Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #8

Continuation of the previous part…

Montesquieu points out at the obvious observation that customs, professions and style of life we keep greatly affect and modify our thinking. For example “engravers see figures on the wall which are not there”, or “ those who have accustomed their minds to see numerical or geometrical relationships see and find such relationships everywhere” (Montesquieu 1977 447), which happened in a hypertrophied and grotesque way with the American mathematician and Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash, Jr.

Our circle of interests, acquaintances, books we read, ways of socializing and passing time may either enrich or impoverish our mind. Traveling, for instance, gives a significant boost in the child’s development. Handicapped people, with their limited social interaction, devote more time for self-development, which results in their noticeable higher mental achievements; but the social interaction they have, often serves as an instrument of moral torture, reminding them that they are different from everybody else, provoking them to compensate and avenge “normal” people with small insults, utilizing their superior intellect.

However, all these factors are just side-notes at the end of essay. The real, the key social factor which shapes minds of people, and at which Montesquieu focuses from the beginning of the second part devoted to social causes, is education. He sees the education not as a vehicle of accumulating knowledge and skills, but the force which physically shapes human minds and elevates them on a principally different quality level:

Those raised among a barbarous people quite understandably possess only those ideas related to self-preservation. They live in eternal darkness with regard to all the rest…

Proof of their relative lack of ideas is the barrenness of the languages they use. Not only do they have few words, since they have few things to express, but they also have only a few ways of conceiving ideas and of feeling.

Their brain fibers, little accustomed to being exercised, have become rigid… Their brains not having had to work, the fibres are not trained in the required movements. They are incapable of adding any new ideas to the few they already have, and this weakness is not restricted to their brains. It would also be found in their throats if one wished to make them sing, and in their fingers if one wished to have them play a musical instrument.

(Montesquieu 1977 434-5)

The crucial role of education is to constantly stir up the “human machine”, supplying it with various and different ideas, to train it to establish relationships between them, and to provoke the machine to generate new ones.

As a result, the “human machine” comes to another level of functioning, which is tangibly measurable:

Men with few ideas necessarily err in almost all their judgments…

An intelligent man perceives and acts as he should perceive and act – and without delay or reflection. He conducts himself, at each moment, according to the present need. He both perceives and senses the exact relationship between his surroundings and himself.

(Montesquieu 1977 436, 9)

That depiction of an intelligent man, behaving almost like an automat, a robot, on auto-pilot program, may look scary, but that automatism has its purpose – to free the mental resources to acquire new ideas and ways of thinking: “An intelligent man does not always have flashes of wit, because three-fourths of the time they are out of place…” (Montesquieu 1977 440).

What Montesquieu expresses in his hypotheses about influence of the social environment on brain circuitry may be described in contemporary language of neuroscience as a plasticity of neural networks.

For a quite some time the main instrument of neuroscience in determining what areas of brain are responsible for particular motor or cognitive functions was study of brain pathologies and change of behavioral pattern they led to. For example a well-known case of Phinneas Gage, whose prefrontal cortex was destroyed during an industrial accident, when a metal bar came right through his brain. He survived this accident, but Gage’s personality was transformed virtually overnight, and from a gentle, reliable and friendly man, he became a coarse, unstable and asocial individual, who was not able to work in a collective at all (Sapolsky 2004).

In recent years, development of the latest imaging techniques has allowed to understand connections between the human behavior and the brain structure and function much better. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) makes it possible to get information about the brain structure without surgical methods. However, various flavors of functional MRI (fMRI) have been proven much more useful. fMRI measures  local blood-oxygen level, which is associated to the areas of higher activity in the brain, and it helps to identify brain areas involved in performing particular tasks given to study subjects. Another flavor of functional MRI – rs-fcMRI measures spontaneous fluctuations of the blood-oxygen levels, and, if these waves of fluctuations are correlated in different areas, that is considered as an evidence that those areas are “functionally connected” (Fair, et al 2007). Yet another technique – diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) – allows measuring direction of the neural connectivity more directly. The technique uses phenomenon of the anisotropic diffusion when water diffuses in the myelin (a fatty insulation of nerve fibers) more readily in the direction parallel to the tract, rather than in perpendicular direction (Amso, Casey 2006).

Using these techniques provided a breakthrough in understanding how the human brain works performing cognitive and motor tasks. First of all, it is not that a particular area is responsible for an activity, but rather variety of them. Second – that the assignment of the active brain zones to a particular task is a dynamic process, when at the stages of training and acquisition of the skill, and at the stage of performing well learned routine different cranial zones are involved. And third – development and training is accompanied not only by accumulation of new (long range) neural connections, but also by disappearance of another (short range) connections, and creation of dedicated neural pathways (Fair, et al 2007).

When a human brain learns a new task the various areas responsible for more “difficult” tasks are involved, such as prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for strategically and hierarchically organize the memory access, and suppresses impulsive behavior (Sapolsky 2004), anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved into conflict resolution (Finchman, Andersen 2006), and subthalamic nucleus, which is involved into inhibition of already learned motor tasks (Legericy, et al 2005).

Though, the learning involves not only abstract-handling, pre-motor areas, but, surprisingly, motor regions, even if the being learned task is related to cognition. For example the language learning was recruiting motor areas in hockey players (Beilock, at al 2008).

After training the neural activity switches to the skill-specific areas and dedicated neural pathways. Established connections get myelinatized (a fatty insulation mentioned above), which enhances neural conduction and the sped of processing (Amso, Casey 2006).

In other words, when we learn, we “alter the anatomy and physiology of…” [the involved] ”…brain regions” (Beilock, at al 2008). Of course that does not mean that two persons who graduated from Oxford and who graduated from Cambridge have completely different brains, and the anatomical and physiological changes caused by education should be understood in a context of fine-tuning of neural networks.

As well, the established, trained dedicated neural networks could be undone and the brain could be retrained and the neural pathways may be rewired.

Overtraining of dedicated neural networks may cause their corruption. One professional group – string musicians – especially prone to such a network mis-wiring, resulting into a focal hand dystonia disorder, when their hands and fingers experience involuntary twitches and cramps. Methods targeting inhibition of the old, malicious pathways and retraining new ones show a condition improvement and cortical reorganization (Candia, et al 2003).

Still, the anatomical and physiological changes of the brain circuitry caused by the learning process are tangible, measurable and persistent, and may explain those phenomena Montesquieu describes in the second part of the Essay on Causes.

In addition to the specific education a person receives, and which shapes his mind, there exist systemic, culture related factors that affect minds of specific social or ethnic groups, Montesquieu suggests:

We have just spoken of the particular education that shapes the character of each man. There is also a general education that we receive in the society in which we live. For there is in every people a general character that more or less leaves its stamp on the character of each individual. It is produced in two ways: by physical causes depending on climate, of which I will say no more, and by moral causes, which are the combined result of laws, religion, customs, manners…

The laws that prescribe ignorance to Mohammedans, like the customs that prevent them from communicating with one another, leave their minds sluggish. The works of Confucius, which confuse an immense detail of civil ceremonies with moral precepts, thereby putting the most trifling things on the same plane as the most essential, greatly affect the Chinese mind. The Scholastic logic greatly modifies the minds of peoples who apply themselves to it. The great freedom of speech and expression that exists in certain countries results in a countless number of unique minds. The extraordinary importance bestowed on unessential details in the Talmud… has very much narrowed the minds of the Jewish doctors…

(Montesquieu 2009 309)

The second, Moral Causes part was a sandbox, a testing ground from which the XIX book of The Spirit of the Laws has been originated with its main idea that the given laws must not contradict morals of the populace, for the laws, which challenge established morals and customs, face opposition not of the fading writings in the old, eaten by worms books, and silly fairy-tails, but by the well imprinted dedicated neural networks in peoples’ brains.

Montesquieu calls attempts to establish laws that contradicts the general spirit of the nation a tyranny of the second type, which is a very, very bad think on the Montesquieu’s scale of type of government:

There are two sorts of tyranny: a real one, which consists in the violence of the government, and one of opinion, which is felt when those who govern establish things that run counter to a nation’s way of thinking.

(Montesquieu 1977 429)

Such attempts won’t change a thing in they nation’s style of life, except provoking violence, but will destroy those who would run the tyranny of the second kind, especially those who would try establish a more advanced type of government than the tyranny. For those who are being helped, there is no difference if it is a tyranny of capricious tyrant or it is a tyranny of idealists. But inevitable need to enforce alien, to that nation’s spirit, laws by tyrannical methods, will go across the grain of the morals and ideals of those who would like to “help” an oppressed nation, establishing the better (seriously, no quotes-unquotes) types of government, but which are not compatible with the customs and morals of being “helped”.

An exemplary illustration of such a failure is the attempt of last decade to “democratize” Near East, where, with the help of either direct interventions or “led from behind” rebellions, mild tyrannies were replaced by tribal, sectarian, or war-lord regimes, lightly disguised as “democracies”. While the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and deployment of the ultimate weapon, which won the anti-insurgent campaign in Iraq – drone fleet – in domestic skies, destroyed Liberty (which was supposed to be carried to the whole world) at home.

Of course, that does not mean that those societies, which happen to lag behind the social progress due to specifics of their culture, are destined to maintain their primitive political organizations forever. The way Montesquieu offers to change their political system and laws is not to attack them directly, but, first, to change their underlying cultures. To do so one also should not attack morals and customs directly, but to make people become lukewarm about them, to make them look away from their old traditional values, and to make them look at riches and luxuries with desire, to make them indulge into vices offered by higher civilizations, or, if you will, to corrupt them.

To be continued…


Montesquieu, Baron de (Charles de Secondat), An Essay on Causes Affecting Minds and Characters, in The Spirit of Laws by Montesquieu, A Compendium of the First English Edition, edited, with an introduction, notes, and appendixes, by David Wallace Carrithers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977

Carrithers, David Wallace, The Spirit of Laws by Montesquieu, A Compendium of the First English Edition, edited, with an introduction, notes, and appendixes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977

Robert M. Sapolsky, The Frontal Cortex and the Criminal Justice System, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 359, No. 1451, Law and The Brain (Nov. 29, 2004), pp. 1787-1796

Dima Amso, B.J. Casey, Beyond What Develops When: Neuroimaging May Inform How Cognition Changes with Development, Current Directions in psychological Science, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Feb., 2006), pp. 24-29

Sian L. Beilock, Ian M. Lyons, Andrew Mattarella-Micke, Howard C. Nusbaum, Steven L. Small, Sports Experience Changes the Neural Processing of Action Language, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 105, No. 36 (Sep. 9, 2008), pp. 13269-13273

Damien A. Fair, Nico U. F. Dosenbach, Jessica A. Church, Alexander L Cohen, Shefali Brahmbhatt, Francus M. Miezin, Deanna M. Barch, Marcus E. Raichle, Steven E. Peterson, Bradley L. Schlaggar, Development of Distinct Control Networks through Segregation and Integration, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 104, No. 33 (Aug. 14, 2007), pp. 13507-13512

Jon M. Finchman, John R. Anderson, Distinct Roles of the Anterior Cingulate and Prefrontal Cortex in the Acquisition and Performance of a Cognitive Skill, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 103, No. 34 (Aug. 22, 2006), pp. 12941-12946

Stephane Lehericy, Habib Benali, Pierre-Francois Van de Moortele, Melanie Pelegrini-Issac, Tobias Waechter, Kamil Ugurbil, Julien Doyon, Leslie G. Ungerleider, Distinct Basal Ganglia Territories Are Engaged in Early and Advanced Motor Sequence Learning, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 102, No. 35 (Aug 30, 2005), pp. 12566-12571

Victor Candia, Christian Wienburch, Thomas Elbert, Brigitte Rocksttroh, William Ray, Effective Behavioral Treatment of Focal Hand Dystonia in Musicians Alters Somatosensory Cortical Organization, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 100, No. 13 (Jun. 24, 2003), pp. 7942-7946

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