Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #1


By his professional occupation Charles-Louis Montesquieu was literally a baron. He inherited the title of baron de Montesquieu, and what is most important, the post of principle magistrate of the appeal court of Bordeaux after his uncle Jean-Baptiste. The interest in practice and theory of law itself was not the exclusive driver of his career. As well as the double title of nobility (Charles-Louis was born in a relatively poor, but well-connected, aristocratic family de Secondat, and, by birth, was entitled to the baronage of de La Brède – a small castle-like château and surrounding lands), and the double name – the latter of the obvious royal association, and the former, received after his god-father, the bagger of the village (to remind Charles about the duty of the aristocracy to look after the lower and poor classes), his passion for the law was intertwined with another, even more burning obsession with the ancient history. In Essay on Taste Montesquieu acknowledge that prepossession:

I confess my taste for the ancients. That antiquity enchants me, and I am always led to say with Pliny: “It is to Athens that you are going. Respect their Gods”… I have studied my taste and examined it to see if it is not one of these sick tastes on which nothing should be founded. But the more I have examined it, the more I have found that I had reason to think as I have felt.

However, like the contemporary semiologists mentioned in previous chapter: Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, Vladimir N. Toporov and Vitomir Belaj, who, when reconstructing semantics of the encoded folklore messages, face limits of cultural “magnification” or “resolution” beyond which we can not go deeper into details and thus have to limit ourselves by the reasonable, but still valuable and meaningful generalization, Montesquieu recognized the same limits and uses of the study of Ancients:

One must not enter with the Ancients into a degree of detail that they can no longer sustain: and this is even more true of the poets, who describe the morals and the customs; and whose beauties – even the most refined – depend, for the most part, on circumstances that are forgotten, or that can no longer touch us. They are like the ancients palaces of which the marbles are under the grass, but which still allow one to see all the grandeur and the magnificence of the design.

The admiration of the Ancient history developed early in the Charles-Louis’s childhood. Library of de La Brède preserved a notebook written by the hand of young Montesquieu, which has 78 pages of simple questions and answers on Roman history, such as:

Q: Who founded Rome?
A: Trojans did.

There is nothing outstanding yet in this trivial, factual book written by Montesquieu in the time of study in Collège de Juilly, situated in vicinity of Paris. In 1700 the eleven years old Charles-Louis was send there by his father, Jacques de Secondat, to continue his home education.

The education at Juilly was pretty rigorous. The college activities started at 5:00 am, and after morning routines were followed by private studies, interrupted by breakfast at 7:30 am. From 8:30 am to 11:00 am the first half of classes were held, followed by the second part from 1:30 pm to 4:00 pm until the tea break. The rest of the evening was devoted again to private studies and writing letters home, until end of activities at 8:30 pm.
The Latin, French and Greek languages were studied. Mathematics, history and geography were in the curriculum, balanced by music, riding, dancing and fencing, aiming on education of well-rounded young men.

After graduation Juilly in 1705 Charles-Louis returns to the home country, studies law at the University of Bordeaux, and in 1708 receives a bachelor degree and becomes a licensed advocate. Not entirely satisfied with his instruction, Charles-Louis goes back to Paris in 1709 for five more years to get more practical skills there. Not much known about his law career during that period, however, Charles-Louis’s diary la Spicilège witnesses he keeps the interest to science, and especially to history, attending public meetings of the Acadèmie des Sciences and the Acadèmie des Inscriotions and somehow getting his hands on the materials of private meetings, though he never have been admitted to these academies. He also gives a try to his own pen in following that Pliny’s advice to respect Ancients and to get into their mind. Charles-Louis writes essay on idolatry of the pagans, in which he seeks to show they do not merit the eternal damnation, and essay about Cicero and his attacks on superstition and advocacy of liberty, against the tyranny of Caesar. There are not yet spelled out ideas of the influence of the religion and the culture in a whole on the social order. Those will follow later.

Death of his father called back Montesquieu (Charles-Louis started to use this title, though officially he was still Baron de La Brède) to Bordeaux. As an elder son he inherited the family château and surrounding land. The time has come to settle down for young Montesquieu. He married Jeanne de Lartigue from the neighboring wealthy and recently ennobled family in 1715. The next year a son Jean-Baptiste was born, and in 1717 – a daughter named Marie-Catherine.

Little Jean-Baptiste was named after Montesquieu‘s uncle, the head of the extended de Secondat family, who officially carried barony de Montesquieu and the office of president in the Parlement of Bordeax. Two months after the birth of little Jean-Baptiste, his grand uncle died childless, leaving his nephew Charles-Louis his estate, his title and his office.

The parlements in France were not only courts of law, but had some political significance. The post of president gave his owner significant respect and dignity. Though Montesquieu was well prepared to the legal career and took seriously new responsibilities, he was unhappy in court. Perfectly having a grip on the matter of legal issues, Montesquieu was complaining that the talent needed for handling the procedure was eluding him.

Conveniently, allowing Montesquieu to escape the routine of family life and the court, the Academy of Bordeaux was constituted in 1712. In 1716 he was elected as a new member, and two months later Montesquieu presented his first paper to the Academy: Dissertation on the political religion of the Romans. Here comes the idea of the social role and practicality of the Roman religion, which Montesquieu entertains and develops in later works. In Considerations on the Causes of The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline he writes:

Aside from the fact that religion is always the best guaranty one can have of the morals of men, it was a special trait of the Romans that they mingled some religious sentiment with their love of country. This city, founded under the best auspices; this Romulus, their king and their god; this Capitol, eternal like the city, and this city, eternal like its founder – these, in earlier times, had made an impression on the mind of the Romans which it would have been desirable to preserve.

The Montesquieu’s dissertation was received without much of enthusiasm. The founders of the Academy envisioned the natural history, not the political history or philosophy, as the main area of research, and expected systematically planned and coordinated research of its members. Montesquieu shifts his activity in the Academy to the actual science. He conducts series of rigorous experiments vivisecting animals and plants. Apparently, this work influenced Montesquieu’s later thinking, when in The Spirit of the Laws he uses results of experiments on tissue density of the sheep’s’ tongs grown in different climates as an evidence of influence of the geographic and climatic conditions on the physiology, culture and finally laws of the human societies. That “tong argument” may sound weird for ninetieth and twentieth century audiences, but for the twenty first century science the influence of the temperature  and dietary  extremes on the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein responsible for stimulating the neuron connections growth, is not something unknown.

The interest to history and other, ancient or foreign, cultures Montesquieu kept for himself, starting working in 1717 on one of his great books – Persian Letters. Montesquieu strikes the right accord on the growing interests of the French, and generally European public, to the Oriental theme with his satirical pamphlet on the Parisian life viewed through the eyes of Persian travelers.

Just a decade earlier an orientalist and archeologist Antonine Galland published his translation of the Tales of Sinbad the Sailor and Arabian Nights, which were met with a great interest and shaped the Europe views on the East for many years to come. In 1710’s European capitals witness a pilgrimage of exotic visitors: an emperor of Iroquoian Indians with 3 lesser kings comes to England, and notes of one of them, satirically describing political life of London, get published by the press; a Persian ambassador, renown for his strange demeanor and judgments attracts attention of Parisians to his person; Russian emperor Peter the Great personally visits Paris, and, considered as an exotic “Scythian despot”, becomes a center of interest for some time whom Montesquieu devotes one of his Letters.

Popularity of Persian Letters, however, was not a mere skillful ride on the literary fusion conjuncture, or reworking of the Giovanni Paolo Marana’s Letters writ by a Turkish Spy, which 1717’th year edition Montesquieu had in his possession, and apparently influenced his Letters. Montesquieu invested a lot of time and effort in studying works of French merchants Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who left detailed descriptions of their travels to Persia and India in the second half on seventeenth century, and essays on the historical and cultural accounts of the countries they visited. Library at La Brède preserved the book De regio Persarum principatu of the sixteenth century jurist and politician Barnabé Brisson, Montesquieu worked with. As well he had in possession a translation of the Koran made by Du Ryer in 1647, and an Italian version of the sixteenth century.

Translations of the Avesta to French or other European languages become available quite late. Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, French orientalist, got his hands on fragments of Vendidad, one of the books of the Avesta in the year of Montesquieu’s death, and has sailed to India to acquire full Avestian texts in Parsi community. The French translation was published only in 1771. As a reference to Zoroastrianism Montesquieu used work of Thomas Hyde, Historia religionis veterum persarum of 1700, the analytical compilation of all available to Europeans up to date data about this religion.

To make the Letters authentically looking as much as possible in even smallest details Montesquieu uses the travel timetable based on the Tavernie, and Islamic dating from Chardin. The rigor and accuracy of the Letters earned a praise of the renowned traveler and the wife of the British ambassador in Turkey, who brought to Europe from there a technology of small pox vaccination, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

Montesquieu, in his Persian Letters, has described the manners and customs of the Turkish ladies as well as if he had been bred up among them.

To present his prospective reader not fake, but authentic effects of the “cultural shock” which produces strange judgments of the foreigners from the remote to European cultures on European affairs, Montesquieu acquaintances himself, through his friend Nicolas Fréret, with a young Chinese Christian Hoam-gé, or Arcadio Hoange, who traveled to Paris and was placed in charge of the Chinese Books section at the Bibliothéque du Roi, and conducts series of interviews with Arcadio.

To be continued…

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2 Responses to Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #1

  1. carlo says:

    Dear Sir,

    Castles preserve a sense of power and beauty. The porous stone absorbs the voices, walls become a silent witness of that part of history which is not made of great accomplishments but a smaller one, built on private deeds, whispers and confessions that, all together, get lost in time, without giving us the privilege of a real glimpse into the Past. Before its body gets cold.

    Best Regards,

    Carlo Muttoni

    • Sielicki says:

      Indeed, castles, especially small and old ones, located far from the usual touristy trails, cast a special spell on visitors, which one typically doesn’t feel in abbeys, cathedrals, palaces, or other historical places of great significance. Probably, it is the hope (may be still illusory) that in such private places we can get a sense of what the real everyday life of the past was…

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