Montesquieu: The Ultimate Revisionist

When the words “Montesquieu” and “despotism” happen to be juxtaposed in our minds these days, they are as likely as not to be accompanied by that modern locution, “Orientalism.” Some of the Frenchman’s own contemporaries were already critical of his treatment of the East. Voltaire defended the Ottoman Empire as a rule-of-law state, and the Physiocrats strove to rescue China from the aspersions that their illustrious predecessor had cast against it.[1]

Closer to our own time, the charismatic literary critic Edward Said upped the ante dramatically. In his wildly popular polemic Orientalism (1978), anyone who drew what he deemed to be unflattering stereotypes of the peoples, cultures, or regimes of that part of the world stood condemned for contributing to “reified . . . essences” that were themselves complicit in the “generations of hostility, war, and imperial control” marking relations between East and West.[2] In the four decades since its publication, the whole field of “post-colonial studies” came to regard Said as one of its founders, and Orientalism as a worthy catechism.

Vickie B. Sullivan is aware of this history, and frames Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe: An Interpretation of “The Spirit of the Laws” around it. “Whereas,” she writes early on, “Edward Said posits that Europeans with their Orientalizing gaze discern a gulf between Europe and the Orient, Christianity and Islam, Montesquieu sees them as unified.” Stated in this rather bald way, Sullivan’s thesis is probably somewhat overdrawn. Like other Western commentators going back at least to Herodotus, Montesquieu not only assumed his readers shared a certain heuristic about Western liberty and Eastern servitude, but asserted the reality of this dichotomy as well.[3] Nor was he necessarily mistaken to do so; any impartial survey would surely conclude that “liberty” had been a more prominent and frequently recurring preoccupation of Western polities and their theorists than of Chinese, Indian, or Middle Eastern ones, and continues to be so up to the present.

Ideas Have (Potentially Despotic) Consequences

Montesquieu’s great achievement in this regard was to defamiliarize the familiar and to problematize the unproblematic. Despite thousands of years of speeches, writings, laws, and texts of every kind, “liberty” remained in his time a conceptual mystery. If his contemporary David Hume was, in Duncan Forbes’ memorable phrase, a “skeptical Whig,”[4] Montesquieu was the ultimate revisionist—one whose revisions live with us today.

The primary way he went about achieving his revisions, according to Sullivan, was through indirection. Like other recent commentators, Sullivan, the Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, sees him as identifying a worst regime, but not a best one. The long-sought “secret chain” of his enigmatic magnum opus The Spirit of the Laws (1748) was not liberty, in her view, but despotism. Liberty itself is such a complex, demanding and elusive achievement that despotism has managed to manifest itself in all manner of times and circumstances throughout even Western history. It is by his sustained and unrelenting critique of the many-headed monster of despotism, then, that Sullivan’s Montesquieu manages to convey his most “important knowledge” about the true nature of liberty.

A second and related theme of Sullivan’s is the despotic potential inherent in ideas themselves. Time after time, she points out, Montesquieu traces the baleful effects of abstract political ideas on times and places far beyond those of their origin.

So The Despotic Ideas of Europe shatters any attempt to read Montesquieu as some sort of apologist for Western political culture. Other scholars have grasped the ways in which The Spirit of the Laws is more culturally self-critical than critical, in which the Frenchman uses tropes about oriental despotism as an ironic way of subjecting France and Europe to a veiled but probing scrutiny. But Sullivan goes far beyond that in showing how Western ideas—philosophical, religious, legal, and political—had themselves become institutionalized into practices inimical to liberty.

Her method is to work backwards in time. Part one is about Montesquieu’s modern interlocutors, part two about his medieval ones, and part three about the ancients.

For the modern section, Sullivan offers two chapters, one on Niccolo Machiavelli and one on Thomas Hobbes. Chapter one takes issue with those commentators such as Harvey C. Mansfield who would emphasize the similarities in agenda between Montesquieu and Machiavelli. While acknowledging that the Baron of La Brède calls his Italian counterpart a “great man,”[5] she concludes that he was referring only to the “impact” of the latter’s theory, not to the “character of that impact.”

Montesquieu famously defined (political) liberty with reference to the individual’s feeling of personal security. In this chapter, Sullivan suggests that in his critical reading of Machiavelli, he is in effect (whether or not by design) applying that definition as a criterion of judgment. Thus, it is on topics such as the role of judges, the procedures in criminal justice, and the appropriate scale of sentencing that the author trains her sights.

In all of these areas and more, she sees Montesquieu as primarily a critic rather than an admirer of Machiavelli. The possible corruption of paid jurors in the Roman system and its baleful effects on the “personal security” of defendants, the excessive latitude of accusation under republican law (helpfully reined in by later emperors), the preference of extreme over moderate punishments—on all of these points, Montesquieu sees Machiavelli’s admiration for the purity of old Rome to be misguided, and inconsistent with the “liberty” of a modern nation such as England. His critique is just as salient for the republicanism of the Discourses as for The Prince, contrary to today’s neo-republican admirers of the Florentine.

A similar analysis, mutatis mutandis, applies to the Englishman, Hobbes. Here, Sullivan notes that although, after criticizing Hobbes’ theory of the “war of all” at the outset of his work, Montesquieu never returns to the sage of Malmesbury again, his entire political theory can nonetheless be read as an alternative to it.

Where Hobbes sees “fear” as a universal disposition grounding government itself, Montesquieu sees it merely as the defining feature of one specific regime type: fear fuels despotism, just as virtue does the republic and honor the monarchy. Where Hobbes sees honor as a dangerously subjective passion that helps launch the “war of all” itself, Montesquieu sees it as an essential bulwark of moderate monarchy. Where Hobbes’ metaphor of the Leviathan conveys awe in the face of state power, Montesquieu’s desired punishments are “moderate” precisely because the subject’s fear has been attenuated by the distribution of powers. The very definition of “liberty,” again, as the feeling of “tranquility” that each subject enjoys, is a standing rebuke to Hobbes’ conception of the nature of sovereign power in civil society.

Celibacy, Sacrilege, Treason

In part two, the author turns to the medieval period, or rather to the protean effects of Christianity on European political thought and institutions. Taking seriously a suggestion made by Montesquieu himself, Sullivan sees the work as attempting to combine the interests of politics with the interests of religion. Here, she finds a decidedly mixed record.

On the one hand, Montesquieu credits Christianity with the gradual decline of slavery from the end of antiquity, with rescuing women from the seclusion of Greco-Roman life, and with sometimes softening both the foreign and domestic policies of rulers. On the other hand, the prosecution for heresy, the fomenting of witch-hunts, and institutions such as the Inquisition all redound to the discredit of the Frenchman’s ancestral faith. As a persecuting religion, in fact, Christianity comes off as no better than Islam in his account. Sullivan points out how Montesquieu’s claim (in Book 12, Chapter 4 of The Spirit of the Laws) that Divinity should never be avenged was regarded as “heretical” by the Sorbonne, but is typical of his overall case that even ideas that emanate from religion—be it ever so “true”—can lead to despotic consequences.

In Sullivan’s next chapter, she builds on this theme by exploring what, according to Montesquieu, happened when Christianity was mingled with Roman law. Here two topics are highlighted: the encouragement of celibacy in marriage law, and the link between sacrilege and treason.

Montesquieu worried about the population decline he thought had occurred since antiquity, and he blamed the early Christians for it: they abandoned the best part of Roman law (on marriage) while exacerbating its worst elements from the criminal code in enforcing a kind of marriage-perfectionism.

Even more important is how early Christians took the religious prohibitions on sacrilege and applied them to political rulers, combining them with the Roman law against high treason into a noxious stew that continued to his own day. He finds avenging the ruler to be as dangerous as avenging the Divinity, and he blames Christianity for it. Expanding coverage to the ruler’s ministers, too, was an unwelcome adaptation still affecting his own time.

Part three on the ancients consists of chapters on Plato and Aristotle. Here is where Sullivan is able to illustrate not only how ideas can arise from “passions and prejudices,” but how their very abstractness can make them dangerously usable for generations on end. Plato, it seems, was in Montesquieu’s reading blinded by personal passions to the superiority of his native Athens to the Lycurgan Sparta that he took as a model for most of his specific proposals. Moreover, far from being a detached philosopher, he was a serious-minded would-be reformer through and through. Thus does Sullivan say that the Frenchman provides a “thoroughgoing and concerted attack on Plato,” whose “promotion of political power” actually “sustains despotism.”

The “despotism” of Plato’s corrective proposals often concerned trade, which rightly gets a lot of attention in this book. As Sullivan puts it, “Plato’s citizens were prohibited from holding property of their own, from communicating with foreigners, and from engaging in commerce.” Trade for Montesquieu had the effect of softening mores, but the Lycurgan constitution tended to fashion citizens who, for all their vaunted virtue, “became harsh, savage, rough, angry, and cruel,” given to “even blood-chilling” legislation. She concludes that “Plato’s laws remain even more pervasive and potentially influential than the long-surviving Spartan laws that they correct and perfect.”

In the final chapter, we are told that Aristotle came in for only somewhat gentler treatment at the hands of Montesquieu. While acknowledging that the Stagirite was a more moderate thinker than Plato, more skeptical of sudden and radical innovation, Sullivan nonetheless sees Montesquieu as making a number of robust criticisms of the man the Middle Ages called simply “the Philosopher.” And virtually all of these criticisms made him appear more of a friend to despotism than is often perceived. Just as Plato’s “passions and prejudices” had made him a lifelong apologist for a despotic Sparta, so too Aristotle’s prejudice in favor of Alexander, in combination with pro-Hellenic and pro-slavery biases that he shared with his Athenian teacher, made his ideas similarly conducive to despotism.

Aristotle and Hobbes Relied Too Much on the Ruler’s Virtue

Montesquieu himself admired Alexander, but for precisely opposite reasons: The latter’s conquests promoted the equality of the Greek and non-Greek peoples he brought in contact with one another, and he thus weakened the Greek (and Platonic-Aristotelian) bias against commerce, making his military adventures deserving of a certain admiration.  The ancient republics, Montesquieu believed, were based upon both virtue and slavery, a contradiction that Aristotle exacerbated with his systematic philosophy. Relatedly, Aristotle (not unlike Hobbes among the moderns) relied too much on the ruler’s virtue, which inevitably opened the way to abuse. The usury prohibitions of the medieval Church are also primarily the fault not of Christianity but of its favorite philosopher. More broadly, perhaps, Sullivan points out that Montesquieu expressly flags Aristotle’s failure to theorize either representation or a distribution of powers in his treatment of monarchy, making both his republican and his monarchical theories open to despotic tendencies, just as Machiavelli’s were.

In first reading this book as an historian, I regretted the absence of more context in some of the discussions. How different, for example, would Montesquieu’s account of the concentration of power, the role of fear in generating political loyalty and obedience, or the nature of despotism have been if Hobbes had never written? Given his intimate familiarity with the dynastic regime of Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV, and his abortive history of the French monarchy itself,[6] one is tempted to answer: not much. Treatments of other topics such as religious toleration and usury also invite a broader perspective that would include not only other auTthors but even other works in Montesquieu’s own corpus, such as the Persian Letters and the Roman Considerations.

But on a second reading, these regrets and hesitations seemed more like the petty “passions and prejudices” of a narrow disciplinary specialist. What came more clearly into view was the careful organization, the close reasoning, the thorough engagement with a now-abundant specialist literature (thankfully relegated to back notes), and the intimate knowledge of one of the most complex texts in the history of political thought. Despite the occasional strain and stretch in the argument, this is generally an impressive contribution to our understanding of Montesquieu.

[1] See Voltaire, “The ABC, or Dialogues between ABC translated from the English by Mr Huet: First conversation. On Hobbes, Grotius and Montesquieu,” in Voltaire, Political Writings, edited by David Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 92-93 and 97; Quesnay, “Le Despotisme de la Chine,” in Lewis A. Maverick, China: A Model for Europe (Paul Anderson, 1946), especially Chapter 5.

[2] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Random House, 1978 [1994]), 350.

[3] See The Spirit of the Laws, 17.3 for a good example.

[4] See Duncan Forbes, “Sceptical Whiggism, Commerce, and Liberty,” in Essays on Adam Smith, edited by Andrew S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson (Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 179-201, and Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1975).

[5] Spirit of the Laws, 6.5.

[6] See Montesquieu, My Thoughts, edited by Henry C. Clark (Liberty Fund, 2012), pensée 1302, pp. 358-87.