Starbucks, Montesquieu and Constitutional Reform #4

When discussing needs and ways of constituting the judicial branch of governing power, Montesquieu calls it “terrible” – because this is the one a person feels mostly a threatening and destructive might of the State through. To moderate it as much as possible, Montesquieu suggests making this branch most weakest of all three, leaving it barely enough power to be independent from other two, as well as leaving a possibility for questioning its verdict via other branches. No surprise we find the same – “terrible” – epithet addressed to Varuna The Binder. He is terrible because he is the avenger, punisher of violators of oaths, his affinity with the human sacrifice, and ubiquity of his magic, supporting laws and exceptions of nature. But there is a remedy against him we can learn about in the tale about evil priests convincing Manu in necessity to sacrifice his wife, and because he was about to do it the right way, according to the procedure, neither Mitra nor even Varuna himself wasn’t able to cut his own binds and prevent the atrocity, and the only deity having such a power was Indra – impersonation of Second, Warrior-King or Raja function. The same power – the power to grant a pardon to the already convicted – the President, Commander In Chief, has according to the US Constitution.

But, still, if the dark, spontaneous, gut-feeling justice is so terrible, why Mitra has the only one Vedic hymn dedicated solely to him, while in others he is always mentioned together with Varuna, while there is number of solely Varina prizing hymns? Why it was Ahura, not Mithra, who became Ahura-Mazda – a supreme deity of the first monotheistic religion – Zoroastrizm? And why Jupiter – Roman version of the Terrible Sovereign – eclipsed his trusty counterpart – Dius Fidius – a guarantor of contracts and oaths? The answer is pretty simple, and could be found, for example, in the earlier mentioned etymology of the name of the month February, or, in the one of Montesquieu’s moral fables – The Temple of Gnide. This is one of the earlier works of Montesquieu, not usually attracting much of attention, debating, in allegorical form, the thinking of other philosophers of Enlightenment that had their share of influence on Framers of the Constitution – Thomas Hobbes and John Loke.

This debate around their “Social Compact” teachings, of course, finds its, more logical and less poetic, way into The Spirit of Laws. And that’s not just an old pure academic argument – taking one or another side in it affects the core political decisions even nowadays. According to Hobbesian-Lokean line of thought, a pre-civilized state of inter-human relations was the “state of war”, when every human being has been carrying a total war against everybody else. At some point of time people came, by pure reasoning, to understanding that if they establish some kind of rules of play – a “Social Compact” – that will benefit everybody. From that point and on the social civilized life has begun.

This thinking has a big inherent problem – what was the driving force behind that “social revolution”, and why a particular model of the “Social Compact” was invented? Along the line of thought that pre-civilized humans were asocial beings there is no convincing answer to this question except the spontaneity and randomness of the event. It just has happened that we have particular social and moral norms and, with the same probability, our civilization could look like those predator or criminal societies depicted in various science fiction and fantasy novels. Another possible answer, as a borrowing from other societies or a divine revelation, is also obviously not satisfying.

A completely reversed thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau depicted a harmonious, peaceful life of pre-civilized men that has been torn apart by shortages, competition and conflicts of the social life. Montesquieu’s view on this transition is more balanced. He agrees with Hobbs on the assessment that a prehistoric life of a human was full of fear, but not the fear of another man, but powers of nature: elements, predators and starvation. While humans had a weak feeling of attraction to each other, partly due to lower procreation instincts, partly because of the higher thinking ability, what nowadays is called “Theory of the Mind”, feeling pity and camaraderie toward another fellow fearful being.

Based on this difference, even at the bases, to Hobbesian-Lokean thinking, Montesquieu’s understanding of liberty and virtues and vices of democracy and republic may be well surprising, comparing to today’s propaganda clichés. He warns about the typical confusion between personal independence and liberty, and the usual fallacy that a Republic, even a Democratic one, guaranties the Liberty. The Democracy insures that there exist no external power over a citizen, the same time empowering each one, which, without self-moderation and self-restrain, will lead to the same “state of war” the society is supposed to help escape from. In opposite, Montesquieu’s liberty is the “opinion of security” of each citizen, derived from the Law, guarding that security for every one.

This may be well surprising for today’s consumers of political ramblings, equalizing Democracy and Liberty, however, if we take a look at etymology of such words like “Liberty”, “Freedom” or Slavic counterpart “Svoboda”, we’ll see a semantic that is far from “independence”. They all mean “childhood”, “growth”, “pleasant”, “community”, “relatives”, “council”, “assembly”. You may allow yourself to be much more open and at ease in the company of relatives, rather than strangers, but that freedom comes with the price – price you may start to discover when you grow up. Until then, the family gathering for children (Latin – liberi) is all fun and games in the safe environment created by the older, responsible generation.

To be continued…


Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on The Spirit of the Laws
Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)
Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty
A History of Pagan Europe
The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (Oxford Linguistics)
Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to Ancient Faith (Sussex Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices)

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