Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #7

Continuation of the previous part…

Unlike the previous Persian Letters, where the arguments behind the expressed ideas were quick references to well known, in educated circles, works or authors, or even a pure playfulness or wit, or, unlike The Considerations, though thoroughly grounded on the documental, but narrow evidence of the solely Roman history, The Spirit of the Laws, as an universal political theory, had to be based on the all available at those times knowledge about various cultures, civilizations, system of beliefs. To convincingly demonstrate that the laws of nations stem from the general spirit of these nations Montesquieu had to sift literally through thousands of volumes in search of the supporting factual evidence.

During his scientific and legal career and travels Montesquieu accumulated quite admirable library at La Brède. His secretary Abbè Duval cataloged the library when Montesquieu was traveling and counted then about 3000 volumes. Montesquieu was extensively buying books from Bordeaux booksellers – there survived early book bills from those transactions. His old tutor and friend Pierre-Nicolas Desmolets, a bibliographical expert and librarian in the Paris Oratory, was occasionally called for help. Martin Folkes, now President of the Royal Society, whom Montesquieu befriended during his travel to England was frequently sending books from London. Montesquieu had friends with rich libraries, notably Jean Barbot, he was borrowing books from; library of the Academy of Bordeaux and Bibliotheque de Roi were at his disposal.

To get a better grip and understanding of the information coming into his hands Montesquieu had a habit to extract and compile it in his notebooks, as we can see it on the example of Spicilège andLes Pensées. However, a sheer amount of the reference material for The Spirit of the Laws called for something more substantial than few casual notebooks. Shackleton mentions that an English traveler to La Brède reported seeing forty folio volumes of the working compiled materials there, addressing following areas of knowledge:





Mythologica et antiquitates


Historica universakis


 Unfortunately, none of these volumes survived, but one – Geographica tome II, which gives us a hint what other volumes could have been. The preserved volume contains analysis and comments of the works Montesquieu read on the topic: Joseph Addison’s (who was an English essayist, poet and politian) Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, writings of a French diplomat Simon de la Loubère on Siam, travels of a French physician François Bernier, Lettres èdifiantes of Jesuit missionaries, and interviews with the Chinese Christian and traveler, mentioned earlier, Arcadio Hoange.

There were not only factual working papers Montesquieu liked to compile; to sharpen and polish his ideas and arguments of the anthropological books of The Spirit of the Laws, which impressed his contemporaries so much later, as an English playwright Richard Tickell wrote: “After ranging in vain through Grotius, Burlamaqui, and Pufendorf, I read thirteen books of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, without making the least discovery. But at length the fourteenth book rewarded all my toils”, Montesquieu decides to write an essay solely devoted to the single theme of the physical and social factors influence on the individual and collective psyche. The Essay on the Causes Affecting Minds and Characters was the source from which Montesquieu have been drawing the anthropological argument into The Spirit of the Laws extensively, sometimes by entire chapters.

Montesquieu divides the essay into two parts – the physical and the moral causes. Though the direct translation of the French term causes morales is less than adequate, and the better term which would convey a more precise semantic of the original French in English is “social causes”.

In the first part Montesquieu sometimes touches complex, dual physical and social factors, though limiting himself strictly to the physical aspects. For example he discusses a destructive influence of the drugs and alcohol which consumption is encouraged or tolerated too much in some cultures:

The Orientals distract themselves with a concoction of hemp that gives them such agreeable ideas and such lively pleasures that for a few hours they are completely transported. The final result is total dejection and a virtually lethargic condition. The effect of this liquid is to stretch the fibres, which consequently become unresponsive to slighter movements. One dose stupefies only for a while. Extensive use stupefies forever…

The immoderate use of wine stupefies little by little. The [neuro] fibres are excited, but only for a short time. They slacken and it takes more alcohol to stir them. Soon the same quantity will not suffice, and, in order to produce the very same result, stronger doses will become necessary day by day.

The physiological explanation of the effects of narcotics and alcohol may sound too naïve here, but the sociological impact from their misuse we can clearly see nowadays. Many social anthropologists point at the explosive rise of the alcohol consumption in Soviet Union after the WWII as the physical cause which eventually brought the Soviet Empire down, when the life expectancy of masculine population fell to 50+ years, the intellectual potential was depleted, and the epidemic apathy took hold at all social strata. Even the very top of the Communist rulers realized what agent is destroying the country, and every new General Secretary have been starting his career after coming to power by anti-alcohol campaigns. But all was in vain. Of course the alcohol was only a vehicle of destruction, the sociological causes of the alcoholism, which Montesquieu only slightly brushes, saying “distract themselves” in the citation above, were not addressed.

At the times of Montesquieu physiology had a long way to go. The very existence and role of entire physiological systems, such as the endocrine system and effects of androgen and estrogen hormones were not known. Montesquieu plainly says that the mechanisms triggering puberty with obvious changes in the masculine body and psychological makeup, and their relationship is not yet understood; while reasons for the female periods were believed lie in a generally weaker and less dense vascular system, as well as less dense skeletal and nervous systems, which would explain also gender difference in behavioral patterns.

The influence of the minerals and trace elements found in soil on the body through the food is touched lightly and in a general sense. Montesquieu concludes that if iron, for example, is found in human food, such as plants and honey, and is present in human blood, there should be a connection between the soil, diet, and the bodily and psychological makeups of the populations living on particular soils.

There were two major theories at the beginning of the eighteenth century explaining transmission of a nerve impulse. One postulated that signals over nerves were transmitted by their vibrations, and another – by the movement of so called animal spirits or liquids in the nerves. Montesquieu doesn’t make a choice in favor of either of theories, and utilizes both to speculate how various environmental factors could affect functioning of the central nervous system:

Too much rigidity or thickness of the brain fibers can produce a sluggish mind. But then too much flexibility, when accompanied by slackening, can produce a weak mind; and when this delicateness and slackening of the fibres happens to be accompanied by a great abundance of animal spirits, then inconstancy, capriciousness, and eccentricity naturally result. The brain is briskly moved by the present object and ceases to be moved by others.

Montesquieu enumerates various environmental factors, which can affect the density, sensitivity, responsiveness and dynamics of the nervous system and, as a result, psychological predispositions and resulting customs and laws of the different populations subjected to different environments. Those environmental, climatic factors are temperatures, prevailing winds, air quality and food. Some of the arguments from the Essay on Causes found its way directly into book XIV of The Spirit of the Laws:

Cold air contracts the extremities of the body’s surface fibers; this increases their spring and favors the return of blood from the extremities of the heart…

Therefore, men are more vigorous in cold climates. The action of the heart and the reaction of the extremities of the fibers are in closer accord, the fluids are in a better equilibrium, the blood is pushed harder toward the heart, and, reciprocally, the heart has more power. This greater strength should produce many effects: for example, more confidence in oneself, that is, more courage; better knowledge of one’s superiority, that is, less desire for vengeance; a higher opinion of one’s security, that is, more frankness and fewer suspicions, maneuvers, and tricks…

The nerves, which end in the tissue of our skin, are made of a sheaf of nerves… In hot countries, where the tissue of the skin is relaxed, the ends of the nerves are open and exposed to the weakest action of the slightest objects.

Several effects must follow from this physical condition. The peoples of the North will not have that immediate insight, that mental quickness, that facility for receiving and communicating all sorts of impressions that people in other climates have. But if they have not the advantage of quickness, they have that of composture. They adhere better to their decisions, and they make fewer mistakes carrying them out…

Accordingly, the imaginations of Northmen peoples will be more tranquil. They will be less capable of what are called creative works of compilation, and, for the same reason, they will be more suited than other peoples for making discoveries in the arts that demand assiduous effort and sustained research.

In cold countries, one will have little sensitivity to pleasures; one will have more of it in temperate countries; in hot countries, sensitivity will be extreme… I have seen operas in England and Italy; they are the same plays with the same actors: but the same music produces such different effects in the people of the two nations that it seems inconceivable, the one so calm and the other so transported…

With that delicacy of organs found in hot countries, the soul is sovereignty moved by all that is related to the union of the two sexes; everything leads to this object.

In northern climates, the physical aspect of love has scarcely enough strength to make itself felt…

Our fathers, the ancient Germans, lived in a climate where the passions were calm. Their laws found in things only what they saw, and they imagined nothing more. And just as these laws judged insults to men by the size of the wounds, they put no greater refinement in the offenses to women. The Law of the Alemanni on this point is quite singular. If one exposes a woman’s head, one will pay a fine of six sous; it is the same for exposing a keg up to the knee; double above the knee. The law, it seem, measured the size of the outrages done a woman’s person as one measures a geometric figure; the law did not punish the crime of the imagination, it punished that of the eyes. But when Germanic nation moved to Spain, the climate required quite different laws. The laws of the Visigoths prohibited doctors from bleeding a freeborn woman except in the presence of her father or mother, her brother, her son or her uncle. The imagination of the peoples was fired, that of the legislators was likewise ignited; the law suspected everything in a people capable of suspecting everything.

It took more than a century when the first ideas how the endocrine system might work via the release of the chemical messages by some glands were expressed by a French physiologist Claude Bernard, and a half of the century more of experimental work of physiologists, until a English physiologist Ernest Henry Starling introduced the term hormone.

Again, about a century passed since the Essay on Causes was written, when a German biochemist Justus von Liebig came up with his great insights on the plant and animal metabolism, as well as the great blinders of the “Liebig formula”, stating the only tree chemical compounds, proteins, carbohydrates and fats, are need for the healthy development of babies. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century, the role of micro-nutritions has begun being understood, with the introduction of the concept and term “vitamin” by a Polish biochemist Casimir Funk.

The same revolution in the biological science in the middle of ninetieth century, the introduction of the cell theory by German physiologist Theodore Schwann and botanist Matthias Schleiden, application of the theory to the nervous system and introduction of the neuron theory by a Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal at the end of ninetieth century, and discovery of the electro-chemical mechanisms of the neuro-signal transmission by English neurophysiologists John Zachary Young, Sir Andrew Fielding Huxley and Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin at the first half of the twentieth century, finally unveiled inner workings of the Montesquieu’s “nervous fibres”.

And only now we are starting to understand how genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors affect growth, development, plasticity and regeneration of the neural networks in the human brain (Katz & Meiri 2006), (Duan et al. 2002), as well as how the configuration or pathology of these networks may affect behavioral patterns (Raine & Yang 2006).

Still, general premises of the Motesquieu’s argument sound quite contemporary:

The soul in our body is like a spider in its web. The spider cannot move without disturbing one of the threads which stretch out from it, and, similarly, non of these threads can be moved without disturbing the spider. Nor can any of the threads be touched without making another connected to it move as well. The more taut the threads, the better informed the spider. If some of the threads are slack, then there will be less communication from the thread to the spider, or from one thread to another, and fate of the spider will be almost hanging in the balance in its web.

Still, despite the facts how influential environmental or biological predispositions of the human behavior may be; for example a Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck proposed the incest taboos in human cultures are dictated by the deep biological, instinctive reasons of preventing the crossbreeding; those natural predispositions are slow-developing, and are easily overridden by the social causes:

And, from this, we can conclude two things: first, that the climate contributes immeasurably to modifying the mind; and second, that the effect is not immediate. A long sequence of generations must be necessary to produce it…

Thus, even independently of the climate, which acts greatly on the Spaniards in this Respect, they could have acquired a phlegmatic manner as we French have acquired vivacity.

Now, in the second part of the Essay on Causes Montesquieu starts to investigate effects of the more powerful, social influence on the personal and collective psyche.

To be continued…

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