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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2016

Trump’s People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Long Rescue

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Television

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Improbability Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Helen Ouyang on the cost of crowd-sourcing drugs, Paul Wood on Trump's supporters, Walter Kirn on political predictions, Sonia Faleiro on a man's search for his kidnapped children, and Rivka Galchen on The People v. O. J. Simpson.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Photograph (detail) © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Article
Trump’s People·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"All our friends are saying, load up with plenty of ammunition, because after the stores don’t have no food they’re gonna be hitting houses. They’re going to take over America, put their flag on the Capitol.” “Who?” I asked. “ISIS. Oh yeah.”
Photograph by Mark Abramson for Harper's Magazine (detail)
Article
The Long Rescue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

He made them groom and feed the half-dozen horses used to transport the raw bricks to the furnace. Like the horses, the children were beaten with whips.
Photograph (detail) © Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Newscom
Article
The Old Man·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Illustration (detail) by Jen Renninger
Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With its lens shifting from the courtroom to the newsroom to people’s back yards, the series evokes the way in which, for a brief, delusory moment, the O. J. verdict seemed to deliver justice for all black men.
Still from The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story © FX Networks

Amount an auditor estimated last year that Oregon could save each year by feeding prisoners less food:

$62,000

Kentucky is the saddest state.

An Italian economist was questioned on suspicion of terrorism after a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight witnessed him writing differential equations on a pad of paper.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today