Study on Sovereignty
Joseph de Maistre
ON THE ORIGINS OF SOVEREIGNTY
CHAPTER I. THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE PEOPLE
It is said that the people are sovereign; but over whom? - over
themselves, apparently. The people are thus subject. There is surely
something equivocal if not erroneous here, for the people which
command are not the people which obey. It is enough, then,
to put the general proposition, "The people are sovereign," to
feel that it needs an exegesis.
This exegesis will not be long in coming, at least in the French system.
The people, it will be said, exercise their sovereignty by means of
their representatives. This begins to make sense. The people are a
sovereign which cannot exercise sovereignty....
There has been much heated discussion on whether sovereignty comes from
God or from men, but I do not know if anyone has noticed that both
propositions can be true.
It is certainly true, in an inferior and crude sense, that sovereignty
is based on human consent. For, if any people decided suddenly not to
obey, sovereignty would disappear; and it is impossible to imagine the
establishment of a sovereignty without imagining a people which consents
to obey. If then the opponents of the divine origin of sovereignty want
to claim only this, they are right, and it would be quite useless to
dispute it. Since God has not thought it appropriate to use supernatural
agents in the establishment of states, it is certain that all
developments have come about through human agencies. But saying that
sovereignty does not derive from God because he has made use of men to
establish it is like saying that he is not the creator of man because we
all have a father and a mother.
Every theist would no doubt agree that whoever breaks the laws
sets his face against the divine will and renders himself guilty before
God, although he is breaking only human ordinances, for it is God who
has made man sociable; and since he has willed society, he
has willed also the sovereignty and laws without which there
would be no society.
Thus laws come from God in the sense that he wills that there should be
laws and that they should be obeyed. Yet these laws come also from men
in that they are made by men.
In the same way, sovereignty comes from God, since he is the author of
all things except evil, and is in particular the author of society,
which could not exist without sovereignty.
However, this same sovereignty comes also from men in a certain sense,
that is to say insofar as particular forms of government are established
and declared by human consent.
The partisans of divine authority cannot therefore deny that the human
will plays some part in the establishment of governments; and their
opponents cannot in their turn deny that God is preeminently the author
of these same governments.
It appears then that the two propositions, Sovereignty comes from
God and Sovereignty comes from men, are not absolutely
contradictory, any more than the other two, Laws come from God
and Laws come from men....
CHAPTER II. ORIGINS OF SOCIETY
It is one of man's curious idiosyncrasies to create difficulties for the
pleasure of resolving them. The mysteries that surround him on all sides
are not sufficient for him; he still rejects clear ideas and reduces
everything to a problem by some inexplicable twist of pride, which makes
him regard it as below him to believe what everyone believes. So, for
example, there have long been disputes on the origin of society; and in
place of the quite simple solutions that naturally present themselves to
the mind, all sorts of metaphysical theories have been put forward to
support airy hypotheses rejected by common sense and experience.
If the causes of the origins of society are posed as a problem, it is
obviously assumed that there was a human era before society; but this is
precisely what needs to be proved.
Doubtless it will not be denied that the earth as a whole is intended
for man's habitation; now, as the multiplication of man is part of the
Creator's intentions, it follows that the nature of man is to be united
in great societies over the whole surface of the globe. For the nature
of a being is to exist as the Creator has willed it. And this will is
made perfectly plain by the facts.
The isolated man is therefore by no means the man of nature. When a
handful of men were scattered over vast territories, humanity was not
what it was to become. At that time, there were only families, and these
scattered families, either individually or by their subsequent
union, were nothing but embryonic peoples.
And so, long after the formation of the great societies, some small
desert tribes still show us the spectacle of humanity in its infancy.
There are still infant nations that are not yet what they are to
What would one think of a naturalist who said that man is an animal
thirty to thirty-five inches high, without strength or intelligence, and
giving voice only to inarticulate cries? Yet this naturalist, in
sketching man's physical and moral nature in terms of an infant's
characteristics, would be no more ridiculous than the philosopher who
seeks the political nature of this same being in the rudiments of
Every question about the nature of man must be resolved by history. The
philosopher who wants to show us by a priori reasoning what man must be
does not deserve an audience. He is substituting expediency for
experience and his own decisions for the Creator's will.
Let me assume that someone manages to prove that an American savage is
happier and less vicious than a civilized man. Could it be concluded
from this that the latter is a degraded being or, if you like, further
from nature than the former? Not at all. This is just like saying
that the nature of the individual man is to remain a child because at
that age he is free from the vices and misfortunes that will beset him
in his maturity. History continually shows us men joined together in
more or less numerous societies, ruled by different sovereignties. Once
they have multiplied beyond a certain point, they cannot exist in any
Thus, properly speaking, there has never been a time previous to society
for man, because, before the formations of political societies,
man was not a complete man, and because it is ridiculous to seek the
characteristics of any being whatever in the embryo of that being.
Thus society is not the work of man, but the immediate result of the
will of the Creator who has willed that man should be what he has always
and everywhere been.
Rousseau and all the thinkers of his stamp imagine or try to imagine a
people in the state of nature (this is their expression),
deliberating formally on the advantages and disadvantages of the social
state and finally deciding to pass from one to the other. But there is
not a grain of common sense in this idea. What were these men like
before the national convention in which they finally decided to
find themselves a sovereign? Apparently they lived without laws and
government; but for how long?
It is a basic mistake to represent the social state as an optional state
based on human consent, on deliberation and on an original contract,
something which is an impossibility. To talk of a state of nature
in opposition to the social state is to talk nonsense voluntarily. The
word nature is one of those general terms which, like all
abstract terms, are open to abuse. In its most extensive sense, this
word really signifies only the totality of all the laws, power, and
springs of action that make up the world, and the
particular nature of such and such a being is the totality of all
the qualities which make it what it is and without which it would be
some other thing and could no longer fulfill the intentions of its
creator. Thus the combination of all the parts which make up a machine
intended to tell the time forms the nature or the essence of a
watch; and the nature or essence of the balance
wheel is to have such and such a form, dimensions, and position,
otherwise it would no longer be a balance wheel and could not fulfill
its functions. The nature of a viper is to crawl, to have a scaly
skin, hollow and movable fangs which exude poisonous venom; and the
nature of man is to be a cognitive, religious, and sociable
animal. All experience teaches us this; and, to my knowledge, nothing
has contradicted this experience. If someone wants to prove that the
nature of the viper is to have wings and a sweet voice, and that of a
beaver is to live alone at the top of the highest mountains, it is up to
him to prove it. In the meantime, we will believe that what is must be
and has always been.
"The social order," says Rousseau, "is a sacred right which is the
basis of all others. Yet this right does not come from nature: it
is therefore founded on convention."[Social Contract, Book i,
What is nature? What is a right? And how is an
order a right? But let us leave these difficulties: such
questions are endless with a man who misuses every term and defines
none. One has the right at least to ask him to prove the big assertion
that the social order does not come from nature. "I must," he
says himself, "establish what I have just advanced." This is indeed what
should be done, but the way in which he goes about it is truly curious.
He spends three chapters in proving that the social order does not
derive from family society or from force or from slavery (chapters 2, 3,
4) and concludes (chapter 5) that we must always go back to a first
convention. This method of proof is very useful: it lacked only the
majestic formula of the geometers, "which was to be proved."
It is also curious that Rousseau has not even tried to prove the one
thing that it was necessary to prove; for if the social order derives
from nature, there is no social compact.
"Before examining," he says, "the act by which a people chooses a king,
it would be as well to examine the act by which a people is a people:
for this act, being necessarily previous to the other, is the true
foundation of society" (Chapter 5). This same Rousseau says elsewhere,
"It is the inveterate habit of philosophers to deny what is and to
explain what is not."[Nouvelle Heloise, Part 4.] Let us on our
side add that it is the inveterate habit of Rousseau to mock the
philosopher without suspecting that he also was a philosopher in
all the force he gave to the word; so, for example, the Social Contract
denies from beginning to end the nature of man, which is, in
order to explain the social compact, which does not exist.
This is how one reasons when one separates man from the Divinity. Rather
than tiring oneself out in the search of error, it would take little
effort to turn one's eyes to the source of all creation; but so simple,
sure, and consoling a method of philosophizing is not to the taste of
writers of this unhappy age whose true illness is an aversion to good
Might it not be said that man, this property of the Divinity, was cast
on this earth by a blind cause, that he could be either this or that,
and that it is as a consequence of his choice that he is what he is?
Surely God intended some sort of end in creating man: the question can
thus be reduced to whether man has become a political animal, as
Aristotle put it, through or against the divine will.
Although this question stated explicitly is a real sign of folly, it is
nevertheless put indirectly in a host of writings, and fairly often the
authors even decide that the latter is the case. The word nature
has given rise to a multitude of errors. Let me repeat that the nature
of any being is the sum of the qualities attributed to it by the
Creator. With immeasurable profundity, Burke said that art is man's
nature. This is beyond doubt; man with all his affections, all his
knowledge, all his arts is the true natural man, and the weaver's
cloth is as natural as the spider's web.
Man's natural state is therefore to be what he is today and what
he has always been, that is to say, sociable. All human records
attest to this truth....
CHAPTER III. SOVEREIGNTY IN GENERAL
If sovereignty is not anterior to the people, at least these two
ideas are collateral, since a sovereign is necessary to make a
people. It is as impossible to imagine a human society, a people,
without a sovereign as a hive and bees without a queen: for, by virtue
of the eternal laws of nature, a swarm of bees exists in this way or it
does not exist at all. Society and sovereignty are thus born together;
it is impossible to separate these two ideas. Imagine an isolated man:
there is no question of laws or government, since he is not a whole man
and society does not yet exist. Put this man in contact with his
fellowmen: from this moment you suppose a sovereign. The first man was
king over his children; each isolated family was governed in the same
way. But once these families joined, a sovereign was needed, and this
sovereign made a people of them by giving them laws, since
society exists only through the sovereign. Everyone knows the famous
The first king was a fortunate soldier.
This is perhaps one of the falsest claims that has ever been made. Quite
the opposite could be said, that
The first soldier was paid by a king.
There was a people, some sort of civilization, and a sovereign as
soon as men came into contact. The word people is a relative term
that has no meaning divorced from the idea of sovereignty: for the idea
of a people involves that of an aggregation around a common
center, and without sovereignty there can be no political unity or
CHAPTER IV. PARTICULAR SOVEREIGNTIES AND NATIONS
The same power that has decreed social order and sovereignty has
also decreed different modifications of sovereignty according to the
different character of nations.
Nations are born and die like individuals. Nations have fathers,
in a very literal sense, and teachers commonly more famous than
their fathers, although the greatest merit of these teachers is to
penetrate the character of the infant nation and to create for it
circumstances in which it can develop all its capacities.
Nations have a general soul and a true moral unity which makes
them what they are. This unity is evidenced above all by language.
The Creator has traced on the globe the limits of nations.... These
boundaries are obvious and each nation can still be seen straining to
fill entirely one of the areas within these boundaries. Sometimes
invincible circumstances thrust two nations together and force them to
mingle. Then their constituent principles penetrate each other and
produce a hybrid nation which can be either more or less powerful
and famous than if it was a pure race.
But several national elements thrown together into the same receptacle
can be harmful. These seeds squeeze and stifle each other. The men who
compose them, condemned to a certain moral and political mediocrity,
will never attract the eyes of the world in spite of a large number of
individual virtues, until some great shock, starting one of these seeds
growing, allows it to engulf the other and to assimilate them into its
own substance. Italiam! Italiam!
Sometimes a nation lives in the midst of another much more numerous,
refuses to integrate because there is not sufficient affinity between
them, and preserves its moral unity....
When one talks of the spirit of a nation, the expression is not
so metaphorical as is believed.
From these different national characteristics are born the different
modifications of governments. One can say that each government has its
separate character, for even those which belong to the same group and
carry the same name reveal subtle differences to the observer.
The same laws cannot suit different provinces which have different
customs, live in opposite climates, and cannot accept the same form of
The general objects of every good institution must be modified in each
country by the relationships which spring as much from the local
situation as from the character of the inhabitants. It is on the basis
of these relationships that each people should be assigned a particular
institutional system, which is the best, not perhaps in itself, but for
the state for which it is intended.
There is only one good government for a particular state; yet not only
can different governments be suitable for different peoples; they can
also be suitable for the same people at different times, since a
thousand events can change the inner relationships of a people.
There has always been a great deal of discussion on the best form of
government without consideration of the fact that each can be the best
in some instances and the worst in others!
Therefore it should not be said that every form of government is
appropriate to every country: for example, liberty, since it will not
grow under every climate, is not open to every nation. The more one
thinks about this principle laid down by Montesquieu, the more one feels
its force. The more it is contested, the more strongly it is established
by new proofs.
Thus the absolute question, What is the best form of government? is as
insoluble as it is indefinite; or, to put it another way, it has as many
correct solutions as there are possible combinations in the relative and
absolute positions of nations.
From these incontestable principles springs a no less incontestable
consequence, that the social contract is a chimera. For, if there are as
many different governments as there are different peoples, if the forms
of these governments are laid down absolutely by the power that has
given to each nation its particular moral, physical, geographical, and
economic features, it is no longer permissible to talk of a
compact. Each method of exercising sovereignty is the immediate
result of the will of the Creator, like sovereignty in general. For one
nation, despotism is as natural and as legitimate as democracy for
another. If a man himself worked out these unshakable
principles[Social Contract, Book ii, Chap. ix; Book iii, Chaps.
i, iii, viii.] in a book designed to establish that "it is always
necessary to go back to a convention,"[Ibid., Book i, Chap.
v.] if he wrote in one chapter that "man was born free"[Ibid.,
Book i, Chap. i.] and in another that "liberty, since it will not grow
under every climate, is not open to every nation,"[Ibid., Book
iii, Chap. viii.] his utter folly could not be contested.
As no nation has been able to give itself the character and position
that fit it to a particular government, all have been agreed not only in
accepting this truth in the abstract but also in believing that the
Divinity had intervened directly in the institution of their particular
These are fables, it will be said. In truth, I do not know; but the
fables of every nation, even modern nations, cover many realities.... It
is complete folly to imagine that this universal prejudice is the work
of sovereigns. Individual interest might well make bad use of a general
belief, but it cannot create it. If that which I am talking about had
not been based on the previous consent of nations, not only could a
sovereign not have made them accept it; he would have been unable to
conceive such a fraud. In general, every universal idea is natural.
CHAPTER V. AN EXAMINATION OF SOME IDEAS OF ROUSSEAU ON THE
Rousseau wrote a chapter on the legislator in which all the ideas
are confused in an intolerable way. In the first place, this word
legislator can have two different meanings: usage allows us to apply it
to the extraordinary men who promulgate constitutional laws, and also to
the less remarkable men who pass civil laws. It seems that Rousseau
understood the word in the first sense, since he talks of the man "who
dares to undertake to institute a people and who constitutes the
Republic." But soon after he says that "the legislator is in all
respects an extraordinary man IN THE STATE." Then there already is a
state; the people is then constituted; it is thus no longer a question
of instituting a people but, more or less, of reforming it....
Rousseau confuses all these ideas, and states in general that the
legislator is neither an official nor a sovereign. "His task," he says,
"is a superior function that has nothing in common with human
rule."[Ibid., Book ii, Chap. vii.] If Rousseau means that a
private individual can be consulted by a sovereign and can propose good
laws which might be accepted, this is one of those truths so trivial and
sterile that it is useless to bother with them. If he intends to hold
that a sovereign cannot make civil laws,... this is a discovery of which
he has all the honor, no one ever having suspected it. If he means to
prove that a sovereign cannot be a legislator in the strongest sense of
the term, and give truly constituent laws to a people, by creating or
perfecting their constitutional system, I appeal to the whole history of
CHAPTER VII. THE FOUNDERS AND THE POLITICAL CONSTITUTION OF
Thinking about the moral unity of nations, there can be no doubt that it
is the result of a single cause. What the wise Bonnet said about the
animal body in answer to a fancy of Buffon can be said about the body
politic: every seed is necessarily one; and it is always from a
single man that each nation takes its dominant trait and its distinctive
To know, then, why and how a man literally engenders a nation,
and how he passes on to them the moral temperament, the character, the
general soul which must, over the course of centuries and an infinite
number of generations, exist perceptibly and distinguish one nation from
all others, this is a mystery like so many others on which it is
fruitful to dwell....
The government of a nation is no more its own work than its language.
Just as in nature the seeds of an infinite number of plants are destined
to perish unless the wind or the hand of man puts them where they can
germinate, so also there are in nations certain qualities and powers
which are ineffective until they get a stimulus from circumstances
either alone or used by a skillful hand.
The founder of a nation is precisely this skillful hand. Gifted with an
extraordinary penetration or, what is more probable, with an infallible
instinct (for often personal genius does not realize what it is
achieving, which is what distinguishes it above all from intelligence),
he divines those hidden powers and qualities which shape a nation's
character, the means of bringing them to life, putting them into action,
and making the greatest possible use of them. He is never to be seen
writing or debating; his mode of acting derives from inspiration; and if
sometimes he takes up a pen, it is not to argue but to command.
One of the greatest errors of this age is to believe that the political
constitution oś nations is the work of man alone and that a constitution
can be made as a watchmaker makes a watch. This is quite false; but
still more false is the belief that this great work can be executed by
an assembly of men. The author of all things has only two ways of giving
a government to a people. Most often he reserves to himself its
formation more directly by making it grow, as it were, imperceptibly
like a plant, through the conjunction of a multitude of those
circumstances we call fortuitous. But when he wants to lay quickly the
foundations of a political structure and to show the world a creation of
this kind, he confides his power to rare men, the true Elect. Scattered
thinly over the centuries, they rise like obelisks on time's path, and,
as humanity grows older, they appear the less. To fit them for these
unusual tasks, God invests them with unusual power, often unknown to
their contemporaries and perhaps to themselves. Bousseau himself has
spoken the truth when he said that the work of the founder of a nation
was a MISSION.... If the founders of nations, who were all prodigious
men, were to come before our eyes and we were to recognize their genius
and their power, instead of talking nonsensically of usurpation, fraud,
and fanaticism, we would fall on our knees and our sterility would
disappear before the sacred sign shining from their brows....
What is certain is that the constitution of a nation is never the
product of deliberation.
Almost all the great legislators have been kings, and even those nations
destined to be republics have been constituted by kings. They are the
men who preside at the political establishment of nations and draw up
their first fundamental laws....
Look at every one of the world's constitutions, ancient and modern: you
will see that now and again long experience has been able to point out
some institutions capable of improving governments on the basis of their
original constitution or of preventing abuses capable of altering their
nature. It is possible to name the date and authors of these
institutions, but you will notice that the real roots of government have
remained the same and that it is impossible to show their origin, for
the very simple reason that they are as old as the nations and that, not
being the result of an agreement, there can be no trace of a convention
which never existed.
No important and truly constitutional reform ever establishes anything
new; it simply declares and defends previously existing rights. This is
why the constitution of a country can never be known from its written
constitutional laws, because these laws are made at different periods
only to lay down forgotten or contested rights, and because there are
always a host of things which are not written....
The different forms and degrees of sovereignty have given rise to the
belief that it is the work of nations which have modified it at will.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Every nation has the government
suited to it, and none has chosen it. The remarkable thing is that,
nearly every time a nation tries to give itself a government, or more
accurately every time too great a section of the people set out with
such an aim, the attempt works to its misfortune; for in this fatal
confusion, it is too easy for a nation to mistake its real interests, to
chase desperately after what cannot be suitable for it, and at the same
time reject what is best for it: and we all know how harmful errors in
this field are. This is what made Tacitus say, with his simple
profundity, that "it is much better for a people to accept a sovereign
than to seek him."[Tacitus, History I, 56.]
Besides, as every exaggerated proposition is false, I by no means intend
to deny the possibility of political improvements brought about by a few
wise men. I might as well deny the power of moral and physical education
to improve men's morality and physique; but this truth confirms rather
than shakes my general argument by proving that human power can create
nothing and that everything depends on the original aptitudes of nations
and of individuals.
It follows from this that a free constitution is stable only when the
different parts of the political system come into being together and
side by side, so to speak. Men never respect what they have made. This
is why an elective king never possesses the moral force of a hereditary
sovereign because he is not sufficiently noble, that is to say,
he does not possess that kind of grandeur independent of men which is
the work of time....
The mass of men play no part in political events. They even respect
government only because it is not their work. This feeling is written
indelibly on their hearts. They submit to sovereignty because they feel
that it is something sacred that they can neither create nor destroy.
If, through corruption and treacherous suggestions, they reach the point
of effacing in themselves this preserving sentiment, if they have the
misfortune to think that they are called as a body to reform the state,
everything is lost. This is why, even in free states, it is extremely
important for rulers to be separated from the mass of the people by that
personal respect which stems from birth and wealth; for if opinion does
not put a barrier between itself and authority, if power is not outside
its scope, if the governed many can think themselves the equals of the
governing few, government will collapse. Thus the aristocracy is a
sovereign or ruling class by nature, and the principle of the French
Revolution runs directly contrary to the eternal laws of nature.
CHAPTER VIII. THE WEAKNESS OF HUMAN POWER
In all political or religious works, whatever their aim or importance,
it is a general rule that there is never any proportion between cause
and effect. The effect is always immense in relation to the cause, so
that man may know that he is only an instrument and that alone he can
The more human reason trusts in itself and tries to rely on its own
resources, the more absurd it is and the more it reveals its lack of
power. This is why the world's greatest scourge has always been, in
every age, what is called philosophy, for philosophy is nothing
but the human reason acting alone, and the human reason reduced to its
own resources is nothing but a brute whose power is restricted to
Far from being a theological exaggeration, it was a simple, rigorously
expressed truth that one of our prelates (who died happily for his own
sake while he was still able to believe in a new turn in affairs) spoke
when he said, "In its pride, philosophy has said, To me belongs
wisdom, knowledge and power; to me belongs the conduct of men, since it
is I who enlighten. In order to punish and disgrace it, God needs only
to condemn it to rule for a moment."
In fact, it has ruled over one of the most powerful nations of the
world; it rules and no doubt will rule long enough for it not to be able
to complain that it had not sufficient time. There has never been a more
disgraceful example of the complete futility of human reason when left
to its own resources. What lessons have the French legislators taught
us? Aided by the whole of human knowledge, the teachings of all the
philosophers both ancient and modern, and the whole of historical
experience, masters of opinion, disposing of immense wealth, having
allies everywhere, in a word backed by every kind of human power, they
have spoken with full authority. The world has seen the result. Never
has human pride disposed of so many resources and, forgetting its crimes
for a moment, never has it been more ridiculous.
Our contemporaries will believe it as they will, but posterity will have
no doubt that the most insane of men were those who gathered around a
table and said, "We will separate the French people from their ancient
constitution and give them another" (this one or that one, it does not
matter). Although this folly is common to all the parties who have
desolated France, yet the Jacobins spring first to mind as destroyers
rather than as builders, and leave in the imagination a certain
impression of grandeur resulting from the immensity of their successes.
There is even some doubt whether they have seriously planned to organize
France into a Republic, for the Republican Constitution they have
fabricated is no more than a kind of comedy put on before the people as
a moment's distraction, and I cannot think that even the least
enlightened of its authors have been taken in by it for a moment.
But the men who held the stage in the first days of the Constituent
Assembly really believed themselves to be legislators. Completely
seriously and very obviously, they aimed at giving France a political
constitution, and believed that an assembly could decree, by majority
vote, that this or that nation should no longer have this or that
government but some other. Now, this idea is the height of extravagance,
and nothing to equal it has ever come out of all the Bedlams in
this world. So these men give the impression only of feebleness,
ignorance, and disappointment. No feeling of admiration or horror
can equal the kind of angry pity that the constituent Bedlam
inspires. The laurels of villainy belong of right to the Jacobins, but
posterity will award those for folly to the Constitutionals.
The legislators have all felt that human reason could not stand alone
and that no purely human institution could last. This is why they have,
so to speak, interlaced politics and religion, so that human weakness,
strengthened by a supernatural support, could be overcome....
The excellence and durability of great political institutions are
proportionate to the closeness of the union of politics and religion
within them ....
CHAPTER IX. CONTINUATION OF THE SAME SUBJECT
In his evil book on the rights of man, Paine said that a constitution is
antecedent to government; that it is to government what laws are to the
courts; that it is visible and material, article by article, or else it
does not exist: so that the English people has no constitution, its
government being the product of conquest and not of the will of the
It would be difficult to get more errors into fewer lines. Not only can
a people not give itself a constitution, but no assembly, a small number
of men in relation to the total population, can ever carry through such
There has never been, there will never be, there cannot be a nation
constituted a priori. Reason and experience join to prove this great
truth. What eye is capable of comprehending all the circumstances that
must fit a nation to a particular constitution? How especially can a
number of men be capable of this effort of intelligence? Unless they
refuse to see the truth, they must agree that this is impossible; and
history which should decide all these questions again supports theory. A
small number of free nations have shone in history, but not one of them
has been constituted in Paine's manner. Every particular form of
government is a divine construction, just like sovereignty in general. A
constitution in the philosophic sense is thus only the political way of
life bestowed on each nation by a power above it; and, in an inferior
sense, a constitution is only the assemblage of those more or less
numerous laws which declare this way of life. It is not at all necessary
for these laws to be written. On the contrary, it is particularly to
constitutional laws that the maxim of Tacitus, pessimae republicae
plurimae leges, can be applied. The wiser and more public-spirited a
nation is, and the more excellent its constitution, the fewer written
constitutional laws it has, for these laws are only props, and a
building has no need of props except when it has slipped out of vertical
or been violently shaken by some external force....
What Paine and so many others regard as a fault is therefore a law of
nature. The natural. constitution of a nation is always anterior
to its written constitution and can dispense with it. There has
never been and can never be a written constitution made all at once,
particularly by an assembly, and the very fact that it is written all at
once proves it false and impractical. Every constitution is properly
speaking a creation in the full meaning of the word, and all creation is
beyond men's powers. A written law is only the declaration of an
anterior and unwritten law. Man cannot bestow rights on himself; he can
only defend those which have been granted to him by a superior power;
and these rights are good customs, good because they are not
written and because no beginning or author can be assigned to
CHAPTER X. THE NATIONAL SOUL
Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not
only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political
association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because,
to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems. His cradle
should be surrounded by dogmas; and, when his reason awakes, all his
opinions should be given, at least all those relating to his conduct.
Nothing is more vital to him than prejudices. Let us not take
this word in bad part. It does not necessarily signify false ideas, but
only, in the strict sense of the word, any opinions adopted without
examination. Now, these kinds of opinion are essential to man; they are
the real basis of his happiness and the palladium of empires. Without
them, there can be neither religion, morality, nor government. There
should be a state religion just as there is a state political system; or
rather, religion and political dogmas, mingled and merged together,
should together form a general or national mind
sufficiently strong to repress the aberrations of the individual reason
which is, of its nature, the mortal enemy of any association whatever
because it gives birth only to divergent opinions.
All known nations have been happy and powerful to the degree that they
have faithfully obeyed this national mind, which is nothing other than
the destruction of individual dogmas and the absolute and general rule
of national dogmas, that is to say, useful prejudices. Once let everyone
rely on his individual reason in religion, and you will see immediately
the rise of anarchy of belief or the annihilation of religious
sovereignty. Likewise, if each man makes himself the judge of the
principles of government you will see immediately the rise of civil
anarchy or the annihilation of political sovereignty. Government is a
true religion; it has its dogmas, its mysteries, its priests; to submit
it to individual discussion is to destroy it; it has life only through
the national mind, that is to say, political faith, which is a creed.
Man's primary need is that his nascent reason should be curbed under a
double yoke; it should be frustrated, and it should lose itself in the
national mind, so that it changes its individual existence for another
communal existence, just as a river which flows into the ocean still
exists in the mass of water, but without name and distinct reality.
What is patriotism? It is this national mind of which I am speaking; it
is individual abnegation. Faith and patriotism are the two great
thaumaturges of the world. Both are divine. All their actions are
miracles. Do not talk to them of scrutiny, choice, discussion, for they
will say that you blaspheme. They know only two words, submission
and belief; with these two levers, they raise the world. Their
very errors are sublime. These two infants of Heaven prove their origin
to all by creating and conserving; and if they unite, join their forces
and together take possession of a nation, they exalt it, make it divine
and increase its power a hundredfold....
But can you, insignificant man, light this sacred fire that inflames
nations? Can you give a common soul to several million men? Unite them
under your laws? Range them closely around a common center? Shape the
mind of men yet unborn? Make future generations obey you and create
those age-old customs, those conserving prejudices, which are the
father of the laws and stronger than them? What nonsense!...
CHAPTER XlI. APPLICATION OF THE PRECEDING PRINCIPLES TO A PARTICULAR
CASE - CONTINUATION
There is no doubt that, in a certain sense, reason is good for nothing.
We have the scientific knowledge necessary for the maintenance of
society; we have made conquests in mathematics and what is called
natural science; but, once we leave the circle of our needs, our
knowledge becomes either useless or doubtful. The human mind, ever
restless, proliferates constantly succeeding theories. They are born,
flourish, wither, and fall like leaves from the trees; the only
difference is that their year is longer.
And in the whole of the moral and political world, what do we know, and
what are we able to do? We know the morality handed down to us by
our fathers, as a collection of dogmas or useful prejudices adopted by
the national mind. But on this point we owe nothing to any man's
individual reason. On the contrary, every time this reason has
interfered, it has perverted morality.
In politics, we know that it is necessary to respect those powers
established we know not how or by whom. When time leads to abuses
capable of altering the root principle of a government, we know
that it is necessary to remove these abuses, but without touching the
principle itself, an act of delicate surgery; and we are able to
carry through these salutary reforms until the time when the principle
of life is totally vitiated and the death of the body politic is
Wherever the individual reason dominates, there can be nothing great,
for everything great rests on a belief, and the clash of individual
opinions left to themselves produces only skepticism which is
destructive of everything. General and individual morality, religion,
laws, revered customs, useful prejudices, nothing is left standing,
everything falls before it; it is the universal dissolvent.
Let us return again to basic ideas. Any institution is only a
political edifice. In the physical and the moral order, the laws are the
same; you cannot build a great edifice on narrow foundations or a
durable one on a moving or transient base. Likewise, in the political
order, to build high and to build for centuries, it is necessary to rely
on an opinion or a belief broad and deep: for if the opinion does not
hold the majority of minds and is not deeply rooted, it will provide
only a narrow and transient base.
Now, if you seek the great and solid bases of all possible institutions
of the first and second order, you will always find religion and
And if you reflect still further, you will find that these two things
are identical, for there is no true patriotism without religion. You
will see it shine out only in the ages of belief, and it always fades
and dies with it. Once man divorces himself from the divinity, he
corrupts himself and everything he touches. His actions are misguided
and end only in destruction. As this powerful binding force weakens in
the state, so all the conserving virtues weaken in proportion. Men's
characters become degraded, and even good actions are paltry. A
murderous selfishness relentlessly presses on public spirit and makes it
fall back before it, like those enormous glaciers of the high Alps that
can be seen advancing slowly but frighteningly on the area of living
things and crushing the useful vegetation in their path.
But once the idea of the divinity is the source of human action, this
action is fruitful, creative, and invincible. An unknown force makes
itself felt on all sides, and animates, warms, vivifies all things.
However much human ignorance and corruption have soiled this great idea
with errors and crimes, it no less preserves its incredible
CHAPTER XIII. A NECESSARY EXPLANATION
I must forestall an objection. In reproaching philosophy for the harm it
has done to us, does one not run the risk of going too far and of being
unjust in regard to it by swinging to an opposite extreme?
No doubt it is necessary to guard against enthusiasm, but it seems that
in this respect there is one sure rule for judging philosophy. It is
useful when it does not leave its own domain, that is, the sphere of the
natural sciences. Here all its efforts are useful and merit our
gratitude. But, once it sets its foot inside the moral sphere, it should
remember that it is no longer on its own ground. It is the general mind
that holds sway in this sphere, and philosophy, that is to say, the
individual mind, becomes noxious and thus culpable if it dares to
contradict or bring into question the sacred laws of their sovereign,
that is to say, the national dogmas. Therefore, when it enters the
domain of this sovereign, its duty is to act in concert with it. This
distinction, whose accuracy I do not think can be contested, shows us
the confines of philosophy. It is good when it remains within its own
domain or when it enters a sphere higher than its own only as an ally or
even as a subject; it is hateful when it enters as a rival or an
I know that philosophy, ashamed of its dreadful successes, has decided
to disavow loudly the excesses which we are witnessing, but it cannot
escape the criticisms of the wise like this. Happily for humanity, the
same men seldom possess both fatal theories and the power to put them
into practice. But what does it matter to me that Spinoza lived
peacefully in a Dutch village? What does it matter to me that the weak,
timid, and reticent Rousseau never had the wish or the power to stir up
revolt? What does it matter to me that Voltaire defended Calas to get
his name in the papers? What does it matter to me that, during the
appalling tyranny that has fallen on France, the philosophers,
frightened for their heads, have withdrawn into prudent seclusion? Once
they put forward maxims capable of spawning every crime, these crimes
are their work, since the criminals are their disciples....
The tiger that rips men open is following his nature; the real criminal
is the man who unmuzzles him and launches him on society....
ON THE NATURE OF SOVEREIGNTY
CHAPTER I. THE NATURE OF SOVEREIGNTY IN GENERAL
Every species of sovereignty is absolute of its nature, however the
powers are organized, whether vested in one pair of hands or divided. In
the last analysis, it will always be an absolute power which is able to
commit evil with impunity, which is thus from this point of view
despotic in the full force of the term and against which there is
no defense other than rebellion.
Wherever sovereign powers are divided, the conflicts of these different
powers can be looked at as the deliberations of a single sovereign,
whose reason weighs up the pros and the cons. But once a
decision is made, the situation is the same in both cases and the will
of any sovereign whatever is always invincible.
However sovereignty is defined and vested, it is always one, unviolable
and absolute. Take, for example, the English government: the kind of
political trinity which makes it up does not stop sovereignty from being
one, there as elsewhere. The powers balance each other, but, once they
are in agreement, there is then only one will which cannot be thwarted
by any other legal will, and Blackstone was right to claim that the
English king and Parliament together can do anything.
The sovereign cannot therefore be judged: if he could be, the power
possessing this right would be sovereign and there would be two
sovereigns, which implies contradiction. The sovereign can no more
modify than alienate itself: to limit it is to destroy it.
It is absurd and contradictory for the sovereign to recognize a
superior....[Social Contract, Book iii, Chap. xvi.]
The real problem, then, is not to prevent the sovereign from willing
without restriction, which is contradictory, but of preventing him
from willing unjustly.... While I might be forced to agree that
one has the right to murder Nero, I would never accept that one has the
right to judge him; for the law by virtue of which he would be judged
would have been made either by himself or by some other person, which
would suppose either a law made by a sovereign against himself or a
sovereign above the sovereign, two equally inadmissible suppositions.
When considering governments in which the powers are divided, it is easy
to believe that the sovereign can be judged, because of the activity of
each power which acts on the others and, increasing its activity on
certain unusual occasions, brings about secondary insurrections which
are much less dangerous than insurrections properly speaking, in other
words, "popular." But it is necessary to guard against a fallacy into
which it is easy to fall if one looks at only one of the powers. It is
necessary to envisage them in their entirety and to ask oneself if the
sovereign will resulting from their joint wills can be impeded,
thwarted, or punished.
One will find in the first place that every sovereign is despotic and
that, with regard to them, only two courses can be taken, obedience or
insurrection. It is possible to maintain, as a matter of fact, that
although all sovereign wills are equally absolute, they are not equally
blind or vicious, and that republican or mixed governments are superior
to monarchies precisely because in them the decisions of the sovereign
are generally wiser and more enlightened. This is in fact one of the
principal ideas which should serve as a basis for the important
examination of the superiority of one form of government over the
One will find in the second place that it is just the same to be subject
to one sovereign as to another.
CHAPTER II. MONARCHY
It can be said in general that all men are born for monarchy. This form
of government is the most ancient and the most universal.... Monarchical
government is so natural that, without realizing it, men identify it
with sovereignty. They seem tacitly to agree that, wherever there is no
king, there is no real sovereign....
This is particularly striking in everything that has been said on both
sides of the question that formed the subject of the first book of this
work. The adversaries of divine origin always hold a grudge against
kings and talk only of kings. They do not want to accept
that the authority of kings comes from God: but it is not a question of
royalty in particular but of sovereignty in general. Yes,
all sovereignty derives from God; whatever form it takes, it is not the
work of man. It is one, absolute and inviolable of its nature. Why,
then, lay the blame on royalty, as though the inconveniences which are
relied on to attack this system are not the same in any form of
government? Once again, it is because royalty is the natural
government and because in common discourse men confuse it with
sovereignty by disregarding other governments, just as they neglect the
exception when enunciating the general rule....
Man must always be brought back to history, which is the first and
indeed the only teacher in politics. Whoever says that man is born for
liberty is speaking nonsense. If a being of a superior order undertook
the natural history of man, surely he would seek his directions
in the history of facts. When he knew what man is and has always been,
what he does and has always done, he would write; and doubtless he would
reject as foolish the notion that man is not what he should be and that
his condition is contrary to the laws of creation. The very expression
of this proposition is sufficient to refute it.
History is experimental politics; and just as, in the physical sciences,
a hundred books of speculative theories disappear before a single
experiment, in the same way in political science no theory can be
allowed if it is not the more or less probable corollary of
well-attested facts. If the question is asked, "What is the most natural
government to man," history will reply, It is monarchy.
This government no doubt has its drawbacks, like every other, but all
the declamations that fill the books of the day on these kinds of abuses
can only rouse pity for their authors. It is pride and not reason which
gives rise to them. Once it is rigorously established that nations are
not made for the same government, that each nation has that which is
best for it, above all that "liberty is not open to every nation, and
that the more we ponder on this principle laid down by Montesquieu, the
more apparent its truth appears,"[Ibid., Book iii, Chap. viii.]
we can no longer understand what the diatribes against the vices of
monarchical government are about. If their aim is to make the
unfortunate people who are destined to bear the disadvantages feel them
more sharply, it is a most barbaric pastime; if their aim is to urge men
to revolt against a government made for them, it is a crime beyond
But the subjects of monarchies are by no means reduced to taking refuge
from despair in philosophic meditations; they have something better to
do, which is to gain full knowledge of the excellence of their
government and to learn not to envy others....
Let us go on to examine the principal characteristics of monarchical
Monarchy is a centralized aristocracy. At all times and in all
places, aristocracy dominates. Whatever form is given to governments,
birth and wealth always take the first rank, and nowhere is their rule
more harsh than where it is not founded on the law. But in a monarchy
the king is the center of this aristocracy: the latter, here as
elsewhere, still rules, but it rules in the name of the king, or, if you
like, the king is guided by the understanding of the aristocracy....
Avoiding all exaggeration, it is certain that the government of a single
man is that in which the vices of the sovereign have the least effect
upon the governed.
A very remarkable truth was spoken recently at the opening of the
republican Lycee in Paris. "In absolute governments, the faults of the
ruler can scarcely ruin everything at the same time, because his single
will cannot do everything; but a republican government is obliged to be
essentially reasonable and just, because the general will, once it goes
astray, carries everything with it."[Speech given at the opening of the
republican Lycee, December 31, 1794, by M. de la Harpe (Journal de
Paris, 1795, No. 1l4, p. 461).]
This observation is most just: it is far from true that the will of the
king does everything in a monarchy. It is supposed to do everything, and
that is the great advantage of this government: but, in fact, its
utility is almost wholly in centralizing advice and knowledge. Religion,
laws, customs, opinion, class, and corporate privileges restrict the
sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power; it is striking that
kings have even been much more often accused of lacking will than of
overexerting it. It is always the king's council that rules. But the
pyramidal aristocracy that administers the state in monarchies
has particular characteristics which deserve our attention.
In every country and under every possible government, the great officers
always belong to the aristocracy, that is, to nobility and wealth, most
often united. In saying that this must be so, Aristotle put
forward a political axiom which simple good sense and the experience of
the whole of history cannot allow us to doubt. This privilege of
aristocracy is really a natural law.
Now, it is one of the greatest advantages of monarchical government that
in it the aristocracy loses, as much as the nature of things allows, all
those features offensive to the lower classes. It is important to
understand the reasons for this.
1. This kind of aristocracy is legal; it is an integral part of
government, everyone knows this, and it does not waken in anyone's mind
the idea of usurpation and injustice. In republics, on the other hand,
the distinction between persons exists as much as in monarchies, but it
is harder and more offensive because it is not the work of the law and
because popular opinion regards it as a continual rebellion against the
principle of equality admitted by the constitution....
2. Once the influence of a hereditary aristocracy becomes inevitable
(and the experience of every age leaves no doubt on this point), the
best course to deprive this influence of the elements that rub against
the pride of the lower classes is to remove all insurmountable barriers
between the families within the state and to allow none of them to be
humiliated by a distinction that they can never enjoy.
Now this is precisely the case in a monarchy resting on good laws. There
is no family that the merit of its head cannot raise from the second to
the first rank....
3. And this order of things appears still more perfect when it is
remembered that the aristocracy of birth and office, already softened by
the right belonging to every family to enjoy the same distinctions in
its turn, is stripped of everything possibly offensive to the lower
orders by the universal supremacy of the monarch, before whom no citizen
is more powerful than another; the man in the street, who is
insignificant when he measures himself against a great lord, measures
the lord against the sovereign, and the title of subject which
brings both of them under the same power and the same justice is a kind
of equality that stills the inevitable pangs of self-esteem....
In the government of several, sovereignty is by no means A UNITY; and
although the parts making it up form A UNITY, it is far from the case
that they make the same impression on the mind. The human imagination
does not grasp a unity that is only a metaphysical abstraction; on the
contrary, it delights in separating each element of the general unity,
and the subject has less respect for a sovereignty whose separate parts
are not sufficiently above him. It follows that, in these kinds of
government, sovereignty has not the same intensity or, in
consequence, the same moral force....
Let us abandon all prejudice and party spirit, renounce exaggerated
ideas and all the theoretical dreams fostered by the French fever, and
European good sense will agree on the following propositions:
1. The king is sovereign; no one can share sovereignty with him, and all
powers emanate from him.
z. His person is inviolable; no one has the right to depose or judge
3. He has not the right to condemn to death, or even impose any corporal
punishment. The power that punishes derives from him, and that is
4. If he imposes exile or imprisonment in cases in which reason of state
prevents a judicial hearing, he should not be too secretive or act too
much without the advice of an enlightened council.
5. The king cannot judge in civil cases; only the judges, in the name of
the sovereign, can pronounce on property and contracts.
6. Subjects have the right, by means of certain differently composed
bodies, councils, or assemblies, to denounce abuses to him and legally
to communicate to him their grievances and their very humble
It is in these sacred laws, the more truly constitutional since they are
written only in men's hearts, and more particularly in the paternal
relationship between prince and subjects, that can be found the true
character of European monarchy.
Whatever the intense and blind pride of the eighteenth century says
about it, this is all we need. These elements, combined in different
ways, produce all sorts of nuances in monarchical government. It can be
seen, for example, that the men charged with carrying to the foot of the
throne the representations and grievances of subjects can form bodies or
assemblies; that the members who compose these assemblies or bodies can
vary in number, in rank, in the nature and extent of their powers; that
the method of election, the frequency and length of sessions, and so on,
alter the number of these combinations: facies non omnibus una;
but always you will find the same general character: that is, chosen men
carrying legally to the father the complaints and the views of the
family: nec diversa tamen....
How many faults power has committed! And how steadfastly it ignores the
means of conserving itself! Man is insatiable for power; he is infinite
in his desires and, always discontented with what he has, loves only
what he has not. People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought
to complain of the despotism of man. We are all born despots, from the
most absolute monarch of Asia to the infant who smothers a bird with its
hand for the pleasure of seeing that there exists in the world a being
weaker than itself. There is not a man who does not abuse power, and
experience shows that the most abominable despots, if they manage to
seize the scepter, are precisely those who rant against despotism. But
the Author of nature has set bounds to the abuse of power: He has willed
that it destroys itself once it goes beyond its natural limits.
Everywhere He has written this law; in the physical as in the moral
world, it surrounds us and makes itself constantly heard. Look at this
gun: up to a certain point, the longer you make it, the more effective
it will be; but once you go at all beyond this limit, its effectiveness
will be reduced. Look at this telescope; up to a certain point, the
bigger you make it, the more powerful it will be; but go beyond that,
and invincible nature will turn all your efforts to perfect the
instrument against you. This is a crude image of power. To conserve
itself, it must restrain itself, and it must always keep away from that
point at which its most extreme effort leads to its own death.
Certainly I do not like popular assemblies any more than the next
man; but French folly ought not to turn us aside from the truth and
wisdom of the happy mean. If there is any indisputable maxim, it is
that, in all mutinies, insurrections, and revolutions the people
always start by being right and always end by being wrong. It is not
true that every nation should have its national assembly in the
French sense; it is not true that every individual is eligible for the
national council; it is not even true that everyone can be an elector
without any distinction of rank or fortune; it is not true that this
council should be colegislative; finally it is not true that it ought to
be composed the same way in different countries. But because these
exaggerated claims are false, does it follow that no one has the right
to speak for the common good in the name of the community and that we
are prevented from acting wisely because the French have acted so
foolishly? I do not understand this conclusion....
CHAPTER III. ON ARISTOCRACY
Aristocratic government is a monarchy in which the throne is vacant.
Sovereignty there is in regency.
The regents who administer sovereignty being hereditary, it is totally
separated from the people, and in this, aristocratic government
approaches monarchy. It cannot, however, reach it in vigor; but from the
point of view of wisdom, it has no equal. It can be said in general that
all nonmonarchic governments are aristocratic, for democracy is only
Leaving aside the natural aristocracy that results from physical
strength and talent, which it is unprofitable to discuss, there are only
two sorts of aristocracy, elective and hereditary.... But, since
elective monarchy is the weakest and most unstable of governments, and
since experience has shown us clearly the superiority of hereditary
monarchy, it follows by an indisputable analogy that hereditary
aristocracy is preferable to elective....
All in all, hereditary aristocratic government is perhaps the most
advantageous to what is called the people. Sovereignty is
sufficiently concentrated to inspire respect in them; but, as it has
fewer needs and less splendor, it asks less of them. If sometimes it is
timid, this is because it is never imprudent....
CHAPTER IV. DEMOCRACY
Pure democracy does not exist any more than absolute despotism. "If you
use the strict meaning of the term," says Rousseau admirably, "a true
democracy has never existed and will never exist. It is against the
natural order for the majority to govern and the minority to be
governed."[Social Contract, Book iii, Chap. iv.]
The idea of a whole people being sovereign and legislative is so
contrary to good sense that the Greek political writers, who should know
a little about liberty, never talked about democracy as a legitimate
government, at least when they meant to express themselves exactly.
Aristotle especially defines democracy as the excess of the
republic, just as despotism is file excess of monarchy.
If there is no such thing as a democracy, properly speaking, the same
can be said of a perfect despotism, which is equally a hypothetical
model. "It is wrong to think that there has ever been a single authority
despotic in every respect; there has never been nor will there ever be
such a system. The widest power is still bounded by some
limits."[Montesquieu, Grandeur et decadence des Romains, Chap.
But nothing stops us, in order to clarify our ideas, from considering
these two forms of government as two theoretical extremes which every
possible government resembles to a greater or lesser degree.
In this strict sense, I believe I can define democracy as an
association of men without sovereignty.
"When the whole people," says Rousseau, "decides for the whole people,
it considers only itself.... Then the matter on which a decision is made
is general, like the will which makes it; it is this act that I call a
LAW."[Social Contract, Book ii, Chap. vi.]
What Rousseau calls eminently law is precisely what is incapable of
bearing the name....
As a nation, like an individual, cannot possess coercive power over
itself, it is clear that, if a democracy in its theoretical purity were
to exist, there would be no sovereignty within this state: for it is
impossible to understand by this word anything other than a repressive
power that acts on the subject and that is external to him. It
follows that this word subject, which is a relative term, is
alien to republics, because there is no sovereign, properly speaking, in
a republic and because there cannot be a subject without a
sovereign, just as there cannot be a son without a
Even in aristocratic governments, in which sovereignty is much more
palpable than in democracies, the word subject is nevertheless
avoided, and other, less rigid, terms, which involve no exaggeration,
In every country there are voluntary associations of men who have united
for some self-interested or charitable purpose. These men have
voluntarily submitted themselves to certain rules which they observe as
long as they find it advantageous. They even submit themselves to
certain punishments imposed when they have broken the regulations of the
association. But these regulations have no authority other than the will
itself of those who have drawn them up, and, when there are dissidents,
there is no coercive force among them to restrain these dissidents.
A just idea of a true democracy can be gained by magnifying the idea of
such corporations. The ordinances emanating from a people constituted in
such a way would be rules, and not laws. Law is so little the will of
all that the more it is the will of all, the less
it is law: so that it would cease to be law if it was the work of
all those who ought to obey it, without exception.
But a purely voluntary state of association exists no more than does a
pure democracy. One only starts from this theoretical power in order to
understand; and it is in this sense that one can claim that sovereignty
is born the moment when the sovereign begins not to be the whole
people and that it grows stronger to the degree that it becomes less
the whole people.
The spirit of voluntary association is the constitutive principle of
republics, and has necessarily a prime cause; it is divine, and
no one can produce it. The degree to which it is mixed in sovereignty,
the common base of all governments, determines the physiognomy of
The observer, and particularly the foreign observer who lives in a
republican country, can distinguish very well the effects of these two
principles. Sometimes he feels sovereignty and sometimes the communal
spirit that serves as a supplement to it. Public power acts less, and
above all is less apparent, than in monarchies, seeming to mistrust
itself. A certain collective feeling, which is easier to feel than to
define, dispenses sovereignty from acting in a host of circumstances in
which it would intervene elsewhere. A thousand small things come about
of their own accord, and order and agreement show themselves on all
sides for no apparent reason. Communal property is respected even by the
poor, and everything, even the general propriety, gives the observer
food for thought.
A republican nation being thus less governed than any other, it can be
seen that the acts of sovereignty must be supplemented by public spirit,
so that the less a nation has wisdom to see the good and virtue to
follow it of itself, the less fitted it is for a republic.
The advantages and disadvantages of this kind of government are quickly
discovered. At its best, it eclipses all others, and the marvels it works seduce even the calmest and most judicious of observers. But, in
the first place, it is suitable only for very small nations, for there
is no need to demonstrate that the formation and maintenance of the
spirit of association becomes more difficult as the number of associates
In the second place, justice has not that calm and smooth action that we
ordinarily see in monarchies. In democracies, justice is sometimes weak
and sometimes impassioned. It is said that, under these governments, no
head can resist the sword of the law. This means that, the punishment of
an illustrious criminal or accused person being a real joy for the plebs
who by this console themselves for the inevitable superiority of the
aristocracy, public opinion strongly favors this kind of sentence; but
if the criminal is obscure, or in general if the crime wounds neither
the pride nor the immediate interests of the majority of individuals,
this same opinion resists the action of justice and paralyzes it.
In a monarchy, the aristocracy is only a prolongation of royal
authority, and thus partakes to a certain degree in the inviolability of
the monarch. This immunity (always very much below that of the
sovereign) is graduated so that it is held by fewer persons as it grows
In a monarchy, immunity, differently graduated, belongs to the minority,
in a democracy to the majority. In the first case it shocks the plebs;
in the second it pleases them. I believe it to be good in both cases,
that is to say, I believe it to be a necessary element in both
governments, which comes to the same thing, for what constitutes a
government is always good, at least in an absolute sense.
But it is another matter when one government is compared to another. It
is then a question of weighing the benefits and inconveniences to
humanity of different social systems.
It is from this point of view that I believe monarchy to be superior to
democracy in the administration of justice; and I am talking not only of
criminal but also of civil justice. The same weakness can be observed in
the one as in the other.
The magistrate is not sufficiently above the citizen; he has the air of
an arbitrator rather than of a judge; and, forced to act cautiously even
when he speaks in the name of the law, it is obvious that he does not
believe in his own power. His strength lies only in the adherence of his
equals, because there is either no sovereign or it is not strong
In general, justice is always weak in democracies when it acts alone,
and always cruel or irresponsible when it relies on the people.
Some political writers have maintained that one of the advantages of
republican government was the ability the people possess to confide the
exercise of its authority only to men worthy of it. No one, they claim,
can choose better than the people: where their interests are concerned,
nothing can seduce them, and merit alone decides them.
I fancy that this idea is largely delusory. Democracy could not last a
moment if it was not tempered by aristocracy, and above all by
hereditary aristocracy, which is perhaps more indispensable to this
government than to monarchy. In a republic, the right to vote gives
neither prestige nor power. When Rousseau tells us, in the introduction
to the Social Contract, that, in his quality as a citizen of a
free state, he is personally sovereign, even the most benevolent
reader is inclined to laugh. Men count for something in a republic only
to the degree that birth, marriage, and high talents give them
influence; the simple citizen counts for nothing....
In times of peace, the people allow themselves to be led by their
rulers: then they are wise because they act little; they choose well
because the choice is made for them. When they are content with the
power they derive from the constitution and, without venturing to make
use of this power, rely on the understanding and wisdom of the
aristocracy, when on the other side the rulers, sufficiently restrained
by the fear of being deprived of the exercise of power, use it with a
wisdom which justifies confidence, this is when republics shine. But
when respect on the one side and fear on the other disappear, the state
slides quickly toward ruin....
However, I do not want to claim that monarchical government is any less
open to mistakes in its choice of men; but the eternal declamation on
the errors of blind patronage are much less well founded than is
commonly imagined. In the first place, if it is pride that complains,
kings always choose badly, for there is not a malcontent who does not
prefer himself without question to the most happy choice. Moreover, too
often kings are accused when it is the people who should be accused. In
periods of general degeneracy, men complain that merit does not succeed;
but where is it then, this ignored merit? They are obliged to point it
out before accusing the government. During the last two French reigns,
it is true that very mediocre men have been vested with high
responsibilities; but to which men of merit were they preferred? Now
that the most complete revolution the world has seen has broken all the
chains which could bind the talents captive, where are they? You might
perhaps find them, but they will be joined to profound immorality; but
it is the sensible spirit of self-preservation of states that has barred
talents of this kind from high offices. Moreover, as the Scriptures put
it, there is a certain cleverness that works only for ill. This is the
talent that has devastated France for five years. If you look carefully,
you will find no or very little real political talent among even the
most prominent men who have appeared on this bloody and tearful stage.
They have been very good at doing evil; this is the only praise that can
be bestowed on them. Happily the most famous of them have been writers;
and, when all passions have been buried in the grave, posterity will
discover from their indiscreet pages that the most monstrous errors
dominated these pride-ridden men and that the previous government which
rejected, curbed, and punished them was, without knowing it, fighting
for its own life.
It is therefore because France was degenerating, because she was
deficient in talents, that the kings seemed to welcome too much the
mediocrity brought forward by intrigue. There is a very gross error,
into which we nevertheless fall every day without realizing it. Although
we recognize the hidden hand which guides all things, yet so important
does the action of secondary causes seem to us that we fairly commonly
reason as if this hand did not exist. When we contemplate the play of
intrigue around thrones, words like chance, good luck, bad luck,
fortune naturally present themselves, and we say them a little too
quickly without perceiving that they make no sense.
Without doubt, man is free; he can make mistakes, but not sufficiently
to derange general plans. We are all bound to the throne of God by a
pliant chain which reconciles the self-propulsion of free agents with
divine supremacy. Unquestionably, a certain king might in a certain age
prevent a real talent from occupying a position made for it, and this
unfortunate capacity can be more or less extensive. But, in general,
there is a secret power that carries each individual to his place;
otherwise the state could not continue. We recognize in a plant some
unknown power, some single form-giving force which creates and
conserves, which moves unwaveringly toward its end, which appropriates
what is useful to it and rejects that which would harm it, which carries
even to the last fibril of the last leaf the sap that it needs, and
fights with all its might against the diseases of the vegetable world.
This force is still more obvious and more wonderful in the animal
kingdom. How blind we are! How can we deny that the body politic has
also its law, its soul, its form-giving force, and believe that
everything is dependent on the whims of human ignorance? If the moral
mechanism of states were revealed to us, we would be freed of a host of
errors: we would see, for instance, that the man who appears to us to be
fitted for a certain position is a disease which the life force
pushes to the surface, while we deplore the misfortune that stops
him from invading the sources of life. We are misled every day by the
words talent and genius; often these qualities are absent
where we think we see them, and often also they belong to dangerous
To hear these defenders of democracy talk, one would think that the
people deliberate like a committee of wise men, whereas in truth
judicial murders, foolhardy undertakings, wild choices, and above all
foolish and disastrous wars are eminently the prerogatives of this form
But who has ever said worse of democracy than Rousseau, for he declares
point-blank that it is made only for a society of Gods.[Ibid.,
Book iii, Chap. iv.] It remains to be seen how a government which is
made only for gods can yet be proposed to men as the only
legitimate government, for if this is not the meaning of the social
contract, the social contract has no meaning.
But this is not all: "How many things," he says, "difficult to bring
together are required by this government. First, a very small state, in
which the people can easily assemble, and where each citizen can easily
know all the others; second, great simplicity of manners to prevent a
multiplicity of problems and difficult discussions; then a high degree
of equality in rank and fortune without which equality in rights and
authority would not last for long; finally, little or no
At this point, I shall consider only the first of these conditions. If
democracy is suitable only for very small states, how can this form of
government be put forward as the only legitimate form of government and
as, so to speak, a formula capable of resolving all political
I do not know why Rousseau was willing to admit that democracy involves
some small disadvantages, but he had a very simple way of justifying it,
which is to judge it only by its theoretical perfection and to regard
its disadvantages as small and insignificant anomalies which do not
deserve careful attention.
"The general will," he says, "is always right and always tends to the
public utility, but the deliberations of the people have not always the
same rightness.... The people are never corrupted, but they are often
misled, and it is only then that they appear to will what is
evil."[Ibid., Book ii, Chap. iii.] Drink, Socrates, drink; and
console yourself with these distinctions: the good people of Athens only
appear to will what is evil....
CHAPTER V. THE BEST SPECIES OF GOVERNMENT
Rousseau saw quite correctly that no one should ask what is the best
form of government in general, since none is suitable for every nation.
Each nation has its own, as it has its own language and character, and
this government is the best for it. The consequence of which is
obviously that all theories of social contract are pipedreams.... Since
none of the varying circumstances depend on men, it follows that the
consent of the people plays no part in the formation of governments....
The question is not to know what is the best form of government but
which nation is best governed according to the principles of its
CHAPTER VI. CONTINUATION OF THE SAME SUBJECT
The best government for each nation is that which, in the territory
occupied by this nation, is capable of producing the greatest possible
sum of happiness and strength, for the greatest possible number of men,
during the longest possible time. I venture to believe that the justice
of this definition cannot be denied and that it is by following it that
comparison between states from the point of view of their governments
becomes possible. In fact, although it is impossible to ask What is
the best form of government? nothing stops us asking, Which
nation is relatively the most numerous, the strongest, and the happiest,
over the greatest period of time, through the influence of the
government suitable to it?
What peculiarity of mind prevents us from using in the study of politics
the same methods of reasoning and the same general hypotheses which
guide us in the study of other sciences?
In physical research, if there is a problem of estimating a variable
force, we take the average quantity. In astronomy in particular we
always talk of average distance and average time. To judge
the merit of a government, the same method should be used.
Any government is a variable force that produces effects as variable as
itself, within certain limits. To judge it, it should not be examined at
a given moment, but over the whole of its existence. Then to judge the
French monarchy properly, a sum of the virtues and vices of all the
French kings should be made, and divided by sixty-six: the result is an
average king; and the same is true of other monarchies.
Democracy has one brilliant moment, but it is a moment and it must pay
dearly for it. The great days of Athens might, I agree, inspire desires
in the subject of a monarchy, languishing in such and such a period
under an inept or wicked king. Nevertheless, we would be greatly
mistaken if we claimed to establish the superiority of democracy over
monarchy by comparing moment for moment, because, in this way of
judging, we neglect among other things the consideration of duration,
which is a necessary element of these sorts of calculation.
general, all democratic governments are only transitory meteors, whose
brilliance excludes duration....
In discussing the different kinds of
government, the general happiness is not sufficiently considered,
although it should be our sole criterion. We should have the courage to
face a glaring truth which would cool our enthusiasm for free
constitutions a little; this is that, in every republic over a certain
size, what is called liberty is only the total sacrifice of a
great number of men for the independence and pride of a small
Properly speaking, all governments are monarchies which
differ only in whether the monarch is for life or for a term of years,
hereditary or elective, individual or corporate; or, if you will (for it
is the same idea in other terms), all governments are aristocratic,
composed of a greater or smaller number of rulers, from democracy, in
which this aristocracy is composed of as many men as the nature of
things permits, to monarchy, in which the aristocracy, inevitable under
every government, is headed by a single man topping the pyramid and
which undoubtedly constitutes the most natural government for man.
But of all monarchies, the hardest, most despotic, and most intolerable
is King People. Again history testifies to the great truth that
the liberty of the minority is founded only on the slavery of the masses
and that republics have never been anything but multimember sovereigns,
whose despotism, always harder and more capricious than that of kings,
increases in intensity as the number of subjects grows....
VII. REFLECTIONS ON THIS SUBJECT What do all these philosophers
want, since nothing that exists or has existed can please them? They do
not want any government, since there is no government which does not lay
claim to obedience. It is not this or that authority which they detest,
but authority itself; they cannot endure any....
It is enough to
recall the excellent phrase of Rousseau, who was always right when he
spoke against himself: "If I consult philosophers, each has only his own
voice." Deadly enemies of every kind of association, possessed of a
repellent and solitary pride, they agree on only one point, the fury of
destruction. Since each wishes to replace what displeases him by his own
visions which are agreeable to him alone, the result is that all their
power is negative and that all their efforts to build are ineffective
and ridiculous. Misguided man, learn once for all to recognize these
dangerous tricksters; leave them to admire themselves on their own and
rally to the national reason which is never mistaken. Remember that
every nation has, in its laws and ancient customs, everything it needs
to be happy as far as it can be and that by using these ancient laws as
the basis for all your reconstruction you can reveal all your
perfectibility without giving way to fatal innovations.
mind again to higher thoughts. The eternal reason has spoken, and its
infallible oracles have shown us in pride "the beginning of all evils."
This terrible principle is rampant throughout Europe, since these same
philosophers have relieved you of your father's faith. Hatred of
authority is the scourge of our day: there is no remedy for this ill
except in the sacred maxims you have been made to forget. Archimedes
knew well that, to raise the world, you need a fulcrum outside the
To overthrow the moral world, the enemies of all order have
hit on this fulcrum. Atheism and immorality stir up revolt and
In general, we know almost nothing about the unity
of things, and in this we are to be excused, but we cannot be excused
for being ignorant that this unity exists. The imaginary world of
Descartes represents fairly well the reality of the political world.
Every nation is a particular vortex at once impelling and impelled; the
whole is nothing but the totality of these vortices, and nations
are between themselves just like the individuals who compose them. Each
member of these great families we call nations has received a
character, faculties, and a mission peculiar to himself. Some are
destined to slip in silence along the path of life without their passage
being noted. Others herald their progress, and nearly always they are
rewarded by fame rather than happiness. Individual talents are
infinitely diversified with a divine magnificence, and the most
brilliant are not the most useful; but every one has some use, every one
is in its place; all play a part in the general organization, all move
unswervingly toward the end of the association....
It is the same of
nations as of individuals. All have a character and a mission that they
fulfill without realizing it. Some are learned and others are
conquerors; and again there is an infinite diversity of general
characteristics. Among conquering nations, some are purely destructive
whilst others seem to destroy only to make room for creations of a new
No nation owes its character to its government, any more
than its language. On the contrary, it owes its government to its
character, which in fact is always reinforced and perfected subsequently
by political institutions. If you see a nation decline, this is not
because its government is bad; it is because this government, which is
the best for that nation, dies like all human works, or rather it is
because the national character is worn out. Then nations must undergo a
political rebirth, or perish....
[Translation by Jack Lively]
Return to Writings of Joseph de Maistre in English