aristotle and montesquieu on virtue in a democracy

Adam Smith introduces the key term in our study in style:[1]

Virtue, according to Aristotle, consists in the habit of mediocrity according to right reason. Every particular virtue, according to him, lies in a kind of middle between two opposite vices, of which the one offends from being too much, the other from being too little affected by a particular species of objects. Thus the virtue of fortitude or courage lies in the middle between the opposite vices of cowardice and of presumptuous rashness, of which the one offends from being too much, and the other from being too little affected by the objects of fear. Thus too the virtue of frugality lies in a middle between avarice and profusion, of which the one consists in an excess, the other in a defect of the proper attention to the objects of self-interest. Magnanimity, in the same manner, lies in a middle between the excess of arrogance and the defect of pusillanimity, of which the one consists in too extravagant, the other in too weak a sentiment of our own worth and dignity.

Today, we explain the ethical doctrines of Aristotle in different terms. Unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle does not seek to establish a rational foundation for ethics. Unlike Plato, he does not ground it in the transcendent principle of the Good. Instead, he locates them in happiness (εὐδαιμονία), understood as activity of the soul (ψυχῆς ἐνέργειά). Aristotle speaks of three kinds of goods, goods of the soul (τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς), goods of the body (τὰ τοῦ σώματος), and external goods (τὰ ἐκτὸς ἀγαθά), in a descending order of ethical significance. Honor (τιμή) is the greatest of external goods, for power and wealth are desirable only for the honor they bring. As regards the highest goods, Aristotle recognizes three states of the soul. Every such state is either an emotion (πάθος), a capacity (δύναμις), or a disposition (ἕξις). Of these three things, virtue (ἀρετή) is the last, inclining its subject, accustomed by his habits, to have appropriate feelings (Nicomachean Ethics (NE) II.1105b25-26). Every ethical virtue is the mean (τὸ μέσον), an intermediate condition between two other states, one involving excess (ὑπερβολή), and the other deficiency (ἔλλειψις) (NE II.1106a26-b28). Aristotle distinguishes between ethical and dianoetic virtues. Ethical virtues are concerned with praxis, actions in the world. Dianoetic virtues are concerned with contemplation.
    In his Politics Aristotle considered the matter of the best conceivable constitution (πολιτεία) alongside with that of the closest approximation thereto attainable under the given circumstances. In the ideal scenario, justice is aristocratic. It assigns political rights to the best (ἄριστοι) among the citizens. According to Aristotle, the best are those who are distinguished both in wealth (πλοῦτος) and in virtue (ἀρετή) (Politics (P), III.1281a4-8). Aristotle identifies three good regimes as kingship, aristocracy, and polity, and their corresponding perversions as tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. He accounts for the best constitution in reliance upon each citizen having moral virtue and the equipment to carry it out in practice, and thereby attain a life of excellence and complete happiness (P VII.13.1332a32-8). The second-best system typically takes the form of a polity that relies upon its citizens having an inferior grade of virtue, or a constitution defined by combination (σύνθεσις) or mixing (μῖξις), incorporating features of democracy (δημοκρατία), oligarchy (ὀλιγαρχία), and aristocracy (ἀριστοκρατία), whereby no group of citizens would be in a position to abuse its rights.
    Charles de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu is justly recognized as the provider of primary inspiration for the American Constitution. Unlike Aristotle, Montesquieu is not a systematic, but an episodic thinker. But what his system lacks in rigorous analysis, it compensates for in a historically informed synthesis of political experience.
    In treating the first pair of Aristotelian regimes, Montesquieu distinguishes the principle of monarchy, which is honor, from the principle of despotism, which is fear. He identifies the principle of an aristocratic government as moderation. And the principle of democracy is political virtue. Herewith the argument that he makes to this effect:[2]

    Du principe de la démocratie     Of the Principle of Democracy
    Il ne faut pas beaucoup de probité pour qu’un gouvernement monarchique ou un gouvernement despotique se maintiennent ou se soutiennent. La force des lois dans l’un, le bras du prince toujours levé dans l’autre, règlent ou contiennent tout. Mais, dans un État populaire, il faut un ressort de plus, qui est la VERTU.     Not much probity is needed for maintaining or sustaining a monarchical government or a despotic government. The force of laws in one, and the prince’s perpetually raised arm in the other, rule or constrain the whole. But in a popular State, one more recourse is necessary, which is VIRTUE.
    Ce que je dis est confirmé par le corps entier de l’histoire, et très conforme à la nature des choses. Car il est clair que dans une monarchie où celui qui fait exécuter les lois se juge au-dessus des lois, on a besoin de moins de vertu que dans un gouvernement populaire où celui qui fait exécuter les lois sent qu’il y est soumis lui-même et qu’il en portera le poids.     What I say is confirmed by the entire body of history, and befits the very nature of things. For it is clear that in a monarchy, where he who enforces the execution of the laws generally judges himself above them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government, where he who enforces the execution of the laws understands that he himself is subject to them and will bear their force.
    Il est clair encore que le monarque qui, par mauvais conseil ou par négligence, cesse de faire exécuter les lois, peut aisément réparer le mal : il n’a qu’à changer de conseil, ou se corriger de cette négligence même. Mais lorsque, dans un gouvernement populaire, les lois ont cessé d’être exécutées, comme cela ne peut venir que de la corruption de la république, l’Etat est déjà perdu.     It is also clear that a monarch who, through bad advice or neglect, ceases to enforce the execution of the laws, may easily repair the damage; he has only to follow other advice; or to cure his neglect. But when, in a popular government, the laws have ceased being executed, as this can proceed only from the corruption of the republic, the State is already undone.
    Ce fut un assez beau spectacle, dans le siècle passé, de voir les efforts impuissants des Anglois pour établir parmi eux la démocratie. Comme ceux qui avoient part aux affaires n’avoient point de vertu, que leur ambition étoit irritée par le succès de celui qui avoit le plus osé, que l’esprit d’une faction n’étoit réprimé que par l’esprit d’une autre, le gouvernement changeoit sans cesse ; le peuple étonné cherchoit la démocratie et ne la trouvoit nulle part. Enfin, après bien des mouvements, des chocs et des secousses, il fallut se reposer dans le gouvernement même qu’on avoit proscrit.     A very fine spectacle it was, in the last century, to behold the impotent efforts of the English towards the establishment of democracy among themselves. As those who partook in the public affairs were void of virtue, as their ambition was inflamed by the success of the most daring of their members, as the spirit of one faction was extinguished only by the spirit of another, the government was continually changing; the people, in their astonishment, sought democracy and found it nowhere. At last, after many commotions, tremors, and shocks, they were obliged to have recourse to the very government which they had proscribed.
    Quand Sylla voulut rendre à Rome la liberté, elle ne put plus la recevoir : elle n’avoit plus qu’un faible reste de vertu; et comme elle en eut toujours moins, au lieu de se réveiller après César, Tibère, Caïus, Claude, Néron, Domitien, elle fut toujours plus esclave : tous les coups portèrent sur les tyrans, aucun sur la tyrannie.     When Sulla desired to restore her liberty to Rome, she was no longer capable of receiving it; she had but a feeble remains of virtue; and as she continued to diminish in it, instead of being roused after Caesar, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, Nero, and Domitian, she continued to descend into slavery; all her blows aimed at the tyrant, not at the tyranny.
    Les politiques grecs, qui vivaient dans le gouvernement populaire, ne reconnaissaient pas d’autre force qui pût le soutenir que celle de la vertu. Ceux d’aujourd’hui ne nous parlent que de manufactures, de commerce, de finances, de richesses, et de luxe même.     The politic Greeks, who lived under a popular government, knew no force that could support it, other than virtue. The present day inhabitants of that country never speak but of manufacture, commerce, finances, opulence, and luxury.
    Lorsque cette vertu cesse, l’ambition entre dans les coeurs qui peuvent la recevoir, et l’avarice entre dans tous. Les désirs changent d’objets : ce qu’on aimait, on ne l’aime plus ; on étoit libre avec les lois, on veut être libre contre elles ; chaque citoyen est comme un esclave échappé de la maison de son maître ; ce qui étoit maxime, on l’appelle rigueur ; ce qui étoit règle, on l’appelle gêne ; ce qui étoit attention, on l’appelle crainte. C’est la frugalité qui y est l’avarice, et non pas le désir d’avoir. Autrefois le bien des particuliers faisait le trésor public ; mais pour lors le trésor public devient le patrimoine des particuliers. La république est une dépouille ; et sa force n’est plus que le pouvoir de quelques citoyens et la licence de tous.     When virtue is banished, ambition enters the hearts that are disposed to receive it, and avarice enters all of them. The desires change their objects; what once they loved, they love no longer; they were free under the laws, and now they want to be free to act against them; each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master’s house; that which was a maxim of equity they call severity; that which was a rule of action they call trouble; that which was precaution they call fear. It is frugality, and not the craving for gain, which now passes for avarice. Formerly the wealth of private persons constituted the public treasure; but now the public treasure has become the patrimony of private persons. The republic is reduced to mere appearance; and its strength is but the power of a few citizens, and the licence of all.
    Athènes eut dans son sein les mêmes forces pendant qu’elle domina avec tant de gloire, et pendant qu’elle servit avec tant de honte. Elle avoit vingt mille citoyens lorsqu’elle défendit les Grecs contre les Perses, qu’elle disputa l’empire à Lacédémone, et qu’elle attaqua la Sicile. Elle en avoit vingt mille lorsque Démétrius de Phalère les dénombra comme dans un marché l’on compte les esclaves. Quand Philippe osa dominer dans la Grèce, quand il parut aux portes d’Athènes, elle n’avoit encore perdu que le temps. On peut voir dans Démosthène quelle peine il fallut pour la réveiller : on y craignoit Philippe, non pas comme l’ennemi de la liberté, mais des plaisirs. Cette ville, qui avoit résisté à tant de défaites, qu’on avoit vue renaître après ses destructions, fut vaincue à Chéronée, et le fut pour toujours. Qu’importe que Philippe renvoie tous les prisonniers ? Il ne renvoie pas des hommes. Il étoit toujours aussi aisé de triompher des forces d’Athènes qu’il étoit difficile de triompher de sa vertu.     Athens had at her bosom the same forces when she triumphed so gloriously as when she was enslaved with such infamy. She had twenty thousand citizens, when she defended the Greeks against the Persians, when she contended for empire with Sparta, and when she attacked Sicily. She had twenty thousand when Demetrius Phalereus numbered them, as slaves are counted by the head in a market place. When Philip dared to lord it over Greece, when he appeared at the gates of Athens, she had even then lost nothing but time. We may see in Demosthenes what effort it took to awaken her; she dreaded Philip, not as the enemy of liberty, but of pleasures. This city, which had withstood so many defeats, which has been witnessed risen out of her ashes, was vanquished at Chaeronea, and vanquished forever. What matters that Philip returns all her prisoners? He does not return her men. It was ever since as easy to triumph over the forces of Athens, as it had been difficult to triumph over her virtue.
    Comment Carthage auroit-elle pu se soutenir ? Lorsque Annibal, devenu préteur, voulut empêcher les magistrats de piller la république, n’allèrent-ils pas l’accuser devant les Romains ? Malheureux, qui vouloient être citoyens sans qu’il y eût de cité, et tenir leurs richesses de la main de leurs destructeurs ! Bientôt Rome leur demanda pour otages trois cents de leurs principaux citoyens ; elle se fit livrer, les armes et les vaisseaux, et ensuite leur déclara la guerre. Par les choses que fit le désespoir dans Carthage désarmée, on peut juger de ce qu’elle auroit pu faire avec sa vertu, lorsqu’elle avoit ses forces.     How was Carthage able to sustain herself? When Hannibal, upon becoming praetor, wished to debar the magistrates from plundering the republic, did they not denounce him to the Romans? Wretches, who wished to be citizens without a city, and be beholden for their riches to the hand of their destroyers! Rome soon demanded three hundred of their principal citizens as hostages; she forced them next to surrender their arms and ships; and then she declared war. From the deeds that arose from the despair of this disarmed city, one may judge what she might have done in her full force, assisted by virtue.

It is this conception of political virtue that gives rise to the paradoxical reciprocity between terror and virtue, as postulated by Maximilien Robespierre before the French National Convention on 5 february 1794:[3]

Si le ressort du gouvernement populaire dans la paix est la vertu, le ressort du gouvernement populaire en révolution est à la fois la vertu et la terreur : la vertu, sans laquelle la terreur est funeste; la terreur, sans laquelle la vertu est impuissante. La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu’une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressans besoins de la patrie. If the recourse of democratic government in time of peace is virtue, the recourse of democratic government in revolution is at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an issuance of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

As I have argued elsewhere, our societies have yet to live down the fallout from this postulation.

Footnotes:

[1] The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part VII: Of Systems of Moral Philosophy, Section II: Of the Different Accounts which have been given of the Nature of Virtue, Chapter I: Of those Systems which make Virtue consist in Propriety.

[2] Montesquieu, De L’Esprit des Lois, Première partie, Livre III, Des Principes des trois gouvernements, Chapitre III, Du principe de la démocratie, in Œuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 1949, t. II, pp. 251-253. All translations are by MZ.

[3] Maximilien Robespierre, Rapport sur les principes de morale politique qui doivent guider la Convention nationale dans l’administration intérieure de la République, discours devant la Convention le 17 pluviôse an II (5 février 1794), in Œuvres complètes, ed. Eugène Déprez et al., Paris, 1910-1967, vol. X, p. 357, quoted by David P. Jordan in “The Robespierre problem”, in Colin Haydon, William Doyle (editors), Robespierre, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 29.

5 thoughts on “aristotle and montesquieu on virtue in a democracy”

  1. Correct me if i’m wrong, but this is my basic take on what this entails.

    A ‘healthily’ functioning democracy can withstand practically any assault on its existance. ‘Healthily’ is here taken to embody the ‘political virtue’ of the state and the ‘virtue’ of its citizenry, obviously including those citizens who are public workers. The credence of virtue empowers them to make the right choices and take the right actions. In the face of enemies from abroad it is able to make use of ‘terror’, in these cases – organized warfare, to defend itself.

    However, in the face of a revolution with a just cause, the state still seeks to defend its ways and continues to resist change, however slight and seemingly well founded. It must put up defence against the defiance and resist against the resistance. Terror and virtue at once beget more terror and virtue.

    It is at this last stage one must ask… how can this be so? One of the virtuous must infact be unfounded lies, a misleading imposter, a fake, a misnomer, a grand deception, a mistake.

    If we are to take anything from what Montesquieu is saying, it is this:
    Unable to set aside self-interest in order to agree on a common interest; the corrupt will inherently tear themselves apart.

    So if the democratic government is corrupt, it will surely fall, for it no longer has its virtues and virtuous for recourse. Patching it up only prevents the inevitable.

    Although the revolution will succeed, it can only go as far as its virtues allow it. If it becomes mired in corruption and the corrupt itself, then it will become that which it sought to destroy.

    And so the cycle continues… only history will tell if progression has been made.

    —-

    I want to say so much more, but i know it’ll just be my babbling about alsorts of seemingly disconnected stuff. I’ll leave it here. The effects of terror on the apathy of the citizenry or their choice of sides in relation to non-violent movements is interesting to ponder though.

    1. Not in the spirit of correction, but in returning to our source, let us consider being on the side of a revolution with a just cause. On the face of it, Robespierre had every reason to inaugurate the rule of terror in defending the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, against enemies foreign and domestic. On the face of it, George W. Bush has every reason to resort to far less extravagant measures such as extraordinary rendition of alien suspects and judicially unauthorized surveillance of domestic communications, in promoting democratic values among peoples of alternative complexions and competing confessions. The French precedent led to Thermidor, Bonaparte, imperial expansion, defeat at the hands of the reactionary alliance, restoration, bourgeois revolutions, radical experiments, coup d’état, the Second Empire, defeat at the hands of newly united Germany, the Third Republic, anarchist propaganda by the deed, and so on. Notably, as witness recent perturbations, France remains much more precariously balanced in its social contract, which is likely to represent the optimal configuration of socialism available in this century.
          Three questions come to mind. Firstly, has anything really changed in the relevant political equations since 1794? Secondly, how far can enemies foreign and domestic push a modern society, as distinct from the old regime instantiated in XVIIIth century France or XXIst century Saudi Arabia, before it embarks on its cycle of oscillation between revolution and reaction? Lastly, how much political virtue do our societies have on hand to countervail the forces poised to precipitate this cycle?

      1. I’m not sure how to follow this. I’m also unsure of the connection between extraordinary rendition/unauthorized surveillance and promotion of democratic values.

        Maybe i should ask some questions in order to answer your own. How far does suffrage for women and minorities affect the political landscape? To what extent has corporate activity affected government, through party donations, lobby groups and interchange of personel? What relevence does Dwight D. Eisenhower’s retiring speech on the “military-industrial complex” have in the modern era? How accountable are Private Military Companies? Who funds and trains terrorists and, in turn, who funds and trains them? How does the dynamic of ‘escalation’ affect domestic law enforcement and where does it end? Where are the virtuous in society and are they in, or gain, a position to do something about the non-virtuous? How efficient is the Gross Domestic Product at measuring the health of a society, or, better yet, its content of virtue?

        That’ll do for now i guess. Just stuff to think about 🙂

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