Link of the Day: Philip Gerrans on Montesquieu

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

The Disposition of Things: Spontaneous Order in the Esprit des Lois, by Philp Gerrans.

This is not a very new piece of work, Gerrans published it a few years ago in European Legacy, but has now made it freely available to download as a a pdt, through his home page at the School of Philosophy, University of Adelaide.

Gerrans looks at a few hypotheses about how to interpret Montesquieu Spirit of the Laws (1748), an Enlightenment masterpiece of what we would now call philosophy of history, social science, and political theory. The political theory is sometimes described as liberal and sometimes described as republican. Gerrans interprets that as the difference between liberty defined as freedom from limitations on action, and liberty defined as participation in the community and the political process. I’m rather dubious about how absolute the distinction is and Gerrans seems to accept an absolute distinction, coming down on a purely ‘liberal’ interpretation of Montesquieu. Anyway his account if clear and economical. As Gerrans points out, Montesuieu was highly revered by the framers of the American constitution, though I think he could have said more about the distinction between claiming to incorporate a position, and the

Gerrans looks at how the readings of the separation of powers in Montesquieu, one of the most famous issues in the Spirit of the Laws, referring to divisions between different branches of government. As Gerrans points out, the context is a wish to limit the power of the absolute monarchy in France, and to follow the example of English parliamentarianism. One point I really like in Gerrans is that he refers to Montesquieu’s economic reasons for preferring close relations with England, he wanted to be free to export wine to that country from his domains. That is strictly speaking a trade issue rather than a political system issue, but the English system, then as now, was more free trade oriented. Montesquieu believed in free trade as a matter of principle, but there is no need to detach great thinkers from their economic interests and context. More political economy of he great thinkers would be a good thing, but not in the sense of simply condemning them for having individual economic interests, or for upholding class interests.

The division of powers can be read in different ways in Montesquieu because of he way he is caught between understanding political systems according to Aristotle’s categorisations and a social scientists’ concern with the reasons that institutions exist as they do. There is a third factor, Lockean contract theory in which the executive is limited by the neutrality of judges and the creation of laws by an elected assembly. I think it is a bit of a mistake to get a fully formed theory of separation of power in Locke, that comes from later extrapolation and the persistent tendencies of all interpreters to think their interpretation is present fully formed in some text they particularly revere. Another reading could be on the socio-economic interpretation that as a member of the aristocracy, Montesquieu wanted to protect particular local aristocratic privileges from the threat of a centralising monarchical state. The Aristotelian aspect is the notion of the ‘polity’, the proper political state as a ‘mixed constitution’ combining elements if democracy, aristocracy, and oligarchy (Gerrans leaves out oligarchy).

Gerrans decides to cut through this by putting the interpretative weight on ‘spontaneous order’. This phrase is particularly associated with the free market economist, and limited state, political thinker, F.A. Hayek. Unfortunately I can’t right now find if Hayek invented the phrase, anyway he was developing a way of thinking found in the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and David Hume. This is the idea that human society and economic welfare advance through the effects of an aggregate of freely made individual actions rather than through planning. It’s a matter of discussion whether Hayek has the best handle on those thinkers, as a I’ve pointed out in a number of posts on the egalitarian liberal political theorist, John Rawls. Since Rawls believes in a a market economy, he must agree with Hayek to some degree. Gerrans associates the idea with Hayek and the Scottish Enlightenment, and also with Bernard Mandeville, Michel de Montaigne and the Jansenists (presumably mostly thinking of Blaise Pascal).

The interesting leap Gerrans makes is to link spontaneous order with Newton’s mechanics which do explain how the universe works according to laws of physics without outside intervention. As Gerrans concedes there is no direct evidence that Montesqueiu was interested in Newton, but Gerrans argues for a link on a logic of the text basis. The bits of the text which look Newtonian are the early references to a Malebrancheian philosophy of universal laws, applied to societies, Malebranche’s thinking was close to the Jansenists, so maybe Gerrans could have said more about Pascal’s view of science, but broadly speaking he is correct to draw attention to the link between Montesquieu and the physics of the time.

What Gerrans could have added is that ‘spontaneous order’ is more obviously connected with biology than physics, after all Darwin picked up on Scottish Enlightenment and early political economy ideas. That was well into the future for Montesquieu and his project of a ‘Newtonian’ theory of society does inform his view of separation of powers. Gerrans argues that separation of powers can be seen on the basis of how individuals interact under limited government, so that provides a social basis. That does not explain everything, but I think it is valuable to incorporate this aspect, particularly with regard to what Montesqueiu says about the ‘spirit of monarchy’ which refers to a social mechanism running on individual pursuit of wealth and status.

From Montesquieu’s point of view a ‘moderate monarchy’ on this foundation can accept limitations from the law and from representative bodies. He seems to think in terms of a synthesis of republicanism and monarchy, without making it clear. As Gerrans points out, for Montesquieu a republic relates to classical notions of virtue which don’t seem appropriate to modern commercial society, In Montesquieu’s theory a republic becomes decadent and collapses when it’s citizens pursue wealth, A republican-monarchical synthesis might establish ‘liberal’ and ‘republican’ liberty in the modern world, though that thought is never there in a very direct way (not that I remember).