Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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DESPOTISM. Montesquieu defines despotic government to be, that in which "a single person, without law and without rule, carries everything by his will and caprice." He distinguishes it from absolute government or monarchy, in which a single man rules also, but conformably to fixed laws.


—According to Guizot, despotism is nothing else than absolute power, whenever this power, "instead of being a means, becomes the end itself, and the monarch, guided by views completely egoistical, seeks in power only the satisfaction of his own passions, of his insignificant and transient personality." The distinguishing mark of despotism, then, is selfishness. Following this theory, this same writer depicts Philip the Fair as "an egoistical despot, devoted to himself, reigning for himself alone, and asking of power nothing but the accomplishment of his own will."


—Still, Guizot does not hesitate to place in the rank of despots, two monarchs, for whom, according to his own statement, power was a means and not an end: "Charlemagne, for example, and Peter the Great of Russia, were real despots, but not exclusively egoistical despots, busied only with themselves, consulting only their own caprices, acting only for personal ends. They both held views with regard to their own country and mankind, in which the satisfaction of their passions had but a small part." (Histoire de la civilisation en France, t. iv.) There are, then, according to Guizot, despots who are egoists, and others who are not; but in this case what becomes of his definition? It is evident that his language, usually so clear, lacks precision here; that he does not go to the root of the matter, and that he confounds despotism with absolute power.


—The same confusion is found in the writings of Benjamin Constant, who, however, understood the difficulty, but did not seek completely to clear it up. "I do not understand by despotism," he says, "governments in which power is not expressly limited, but those in which there are, nevertheless, intermediaries; where traditions of liberty and justice restrain the agents of the administration; in which authority has regard for custom; and in which the independence of the courts is respected. These governments are imperfect: they are more so in proportion as the guarantees which they establish are less assured; but they are not purely despotic." The absence of all limitation to supreme power, and of independent powers to form a counterpoise, is, according to the celebrated publicist of the restoration, the characteristic feature of despotism. This distinguishes it, it is true; but from what? From constitutional government, but not from absolute power, whose character it is also not to admit of limit nor to recognize any independent intermediary, under pain of being no longer absolute.—"I understand by despotism," continues Benjamin Constant, "a government in which the will of a master is the only law; in which corporations, if they exist there, are only its organs; in which this master looks on himself as the sole proprietor of his empire, and sees in his subjects merely usufructuaries; in which liberty can be wrested from the citizen without authority deigning to explain the reason why; in which the courts are subordinated to the caprice of power; in which their decrees may be annulled; and in which the acquitted may be brought before new judges, instructed by their predecessors, who are there only to convict and condemn the accused." (Cours de politique constitutionnelle)


—Instead of the definition which we expect of him, this writer gives us examples which are nearly all as applicable to absolutism as to despotism. But Benjamin Constant goes a step further, and says: "I speak only of the principle of despotism, * * that principle is arbitrary power." It is, in fact, a principle that we are looking for; let us see if this is, really, the true principle. First, how does Benjamin Constant define arbitrary power? "It is," he says, "a negative thing [arbitrary power a negative thing! arbitrary power supposes the exercise of will]; it is the absence of rule, of limit, of definition; in a word, of everything that is precise. Now, as rules, limits and definitions are inconvenient things, one may easily wish to shake off their yoke, and thus fall into the arbitrary without suspecting it." Consequently, and in virtue of this definition, a man might be a despot without knowing it!—But arbitrary power and despotism are far from being the same thing. Doubtless, the arbitrary implies a discretionary power in reference to the object on which it is exercised. Thus, we speak of the arbitrary power of a judge, ad arbitrium judicis, which does not mean his despotism or his tyranny, but only implies the exercise of absolute power. This arbitrary power can be used for good as well as evil, and it in nowise excludes the doing of good.


—We have seen that egoism, which may be met with everywhere, is not the distinctive trait of despotism; nor does arbitrariness constitute its essential characteristic.


—In one of the most eloquent chapters of "The Spirit of Laws," Montesquieu has stated what the principle of despotic government is, better than the two publicists whom we have just quoted. That principle is terror. "The government," he says, "has fear as its principle. Everything here must turn on two or three ideas: it does not, therefore, need new ones. When we train an animal we take good care that his master is not changed, any more than the task he has to learn. We impress on his brain two or three movements, not more. Charles XII., being at Bender, and experiencing some opposition from the senate of Sweden, wrote that he would send one of his boots to command it. This boot would have governed as a despotic king. * * In despotic states, men, like beasts, are the slaves of instinct, obedience and punishment."


—If we follow Montesquieu in his thoughts on despotism, we shall find egoism and arbitrariness put down as the consequences, as the accessory characteristics, but not as the first principle and the motive power, of despotic government.


—Most generally despotism is in the hands of a single man. "It results from the nature of despotic power," says Montesquieu, "that the individual who exercises it causes it to be administered by another individual. The appointment of a vizier is a fundamental law in such a state. It is said that a pope, at his election, conscious of his incompetency, raised numberless objections to his election. He accepted it at length, and turned over to his nephew the whole management of affairs. He was filled with admiration at the result, and said, 'I could never have believed it would be so easy.' And so it is with the princes of the east."


—It would be an error, however, to suppose that despotism is necessarily exercised by a single person. All power may become despotic. History affords us examples of the despotism of representative bodies or of assemblies; and the representative body which in our day declared that it governed by terror, would by that very declaration brand itself a despotism. The majority may, indeed, show themselves despotic and oppress the minority; but the minority may also violently gain possession of power and oppress the majority.


—An aristocracy may be despotic. So may an oligarchy. The example of despotism exercised by a democracy is not rare. Public opinion, which, in modern society, plays so great a part and wields such power that it has been called the queen of the world, becomes despotic when it swerves from the right, and when the fear which it inspires becomes the sanction of its tyranny. Finally, the law itself, which, by its nature is imperative and commands obedience, may also become a despotism, as we shall see directly.


—Still, how is it possible that the majority should ever be despotic? Has it not the right to make the law and impose its will on the minority in every case? Are not its decisions, therefore, always necessarily legitimate? Such was the opinion of J. J. Rousseau, who made the general will the very source of right. According to him, this general will could not err. Legally expressed, it is, he maintains, always right, and always tends to public utility. In it sovereignty resides; and the law which is its act, sharing its infallibility, is absolute, but can never be despotic.


—Benjamin Constant gave forcible expression to the consequences of this doctrine, which attributes to an entire nation, or, to speak more correctly, to the majority, an unlimited authority. "The consent of the majority," he says, "is in nowise sufficient to justify its acts in all cases. There are some which nothing can sanction. When any authority commits such acts, it matters little from what source that authority emanates, it matters little whether it is an individual or a nation; and it may be the whole nation minus the one citizen whom it oppresses; the authority would not be any the more legitimate for that. Rousseau ignored this truth; and his error has made the 'Social Contract,' so often appealed to in favor of liberty, the most terrible ally of every kind of despotism." If a nation actually transfer to its representatives its own unlimited power, and the authority of the depositary is absolute, no member of that nation can have the right to oppose it. "Whatever pleases the prince," say the Institutes of the emperor Justinian, "has the force of law, because the Roman people, by the Lex Regia, which constituted the empire, delegated and conceded to the prince their authority and power." This was the theory of Rousseau reduced to practice.


—Montesquieu, in his "Spirit of Laws," considered despotism one of the three forms of government, one of its three primitive types; and he follows in this the example of Aristotle, "not that he has much to say on the subject, but to give it a place among them, and because he has called it, also, a kind of government." Montesquieu has been bitterly reproached with having raised, in a manner, to the rank of a regular government, a state of things which is merely the negation of right, which rests merely on violence, and is maintained only by fear. To describe it, say what are its laws, tell how it comes into existence, and what are the forces which destroy it, is to do it too much honor. We do not say that the bandit who takes violent possession of a town and pillages it, is the head of a government. Despotism is not less contrary to nature; and it should have been left outside the pale of all law. This criticism has been frequently passed on the "Spirit of Laws" since Voltaire's time. We do not think it is well founded. First of all, it would not be right to believe that Montesquieu justified despotism, nor even that he painted it in too weak colors. "No writer, even in antiquity, has found words more eloquent to stigmatize a state of things no less oppressive to the despot who can not escape it than to the people themselves." He merely found it occupying de facto, if not de jure, a large place in the history of humanity. He saw entire nations fatally condemned to endure it for centuries, by reason of the influence of race, of climate and of religion, and of the most complex causes. He was obliged to take it into account as a fact in the life of nations. He had, moreover, had a predecessor here. Macchiavelli before him had written his book "The Prince," which is neither an apology for, nor a satire on, despotism. The celebrated Florentine submitted a social phenomenon to a cold analysis. He described it without passion, without anger, as Thucydides described the plague.


—Before Macchiavelli, and Montesquieu, Aristotle, whom the two others consulted, and whose principal traits they borrowed, treated the question of despotism thoroughly and exhaustively. According to Aristotle, despotism is contrary to nature, and by nature he understood that which constitutes the complement and the perfection of every being. Despotism is, therefore, contrary to the nature of man considered as a social being. It is an obstacle to his moral development and to the fulfillment of his destiny. (See Aristotle, Politics, book v., ch. xi.)


—We have said that the law itself may be despotic. It is so, whether it emanates from the arbitrary will of an individual, or from the will of several, or even of the majority, if it is not in conformity with the principles of justice and equity which are the invariable and necessary rule of the moral world.


—To say in a few words what it is that makes power legitimate, what it is that distinguishes it from despotism, in whatever hands the power be placed, whether in the hands of one or many, whether limited or unlimited, we may say that what makes power legitimate is justice. "Right is the rule of political society." (Aristotle.) Despotism is nothing but authority exercised in violation of the principles of right. Let us see if this definition is more exact than those which we have criticised. We are told, to begin with, that despotism is egoism; and it is true that egoism must be most frequently, but not always, the secret motive of the despot. Ignorance, prejudice and fanaticism are, much oftener than personal interest, the motives of governing bodies and of the multitude who, having seized upon power, transgress the moral law. We have been told, then, that despotism is arbitrariness; but we have seen that arbitrariness is the attribute of absolute power, which is different from despotism. What is the general character of those acts which all publicists have justly considered as despotic? It is the violation of the liberty of the citizen, the jeopardizing of his life, condemnation and punishment without trial, deprivation of the citizen of his property: in a word, that which characterizes all the crimes of despotism is the violation of justice and the substitution of brute force for right.


—Such was, in substance, the opinion of Benjamin Constant, who did not consider governments despotic, in which the tradition of justice and liberty still lived. (See ABSOLUTISM, ARBITRARY POWER, DICTATOR, LAW, SOVEREIGNTY, TYRANNY.)


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