Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #9

Continuation of the previous part…

After getting familiar with theses outlined in Essay of Causes and Books XIV-XX of The Spirits of the Laws, one starts to understand better what are the foundations of the theory of governments and concept of the law presented by Montesquieu in previous chapters.

Montesquieu opens The Spirits of the Laws with a quite unusual, for his contemporaries, statements that Laws are not only older than the humanity, but God himself. These ideas were not unheard of, for example stated in Plutarch’s Moralia, that the law is king over all mortals and immortals, and in Ulpian’s Institutes, that man-made laws are based on the natural foundations, but were very irritating to the law theory of the time. Political thinkers of the Enlightenment did not go, with the conception of the natural laws, further than postulating that the very invention of the laws and holding up to them is the natural faculty of humans. Postulating that the laws are based and dependent on the collective psyche, the general spirit, and the former is greatly affected by the natural conditions, Montesquieu pushes the theory of laws into domain of physiology, anthropology and psychology.

When going to discuss various types of government, unlike Aristotle, and many political thinkers after him, who used to classify types of government based on the location of political power and number of individuals who wield it, Montesquieu follows the lead of Plato, who describes a typical human character associated with the government type.

However, in Montesquieu’s view, it’s not the government that shapes the human character, but a dominant passion of the general spirit of a society, a principle, that is what animates the type of government it forms. For ancient democracies it is virtue, for European limited monarchies it is honor, for merchant republic “in disguises of monarchy” of England that is egoism and practicality. These principles are not only initial causes for the government, but continuing causes, and, if these causes get corrupted or completely disappear, the government is no longer can endure.

That line of thought is not completely new, Montesquieu repeats these ideas after Machiavelli, however now, equipped with the theory how a general spirit of nation is formed, we may see also how the same forces drive the creation of the government and its laws.

Principles of the despotic government stem from the much more basic and simplistic general spirit. In Essay on Causes Montesquieu pointed out that the brains of southern people are naturally better than the brains of the inhabitants of the North. The Southerns value true things, such as life itself, its pleasures and passions, rather than the vainglory which popular with Northerns. The natural conditions of life of the latter are just pitiful so they can’t experience gifts of life on the full scale. However, the attachment to life of southern people makes them timid and fearful:

It must be admitted, however, that these timid peoples of the South who shun death to enjoy real blessings, such as life, tranquility, and pleasure, are born with better brains than the foolish people of the North, who sacrifice their lives for vainglory, that is, who would rather insure their fame than enjoy life.

These two principles, fear and passion, make the foundation for despotic governments. It seams that despotism is unnatural for humans, but alternative types of government require very specific and rare general spirits:

Despotic government has fear as its principle; and not many laws are needed for timid, ignorant, beaten-down people…

After all we have just said, it seams that human nature would rise up incessantly against despotic government. But, despite men’s love of liberty, despite their hatred of violence, most peoples are subjected to this type of government. This is easy to understand. In order to form a moderate government, one must combine powers, regulate them, temper them, make them act; one must give one power a ballast, so to speak, to put it in a position to resist another; this is a masterpiece of legislation that chance rarely produces and prudence is rarely allowed to produce. By contrast, a despotic government leaps to view, so to speak; it is uniform throughout; as only passions are needed to establish it, everyone is good enough for that.

What are these specific features of the general spirit of the nation that could produce moderate, balanced government? They are disregard of personal life and wealth in favor of achieving political influence; Montesquieu answers this question of The Spirits of the Law in the Essay on Causes:

The peoples who live, like Asiatics, toward the South have certain timidity, which leads naturally to obey, and the peoples who live toward the North, like the Europeans, have boldness which inclines them to scorn life and wealth in order to command others. Now this timidity, which in the South induces everyone to obey, makes for tyrannical authority, and that boldness, which in cold countries causes everyone to command, makes for moderate authority.

This neglect to one’s practical interests, and affection with political power is a very promising bouillon for a political virtue to emerge. It would be only necessary that the will for power were also aimed not to one’s personal interests, but a common good. In conditions where everyone wants to achieve political influence, and is forced to deal with similar political activity of others, that would not be too hard.

However, republics of virtue are the government forms of the past, when men were better, concludes Montesquieu:

Most of the ancient peoples lived in governments that had virtue for their principle, and when that virtue was in full force, things were done in those governments that we no longer see and that astonish our small souls.

Contemporary republics of Italy and Holland are just archaic, obscure and corrupted remnants of those great days. The only sensible type of government these days is monarchy. It is only on surface despotism and European limited monarchies look similar. Most European states are governed by the morals and customs of the people. Those states are rather republics in their heart, which accepted monarchical form, but retained their antiquity roots.

Replacing one of these forms of government by another will not make a difference in those countries, the underlying general spirits of these nations will make sure that the resulting government still will be moderate, i.e. liberty-friendly: “It is not a drawback when the state passes from moderate government to moderate government, as from republic to monarchy or from monarchy to republic…”.

Montesquieu avoids answering the question why European states had to resort for such mimicry His silence is understandable – he had enough troubles with The Church after the publication of The Spirit of the Laws to spell the reasons for such a need directly. However, the implications of the one who personally adored stoicism as a teaching, and Roman emperors-stoics as the best state men, and who perceived the Christianity, despite all the efforts of Greek philosophers and theologians to adopt it to European culture, still bearing an inherent stamp of despotism due to its Asiatic origins, are quite obvious.

Montesquieu was aiming on giving his contemporaries a jerk to their minds, to stir up a quarrel. He was ready for a scandalous success, as we can reed in the Preface of The Spirit of the Laws:

If this work meets with success, I shell owe much of it to the majesty of my subject; still, I do not believe that I have totally lacked genius. When I have seen what so many great men in France, England, and Germany have written before me, I have been filled with wonder, but I have not lost courage. “And I too am a painter”, have I said with Corregio.

When The Spirit of Laws have appeared in October of 1748, it, indeed, was received with great success by Montesquieu’s friends and admirers among men of letters, and, indeed, stirred up quite a quarrel between Montesquieu, his supporters and their opponents and enemies.

Especially what is interesting in reaction to the publication, it is what Montesquieu’s critics were aiming at, and what they were rejecting, for it serves as a good indicator of what was new and revolutionary in the Montesquieu’s master-work.

The first full-scale attack on The Spirit of Laws appears later the same 1748 year. It was an anonymous book entitled Rèflections sur quelques parties d’un livre intitle De l’espirit des lois, however the man behind this attack was the financier Claude Dupin, Rousseau was a scribe preparing the manuscript with the help of Jesuit Pere Bèrthier, the publisher of Mèmoires de Trèvoux magazine, where short polemical articles targeting Montesquieu were published. The Rèflections calls Montesquieu’s method paradoxical, his concept of law is the gate of darkness, classification of types of governments is bogus, influence of climate is non-scientific, and England’s freedom is not really a freedom, but anarchy of revolutions.

A more vicious attack follows the next and the following years, when the Abbè de La Roche publishes in the Jansenit’s magazine Nouvelles ecclèsiastiques series of critical articles. The Spirit of the Laws is proclaimed (not for the last time) not having a plan, religion for the author is only a political device, his irreligion is seen through the book, and he seeks to bring it into disrespect. The praise of the Stoics can’t come from a Christian, and the author opposes sound maxims of government and the religion of Jesus Christ.

Personal attacks are followed by the official and institutional actions. The General Assembly of the Clergy of France meets in May of 1750 under presidency of the Cardinal de La Rochefoucauld. Cardinal was asked by the Assembly to present the list of anti-religious works, among which was The Spirit of the Laws, to the King. The King was scandalized and promised to do his best in dealing with these works.

Early in 1750 the Holy See denounces The Spirit of the Laws and is intended to place it on the Index of Prohibited Books, where it ends up in November of 1751.

In 1752 the Syndic of the Faculty of Theology of Sorbonne asked his colleagues what they wish to censor in The Spirit of the Laws. The Faculty meets number of times in the course of 1752-54 to workout censorship propositions.

All the years following the publication Montesquieu is busy with the damage control from the above mentioned actions to his reputation. Montesquieu addressed himself to the Marquise de Pompadour asking for her aid. She sent a letter to Dupin stating that Montesquieu is under her protection. Dupin withdrew circulating copies of his book and burned the entire edition.

Montesquieu addresses attacks of the Abbè de La Roche in the anonymously published book Dèfence de l’Espirit des lois. Shackleton mentions that

Never was Montesquieu’s style better than in the Dèfence; never were grave and moderately gay more skillfully mixed; never were his statements more precise, or his command of his pen more complete; never were his arguments more telling.

Nor was he ever more firm in his convictions. At various moments in his life he had shown a lawyer’s readiness to compromise… There is nothing of this sort with the Dèfence. The bitterness of the attacks made on him inspired courage in him. He withdrew nothing and apologized for nothing.

Among all the books put in question by the General Assembly of the Clergy of France, one particular work, which argued against the clergy’s immunity from taxation, was considered most dangerous, and worth the main attention. The prosecution of the book was a salvation for The Spirit of the Laws and other its companions in the list.

The Sorbonne’s Faculty was slow to coordinate and act in their censorship attempts, and the list of censorship proposals was never published, and its activity died out naturally by 1754.

With the defense against placing The Spirit of the Laws on the Index of Prohibited Books by Holy See Montesquieu had not much luck, though he mobilized his connections in Rome: Duc de Nivernails, Antonine-Maurice de Solar, Cardinals Passionei and Querini, all in vain.

Though, during these skirmishes, Montesquieu acquired an unexpected ally. Voltaire published a short satiric pamphlet Remerciement sincère à un home charitable, where he ironically advises that “the works of Pope, Loke, Bayle, Montesquieu must be burnt. Add to them all the pagan sages of antiquity. You are right when you say that their beliefs were based on the light of reason. You must thank God that you have nothing in common with them”.

Though Voltaire tries to defend Montesquieu using reducto ad absurdum argument, these mentioned above religious attacks are right on target. Starting from his first scientific works, The Eternal Damnation of the Pagans and Dissertation on the Political Religion of the Romans, and continuing through Persian Letters and Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, and in The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu literally thinks, and thinks again the very same thought, that the political ideology of the European pagan world, or the Indo-European world as it would be called today, is far more friendly to the idea of Liberty than the Biblical political concept which promotes despotism.

Of course, each time he comes to that argument on every new turn of his career, Montesquieu provides more and more historical, geographical, physiological and anthropological data to support that idea. He was doing what he described in the above-mentioned Essay on Taste, that he confesses his taste and enchantment by ancients, but he also studies his very own taste to examine whether it is the sick and empty one, on which nothing has to be found, and that the more he studies it, the more he gets convinced that there is a reason to stick with this taste.

However, did Montesquieu understand that to-be called later Indo-European world in the way how it is understood today? Montesquieu definitely (and obviously) demonstrates understanding of the commonality and continuity of the European culture in general, and its attitudes to ideas of Liberty:

‘Over there are the historians who describe the decadence of the redoubtable Roman Empire, formed from the debris of so many monarchies, and upon whose demise so many new monarchies sprang up. A numberless horde of barbarians, as alien as the countries they inhabited, suddenly spread across the land like floodwater, ravaging and dismembering empire, and founding all those kingdoms that you see in the Europe of today. Those people were not, strictly speaking, barbarians, since they were free, but that is what they became when, submitting for the most part to absolute power, they lost that sweet freedom which accords so well with reason, with humanity, and with nature.

Here you see the historians of Germany, now but a shadow of her first empire, but, I believe, the only power in the world which has not been weakened by partition; the only one, I also believe, to grow stronger in proportion to her losses; slow to profit from her triumphs, she has become unconquerable by virtue of her defeats.

Here are the historians of France, first we witness the development of the power of the crown; we see it expire twice, only to be reborn twice, and then languish for several centuries; then imperceptibly gathering strength from every side, attain its final period: like those rivers that lose their waters as they course along, or that disappear underground then reappear, swollen by the streams that have emptied into them, and rapidly sweep away everything lying in their path.

In these next works we see the Spanish nation emerge from a mountainous region; the Muhammadan princes subjugated as imperceptibly as they had rapidly prevailed; a great many kingdoms united in a vast monarchy which became almost unique until, overwhelmed by its spurious opulence, it lost its strength and even its reputation, preserving only its pride in its original power.

These are the historians of England, who portray liberty repeatedly surviving the flames of discord and sedition; every monarch precariously occupying an invulnerable throne; an impatient nation, wise even in her anger, that queen of the seas (something unheard of until then), combines commerce with empire.

Close by are histories of that other queen of the seas, the Republic of Holland, so respected in Europe and so formidable in Asia, where her merchants find that so many kings bow down before them.

The histories of Italy show you a nation that once ruled the world, and today is the slave of every other nation; her princes are divided and weak, without any attribute of sovereignty save futile policies.

Here we find the histories of republics: that of Switzerland, symbol of freedom; of Venice, whose sole resource is her economy; and of Genoa, glorious only in her fortifications.

And here are the histories of the northern countries, among them Poland, which makes such poor use of her liberty and the right she enjoys of electing her kings, that she seems to be trying to console the peoples of neighboring states, which have lost both of these privileges.’

What is remarkable in the citation above is that, after all his praising of ancient Greece and Rome, Montesquieu places “barbarians”, who inherited Roman empire, with all visible differences between their cultures, on the equal footing with predecessors by the common virtue of love for freedom and liberty. By doing so, he removes the stigma of the initial distinction, inferiority and “barbarousness” of the conquerors, and even more, postulates that the “barbarousness”, the betrayal of their cultural roots, came later, when European nations had sacrificed their love for freedom in exchange for greater power, but still retaining that potential of liberty.

However, did Montesquieu realize that these European cultural connections are not only horizontal, but also vertical in temporal terms, with common roots going deep into millennia, and these roots are shared not only by European, and also Indo-Iranian cultures; and if he did so, to what a degree? This question we will attempt to answer in the next chapter.

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