Moderation as Government: Montesquieu and the divisibility of power

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


The principle of moderation can be regarded as an ethical principle of virtue or as a principle of government. On the basis of the former, moderation has a personal, ethical sense—not to go towards extremes. The latter model is more generalized and impersonal: moderation as the limitation of power by power. Both conceptions actually meet, though with the latter model more salient, in the work of Montesquieu. This article outlines Montesquieu’s view of moderation emphasizing the extent to which this view cannot be understood apart from his concept of despotism. It shows that Montesquieu’s understanding of moderation entails the balancing and interaction of different powers in a State. As such, his view is more “dynamic” and relational than “substantive.” By exploring the interaction between the models of moderation as virtue and moderation as government in Montesquieu’s work, I then develop the notion of “ruling fear” in considering the continuing relevance of Montesquieu’s perspective for current understandings of moderation and political power.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-329
Number of pages17
JournalEuropean Legacy
Issue number3-4
Early online date11 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The early part of this work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust under grant MRF-2015–18. I wish to thank the three editors of this special issue and two anonymous referees for their scholarly and professional criticism, help and encouragement in improving this article. I also owe a huge debt to Gabriel Osborne for his expertise in the history of political thought and insight into Montesquieu’s place in the history of moderation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Moderation
  • Liberalism


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