposition to study, an aptitude for business, a capacity for reflection, a temper disposed to circumspection and prudence, even in its amusements; grave and even simple manners, at least in appearance, and as much as the national spirit requires. The nobles ought to be perfectly acquainted with the human mind, the interests of different conditions, and a knowlege of human affairs at large, were it only to be prepared to counteract them, when brought in hostility to their body. As they are the sole governors, political science in all its compass ought to be their principal study, their incessant occupation; care should be taken, not to instil into them that spirit of levity, vanity, and thoughtlessness, which is infused into the nobles of a monarchy; for it would be the same in effect, as if a monarch were to make himself as frivolous, as it is his interest his subjects should be, the evil effects of which would soon be felt; nor must we forget, that the authority of an aristocracy is always more easily overthrown, than that of a monarch, and is less competent to resist a powerful shock: this last consideration, shews the interest, which the members of an aristocracy have in confining all information to themselves, and that they have yet much more cause to fear an enlightened people, than the monarchical authority; although in the end it is always from that quarter, that attempts really dangerous proceed, after having once overcome the feudal anarchy.


This, I believe, is nearly all we have to say of aristocratical governments in regard to education. To pursue with exactness all the parts of the classification which I have adopted, and complete what concerns the class of governments, which I denominate special, I should now treat of that democracy, which is established on particular rights and stipulations, but of which I shall now say nothing; nor of the pure or simple democracy, which is founded on the rights of the nation, these two conditions of society, being almost imaginary; nor could they exist but among an uncivilized people, where no attention can be paid to education of any kind; and indeed to perpetuate such a state, all education, properly so called, should forever be banished. The same may nearly be observed with respect to what is commonly called despotic government, and which is nothing else than monarchy in a state of stupidity: for which reason I shall in like manner pass it over, and proceed to the examination of the class of governments denominated national, under the monarchical, aristocratical, and representative forms.


The two first, in as much as they have the same interest, and should observe the same conduct, as those which we have already spoken of; but in so much as they are national, they should have more respect for their people, since their authority is delegated by the general will; and they can also place more confidence in them, as they professedly exist only for the greater good of all.


It is consequently not so much their interest to debase or deprave the people, nor entirely to enervate or vitiate the minds of the higher class; for if they should succeed, the rights of men would soon be forgotten or misunderstood, and they would thereby lose the character of a national or patriotic government, which constitutes their principal strength; and in the end would be obliged, in order to support itself, to assume particular rights more or less disputable, and thereby reduce it to the condition of those governments which we have called special; this would never be freely consented to and avowed in a nation, where the true national and individual rights had once been established; hence these governments should never endeavor to lay reason and truth altogether aside; they ought only in some respects, and on certain points, to obscure the one and violate the outer; in order that from certain principles, certain consequences too rigorous may not be constantly inferred. There remains no other particular advice relative to education, to be given them.


The pure representative democracy, can in no respect fear truth, its best interest is to protect it; founded solely on reason and nature, its only enemies are error and prejudice; it ought constantly to attend to the propagation of accurate and solid knowlege of all kinds; it cannot subsist unless they prevail; all that is good and true is in its favor; all that is bad or false, is repugnant to it: it ought then by all means, to propagate and favor instruction, and its general diffusion, for it stands yet more in need of rendering knowlege accurate and general, than of encreasing the variety: knowlege being essentially united with justice, equality, and sound morality, the representative democracy should prevent the worst of inequalities, comprising all others, the inequality of talents and information, among the different members of society: it should endeavor to prevent the poor class from becoming vicious, ignorant, or miserable; the opulent class from becoming insolent and fond of false knowlege; and should cause both to approach that middle point, at which the love of order, of industry, of justice, and reason, naturally establish themselves; for by position and interest, it is equally distant from all excesses: whence it will not be difficult to perceive what is to be done by this form of government, relative to education, and it would be superfluous to enter into any details.


Thus we terminate the chapter, to follow Montesquieu in the examination of the laws proper for each particular form of government.

Notes for this chapter

This is the place, to recall to mind what we have said of the laws of nature and of positive laws; these last should never be contrary to the first. Had Montesquieu, as we have done, commenced with analysing the word law, instead of giving an obscure definition, he might have saved himself much labor and avoided many pernicious mistakes.

Book V

End of Notes

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