Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #3


Continuation of the previous part…

Success of the Persian Letters, which were indeed “selling like a hot bread”, as predicted by Pierre-Nicolas Desmolets, the life-long mentor, friend and censor of Montesquieu, who got acquainted with Charles-Louis back in his years in school of Juilly, allowed Montesquieu to enter into the Court circles and the intellectual society of Paris.

Montesquieu spends now a lot of time in Paris, representing interests of the Parlement and the Academy of Bordeaux, but concentrating more on the new task in his career – an election to Académie française.

Social life of Paris in times of Regency of Duke d’Orléanes, comparing to the previous time of the late rule of Louis XIV, was bustling, vibrant and voluptuous. Duke d’Orléanes was a very sensual man, who found his end as a result of his passions; his curator Cardinal Dubois exhibited not much more restrained way of life; and the Court and the higher Parisian society followed the examples.

Connections of Montesquieu, some of them being quite romantic, have proven to be not only useful in terms of achieving his new career goal, but also inspired creation of some short, now less known, nevertheless interesting works.

The fable The Temple of Gnide was inspired by and written for the court of Princess Marie-Ann de Bourbon, granddaughter of Louis XIV, known as Mademoiselle de Clermont, whom the personage of the fable Themire was devoted to. The Temple was written in a form of emulation of an ancient text, targeting the audience among which the fascination with Greek-styled fables was a mere matter of fashion. However, under the cover of recreational romantic reading, its setting and conclusions connect us to the pivotal motifs of the proto-Indo-European mythology, which define, as we will discuss in the next chapter, the justice principles of that culture.

Salon of the Madame de Lambert was an attractive point of much more intellectual public. Madame de Lambert herself was very fond of the works of Cicero, and she encouraged Montesquieu to work on a more scholar, than The Temple, Treatise on Duties, building on, and developing his earlier Treatise on Cicero. This piece of work was not finished, and what was done did not live in the complete form up to our time, however, reconstructing it from the table of contents and the later descriptions of Montesquieu about the work, we can see the Treatise again discusses the nature of the justice and battles concepts of Spinoza, who, from the vulgar materialistic position saw no tangible grounds for the concept of justice, and Hobbes, whose views were less extreme, and therefore considered as much more dangerous, that the human justice is purely arbitrary.

The Parisian life is, and had been then, very expensive. The frequent visits and long stays in Paris really drained Montesquieu’s finances, how his accounting books show. He had to do something about that to start living by his means. Montesquieu’s marriage and the inheritance after his uncle made him a quite significant landowner, but selling any of his land was out of question. That would undermine his yearly income and diminish his prestige.

However, Montesquieu conveniently possesses a highly valued and liquid asset, which is, in addition, burdening him – the position of the President of Parlement de Bordeaux. He sells it in 1726, or rather leases it for life, to Jean-Baptiste d’Albessard, a member of the prominent legal family of Bordeaux. That deal triples cash flow of the President generated by this post, comparing to the stipend he was getting directly from the Parlement. Now, financially sound, and with freed hands from the everyday duties of the civic service, but still retaining, according to French habits, the salutation of the previous position he no longer holds, the President leaves La Brède for Paris for his final push to get his seat in the Académie française.

In 1727 a vacancy in Académie was opened due to the death of one of Madame de Lambert’s protégés. She offers her backing in Montesquieu’s efforts, however, the very principle merit of Montesquieu for the election – Persian Letters create the difficulties. In the Letters he ridicules the Academicians themselves and offenses King and Pope calling them magicians, jeopardizing the approval by the King and the Cardinal, even if he is elected by Academicians.

Despite these problems, with the support of his backers, and after resolving misunderstandings in a tête-à-tête meeting with the Cardinal Fleury (who was an Academician himself), Montesquieu got elected, thought not unanimously, and takes his seat among Academicians on 24 January 1728.

It was expected that Montesquieu would remain in Paris, enjoying his newly acquired status. However, having achieved one of his goals, Montesquieu does not waste his time to pursue the next one – to become a man of more than one book. Already in April he leaves France for three years to travel Italy and England, collecting materials for his next grand masterpiece Considerations on the Causes of The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.

Italy, as a subject of the Montesquieu’s field study in 1728-29, is a quite expected destination, considering his long-lasting enchantment by Romans and the theme of the new work, however, to better understand reasons for voyage to England in 1729-1731, we need to look not only at what was published, but also at what was not.

The Considerations on the Causes of The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, which saw the world in 1734, it seams, was merely a half of the work originally intended for the publication, Paul A. Rahe, professor of history at Yale university, mentions. Part of the materials of Considerations Montesquieu saved for, and reused in The Spirit of the Laws, and publication of the second part, or the sequel of the ConsiderationsReflections on Universal Monarchy in Europe was “suppressed” by Montesquieu “for fear that certain passages would be interpreted ill”. The Universal Monarchy was considered lost until 1821, and finally published only in 1891.

In the Universal Monarchy Montesquieu investigates the feasibility to recreate an Empire rivaling the Roman in contemporary times. He comes to a conclusion that those “causes”, which made Romans great, no longer exist in contemporary world. That is not surprising, considering Montesquieu’s sentiments toward Ancients:

This is the love of country which gives the Greek and Roman histories that nobility as ours did not. It was the constant resort of all actions, and we feel the pleasure of finding it everywhere, this virtue dear to all who have a heart … It seems that since these times, men have grown shorter…

However, in Universal Monarchy, Montesquieu goes a great length explaining in detail why: unlike Romans, how he explains in Considerations, who were super-soldiers of their world, and always had superior arms, organization and training comparing to their neighbors, European states degraded their armed forces to the lower, and the equal, denominator of skill, paradoxically inflating their size and budget; politically acceptable behavior of the victor has changed, and, instead of enriching himself by spoils of war, one ought to bankrupt oneself, by reconstructing economy of those who have being conquered; wars, being financed nowadays from the commerce, which was regarded by Romans as an occupation of slaves, destroy their own vital force, and thus inhibit themselves.

That exercise was done not for pure theoretical reasons. Montesquieu himself, though when he was still an adolescent, witnessed the rise of hopes and their demise for Louis XIV to become such a Universal Monarch and to rival if not the Roman Empire itself, but at least the Empire of Charlemagne. Later, Montesquieu recalls sentiments of those days:

That day at Blenheim, we lost the confidence that we had acquired by thirty years of victories… Whole battalions gave themselves up as prisoners of war; we regretted their being alive, as we would have regretted their death.

In seventeen century France was the leading military world power, and center of cultural, economical and scientific life of Europe. Marriage of the Louis XIV on the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain, of the Hapsburg House, opened a prospect to unite thrones of Spain and France, as well as the German reminder of the Holy Roman Empire, under the House of Bourbon, leaving no hope for other European powers to resist it. England assembled, financed and let the opposition against France in the war of Spanish Succession. In battle of Blenheim in 1704 French troops were annihilated, and following defeats at Ramillies, Oudenarde, Lille and Malplaquet forced Louis XIV to renounce his ambitions by signing the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

Montesquieu has been expressing his interest to the English political constitution earlier in Persian Letters, and now he is ready to get the firsthand experience of the country that was able to derail the victorious march of the French monarchy to the world domination, and which political system, based on personal egoism of a merchant, presented an alternative to the Classical model of the political virtue of a citizen or the vanity of aristocratic honor in European monarchies.

Montesquieu started his acquaintanceship with major players of the War of Spanish Succession in 1728 at the beginning of Italian trip, where he traveled to via Austrian part of the Holy Roman Empire. At Vienna Montesquieu was presented to Prince Eugene of Savoy and Marshal Stahremberg, victorious military commanders of the War of Spanish Succession.

Their comrade by arms John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough died in 1722, however Montesquieu, during his trip to England in 1729-1731, became a friend of the family of Marlborough’s daughter. Though that friendship made Montesquieu a target for practical pranks, such as squirting guests of his garden from hidden fountains, of the husband of Duchess of Marlborough, Duke of Montagu, who was a big enthusiast of such jokes.

Montesquieu embarked at the England endeavor armed with very useful letters of recommendations from his Englishmen friends and acquaintances. The very voyage to London from Hague he made on the yacht of the Ambassador Philip Stanhope, fourth Lord Chesterfield, using recommendations of the Earl James Waldegrave, Ambassador to Vienna, whom Montesquieu shared the part of his previous travel to Italy with. Montesquieu’s arrival in London coincided with the return to England from the exile of the Henry St. John, first Viscount Bolingbroke, one more connection of Montesquieu, which he owes to his old good friend (since 1716) James Fitz-James, first Duke of Berwick, the illegitimate son of King James II of England and Arabella Churchill, sister of the first Duke of Marlborough.

When Montesquieu was presented at Court, he was not impressed by George II, however, he had more respect to Prince of Wales, who asked Montesquieu to made for him an anthology of the best French songs. Montesquieu, upon his arrival to France did assemble such a volume, however mistakenly thinking that the Prince already forgot about such insignificant request, did not sent him the song collection. That misunderstanding was resolved by his grandson, who presented the anthology to the Royal family in 1818, and the book since been kept in the Royal Library at Windsor.

From Parliamentarian circles Montesquieu got to know John Carteret, second Earl Granville and William Pulteney, first Earl of Bath. Looking through the eyes of the opposition to the first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, and tracking the debates in the Parliament of those days: outrage of the Commons on the desire of George II to maintain the standing army, which was considered a tyranny and usurpation; issue around the France fortifying port of Dunkirk against the Treaty of Utrecht; drama around the Bribery in Elections Bill, Montesquieu likely got affirmed that the right structure of the governmental institutions may provide the common good, even if personal desires of politicians are purely selfish.

Montesquieu writes “the Bill [Bribery in Elections] is miraculous, for it has passed against the wishes of King, Lords, and Commons, and the most corrupt of Parlaiments has done more than any other to ensure public liberty”. Charles Townshend, trying to channel the public outrage away from the Government, and scheming to make Commons to strike the Bill down, expected that if the Lords pass the fierce amendments, raising the penalties to ridiculous 50 or 500 pounds (with initially proposed 10), the Bill would die in Commons. However, the lower Chamber did not want to be caught in the trap, and eventually passed the Bill, and reluctant King and even more reluctant ministers signed it.

Number of people Montesquieu knew, including two of his friends, Waldegrave and Duke of Montagu, who was the Grand Master, were members of the Freemason society. No surprise we read in The British Journal on Saturday May 16th 1730: “We hear that on Tuesday night last, at a Lodge held at the Horn Tavern in Westminster… the following foreign noblemen… Charles-Louis President de Montsquier… were admitted members of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Free Masons”.

After the return from England, Montesquieu not only did not forget the association with Freemasons, but enthusiastically participates in the Paris, and later, in Bordeaux Lodges, convincing his son, Jean-Baptiste, then eighteen years old, to join the Lodge in Paris, as we read in The Whitehall Evening Post for 5-7 September 1734: “We hear from Paris that a lodge of free and accepted masons was lately held there, at Her Grace the Duchess of Portsmouth’s house, where His Grace the Duke of Richmond, assisted by the Earl of Waldegrave, President Montesqueir… admitted several persons of distinction into that most ancient and honourable society, among whom were… the President’s son”.

However, that association caused some grief for Montesquieu later. In 1737, Claude Boucher, intendant of Bordeaux, writes to Cardinal Fleury that he had forbidden Montesquieu to associate to the rest of society because of his freemasonry. Fleury approves this step, and asked Boucher to relay to Montesquieu personally the displeasure of the King about the Freemason society. After the Bull of the Pope Clement XII, issued the following year, condemning the association with the Freemasons, there were left no direct mentions of Montesquieu’s relations with the freemasonry.

To be continued…

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