Montesquieu is a major French political thinker of the 18th century, known for his theory of the separation of powers. In his most famous work, De l’Esprit des Lois (“The Spirit of the Laws”), he defends the idea that monarchy can be an effective system of government if it is framed by institutions and laws that limit the powers of the king. In this article, we will examine another aspect of Montesquieu’s thinking on monarchy and its impact on modern politics.
In chapter XI of his book De l’Esprit des Lois, Montesquieu compares monarchical government and despotic government.
For Montesquieu, who titles this chapter “On the excellence of monarchical government”, it is clear that monarchical government is better than despotic government.
It is in particular the stability of the monarchical regime which is an asset, as Montesquieu writes:
Monarchical government has a great advantage over despotic government. As it is of its nature that there are under the prince several orders which hold to the constitution, the State is more fixed, the constitution more unshakable, the person of those who govern more assured.
It is in this context that Montesquieu explains to us how the notions of civil wars and revolutions are reversed according to the regime in place, always in chapter XI.
Thus all our histories are full of civil wars without revolutions; those of despotic states are full of revolutions without civil wars.
With these words, Montesquieu associates revolutions with despotic government.
At the time, the word Revolution found its meaning by analogy with health, itself derived from astronomy. The 4th edition of the Dictionary of the French Academy (1762) specifies indeed:
One calls Revolution of humors, An extraordinary movement in the humors, which alters health. It is also said figuratively of the change that happens in public affairs, in the things of the world.