Sunday, February 22, 2015

Baron de Montesquieu

"There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law, and in the name of justice."

 Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu (1689 - 1755) was a French political philosopher, satirist, and pioneer in sociology, whose treatise on government forms part of the foundation of modern Liberalism.

 In the Persian Letters (1721) two Ottoman Spies, Rica and Uzbek, report back to the Sultan that the Europeans are a ridiculous people. They believe that three are one, they are ruled over by sorcerers who turn wine into blood, they hand over all their wealth to people who do not work (monks), they exile their most industrious workers (ie Jews and Protestants) and, if they refuse to leave, they burn them. "People here argue constantly about religion," one of them says, "but they are competing to see who can be the least devout." Rica opines that if the triangles made a theology, their God would have three sides and three points. Uzbek laments that they know not Allah, worries that they will be condemned to fiery torment forever, and piously hopes they will convert to Islam.

 Persian Letters was part of a genre of political and religious satire prompted by the age of exploration, which made Europeans increasingly aware of the diversity of human customs in the world, and which used foreign observers as foibles to undermine the certainties of their time. It was an early example of Relativism, and tended to make the authorities of the 18th century nervous for the same reasons other instances of Relativism do those of the 21st.

 In his essay on The Greatness and Decadance of the Romans (1734) he argued that the passage from Republic to Empire deranged their character and institutions. His argument is noteworthy because it explained history in terms of natural cause and effect and not, as Augustine and all right-thinking historians since had done, in terms of divine providence. The Roman Empire has had a special place in western political mythology practically since there was such a thing, but the middle ages had thought in terms of preservation and restoration of that empire. Montesquieu thought the Empire had been a mistake - the real goal of statecraft should not be the restoration of the Empire, but the Republic. Anyone who has been to Washington D.C. can see the influence of this mythology stamped on the official architecture of the United States.

 Spirit of the Laws (1748) is by far the most influential of his works. It was, by Enlightenment standards, a conservative document which attempted to steer a middle course between the arbitrary authority of an autocrat, and that of the crowd.

 Human character, he argued - and thus also institutions, customs, and laws, are derived from environment. One kind of climate is conducive to passion, and there autocracy is essential. Another (European) is conducive to reason, and there a milder kind of government is possible. This theory was controversial at the time - voltaire ridiculed it -, broadly accepted in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a prop to racism and imperialism, and is out of favor in our time for the same reason. It remains, however, an important step toward a naturalistic explanation of human institutions and society - the essential object of modern sociology.

 An ideal European government should guard against the concentration of power in the hands of either the king, or his democratic counterpart, "king mob," through a system of checks and balances. The executive enforces the law, but does not make it. The legislative makes the law, but does not enforce it, and the judiciary interprets the law in all doubtful cases, but neither enforces nor makes it. Legislative power should be further divided into upper and lower houses, representing property, and the people, respectively. All government power, however, is circumscribed by natural rights - those which man receives from his creator, and which no earthly power can justly deprive him of. For Montesquieu the problem of government cannot be settled through divine providence, the benevolence of a monarch, or feelings of good will between individuals. It is a matter of cause and effect, and susceptible to the understanding of human reason. Well-planned institutions can provide a good government even for people who are not themselves good.

 Montesquieu's political thought was influenced by that of Aristotle, who had argued for the importance of a mixed constitution, and by Plato, who despised the mob as a power more despotic and irresponsible than any tyrant. Like Voltaire, he visited Britain and was favorably impressed by what he saw there. The American constitution is derived largely from his principles, and they have been incorporated to a greater or a lesser extent by most parliamentary regimes.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Montesquieu

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment (IV of XVII)

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