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Emile Durkheim in Montesquieu and Rousseau - Forerunners of Sociology (p.35) suggests that Montesquieu is analysing four types of society. Ranked in order of the size of popultion, these are:

People who do not cultivate the earth
(Spirit of the Laws, books l8 and l0)

Because the produce of uncultivated land is small, these societies are the smallest , but they use large areas. (18.10)

Montesquieu describes two types. "Savages" live as dispersed clans and tend to be hunters. "Barbarians" are small nations who tend to be herders of cattle or sheep. (l8.11)

"Nature and climate rule almost alone amongst the savages"

Montesquieu says, but other societies free themselves from their influence to a greater or less extent and are governed more by custom, laws and morals. (19.4) The reason that some socities remain at this stage of economic and social development may be the relative fertility of their soil. (18.9) Abundance provides no incentive to change!

These nomadic societies, Montesquieu says, need few laws. (18.8) Customs and traditions are more important and "the old men, who remember things past, have great authority". (l8.13)

Generally there is a great deal of political freedom in nomadic societies and this is partly due to their not using money. (18.14 and 18.17) Freedom is not, however, an invariable rule. "The inhabitants of cultivated plains are seldom free", he says, "Circumstances have occured to put the Tarters, who dwell in uncultivated plains, in the same situation." (18.19)


Most of Montesquieu's examples of republics are from ancient Greece or Rome. Durkheim argues that he would not have regarded modern France, for example, as the same kind of society. (Durkheim p.25)

Montesquieu discusses two kinds of republic, but we will focus on the democratic republic.

In a republic the supreme power resides with the people, but in an aristocratic republic it is just part of the people, whilst in a democracy it is the whole. (2.2)

Republics, Montesquieu says, cannot survive for long unless they are restricted to a small, territory. This is because inequalities of wealth would develop in a large republic and, consequently, private interests would undermine the consciousness of the public good. (8.16)

The stability of a republic depends on the equality and frugality of its citizens, and these factors should be encouraged by the laws. (5.3 to 5.7)

Ambition, on the other hand, would undermine a republic. (3.3 and 3.7)

Montesquieu argues that every political form has a guiding spirit. In a republic it is 'virtue'. - By virtue, Montesquieu explains, he means political, not private or religious virtue. (3.5 fotnote j.) Virtue in a republic, he says, "is a most simple thing, it is love of the republic" (5.2)

Love of the public good is essential to a republic, which would fall apart without it: Monarchies, however, do not depend on it, and despotisms "have no occasion for it" (3.5 and 3.9) Different political systems, thus, require a different political culture.


Durkheim says Montesquieu found this social structure only amongst the large nations of modern (eighteenth century) Europe. (Durkheim page 26) France and England are the main examples.

In a monarchy a single person governs by fixed and established laws. (2.1) Montesquieu argues that fixed laws imply that there are "intermediate and subordinate" powers in a monarchy. "Abolish the privileges of the lords, the clergy and the cities in a monarchy, and you will soon have a popular state, or else a despotic government." (2.4) In modern terms , the argument is that the rule of law depends on "countervailing power". A monarchial state ought to be of moderate size. If it is too small it will tend to become a republic. If its territory is too big, the nobles will tend to break away to form their own states, or the monarchy may asume unlimited power (become despotic), in order to hold it together. (8.17)

Monarchial society is based on "honour". The state does not need political virtues like love of country - law takes their place - instead it relies on people seeking their own glory in a hierarchical society. People serve their country, not because they love it, but because they gain rank and nobility for doing so. (3.5 and 3.7)


The main examples Montesquieu draws on are Turkey and Persia. Durkheim says Montesquieu associated despotisms with the "east". (Durkheim page 26)

In a despotism the sovereign power resides in one person whose power is not restricted by laws. (2.1) In practice, what happens is that custom, especially religion, limits the sovereign's power. (2.4) A modern sociologist might say that, under despotism, religion acts as the functional equivallent of law. Despotisms tend to be asociated with the largest land areas. (8.l9) The population are equal in their servitude (3.8) and society is based on fear. (3.9)

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