Correcting Our View of Montesquieu

Living as we do in a time of widespread uncertainty about the future of liberalism, we can easily forget how different the mood was a few short years ago. Instead of expressing anxiety about the survival of liberal democratic institutions in the United States and Western Europe, commentators during the 1990s and 2000s were debating how to spread such institutions across the globe. Within the field of political theory, a prevailing concern was that liberalism had been too successful. Intellectual movements such as communitarianism and civic republicanism flourished during this period with the aim of preserving virtue and community in the face of inevitable liberal hegemony.

This came to mind as I read Keegan Callanan’s very fine new book on the Baron de Montesquieu. One imagines that Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics was conceived in the era when liberalism seemed invincible, for its purpose is to chasten and moderate triumphalist liberals. The timing doesn’t seem great, but it would be a shame if this work were overlooked. Callanan’s is one of the most interesting accounts of Montesquieu’s thought to appear in recent years.

A Distinctive Understanding of Liberty

Born in 1689, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu shaped 18th century political ideas like no other figure. His masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, offered nothing less than a comprehensive theory of political and social life, and one which would profoundly influence the American and French Revolutions—as well as the emerging fields of history, political economy, sociology, and international law. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Emile Durkheim were among the many thinkers who drew explicitly from “the celebrated Montesquieu.”

For Callanan, an assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College, the great achievement of Montesquieu was to produce a liberal political theory that was genuinely universal—that held certain moral and institutional principles traditionally associated with liberalism to be ideal for human beings—while also doing full justice to the particular. Montesquieuan liberals will be skeptical about forcing liberal ideals on other nations. They will also value the particular religious and cultural traditions that have arisen in their own nations, even when these traditions stem from sources other than liberalism. However, this will in no way detract from their commitment to liberal principles. Callanan argues that in Montesquieu’s theory, commitment to the universal ideal of liberty actually yields skepticism about a universalizing politics.

The reason for this is Montesquieu’s distinctive understanding of liberty. In The Spirit of the Laws, he initially defines political liberty as the condition of living in a state governed by law, where “power…[is] a check to power.” However, he goes on to define liberty psychologically: It is the “tranquility of spirit” that individuals feel when they believe themselves secure in their person and property.

We might assume that these two conceptions go together—that by living in a constitutional state, one comes to feel secure from arbitrary coercion. But Callanan emphasizes the possibility (suggested by Montesquieu) that these two aspects of liberty do not automatically align. According to Callahan, once we take seriously its psychological character, the very idea of spreading liberty through force becomes self-contradictory:

When a people is not culturally and socially prepared to receive free political institutions, direct attempts to erect such institutions will likely produce an experience of political disquiet and fear comparable to the psychological experience of men and women in truly tyrannical states. Under these conditions, free institutions are no longer liberal in effect, for they fail to yield the tranquility of spirit that constitutes the “liberty of the citizen.” This train of reasoning constitutes what can best be described as a liberal critique of political universalism.

Put simply, a people only acquires the benefits of “free political institutions” when they are rooted in that people’s own context and culture. According to Callanan, this yields two implications: First, free political institutions can take multiple forms; monarchies, republics, and mixed constitutions like England all may potentially qualify as free. Second, despotisms should not be overturned by foreign states in the name of liberty. Rather, despotisms should be slowly reformed from within.

This account of Montesquieu’s “regime pluralism,” as Callanan terms it, is one of the highlights of the book. While he is not the first scholar to read Montesquieu in this way, his argument is especially clear and convincing. It should decisively put to rest the idea (put forth by Leo Strauss, Paul Rahe, and Thomas Pangle) that Montesquieu was a theorist of “liberal republicanism,” who thought that only a constitution modelled on England could achieve liberty.

As Callanan demonstrates, this is exactly the opposite of what Montesquieu believed. With its separation of powers and many checks on government, the English regime powerfully illustrated the mechanics of a free constitution. But it was not a regime that nations with different cultures and circumstances—such as Montesquieu’s native France—ought to imitate. Moreover, the security and “tranquility of spirit” that Montesquieu associated with political liberty could be achieved under a wide variety of constitutional forms.

Geography and Despotism

Less compelling is the argument that Montesquieu envisioned despotism being reformed from within. This contention of Callanan’s runs up against the extended Montesquieuan  discussion of climate. Among the most infamous ideas in The Spirit of the Laws is that the physical and geographical climates of Asia, Africa, and South America make these regions generally stagnant and prone to despotic rule. Climate “is why laws, mores, and manners . . . remain in the East today as they were a thousand years ago,” Montesquieu wrote. The idea of reforming despotism from within therefore seems impossible in exactly those regions of the world that Montesquieu most associates with despotism. Indeed, Montesquieu explicitly warns his reader that trying to reform a despotism is never wise.

Callanan believes that this was not Montesquieu’s last word on the subject, though. As evidence, he notes how Montesquieu praised Peter the Great’s reforms in Russia. But Montesquieu immediately went on to qualify that example. “What made the change easier,” he wrote, “was that the mores of that time were foreign to the climate and had been carried there by the mixture of nations and by conquests. Peter found it easier than he had expected to give the mores and manners of Europe to a European nation. The empire of climate is the first of all empires.”

In other words, Montesquieu believed reform was possible because Russia was European rather than “Oriental.” In his desire to make Montesquieu a model for contemporary liberal theory, Callanan domesticates his account of despotism.

Callahan is surely correct, on the other hand, that in those regions where Montesquieu does believe liberty to be possible, there is no single paradigm, and that liberty acquires its meaning within particular contexts and traditions. The author also persuasively contends that, for Montesquieu, liberty can survive only with the support of such traditions. A “natural ‘love of liberty’’ is not “sufficient to sustain free institutions,” Callanan writes. It must be buttressed by “patterns of authority, ideas, and moral habits.”

Montesquieu viewed two forces as especially critical for creating habits and ideas conducive to free institutions: commerce and religion. While many scholars have noted the Frenchman’s (qualified) appreciation of commerce, Callanan’s discussion of religion is strikingly original. Montesquieu was horrified by Christianity’s history of persecution. Indeed, Strauss and his students, in addition to reading Montesquieu as a partisan of liberal republicanism, also read him as a sworn opponent of religion. They claim that he praised commerce because it led individuals to focus on the goods and pleasures of this world, undermining the force of traditional Christianity. Callanan demonstrates that this argument rests on a misreading of the key passage in which Montesquieu counterpoises worldly and spiritual goods. In general, Montesquieu believed religion to be indispensable to free institutions.

Montesquieu, One of the Great Theorists of Early Modern Monarchical Government

As incisive as this study is, there are reasons to be skeptical that liberalism is the right word for defining Montesquieu’s political theory. First coined in the early 19th century, “liberalism” indicated a European-wide political movement that was in favor of representative government, commercial progress, expanded rights for individuals, and limited constitutional monarchy (or, in certain cases, republicanism).

Over the subsequent centuries, the meaning of the term has shifted on numerous occasions. Figures as diverse as John Dewey and William Gladstone, Franklin Roosevelt and F.A. Hayek have all claimed the mantle of liberalism—leading some scholars to doubt that a coherent liberal tradition exists. But the continuities among liberal writers and statesmen across this period are also quite evident. From Benjamin Constant to John Rawls, liberals have tended to believe that representative government and constitutional protections for the individual are indispensable conditions for liberty—even if many liberals also view them as insufficient without additional conditions, whether those be an expansive (or minimal) welfare state, a culture of individual experimentation, or widespread opportunities for popular political participation.

Montesquieu fits very uneasily into this liberal tradition. He admired the nascent liberal institutions of 18th century England. But as Callanan emphasizes, he did not view them as indispensable. If England formalized and systematized the constitutional principle that power be balanced and separated, Montesquieu saw that principle present in every regime that was not a sheer despotism.

It was even present in 18th France where, despite the awesome powers of the monarch and the absence of representative government, Montesquieu believed there existed a “spirit of liberty.” The laws governing monarchical succession, the privileges of the nobility, the ways in which judicial bodies could inconvenience and challenge the Crown—these distinguished France from a despotic monarchy.

To see a distinction between the French ancien régime and pure despotism is one thing—to identify “a spirit of liberty” is something else entirely. It is here, I would argue, that we reach the point where Montesquieu’s proto-liberalism ends, and we must additionally read him as one of the great theorists of early modern monarchical government, along with Jean Bodin, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and Samuel von Pufendorf. Indeed, Montesquieu’s capacity to admire both the emerging structures of liberal government and the early modern monarchical state that (at least in appearance) liberalism would supersede, is part of what made him such an extraordinarily comprehensive political thinker.

As I noted at the outset, this book was written not merely to offer a new interpretation of Montesquieu, but also to intervene in contemporary debates. By reconsidering Montesquieu, Callanan hoped to chasten the universalist aspirations of post-Cold War American liberalism. Today, as I said, there seems to be little need for that since the idea of spreading liberal democracy across the globe is decisively out of fashion. Meanwhile, the revolt against liberal social and political norms that Trump and his followers are waging in the name of cultural and national particularity has gone far beyond the imagination of any 1990s communitarian.

The question of why the post-Cold War liberal order has proven unsatisfactory to so many people is now the subject of countless books and articles. But if Callanan missed his opportunity to chasten American liberalism, he may still have the chance to educate American liberals—and anybody else interested in Montesquieu’s landmark contribution to Western political thought.

Reader Discussion

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on May 03, 2019 at 19:10:09 pm

Tocqueville provides a somewhat different perspective on the traits / beliefs and psychology of the citizens of the "ancien regime." It is highly doubtful that a "spirit of liberty" prevailed amongst the citizenry which was constantly harassed and dominated by an ever growing centralized cadre of bureaucrats.

So yes, the French Crown was not a despotic monarchy. The Crown, however, created and deployed a DESPOTIC cadre of civil servants to fulfill that function.

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on May 06, 2019 at 02:31:13 am

Montesquieu, like Locke before him, were monarchists, rather than whigs. He believed Christianity indispensable to government, which raises the question about liberty outside Christendom.

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Image of Oft
on June 21, 2019 at 21:58:21 pm

Liberty outside of Christendom has proven to thrive. It is those that created a new religion, Secularism, to replace the values well stocked in what Christianity added to Constitutions proclaiming liberty, and justice for all. In Montesquieu's time, pre-Industrial, it could be argued that community was the staple house, and therefore individuals were harbored enough to feel their independence while governed by the monarchy. His line of thinking as we move forward seems rather prescient to me.

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elizabeth blasucci
on February 07, 2020 at 11:03:15 am


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John H Collett

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.