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
11 of 32

Book VII

Consequences of the Different Principles of the Three Forms of Government, Relative to Sumptuary Laws, to Luxury, and to the Condition of Women.


The effect of luxury, is the employment of industry, in a useless and hurtful manner.
Spirit of Laws, Book VII.


I regret the necessity of being so frequently opposed to the opinions of a man whom I respect; but this necessity has been the cause of the present undertaking, and it is this opposition to opinions, which I deem erroneous, and consequently injurious, which I conceive will constitute the usefulness of my work; consequently, my determinations are already made, and I have resolved not to avoid the danger of a collision with a writer so justly celebrated, but to advance my opinions with the boldness of conscious truth, leaving it to the reader to form his own judgment upon the several subjects.


Helvetius, with reason, reproaches Montesquieu, for not having clearly defined luxury; and consequently for treating the subject in a vague and unsatisfactory manner: it therefore becomes necessary in the first place, to determine with precision, the signification of the term luxury, so much abused. Luxury, properly consists in expenditures, which are non-productive, whatever the expenditures may be: as a proof that the nature of the expence is not involved in the question, a jeweller may employ one hundred thousand dollars in cutting a diamond and fabricating other jewels, without any act of luxury on his part, because he calculates on disposing of them with a profit; but if a man purchases a snuff box or a ring for fifty eagles, for his personal use, this to him is a luxurious expenditure. A farmer, a jockey, a waggoner, may keep two hundred horses, without any act of luxury, because they are the tools of their trade; but if an idle person keeps two horses for no purpose but riding for his pleasure, this is luxury. If an owner of a mine or a manufactory, causes a steam engine to be constructed for use, this is an expenditure of economy; but if a person fond of gardening, should cause a steam engine to be erected, merely for the purpose of watering his garden, this would be a luxurious expenditure: no man expends more on fashionable apparel than a taylor, but the luxury is not with him, but with those who wear them.


Without multiplying examples, we may perceive that what really constitutes luxurious expenditures, is their unprofitable nature: however, as we cannot provide for our wants, nor procure any enjoyments, but by expenditures, from which no profits in kind are derived; and as we must subsist, and even obtain enjoyments to a certain extent, which is in truth the object of all our labors, of society itself, and of all its institutions, those expences only can be considered luxurious, which are neither necessary nor profitable; otherwise consumption and luxury would be confounded and mistaken for the same thing.


But absolute necessity has no very definite limits; it is susceptible of extension and restriction; it varies according to climate, season, strength, age, and even according to educated habits, which are a second nature. A man placed in a severe climate, in a sterile district, or who is either sickly or old, is subjected to a greater portion of wants, than a young Indian in good health who can go almost naked, lie down under a palm tree and nourish himself with its fruit. In the same climate, the objects of real necessity are more extensive, when you refer to a man brought up in ease, who has had little occasion to exercise his bodily strength, and has exercised his intellectual faculties a great deal, than for one who has been brought up in poverty and passed his youth in the exercise of some laborious trade.


There is, moreover, among a civilized people, a sort of conventional necessity, which, though much exaggerated, is not imaginary, but founded on reason: it is in fact of the same nature as the expenditure of a workman for the tools necessary to his trade, for they belong to the profession exercised. The long and warm garment of studious persons, would not suit a herdsman, a hunter, a waggoner, or an artisan, for these it would be a luxury and inconvenience; in the same manner as the cuiras of the ancient soldier, or the pompous costume of the tragic actor would be to the lawyer. A man whose vocation requires of him to receive a great many people, and cannot go to see them, must be better lodged than the one who can traverse the town; he whose business obliges him to become acquainted with a great many people, to see them, hear them, speak to them, and act with or for them, should be enabled to receive them in his house, and consequently be at more expence than a man without connexions. This is the situation of many public officers. Even a person who does not exercise any public function, but whose fortune is ample, should expend more liberally and give greater activity to consumption, in order that he may not, however benevolent, be reputed parsimonious, or too selfish; because it is a matter of real necessity, for every man to possess the esteem that justly belongs to him, and particularly when it does not mislead him to do what is unjust; such expences are only an employment of means, in a manner somewhat less useful than they might have been. I am aware to what extent vanity, which desires to appear what it is not; and rapacity, which takes possession of what does not belong to it; have often abused considerations like these to color their excesses: but it is nevertheless true, that the empire of necessity has not any very certain bounds, and that luxury, properly so called, only commences where necessity terminates.


The essential character of luxury, is expenditures which are neither necessary nor productive: which is sufficient to shew the absurdity of those who pretend that the encrease of luxury enriches a nation: it is as if a merchant were advised to encrease his household expences, in order to render his affairs more prosperous; such expences might be indeed a sign, though a very uncertain sign, of his wealth, but it could in no manner be the means of enriching him. It must be evident, that a tradesman by reducing the expences of his business, obtains a greater profit, if the same quantity of merchandize equally good be produced; yet it is said that the more a nation expends, the more opulent it must be: this is most preposterous. But it is said, that luxury encourages commerce and industry, by causing money to circulate rapidly: does it not rather change the wholesome current of circulation, and render it less useful, without at all augmenting it. Let us make a calculation.


My property consists of land, and I have besides a sum of an hundred thousand dollars arising from the produce of those lands. This sum is certainly the product of the labor and skill of those who superintended my farms, who raised produce equal to that value, over and above the expences of their own subsistence and all their workmen, and the just profit of each; certainly this amount produced from the estate is not the fruit of expence, but of economy; for if the farmers and their assistants, had consumed as much as they had produced, nothing would have accrued to me: the same might be said, if the same amount had been produced by commerce, manufactures, or any other useful employment in society; and had it been expended as it accrued, nothing necessarily could have remained.


I now employ this sum in useless expenditures, and consume it all on myself; I have scattered it abroad; it has passed through numerous hands, who have worked for me; several people have been supported therewith, and this is the amount of the expenditure, for their work is thrown away and nothing remains; it produced me some temporary satisfaction of the same nature, as if the people had been employed in amusing me with fireworks or other spectacles: if, on the contrary, I had employed this sum in useful objects, the money would have been no doubt scattered abroad also, and a like number of men supported from it, but their work would have produced something of permanent utility. The improvement of the soil would ensure a more considerable revenue in future; a house built would receive a tenant; a road opened, a bridge constructed, would encrease the value of the adjoining lands, and open new sources of intercourse, consumption, and commerce, which, by a fair interest, would produce advantage to me, or to the public. Merchandize bought or fabricated, not for my consumption, but for sale, or even distributed to the indigent, would either produce a profit to me, or aid to sustain many who might otherwise have perished through want. This is an exact comparison of the two methods of expending.


If we should suppose, that instead of employing my money in one of those ways, I have lent it, the operation is only indirect, it is not changed; it only requires to be known, how the person who has borrowed employs it, and what use I make of the interest accruing therefrom, and according to that use, it will produce one of the two effects which we have treated of. It is exactly the same in effect, as if I had bought with my hundred thousand dollars, more ground, producing a certain additional revenue.


If we suppose again, that instead of employing or lending my capital, I have buried it, this is the only case wherein it can be supposed that it would have been better had I expended it even fruitlessly, because then some one might have profited by my extravagance.


But here I must observe, first: that this is not a rational course of conduct, but direct folly; and the more so because it affects most the person who acts so absurdly; and it is a course evidently such as can have no influence on the rich generally, nor is it so often met with in countries where the spirit of economy prevails, as in those where luxury predominates; for the productive nature of capital, and the manner of employing it, is there better known.


Secondly: this folly, of so little importance as scarcely to merit our attention, is yet less hurtful than is generally imagined; for it is not goods that are buried but precious metals, and the merchandize which procured it, has been carried into the general consumption, and fulfilled its purposes in society: it is therefore only a quantity of bullion that has been withdrawn from general use; and if it were possible for the quantity to be perceptible, the result would only be.... that what remains in circulation would possess a proportionately greater value, and represent more of merchandize and the products of industry; and consequently their use would be the same. If any inconvenience could arise from this incident, it would be in relation to foreign commerce, for foreigners might then obtain the products of the country at a lower price, and yet the country would be compensated, in some measure, by the advantage arising to its manufacturers, in enabling them to sell at a lower price than the manufacturers of other countries, which is well understood to be a great principle of superiority in political economy; and this superiority, nations rich in metals cannot counterbalance but by greater skill in fabricating, and greater talents in speculations; capacities which they sometimes possess, not because they are rich, but because such qualifications belong to the long established habits of the nation, and have enriched it: but this is pursuing ultimate consequences to an extreme which they can never reach.


Consequently, I think it may be concluded that luxury relative to economy, is always an evil, a continual cause of misery and weakness; it constantly debilitates by the excessive consumption of some, and the destruction of the produce of labor and industry of others; and these effects are so powerful, though not often understood, that so soon as it ceases for a short space in a country where there is little activity, there is directly perceived an encrease of riches and strength really prodigious.


What is here deduced from reason, history sustains by facts: Holland was capable of efforts almost incredible, when her admirals lived like sailors, and when all her citizens were employed in enriching or defending the state, and in raising tulips and collecting pictures: all subsequent political and commercial events have tended towards its decay: it has preserved the spirit of economy, and yet possesses considerable riches, in a country where other people could scarcely live.


Now let us suppose Amsterdam to be the residence of a splendid and magnificent court, its ships exchanged for embroidered garments, and its magazines converted into assembly rooms; in a few years it would scarcely be able to defend itself against the irruptions of the sea. When was it that England, notwithstanding all her misfortunes and faults, made the most prodigious efforts.... Was it under Cromwell or Charles II.? I am sensible that moral causes have a greater effect, than economical calculations: but these moral causes only augment resources, by directing all our efforts towards solid objects; which is the reason, that treasures are not wanting, either to the state or individuals, for great undertakings, because they have not been employed uselessly.


From what cause is it that the United States of America, in their agriculture, industry, commerce, wealth, population, have doubled in less than twenty-five years: it is because, they produce more than they consume. That their position is favorable, and their productions immense, I agree; but if their consumption were greater than their production, they would impoverish themselves, they would languish, and become as miserable as the Spaniards, notwithstanding all the advantages they possess.


Let us resort to a still more striking example: France, under its old government, was not so miserable as it has been represented by many Frenchmen; nevertheless, it was far from flourishing; its population and agriculture were not retrograding, but remained apparently stationary; and if in any particular circumstance the French made some progress, it was less than several neighboring nations, and consequently not in proportion with the progress of general information: it had no credit, and was constantly in need of funds to defray useful expences; its financial resources were inadequate to the common charges of government, still less to support any great external efforts; and notwithstanding the genius, numbers, and activity of its people, the fertility and extent of its soil, and the advantages of a long peace, its rank among its rivals was sustained with difficulty, and had ceased to be respected by foreign nations.


The French revolution commenced, and the nation suffered every evil of which society is susceptible; it was torn to pieces by wars, alternately civil and foreign: several of its provinces were laid waste, and their towns destroyed by flames; every village and hamlet pillaged by lawless banditti or military commissaries; its external commerce was annihilated; its fleets wholly destroyed, though subsequently partially recovered; the colonies, which were held to be essential to its prosperity, were torn from it; and with the additional aggravation that all the men and treasure expended in establishing and conquering them were lost irretrieveably; its specie had disappeared with the emigrants. By the enormous creation of paper money, at a period of internal famine France maintained fourteen armies on her frontiers; yet with all these calamities combined, it is now well known that its population and agriculture have augmented considerably in a few years, and now (1806), without any change in her favor in relation to external commerce, to which so much importance had been generally attended; without having had a single moment of peace to recruit its losses, France at this moment supplies immense funds from taxes, expends vast sums in public works, and can accomplish all this without borrowing; such is her power on the continent of Europe, that nothing can resist it; and were it not for the British navy, France might subdue the universe. To what causes are we to attribute these extraordinary effects? The change of a single circumstance in the state of society, has been competent to effect it all.


Under the ancient order of things, the greater part of the useful labor of the inhabitants of France, was employed every year in producing the wealth, which constituted the immense revenue of the court, and all the opulent classes of society; the revenues of the state were almost wholly consumed in luxurious expenditures, that is to say, in supporting a very large proportion of the population, whose labor produces really nothing beyond the gratification of a few individuals. At once this whole system disappeared, and when order was again resumed, almost all these revenues entered into different channels, part into the hands of the new government, part into the hands of the laboring classes; the same number of people have been nourished, but their labor has been employed on objects of general usefulness or necessity; and the product has been found, besides fulfilling all these purposes, competent to defend the state against external attacks, and to encrease its internal productions.*7


Ought we to be surprized at these consequences, when we reflect, that for a considerable space of time, as a necessary consequence of the general commotion and distress, there was not in France scarcely a single idle citizen, nor one employed on any labor that was not useful? Those who had previously been employed in building coaches, were now occupied in constructing artillery carriages; those who before had wrought in embroidery and lace, now made linens and coarser clothing; those who had ornamented sumptuous palaces, tilled the earth, or toiled in the barn; and even those who during times of peace enjoyed every luxury, were under the necessity of becoming useful in order to subsist. This is the secret, which unfolds the resources of a nation in a great crisis; when every thing becomes useful; when even things before useless and unnoticed, are turned to general advantage: these are the causes which astonish us, only because, from their simplicity, we overlook them.


And thus by a very simple analysis, we discover the emptiness of college declamation on the frugality, sobriety, detestation of pomp, and all those democratical virtues of poor and agricultural nations, which furnish so many themes for those who can comprehend neither cause nor effect. It is not because those nations are poor or ignorant that they are powerful, but because nothing is lost of the natural strength which they possess. A man who owns an hundred dollars and expends them well, is possessed of more means, than one who wastes a thousand at the gaming table; now supposing the like to be practised in a rich and enlightened nation, the same effects will be produced as in the French, which have exceeded all that Rome ever accomplished, because they have overcome more formidable and potent obstacles. If Germany, for example, should only for four years, relinquish the revenue now expended in sustaining the pomp of numerous courts of petty princes and rich abbies, to the laborious and frugal classes, we should soon be sensible what a powerful nation it is competent to become. If, on the contrary, we suppose that the ancient order of things were to be entirely re-established in France, we should soon perceive, notwithstanding the great increase of territory.... languor in the midst of resources.... misery surrounding riches.... weakness in full possession of all the means of becoming powerful.


But it will be objected to me, that I attribute only to the distribution of labor and riches, the effects of a multitude of moral causes of the greatest energy: I do not pretend to deny the existence of such causes, since, with all rational men, I confess their existence, nay more shall undertake to explain their operation: I admit that the enthusiasm of liberty which prevailed within, and the apprehension of menaced desolation from without, the indignation which was universally excited against domestic injustice and oppression, and the still greater execration against unprovoked and premeditated aggressions from abroad, were by themselves sufficient to have effected great changes in France: but it must be admitted that those changes have only furnished the passions with so many means of success, and that even the many errors and acts of horror into which the violence of the crisis plunged them, the effect has been to produce greater energy and a better employment of their faculties and resources. The good of human society consists in the proper application of labor, the evil in its loss; by which is implied, that when men are occupied in providing for their wants, they are satisfied; but when time is wasted without utility the effect is suffering: I blush at the idea that there should be any occasion to demonstrate a truth so self-evident; but we must not lose sight of the extent of its consequences, which are very great.


An entire work might be composed on the subject of luxury, and if well executed would be very useful, for it is a subject which has never been properly investigated: we might shew that luxury or a taste for useless expences, is to a certain extent only the effect of a natural disposition in man to seek continually for new enjoyments, when he possesses the means, and the power of habit which renders it necessary to his happiness that he should continue to possess the same enjoyments, even when it becomes difficult to procure them; consequently that luxury inevitably follows industry, the progress of which nevertheless it retards, and the riches which it tends to destroy. For the same reason, when a nation has fallen from its greatness, either by the spirit of luxury or any other cause, the nation may survive the prosperity whence its greatness had been derived, but in such circumstances as to render the return of a like prosperity impossible, unless some violent convulsion produces new impulses of the human facilities, which leading naturally to self-preservation, effects a complete regeneration of society. It is the same with respect to individuals.


From these principles it ought to be shewn, that in the opposite situation, when a nation first takes its place in civilized society, the progress of its industry and information, should be greater than that of luxury, in order that its prosperity may be durable. It is perhaps, principally to an attention to this principle, that the great rise of the Prussian monarchy, under its second and third kings, should be attributed: an example which cannot but embarrass those who pretend that luxury is so necessary to a monarchy. It is a due attention to this principle, which, in my opinion, will ensure the duration and prosperity of the United States; and it is reasonable to believe, that any neglect or disregard of the advantages to be derived from the acceleration of internal industry, in a greater measure than the progress of luxury, might render imperfect, if not destroy that prosperity and frustrate the ends of civilization.


The kinds of luxury which are most pernicious, might be pointed out to notice: unskilfulness in the manufacture of useful things, may be considered as a pernicious luxury, because it occasions a great waste of valuable time and labor: the principal, and almost only source of luxury, properly so called, that is great fortunes, should be explained, for it would be scarcely possible, if there existed only moderate fortunes: idleness itself, in this case, would hardly appear, which is a kind of luxury, since if it be not an useless waste of time, it is the suppression of productive labor.*8 The branches of industry, which rapidly produce great fortunes, are, therefore, subject to an inconveniency, which strongly counterbalances their advantages: it is not those, which a nation just forming, should desire to see flourishing. Maritime commerce is of this description: agriculture, on the contrary, is preferable, its productions are slow and limited. Industry, properly so called, as manufactures of utility and necessity, are without danger, and very advantageous; their profits are not excessive, success and permanence are difficult, requiring great practical knowlege, besides other estimable qualifications, and producing the happiest effects. A capacity for fabricating objects of the first necessity, is particularily to be desired in a nation. It is not because the manufacture of objects of luxury may be used in the country that produces them, that they are advantageous, but because such productions are like the religion of the court of Rome, of which it was said, it is not calculated for home consumption, but for foreign exportation: but it must be admitted, that there is some danger of our becoming intoxicated with the liquor which we preserve for the gratification of our friends.


All these things, and many others, should be explained in such a work, and which do not properly belong to my subject, nor can I be expected here to give a history of luxury: all that is required of me, is to define it, and point out its influence on the wealth of nations; which I believe I have done.


Luxury is then a great evil, in relation to economy, and still greater in a moral point of view, which is at all times, the most important of all the interests of men, and especially when the inclination for superfluous expence, the principal source of which is the vanity that excites and nourishes it, is in question: it renders the mind frivolous and affects the soundness of the understanding; it produces disorderly manners, which occasions many vices, extravagance, and distraction in families; it easily seduces women to depravity, and men to covetousness, and leads both to disregard delicacy and probity, and to forsake every generous and tender sentiment; in short it enervates the soul by debasing the mind, and it produces these sad effects, not only on such as enjoy it, but also on all who are subservient to, or who from seeing and desiring, learn to admire it.


Notwithstanding these dreadful consequences, we must agree with Montesquieu, that luxury is particularly proper for monarchies.... and that it is necessary to such governments; that is to say, to aristocracies under a single chief:.... but it is not for the cause he assigns, in order to animate circulation, or that the poor class may obtain part of the riches of the opulent class: for we have seen that in whatever manner these expend their income, they always support the same number of people; the difference being, that in the one case they pay for useful labors, in the other for useless. If the expenses of luxury should be carried so far as to require the sale of real property to support it, circulation is not thereby increased, because the purchaser might have employed his money in some more active manner. But this is contrary to the principle established by Montesquieu himself in the preceding book, in which he with reason makes it a necessary condition to the duration of a monarchy, that there shall be established perpetuity of illustrious families.


If then, as must be admitted, the monarch is interested in encouraging and favoring luxury, it is because it is necessary for him to excite vanity, to inspire a great respect for external splendor; to render the mind frivolous and light, in order to divert it from serious occupation; to keep up the sentiment of rivalry among different classes of society; to make all sensible of the necessity of money; and to ruin those of his subjects, whose enormous wealth might render their power or influence dangerous. Without doubt, the monarch is often under the necessity of repairing the disordered affairs of distinguished families, whom it is necessary he should support by pecuniary sacrifices; but with the power which they procure him, he acquires the means of procuring yet greater resources, at the expense of others. Such is the policy of a monarchy, as we have already seen: we shall only add, by way of contrast, the representative government, of which we have also explained the nature and principles. This government can have no motive for encouraging the natural weakness of man in superfluous expenses, but quite the opposite interest, and consequently it is never called upon to sacrifice part of the strength of society, for the purpose of governing it quietly. It is not necessary to enter into any more details on this subject.


Should those governments, whose interest it is to oppose the progress of luxury, have recourse to sumptuary laws? I need not here repeat, that sumptuary laws, are always an abuse of authority, an attempt against property, and can never accomplish their object. I shall only observe, that they are useless, when the spirit of vanity is not continually excited by all the institutions of the country; when the misery and ignorance of the lower class are not so great, as to produce in them a stupid reverence for pomp; when the means of acquiring great fortunes with rapidity are rare; when such fortunes, after being acquired, are promptly dispersed by an equal distribution, to heirs of both sexes; when in short, every thing gives to the mind another direction, and inspires a taste for rational enjoyments; when, in a word, society is happily regulated, or which is the same thing, happy from the absence of unnecessary regulation.


These are the true means of preventing luxury; all other measures are only miserable expedients. I am very much surprized that a man, like Montesquieu, should carry these expedients so far, that in order to reconcile the pretended moderation which he has made the principle of his aristocracy, with what he assumes as the interest of the people, he approves of the nobles at Venice expending their riches on courtesans; and applauds the republics of Greece, who expended their treasure in dramatic exhibitions and concerts of music; and that he even discovers, that sumptuary laws are eligible in China, because the women there are prolific. Fortunately he concludes, that the least important should be destroyed, which if true, does not agree with the principle from which it originates.


Women are beasts of burden among savages, domestic animals among barbarians, alternately tyrants and victims among people addicted to vanity and frivolity: it is only in a country where liberty and reason predominate, that they are the happy companions of husbands of their choice, and the respectable mothers of tender families raised by their care. Neither the Samnites*9 nor the Sunnites marriages, nor the dances of the Spartans, could produce a like effect. It is inconceivable, where every thing was so preposterous and repugnant to nature, that the silliness of these fooleries has not been perceived, any more than the horrible nature of the domestic tribunals of the Romans. Women are no more destined to command or to serve than men; in either station, their smiles are not those of virtue or happiness, and we may safely affirm, that the principle is uniform and universal.

Notes for this chapter

The suppression of feodal rights and clerical tythes, part of which remained to the farmer, and part went to the coffers of the state, has tended very much to encrease the industry of the agriculturist, and enable government to dispense with various vexatious taxes; and these formed but a small proportion of the revenues of the class that consumed without usefulness.
The only idle persons who may be approved of, are those who occupy their time in study, and particularly in the study of man: these only are specified, and for good reasons; they shew how far others are admissable, and they are not those who have the strongest claim.
Voltaire has remarked, in his Commentaries on the Spirit of Laws, that the history of those singular marriages is extracted from Stobæus, and that Stobæus speaks of the Sunnites, a people of Scythia, and not of the Samnites.... a matter of little importance.

Book X

End of Notes

11 of 32

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