Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

by Paul Anthony Rahe

In 1989, the Cold War abruptly ended and it seemed as if the world was at last safe for democracy. But a spirit of uneasiness, discontent, and world-weariness soon arose and has persisted in Europe, in America, and elsewhere for two decades. To discern the meaning of this malaise we must investigate the nature of liberal democracy, says the author of this


In 1989, the Cold War abruptly ended and it seemed as if the world was at last safe for democracy. But a spirit of uneasiness, discontent, and world-weariness soon arose and has persisted in Europe, in America, and elsewhere for two decades. To discern the meaning of this malaise we must investigate the nature of liberal democracy, says the author of this provocative book, and he undertakes to do so through a detailed investigation of the thinking of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville.

Paul A. Rahe argues that these political thinkers anticipated the modern liberal republic's propensity to drift in the direction of “soft despotism”—a condition that arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power expands and gradually undermines the spirit of self-government. Such an eventuality, feared by Tocqueville in the nineteenth century, has now become a reality throughout the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. So Rahe asserts, and he explains what must be done to reverse this unfortunate trend.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement

"A remarkable book."—Kenneth Minogue, Times Literary Supplement

— Kenneth Minogue

National Review

“Valuable. . . impressive and provocative. . . deserves to be widely read. . . a fine book.”—William Voegeli, National Review

— William Voegeli

Weekly Standard

“Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees.”—Harvey Mansfield, Weekly Standard

— Harvey Mansfield

Human Events

“Intelligent [and] well-reasoned.”—Cynthia Grenier, Human Events

— Cynthia Grenier

The Mises Review

"Outstanding."—David Gordon, The Mises Review

— David Gordon


Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine

Journal of the Review of Politics

"Rahe''s volume does the further service...of exposing this dilemma regarding how to break through the amnesia of the late-modern liberal era without reinforcing its disdain for those backward minds that have not yet caught the wave of egalitarian and perpetually self-constructed liberation."--Paul O. Carrese, Journal of the Review of Politics

— Paul O. Carrese

Ralph Lerner

"Acute analysts of emergent commercial republicanism found much to praise, even while foreseeing (and showing how one might avert) its slide into mindless self-absorption. With this expert, engrossing account, Paul Rahe joins that honorable company who resist the further degradation of democratic souls."—Ralph Lerner, The University of Chicago

Thomas L. Pange

"This is an exemplary deployment of great past thinkers in an intensely provocative, deliberately controversial meditation on the profound strengths and weaknesses or dangers in our political culture."—Thomas L. Pangle, author of Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws

Times Literary Supplement - Kenneth Minogue

"A remarkable book."—Kenneth Minogue, Times Literary Supplement

National Review - William Voegeli

“Valuable. . . impressive and provocative. . . deserves to be widely read. . . a fine book.”—William Voegeli, National Review

Weekly Standard - Harvey Mansfield

“Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees.”—Harvey Mansfield, Weekly Standard

Human Events - Cynthia Grenier

“Intelligent [and] well-reasoned.”—Cynthia Grenier, Human Events

The Mises Review - David Gordon

"Outstanding."—David Gordon, The Mises Review
Journal of the Review of Politics - Paul O. Carrese

"Rahe's volume does the further service...of exposing this dilemma regarding how to break through the amnesia of the late-modern liberal era without reinforcing its disdain for those backward minds that have not yet caught the wave of egalitarian and perpetually self-constructed liberation."—Paul O. Carrese, Journal of the Review of Politics

Library Journal

Rahe (history & political science, Hillsdale Coll.; Republics Ancient and Modern) has actually written two books in one: the first three quarters are a detailed reading of the great 18th- and 19th-century political and social theorists Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville on the nature of government, the glue that holds the polity together, and the difficulty maintaining political virtue and, with it, individual freedom, in a democratic republic. The threat to liberty and civic virtue, as Tocqueville saw it, lay in the elimination of intermediate bodies (like townships) that directly involved citizens in governing. Without such intermediate bodies, democracy would drift into soft despotism, with a central government regulating the smallest details of the citizen's life. This part of the book is tightly reasoned, relying on a thoughtful reading of texts that still have great merit for our own age. The final section of the book is an impassioned, occasionally intemperate, but largely successful attempt to describe the malaise gripping democratic governments today, combined with a plea to limit government's intrusion into our lives. (The author quite evidently holds libertarian views.) Many scholars and serious readers will find this essential reading.
—David Keymer

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Yale University Press
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Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift

Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville & The Modern Prospect
By Paul A. Rahe

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Paul Anthony Rahe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14492-5

Chapter One


We see next to nothing pertaining to justice & injustice that does not change in quality with a change in climate. Three degrees of Latitude overthrows all jurisprudence. A Meridian decides the truth; with a few years of possession the fundamental laws change. Right has its epochs. It is a ridiculous justice that has a river or a Mountain as its boundary. Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on that. -Blaise Pascal

The first eight books of the work that Montesquieu entitled De l'Esprit des lois have one distinctive feature. It was there-after a brief introduction dealing with the problematic character of man's place in the universe and with the foundations of man-made law (EL 1.1.1-3)-that the French philosophe first introduced his novel typology of political forms. His stated purpose for doing so was to trace the esprit-the spirit, the mindset, the motive, the impetus, the purpose, the intention, the object, as well as the logic-behind the "infinite diversity of laws & mores" which are to be found in the larger world: his aim thereby was torefute skeptics and cynics inclined to agree with Blaise Pascal, and to demonstrate to the satisfaction of all that there is a method to this apparent madness and that human beings "are not conducted solely [uniquement] by their fantasies" when they opt against "uniformity" and do not in every time and place adopt the same weights, the same measures, the same laws, and the same religion (Préf., 6.19.18).

To this end, at the beginning of the second book of this great work, Montesquieu distinguishes, with regard to "nature," three species of government-republics, in which "the people as a body, or only a part of the people, hold the sovereign power"; monarchies, in which "one governs alone, but by laws fixed & established"; and despotisms, in which "one alone, without law & without regulation [règle], draws everything in train by his will & by his caprices" (1.2.1). As Montesquieu's argument unfolds in the course of that book (1.2.2-3), he complicates this assertion by further differentiating aristocratic republics, in which a part of the people hold the sovereignty, from democratic republics, in which the people hold the sovereignty themselves.

The typology deployed by Montesquieu is peculiar in two regards. On the one hand, it abstracts from questions of moral character. Where Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and their medieval and Renaissance admirers had distinguished kingship from tyranny, aristocracy from oligarchy, and well-ordered popular government from the regime variously called democracy, anarchy, or mob rule and had done so chiefly with an eye to the character of the ruling individual or group, Montesquieu insists that "the form of the constitution" is alone determinative; and when discussing one-man rule, he therefore treats as "accidental" matters such as "the virtues or vices of the prince" and as "external" questions such as "usurpation" and "the succession" (2.11.9).

At the same time, however, that Montesquieu jettisoned the contrast between aristocracy and oligarchy and that between well-ordered and ill-ordered popular government, he reasserted that between well-ordered one-man rule and tyranny. He had long been sensitive to the fact that, with regard to their subjects, European monarchs exercised a species of self-restraint unknown in the Orient (LP 99-100/102-3), and he soon came to recognize that this was rooted in the fact that they did not themselves exercise the judicial power (CR 16.37-47). In consequence, where Thomas Hobbes had explicitly rejected regime distinctions of the sort espoused by the ancients as not just illusory but dangerous in the extreme, Montesquieu insisted on restoring in the case of monarchy alone something like the classical understanding. But where the ancients and their medieval and Renaissance admirers had juxtaposed the lawful rule of an individual over willing subjects in the interest of those ruled with the lawless rule of an individual over unwilling subjects solely in the interest of the ruler himself, Montesquieu abandoned the focus on interest and consent while reemphasizing the rule of law. If he ultimately eschewed political moralism, he was nonetheless a constitutionalist of sorts; and although he appears at one stage to have been inclined to criticize Machiavelli for confusing despotism and monarchy, in the end, it was from the Florentine, who teaches that one should attend solely to "the effectual truth of the matter," that he took his cue. As he saw it, monarchical government is distinguished from despotism solely by the presence of corporate bodies (corps) possessing the privilege of self-government, which is to say, by "the prerogatives of the lords, the clergy, the nobility, & the towns"-above all, by the prerogatives accorded the "powers intermediary, subordinate, & dependent" which cause the monarch to "govern by the fundamental laws." There is, he contends, a sense in which "the nobility" with its esprit de corps "enters ... into the essence of monarchy," for the "fundamental maxim" of this form of government is: "no monarch, no nobility; no nobility, no monarch." Where there is one-man rule in the absence of such a nobility, "one has a despot" on one's hands (EL 1.2.4).


In the third book of his encyclopedic work, Montesquieu puts flesh on these constitutional bones by introducing a "distinction" which he thinks "very important" and which he describes as "the key to an infinity of laws." There is, he suggests, a "difference between the nature of the government & its principle [principe]: its nature is that which makes it such as it is, & its principe, that which makes it act. The one is its particular structure, & the other is the human passions that set it in motion" (1.3.1). The principle of democracy is virtue; that of aristocracy is moderation; that of monarchy is honor; and that of despotism is la crainte or fear (1.3.2-11). If Montesquieu rivals Aristotle as an analyst of political regimes, it is because he attends to the procedure Plato followed in the eighth and ninth books of The Republic and supplements his strictly institutional analysis with an attention to political psychology which gives to his political science a suppleness, a flexibility, a subtlety, and range elsewhere unexcelled in modern times. The bulk of the first eight books of The Spirit of Laws is devoted to a consideration of the manner in which the laws and customs reigning within a polity must be framed with an eye not only to the structure of that polity but to the passions setting it in motion (1.4-8). As Montesquieu explains when he first introduces the notion, the "principle" of a polity has "a supreme influence over the laws," and one can see them "flow from it as from a spring [source]" (1.1.3).

We would therefore expect that, when Montesquieu suddenly and without warning complicates his typology further by introducing yet another species of government, he would not only discuss the structure of that government but take care to specify its principle and examine in detail the consequences that arise there from. After all, in mounting a defense of his Spirit of Laws against the charges laid against it by the faculty of theology at the Sorbonne, Montesquieu would later insist that his account therein of "the principles" distinguishing the various forms of government is "of a fruitfulness [fécondité] so great" that it can justly be said that these principles "give form to my book almost in its entirety." But when the time comes and Montesquieu turns his attention to the question of "political liberty" in the eleventh book of The Spirit of Laws, he has nothing to say concerning the principle animating the new species of government that he describes therein.

His focus is what he terms elsewhere "a republic concealed under the form of a monarchy" (1.5.19, p. 304), and he prefaces its discussion by introducing a category of distinction to which he has hitherto barely alluded (1.4.8): the "object" peculiar to each political community. That "all states have the same object in general, which is to maintain themselves," Montesquieu readily concedes. But he insists as well that "each state has an object that is particular to it."

Aggrandizement was the object of Rome; war, that of Lacedaemon; religion, that of the Jewish laws; commerce, that of Marseilles; public tranquillity, that of the laws of China; the carrying trade [navigation], that of the laws of the Rhodians; natural liberty was the object of public administration [la police] among the savages; in general, the delights of the prince was its object in despotic states; his glory & that of the state, its object in monarchies; the independence of each individual is the object of the laws of Poland, & what results from this is the oppression of all.

"There is also," he then adds, "one nation in the world which has for the direct object of its constitution political liberty," and he promises "to examine the principles [les principes] on which" this constitution "is founded" (2.11.5). This promise he keeps in the very next chapter by launching into an elaborate discussion of the "beautiful system" constituted by the pertinent nation's constitution and laws (2.11.6, especially p. 407). But neither here nor anywhere else does he tell us what is the "principle" and what are "the human passions that set in motion" what turns out to be the government of England.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. It is possible that, when he deals with England's constitutional monarchy in the eleventh book, Montesquieu abandons the mode of analysis that he had made extensive use of when he discussed democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and despotism in Books Two through Eight. He may, in fact, be implying that it makes no sense to analyze the English polity in terms of "the human passions that set it in motion." But it is equally possible that Montesquieu has deliberately left it to his readers to discover on their own "the principle" exercising "a supreme influence over the laws" of England, which he had himself left unmentioned. At the end of the eleventh book of his magnum opus, Montesquieu remarks that "it is not necessary always to so exhaust a subject that one leaves nothing for the reader to do. The task is not to make him read but to make him think" (2.11.20). To properly explore these two possibilities, we will have to return to the first eight books of The Spirit of Laws and consider Montesquieu's political typology as a whole.


If, as Montesquieu more than once suggests, the English polity really is "a republic" of some sort (1.5.19, p. 304; 1.6.3; 2.12.19), and if, as he clearly implies, its government has a popular cast (1.2.4), it should be set in motion by virtue-the principle that animates democratic republics. This seems, however, not to be the case. To begin with, Montesquieu never attributes political virtue to the English: he touches on the subject only in referring to the brief republican experiment that took place after the execution of Charles I. The "impotent efforts" of the English "to establish among themselves democracy" on this occasion he regards as "a fine spectacle," noting that those "who took part in affairs had no virtue" and that the ambition that fueled their rivalries and gave rise to faction produced so "much of movement" and so "many shocks & jerks" that "the people," unable "to find anywhere" the democracy that "they were seeking," eventually "found repose in the very government that had been proscribed" (1.3.3).

Moreover, Montesquieu nowhere suggests that political liberty is the object pursued by democracies and aristocracies. Indeed, he contends that these republics "are not in their nature free states" (2.11.4). And he warns that it is a mistake to look for liberty "in democracies" where "the people seem pretty much to do what they wish" since to do so would be to "confound the power of the people with the liberty of the people" (2.11.2), for "political liberty does not at all consist in doing what one wants" (2.11.3). It is, in any case, "not to be found except" in what he calls "moderate governments"-and not always there. Political liberty, he observes, "is not present except where there is no abuse of power, & it is an eternal experience that every man who has power is drawn to abuse it; he proceeds until he finds the limits." It is in alluding to the human propensity for the abuse of power that he pointedly adds: "Who would say it! Even virtue has a need for limits" (2.11.4).

This claim should give us pause. If virtue has a need for limits, it is because the principle of democratic republicanism can itself become a motive for the abuse of power. It is "a misfortune attached to the human condition," Montesquieu later observes, but one cannot deny the fact:

Great men who are moderate are rare; & as it is always easier to follow one's strength [force] than to arrest it, within the class of superior people, one may perhaps with greater facility find people extremely virtuous than men extremely wise.

The soul tastes so much delight in dominating other souls; even those who love the good love themselves so strongly that there is no one who is not so unfortunate as to still have reason to doubt his own good intentions: &, in truth, our actions depend on so many things that it is a thousand times easier to do good than to do it well. (6.28.41)

In this passage, Montesquieu describes one dimension of the problem: there is something inherently immoderate and perhaps even tyrannical at the heart of all forms of political idealism and public spiritedness. The other dimension of the problem stems from the nature of political virtue itself.

When Montesquieu speaks of democratic republics, he nearly always has foremost in his mind ancient Rome and the cities of classical Greece. His analysis of these communities and of their customs and laws in terms of constitutional structure and political psychology is, in one crucial regard, at odds with their self-understanding. As I have tried to demonstrate in fine detail elsewhere, the Greeks-and the Romans as well-took political rationality to be the fundamental principle of the classical republican regime. To be precise, their institutions and practices embodied the presumption that, with the proper civic education, human beings can rise to the task of sorting out through public deliberation the character of the advantageous, the just, and the good; and a quarter of a millennium before Aristotle fully articulated what this entailed, they evidenced that they were quite conscious of the fact. Montesquieu stands opposed to the ancients and to those of their civic-minded, humanist admirers in the communes of Renaissance Italy who entertained similar presumptions concerning man's capacity for rational, public speech-for, like Machiavelli, he has next to nothing to say concerning public deliberation. When he speaks of virtue, he is not interested in those qualities of character and intellect that enable the very best citizens (and perhaps even the ordinary citizens at their very best) to transcend petty, private concerns and engage in public deliberation concerning the dictates of justice and the common good. Nor is he concerned with the liberation of reason from passion. In stark contrast with the citizens of the ancient republics, the classical philosophers, and their disciples the Christian theologians, he doubts whether "reason" ever "produces any great effects on the minds of men" (3.19.27, p. 577). In this spirit, he has his protagonist Usbek suggest in the Persian Letters that it makes far more sense "to treat man as feeling [sensible] than to treat him as reasonable" (LP 31.22-34/33). As one would then expect, when Montesquieu mentions virtue, he has in mind the fostering of an irrational, unreasoning passion for equality-for, in his judgment, it is this passion that sets the democratic republic in motion (EL 1.5.2-7).


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Meet the Author

Paul A. Rahe is professor of history and political science at Hillsdale College and author of Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution and Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic.

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