Teaching Montesquieu. A classic in danger of genteel decline

(cross posted at New APPS, a group blog I strongly recommend in ‘Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science’)

This has been a semester of not just one but two courses based on a a big classic. As I explained recently, I gave a course on the whole of Montaigne’s Essays. I also gave a course on the whole of The Spirit of the Laws, by Charles de Secondat, better known as Montesquieu. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Montesquieu should be given a central role in introduction level courses. Rousseau is just too obvious an alternative for dealing with Enlightenment political theory, and himself follows on from Machiavelli or Hobbes as the standard opening figures for introductions to modern political theory. 

I will only go so far as to say that Montesquieu deserves to feature more frequently, though preferably with some attempt, which does creates difficulty, at incorporating passages   that represent the different aspects of The Spirit of the Laws properly. A course devoted to Montesquieu is a great way of getting deeply into questions such as: the relation between history and theory, the relation between political concepts in antiquity and modernity, and not forgetting the Medieval concepts;  development of law as key to concepts of sovereignty, and therefore the basic concepts of political philosophy, as well as key to political economy; the multiplicity of different political forms and examples; the role of physical geography in history, political economy, and political life; the importance of gender relations and desire as key to social and political forms; comparisons between European political systems and those of the rest of the world; the role of colonialism in the politics of the European metropolis; the importance both of classical models and of states on the periphery of the Greek and Roman worlds; the place of war, invasion, force, and ethnic domination in the formation of modern European states.

On the more negative side, Montesquieu’s understanding of gender relations does include an excess of fascination with the harem in ‘despotic’ countries and the social role of female flirtation in ‘monarchies’, his understanding of the ‘south’ is bursting with negative stereotypes, and he certainly misunderstands the Ottoman polity as a pure naked personal despotism, with no restraints on the power of the Sultan apart from religion. Nevertheless, Montesquieu is no worse than we would expect from his time in these kinds of leanings, and even where he looks obnoxious now he is often advanced in at least raising issues that expand the range of historical and political thought, pushing towards what we now understand as the social sciences.

Montesquieu’s work seems in danger of relegation to antiquarian curio in comparison with some other eighteenth century classics, particularly when we can see a rise in interest for some other figures from that time, most notably Adam Smith. However, The Spirit of the Laws is clearly a very  large part of the pre-history of German Idealist philosophy of history, Marxist ‘historical materialism’, nineteenth century liberalism, and early sociological theory. His approach to history anticipates a long period of French work in social and geographical approaches to that discipline, culminating in Fernand Braudel and the Annales School. Even with regard to recent work in social science and political theory we can see foreshadowings in Montesquieu. James Scott’s discussion of hill peoples in southern Asia escaping state power can be taken back to the links Montesquieu makes between mountain communities and liberty. John Rawls’ arguments for the veil of ignorance in the original position is anticipated by Montesquieu when he argues against French aristocrats who advocate slavery that they should imagine a lottery in which they might end up as slaves. His thoughts about antiquity, free speech and political liberty, feudalism, the modern state and law, certainly anticipate Foucault, and to some degree influenced him. As with Montaigne, Foucault simply prefers to avoid getting lost in commentary on a Great Thinker and keeps the encounter indirect.

The difficulties and apparent incoherencies of The Spirt of the Laws come in general from Montesquieu’s attempts to incorporate all theoretical and historical elements in a unified system, with very creative results. Montesquieu’s notorious difficulty in applying antique concepts to the modern world is productive in its consequences, and I do not think he does such a bad job of comprehending the France and Britain of his time. It helps to study the later sections of The Spirit of the Laws and see how Montesquieu examines what comes from the republics of the ancient German tribes both conflicting and converging with post-Roman societies to create the new form of feudalism, and then examines that Germanic-Roman convergence transformed again through the revival of Roman law. Taking that fully into account, it seems to me that Montesquieu looks less like a classicist blundering about in the modern world. Equally he should not be taken as a Romantic-Gothic nostalgic advocate for ‘Germanic’ liberty and feudal customs, which is the danger of giving those later sections too much weight in relation to his antique republican inclinations, and his analyses of his own world.

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