Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #4

Meanwhile, upon the arrival from England in the spring of 1731, Montesquieu recluses himself for two years at La Brède, limiting all social interactions to a minimum, except the unavoidable landlord routines of the legal care-taking after his estates. In the summer of 1734 the Holland’s edition of the Considerations has appeared on sale in Paris, quickly followed by the Paris’ edition.

Similarly to the not quite enthusiastic welcome of the Montesquieu’s first significant work at the Academy of Bordeaux almost two decades earlier, the Dissertation on the political religion of the Romans, the first big work of Montesquieu as the Parisian academician, Considerations on the Causes of The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, received a very moderate approval.

Montesquieu was criticized for choosing arbitrary a single authoritative Roman historian, or may be two, for each chapter. After following this author without a question, and without a cross-reference check, Montesquieu switches to another authority in the next chapter and so on. A the time historians have started to rely on archaeology, as Bernard de Montfaucon and Nicolas Fréret, who was a Montesquieu’s friend. Montesquieu himself largely ignores the archeological argument in the Considerations, opening himself for the critiques from yet another direction.

However, some of the contemporaries, such as Voltaire, recognized that the Considerations is not the book on history of Rome. The very title says it is a book about the Romans, and it is a book about their culture, its Greatness and its Decline. Montesquieu ventured there into a problem of the history causality, source of which he found not outside of the people of Rome, but as an organic part of their formation by the factors of nature, historical circumstances, habits and myths.

Montesquieu was not the first to link the natural environment with historic and cultural processes – we can see similar ideas expressed by the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun or Aristotle, who was mentioning the freedom-promoting nature of Greece. Montesquieu’s contemporaries, Italian political thinkers Giambattista Vico and Paolo Mattia Doria were also working on the relationships between the occasions and causes of the history. However, Montesquieu was the first scholar investigating this link rigorously from the rational point of view. And, of course, Montesquieu, who is considered as a grandfather of today’s social anthropology and philosophy of history, was not the last. It is curious that the most venerated and the most outspoken in the US political philosophers were developing the same line of thought, mentions Thomas L. Pangle:

Montesquieu’s thought appears to be the beginning of a movement toward the view that actions of statesmen are determined by historical developments in economics, or religion, or art and thought. We are introduced to the possibility that nation’s “spirit” is the product not of its political history but of its economic, or cultural, or even linguistic history… Montesqieu’s teaching appears as the starting point for the emergence of the philosophy of history, which both in its universalistic version (Kant, Hegel, Marx) and in its particularistic version (the “historical school”) tends to deny… supremacy of political prudence.
It is through this new emphasis on history that Montesquieu truly appears as the precursor of sociology.

However, unlike our contemporaries who develop the line of thought of the great impact of the natural factors on historical process, which could be seen in Jarred Diamond’s famous Guns, Germs and Still, or in the works of Russian historian Lev Gumilev, Montesquieu stressed the very importance of the cultural baggage, we read in the Essay on the Causes Which Can Affect the Spirits and the Characters, the work written in 1736, but unpublished in the Montesquieu’s times, which he draw heavily upon, working on The Spirit of the Laws:

Moral causes form the general character of a nation and decide the quality of its spirit more than do physical causes. One can find a great proof of this in the Jews, who, dispersed over all the earth, raised in all ages, and born in all countries, have had numerous authors, of whom one can scarcely cite two who have had common sense… Among this crowd of rabbis who have written, there is not one who hasn’t had a petty genius. The reason for this is a natural one: the Jews who came back from Assyria were almost like those captives delivered from Algeria, that one paraded in the streets; but they were more crude, because they were born, and because their fathers were born, in slavery. Although they had an infinite respect for their sacred books, they had little understanding of them; they hardly understood the language in which they were written; they had only the tradition of the great miracles that God had carried out in favor of their fathers. Ignorance, which is the mother of traditions, that is to say of character of the spirit which produced them, and took again the tincture of all whose heads were filled with these crude traditions, collected them, and, since the first writers of all nations, bad and good, always have an infinite reputation, on account of the fact that they have always been,  for a while, superior to those who read them, it happened that these first and miserable works were regarded by the Jews as perfect models, on which they formed and have ever since always formed their taste and their genius.

To be continued…

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1 Response to Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #4

  1. Pingback: The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldūn « Rashid's Blog

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