An Essay on Crimes and Punishments/Chapter XXVI
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Of the Spirit of Family in States
Of the Spirit of Family in States.
IT is remarkable, that many fatal acts of injustice have been authorised and approved, even by the wisest and most experienced men, in the freest republics. This has been owing to their having considered the state, rather as a society of families, than of men. Let us suppose a nation composed of an hundred thousand men, divided into twenty thousand families of five persons each, including the head or master of the family, its representative. If it be an association of families, there will be twenty thousand men, and eighty thousand slaves; if of men, there will be an hundred thousand citizens, and not one slave. In the first case we behold a republic, and twenty thousand little monarchies, of which the heads are the sovereigns; in the second, the spirit of liberty will not only breathe in every public place of the city, and in the assemblies of the nation, but in private houses, where men find the greatest part of their happiness or misery. As laws and customs are always the effect of the habitual sentiments of the members of a republic, if the society be an association of the heads of families, the spirit of monarchy will gradually make its way into the republic itself, as its effects will only be restrained by the opposite interests of each, and not by an universal spirit of liberty and equality. The private spirit of family is a spirit of minuteness, and confined to little concerns. Public spirit, on the contrary, is influenced by general principles, and from facts deduces general rules of utility to the greatest number.
In a republic of families, the children remain under the authority of the father, as long as he lives, and are obliged to wait until his death for an existence dependent on the laws alone. Accustomed to kneel and tremble in their tender years, when their natural sentiments were less restrained by that caution, obtained by experience, which is called moderation, how should they resist those obstacles, which vice always opposes to virtue, in the languor and decline of age, when the despair of reaping the fruits is alone sufficient to damp the vigour of their resolutions?
In a republic, where every man is a citizen, family subordination is not the effect of compulsion, but of contract; and the sons, disengaged from the natural dependence, which the weakness of infancy and the necessity of education required, become free members of society, but remain subject to the head of the family for their own advantage, as in the great society.
In a republic of families, the young people, that is, the most numerous and most useful part of the nation, are at the discretion of their fathers: in a republic of men, they are attached to their parents by no other obligation, than that sacred and inviolable one of mutual assistance, and of gratitude for the benefits they have received; a sentiment, destroyed not so much by the wickedness of the human heart, as by a mistaken subjection, prescribed by the laws.
These contradictions between the laws of families, and the fundamental laws of a state, are the source of many others between public and private morality, which produce a perpetual conflict in the mind. Domestic morality inspires submission, and fear: the other, courage and liberty. That instructs a man to confine his beneficence to a small number of persons, not of his own choice; this, to extend it to all mankind; that commands a continual sacrifice of himself to a vain idol, called the good of the family, which is often no real good to any one of those who compose it; this teaches him to consider his own advantage without offending the laws, or excites him to sacrifice himself for the good of his country, by rewarding him beforehand with the fanaticism it inspires. Such contradictions are the reason, that men neglect the pursuit of virtue, which they can hardly distinguish midst the obscurity and confusion of natural and moral objects. How frequently are men, upon a retrospection of their actions, astonished to find themselves dishonest?
In proportion to the increase of society, each member becomes a smaller part of the whole; and the republican spirit diminishes in the same proportion, if neglected by the laws. Political societies, like the human body, have their limits circumscribed, which they cannot exceed without disturbing their economy. It seems as if the greatness of a state ought to be inversely as the sensibility and activity of the individuals; if, on the contrary, population and activity increase in the same proportion, the laws will with difficulty prevent the crimes arising from the good they have produced. An overgrown republic can only be saved from despotism, by subdividing it into a number of confederate republics. But how is this practicable? By a despotic dictator, who, with the courage of Sylla, has as much genius for building up, as that Roman had for pulling down. If he be an ambitious man, his reward will be immortal glory; if a philosopher, the blessings of his fellow citizens will sufficiently console him for the loss of authority, though he should not be insensible to their ingratitude.
In proportion as the sentiments, which unite us to the state, grow weaker, those which attach us to the objects which more immediately surround us grow stronger; therefore, in the most despotic government, friendships are more durable, and domestic virtues (which are always of the lowest class) are the most common, or the only virtues existing. Hence it appears how confined have been the views of the greatest number of legislators.