One of the political sentiments, which served well the Conservative Right that managed to reshape the Congressional landscape in last year mid-term elections, was the appeal to the Founding Fathers legacy, Revolutionary rhetoric and pledge to rediscover and to come back to the original American Spirit. In a contrast to the opportunistic and anemic Obama Administration, which quickly forgot promises of change it employed to get a decisive victory over Conservatives only two years earlier, such a passionate sentiment of course worked well.
However, is it only political nut-jobs who may feel a need to discover or rediscover What America Stands For? Are we, everybody else, in the obvious absence or rather rejection of any sound ideas by current Administration, better to look back and analyze once more what those intellectual bases were the Founding Fathers were building the American Political System on? Of course the answer of political thinkers of Enlightenment comes to mind, but there is something more prominent, which glimpses through the Enlightenment, Renaissance and Classic times.
Something that remarkably persisted through the ages, made its way into our times and sometimes could be found in wonderfully unlikely places. When the next time you come to Starbucks cafe, give yourself a time and opportunity to look at the cafe’s logo more thoughtfully – you are looking not just at a mermaid, but an impersonation of the stories that made our Constitution possible. Sounds bizarre? We’ll come to this discussion later, but now we are back to the Founding Fathers business.
Framers of the Constitution were a very diverse band in terms of mental abilities, biases and agendas. And the beam of the Enlightenment Age Thought reflected, deflected and interfered among them sometimes in very peculiar ways. It was a grandiose effort in its boldness to consciously implement a completely theoretical governing concept, and of course it produced not only genius insights, but also silly blinders and stupid pitfalls, some of which were carried over more than two centuries in our time. To distinguish what is what, we need to remind ourselves not only the Letter of Supreme Law of our Country, as we frequently may hear from Tea Party activists, but the Spirit of that Law. The Spirit that was introduced to us by the political thinker, whom James Madison called the Oracle: Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu.
From the beginning, his most important book, which was called exactly like that – The Spirit of Laws – was criticized because of poor and illogical organization in a view of his readers. On that Montesquieu replied he has a logic behind that layout which just was not recognized by the critics. At the time he published the book (anonymously and abroad), he still had to be cautious about censorship – external (by the Church), and internal – internal censorship of the potential readers. He planed for his book to be not a pure academic work, but the book that would have a political mission – to help to transform the world around into a better place. An open manifestation of ideas, his proposals were based upon, could spook away his readers still loyal to monarchy and the Church.
What could be that hidden logic behind the Spirit of Law’s layout and message?
Like other political thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, Montesquieu has been building his case on the foundation of Ancient Philosophers thinking. However, unlike their predecessors of the Renaissance, who were shocked, captivated and astonished by the legacy of Antic thought, science and art, which was lost to the Medieval Europe, but preserved by the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, and finally poured into the Europe with the refuges during the decline and fall of the Constantinople; the philosophers and naturalists of Enlightenment have actively engaged into debate with Ancients. Naturalists have dared to question Aristotle’s authority in natural sciences, by simply counting legs of a fly, founding 6 of them, not 8 as Aristotle wrote, or conducting experiments, like the one of Francesco Redi, which proved wrong Aristotelian abiogenesis theory, or Galilean proofs that objects with different density fall on Earth with the same acceleration. A similar tendency touched the social sciences too. With the new understanding of the nature of human, the political debate Modern vs. Ancient was the theme of the day.
To understand what kind of new thinking (in a sense what kind of ‘legs’ of what kind of ‘fly’ of the sociological realm Montesquieu has counted) has sparked his political theories, we better to look at his professional occupation, which was, literally, a baron. He inherited the title and with that the post of principal magistrate of the appeal court of Bordeaux after his uncle. About the same time he started the work which was a bit of a hobby, but eventually gave Montesquieu recognition in salons of Paris and election in the French Academy. It was the famous Persian Letters, which was an ethnographically-cultural pamphlet written in the form of rich Persian tourists’ letters to their friends, wives and harem servants, describing their impressions and observations of Montesquieu’s France, as well as ruminations on customs and history of India, China and Levant. This “tong in chick” style is still recognizable in Spirits of Laws, where Montesquieu allows himself to play with naive, less savvy readers, while sprinkling the real clews for more sophisticated ones.
Despite its more literary rather than a scientific appearance, the Letters already sounded of the main thesis of The Spirit of Laws, that the forces shaping societies lay in their history, climate, geography, culture, even language. These create a “spirit of nation”, which drives and determines laws of the nation, and shapes its future development.
Montesquieu was not the first to link the natural environment with historic and cultural processes – we can see similar ideas expressed by Ibn Khaldun or Aristotle (who was mentioning the freedom promoting nature of Greece), but the first scholar investigating this link rigorously from the rational point of view. And, of cause, not the last – some elements of this line of thought could be seen in Jarred Diamond’s famous “Guns, Germs and Still” or in the works of Lev Gumilev.
The success of Persian letters allowed Montesquieu to sell his practice and concentrate on his scientific career. He travels Europe to collect the cultural and historical material, sometimes from first-hand sources, interviewing very high level figures of recent landmark historical events. His next grand work, developing the line that the human thinking (particular for nations) and, thus, behaving, will lead to a particular state organization and the history of that state, was “Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans”, which, initially, Montesquieu decided not to publish in original form, and parts of the book went into The Spirit of Laws. It was the first book on Roman history with not a mere enumeration of historic events, but the analysis which is considered today as a precursor of social anthropology and historical philosophy.
It’s very tempting to look at the reasons and driving forces of his theories from the angle of today’s state of anthropology, comparative mythology and linguistics, especially considering Montesquieu’s own confessions about keen interest in ancients. And not just cold, distanced interest, but the one encouraging to step in ancient’s own shoes.
To be continued…
Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic
Persian Letters (Oxford World’s Classics)
Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline
Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)