Doubtless, if Montesquieu were forced to choose a favorite mathematical formula, he would pick the average function. For even among the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, the baron de Montesquieu stands out as an especially impassioned advocate for moderation. Montesquieu, of course, left his greatest mark on the philosophy of the governance through his great work The Spirit of the Laws. Though certainly his earlier work The Persian Letters sowed the seeds of many of the ideas featured in his chef d’œuvre. In particular, Montesquieu spends some time in both works examining the universe of possible governments. But he advocates not, in fact, for republicanism or, perhaps less surprisingly, despotism. Rather, Montesquieu supports the “moderate” position: a government less despotic than despotism, and yet less democratic than democracy or republicanism. He makes the case, in other words, for rule by an enlightened monarch.
Montesquieu himself divides the principal forms of government into three broad groupings in his seminal work The Spirit of the Laws. At one extreme he places the “republican” government, at the other the despotic. The “monarchical” he places somewhere in the center (Spirit of the Laws bk. II, ch. 1). The ordering alone belies Montesquieu’s stance; of course other evidence is more explicit.
To begin, Montesquieu does little to disguise his distaste for despotic governments. Even Usbek, Rhedi and Rica, Montesquieu’s invented Persian aristocrats in The Persian Letters—whose nobility flows from a despotic Asian government—find fault with the despotic system, as if to underline the system’s lack of merit. Usbek says of European states, “A week’s imprisonment, or a small fine, impress the mind of a European who has been brought up in a humane country as greatly as the loss an arm would intimidate an Asian” (Persian Letters 159). Further, Usbek notes a few paragraph later, “When Osman, the Turkish emperor, was deposed, none of the men who performed the deed had any intention of carrying it out; they were simply petitioners asking for some cause of complaint to be put right” (Persian Letters 159). Here, Montesquieu shows not only subject’s suffering at the despots cruel hand, but also stresses the intrinsic instability of a despotic government.
This case is made even more explicitly in The Spirit of the Laws. In Book III, for instance, Montesquieu ascribes a fundamental principle to each of the three types of government he outlines. But while Montesquieu names “virtue” as the principle of a republican government and “honor” as the principle of a monarchical government, the despotic system is given the fundamental principle of “fear” (Spirit of the Laws bk. III, ch. 9, par. 1), easily the least noble of the three.
By contrast, Montesquieu does not make his distaste for the republican system nearly as overt. In his discussion of the history of republics, the character Rhedi writes of the ancient Greek...