Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation VIII

Chapter 3

The Transition to Sovereign Dictatorship in Eighteenth-Century State Theory


As stated in the last post, this chapter largely revolves around a tension between Rousseau and Montesquieu. To out things simply, Schmitt is for Montesquieu and against Rousseau. This depends on taking Montesquieu as a monarchist traditionalist, which still leaves Schmitt in proximity to the liberal tradition he largely criticises. There is some debate amongst commentators on whether Montesquieu is more republican or monarchist, more ‘English’ (disguised republic) or more ‘French’ (limited monarchy).

I’ll resist the temptation to add my own thoughts on Montesquieu. I’ve read a lot of him recently, I taught the whole of The Spirit of the Laws last autumn and will again in the coming spring, so if I start I’ll go on for ever, and I’ll certainly have a lot to say about him in posts in the future (not the very near future, I will be positing on philosophy of the novel, once I’ve completed the current sequence on Schmitt). For the moment, I’ll restrict myself to saying that Montesquieu incorporates a very varied numerous number of historical instances and possible forms of government, in a way that to me makes it difficult to say what he is advocating most strongly, except to say that he wishes to see ‘moderate’ government (that is governments limited by law and custom, comprising monarchies and republics, which can be democratic or aristocratic) triumph over ‘despotic’ government (that is one person government limited only by religion).

What Schmitt emphasises is the what Montesquieu has to say about monarchy, which seems to largely apply to the France of his time, and is at least in some degree a justification of that government as one that does accept limits. Schmitt’s tendency to take Montesquieu as advocating the division of powers within and underneath the French monarchy as the supreme political model is not at all outrageous. It is certainly how some very good Montesquieu scholars read him, though there are good scholars who also read him in a  more republican way, and of course among the more popular public understandings of Montesquieu, there is a strong tendency to see him as prophet and justifier before the fact of the constitution of the United States.

Just thinking about Schmitt’s perspective, the possibly awkward aspect of his use of Montesquieu is that Montesquieu is standardly read as a liberal thinker, even if often as a conservative liberal, and takes up more of Schmitt’s discussion than unambiguous traditionalist conservatives like Bonald who seem closer to Montesquieu’s way of thinking. In addition, Montesquieu takes Spain as an example of the negative effects of giving too much power to the Catholic church and in general of the defects of the most traditionalist forms of society as opposed to the influence Enlightenment had in France even on the monarchy and the aristocracy.

Of course it would be wrong to say these things were not present in Spain and only present Spain from the point of view of the black legend of fanatical inquisitors and cruel exploiters of American natives, but we have to acknowledge that Montesquieu tended to go along with such views and that Schmitt generally takes the Spanish Catholic-Monarchist system as a positive point of reference. Along with Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, Schmitt sometimes uses the fervent nineteenth century Spanish monarchist Juan Dosono Cortés, as a favourite example of a conservative traditionalist thinker defending ordered authority and custom against anarchism and socialism.

For whatever reason, Schmitt prefers to take a thinker generally association with Enlightenment liberalism of some kind as he central figure in explaining the benefits of monarchist authority over liberal individualism, in an argument to show traditional authority as better for individual rights than liberalism. The points that Schmitt is emphasising form Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, is that a monarchy is not a despotism, that it shares powers with intermediate institutions, that is institutions mediating between monarch and individuals. The aristocracy, church law courts, and town governments where they possess some status guaranteed by custom and law independent of the will of the monarch are the obvious major elements. Montesquieu himself of course was a judge and an aristocrat so there might be an element of self-justification şn his argument, though he is far too complex a figure to reduce to an agenda of self-justifying gestures. Schmitt emphasises the aristocratic element, the idea of an aristocratic state, which seems a reasonable account of Montesquieu since he is expecting the aristocracy to provide judges and senior clergy, and for town government to be dominated by aristocrats, or at least those connected with the aristocracy.

(Next week Rousseau and the comparison of Rousseau with Montesquieu)


(The above refers to:

Carl Schmitt


From the origin of the modern concept of sovereignty to proletarian class struggle

Translated by Michael Holzel and Graham Ward

Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014)


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