No Comment, Quotation — May 22, 2010, 5:59 am

Montesquieu – Tyranny in the Shadow of the Law

43justic

Il n’y a point de plus cruelle tyrannie que celle que l’on exerce à l’ombre des lois et avec les couleurs de la justice: lorsqu’on va, pour ainsi dire, noyer des malheureux sur la planche même sur laquelle ils s’étoient sauvés.

Et comme il n’est jamais arrivé qu’un tyran ait manqué d’instruments de sa tyrannie. Tibère trouva toujours des juges prêts à condamner autant de gens qu’il en put soupçonner. Du temps de la république, le sénat, qui ne jugeoit point en corps les affairs des particuliers, connoissoit, par une délégation du peuple, des crimes qu’on imputoit aux alliés. Tibère lui renvoya de même le jugement de tout ce qui s’appeloit crime de lèse-majesté contre lui. Ce corps tomba dans un état de bassesse qui ne peut s’exprimer; les sénateurs alloient au-devant de la servitude; sous le faveur de Séjan, les plus illustres d’entre eux faisoient le métier de délateurs.

No tyranny is more cruel than that which is practiced in the shadow of the law and with the trappings of justice: that is, one would drown the unfortunate by the very plank by which he would hope to be saved.

Moreover, no tyrant ever lacks the instruments necessary to his tyranny. Tiberius always found the judge who was prepared to sentence any person of whom he had the slightest suspicion. In the time of the republic the senate, which did not as a body pass judgment on specific transactions, nevertheless, through a delegation of the people, took cognizance of crimes that were imputed to allies. In a like manner, Tiberius referred to this body the adjudication of all crimes which he considered an act of offense against his person. The senate then fell into a state of utter degradation such as can scarce be described; the senators themselves led the processional into their own enslavement. Under the patronage of Sejanus, the best known among them competed to be informers for the emperor.

–Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, ch. xiv (1734) contained in Œuvres complètes, vol. ii, p. 144 (R. Caillois ed. 1951)(S.H. transl.)


The American Founding Fathers were influenced by the lessons they drew from a study of antiquity and particularly helped in this process by Montesquieu and his essay of the rise and collapse of liberty in Rome. In Montesquieu’s study of Tiberius, he reflects how the institutions of government were steadily corrupted by those who sought the favor of the emperor. Judges convicted and sentenced anyone of whom Tiberius grew suspicious; senators vied with one another in denouncing their rivals to him. This reflects the weakness of human nature in the face of power, but Montesquieu focuses on how it causes the disintegration of the justice system. There is something particularly pernicious about a situation in which the outer trappings of justice exist, but the substance has been replaced with a craven homage to the power of the executive. Montesquieu drew on Tactitus for his examples, but subsequent human history can recount many others. In 1946, for instance, just this concern about the warping of justice by a tyrannical spirit led to a decision, controversial at the time it was formed, to put justice ministry officials, prosecutors and judges on trial for their complicity in crimes against humanity under the Nazi regime. Powerful as that example was, others can be cited in societies which retain a better semblance of justice. As for example, in the just-past Bush Administration, in which lawyers of the Justice Department issued memoranda approving torture with presidential authority, authorized warrantless surveillance, launched bogus prosecutions of political rivals and indulged the bribing of foreign government officials in commercial dealings, all in the name of executive power elevated above the law, but given the benefit of formal legality.


Listen to Claudio Arrau perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, op. 73 (1809-11). In the English-speaking world, this work carries the title “The Emperor,” a reference to Napoleon, though that was not of Beethoven’s choosing. Beethoven welcomed and admired Napoleon when he first emerged on the stage of world politics; he viewed him as the herald of a new era of democracy and civil rights. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, Beethoven viewed this as an act of betrayal. Beethoven’s attitude towards imperial assumptions of power was mocking, not magnifying.

<object width=”480″ height=”385″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/akc0v_KTZBM&hl=en_US&fs=1&”> <embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/akc0v_KTZBM&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”480″ height=”385″></embed></object></p>

<object width=”480″ height=”385″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/AP485C6MZAU&hl=en_US&fs=1&”> <embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/AP485C6MZAU&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”480″ height=”385″></embed></object></p>

<object width=”480″ height=”385″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/2cA8znJZ0dI&hl=en_US&fs=1&”> <embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/2cA8znJZ0dI&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”480″ height=”385″></embed></object></p>

<object width=”480″ height=”385″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/Nh2dxjKMIaQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&”> <embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/Nh2dxjKMIaQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”480″ height=”385″></embed></object></p>

<object width=”480″ height=”385″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/O7xN3ZdHKeU&hl=en_US&fs=1&”> <embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/O7xN3ZdHKeU&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”480″ height=”385″></embed></object></p>

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

No Comment November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm

The Torture Doctors

An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath

No Comment August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“In Thunupa’s footsteps grew a miraculous plant that could withstand drought, cold, and even salt, and still produce a nutritious grain.”
Photograph by Lisa M. Hamilton
Article
A Study in Sherlock·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is central to the pleasure of the Sherlock Holmes stories that they invite play, and that they were never meant to be taken seriously.”
Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele
Post
My Top 5 Metal Albums and Their Poetic Counterparts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
Found Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I have spent my entire adult existence in a recession. Like most people I talk to, I assume the forces that control the market are at best random and at worst rigged. The auction shows only confirm that suspicion.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Post
The School of Permanent Revolución·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The University of Venezuela has provided a consistent counterweight to governmental authority, but it has also reliably produced the elite of whatever group replaced the status quo.”
Photograph © Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Percentage of non-Christian Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Christ:

52

A newly translated Coptic text alleged Judas’ kiss to have been necessitated by Jesus’ ability to shape-shift.

Russia reportedly dropped a series of math texts from a list of recommended curricular books because its illustrations featured too many non-Russian characters. “Gnomes, Snow White,” said a Russian education expert, “these are representatives of a foreign-language culture.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST