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Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty

Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic

Paul A. Rahe
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty
    Book Description:

    This fresh examination of the works of Montesquieu seeks to understand the shortcomings of the modern democratic state in light of this great political thinker's insightful critique of commercial republicanism.

    The western democracies' muted response to victory in the Cold War signaled the presence of a pervasive discontent, a sense that despite this victory liberal democracy itself was deeply flawed. Paul A. Rahe argues that to understand this phenomenon we must re-examine-starting with Montesquieu-the nature of liberal democracy, its character, and its propensities. In a brilliant exposition of the works of Montesquieu Rahe identifies the profound sense of uneasiness fostered by the modern republic as a source of weakness and as the principal cause of the present discontents.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15611-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxii)

    Fortunately for all of us, the Cold War ended not with a bang but with a whimper. It is surprising, however, that its cessation inspired so little elation. Of course, there was a moment of euphoria and rejoicing twenty years ago when the Berlin Wall quite suddenly ceased to be a barrier. It seemed a miracle, and in a sense it was. But that moment quickly passed; and where one might have expected opinion leaders in the West to celebrate what was, after all, an astonishing and historically unprecedented victory, involving the utter defeat and ultimate dissolution of a powerful...

  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
  7. Book One. The Modern Republic Discovered

    • Preface
      (pp. 3-5)
    • One After the Fall
      (pp. 6-26)

      Events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union have a way of altering the terms of public debate. Prior to 1989, Marxist analysis thrived in and outside the academy not only in the eastern bloc but even more so in the West. After 1991, it seemed—even to many of those who had once been its ardent practitioners—to be hopelessly anachronistic, at best a quaint relic of an earlier, benighted age, deserving of the species of contempt that Sir Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and the other proponents of the scientific revolution...

    • Two Rome Eclipsed
      (pp. 27-42)

      When considered in light of its intended sequel, Montesquieu’sConsidérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadencereads like an extended introduction.¹ It was, after all, the image of Roman grandeur that had fired the ambition of Europe’s greatest monarchs. Had it not been for Caesar’s ruthless exploitation of the revolutionary potential inherent in his office as animperatorwithin theimperium Romanum, there never would have been a monarch who styled himself an emperor, a Kaiser, or Czar.² In the European imagination, the idea of universal monarchy was inseparable from a longing for imperial...

    • Three Carthage Ascendant
      (pp. 43-60)

      Montesquieu was inclined to anticipate. Well before he announced a theme and explored its implications, he was apt quietly and surreptitiously, without fanfare, to introduce the subject, touch on it briefly, and then pass on. As we have seen (I.1, above), he anticipated the discussion of universal monarchy in the second part of his triptych by characterizing classical Rome as a universal monarchy in hisConsiderations on the Romans. With regard to the English form of government, which formed the subject of the triptych’s third part, he did the same.

      Thus, for example, quite early in hisConsiderations on the...

  8. Book Two. The Modern Republic Explored

    • Preface
      (pp. 63-64)
    • One Principles
      (pp. 65-85)

      The first eight books of the work that Montesquieu entitledDe l’Esprit des loishave one distinctive feature. It was there—after a brief introduction dealing with the problematic character of man’s place in the universe and with the foundations of man-made law (EL1.1.1–3)—that the French philosophe first introduced his novel typology of political forms. His stated purpose for doing so was to trace theesprit—the spirit, the mindset, the motive, the impetus, the purpose, the intention, the object, as well as the logic—behind the “infinite diversity of laws & mores” which are to be found...

    • Two Uneasiness
      (pp. 86-102)

      In the preface to hisSpirit of Laws, Montesquieu makes a point of insisting that the work’s architecture is deliberate, and he contends that, in attending to it, one is attending to his purpose overall. “If one wishes to search out the author’s design,” he tells prospective readers, “one cannot discover it fully [bien] except in the design of the work” (Préf.). Elsewhere in his preface, Montesquieu adopts another metaphor. It is, he writes, by reflecting “on the details” that one “will feel [sentira] the certitude of my principles,” and he warns his readers that “many of the truths” he...

    • Three Partisanship
      (pp. 103-117)

      In singling outinquiétudeas the peculiar disposition of the English, Montesquieu is obliquely addressing an important contemporary debate, which was initiated in the previous century by certain Jansenists in France. The most important contributor to this debate was its instigator Blaise Pascal, a scientist and mathematician of the first rank and a loose adherent of Port Royal, who died in 1662. Pascal’s thinking, like that of his Jansenist friends, had deep roots in Augustinian theology, and his influence on subsequent European political thought was not only profound: it was, as we shall eventually see inSoft Despotism,Democracy’s Drift,...

    • Four Corruption
      (pp. 118-144)

      Near the end of the long and elaborate chapter embodying Montesquieu’s famous celebration of the virtues of England’s constitution, in the paragraph immediately preceding the one in which he suddenly and unexpectedly intimates that the English may not actually “enjoy” the “liberty” that is “established by their laws,” the author ofDe l’Esprit des loisadvances yet another arresting claim, which attentive early readers found far more disturbing than the reservations suggested by the puzzling distinction that he had drawn between the establishment and the enjoyment of liberty. “Just as all human things come to an end,” Montesquieu there observes,...

  9. Book Three. The Modern Republic in Prospect

    • Preface
      (pp. 147-149)
    • One Nature’s Dominion
      (pp. 150-169)

      Montesquieu was by no means the first to have noticed liberty’s absence from much of the world and to have wondered whether this sad fact had anything to do with nature’s provision. Aeschylus and Herodotus had drawn the attention of their listeners and readers to the prevalence of despotism outside Europe; and in Aristotle’s day, the great minds of the age were disputing whether the peoples of Asia subject to the Great King of Persia were obsequious by nature, by education, or because of the climate.¹ In France, before Montesquieu’s day, Jean Bodin and the Jesuit traveler Father Chardin put...

    • Two Commercial Civilization
      (pp. 170-185)

      When Montesquieu speaks of the climate (EL3.14–17), his emphasis falls almost exclusively on its capacity to dictate to man. When he turns to the terrain (3.18), he pays at least as much attention to the manner in which men make use of and even transform their environment.¹ “Nature & the climate” may “exercise an almost complete dominion over the savages,” as he suggests (3.19.4),² but everyone else appears to one degree or another to have escaped their tyranny. To the technology by which this is achieved, Montesquieu is no stranger. Earlier in the third part of his work, he...

    • Three Monarchy’s Plight
      (pp. 186-211)

      On the face of it, the liberation of commerce from political control and the vast expansion afforded it by the discovery of the compass, the improvements in ship design, and the new trade routes to Africa, America, and Asia opened up by the great voyages of discovery should have been highly advantageous to Europe’s monarchies. If commerce produced economic inequality, as assuredly it would, this would be all to the good. If it encouraged luxury, that, too, would be of advantage in a polity inclined to whimsy, insistent on hierarchy, and apt to give free rein to the frivolity of...

    • Four Democracies Based on Commerce
      (pp. 212-238)

      That Montesquieu doubted whether monarchy had a future was by no means evident to all of those who readThe Spirit of Lawsin its author’s lifetime, and it is not universally recognized today. In the scholarly world, there have been many who have regarded him as a reactionary, writing in the interests of a declining feudal class;¹ and there are others, even now, who attempt to square the circle by depicting him as an aristocratic liberal, persuaded that the prospects for liberty were at least as good in France under what we now call theancien régimeas they...

  10. Afterwards
    (pp. 239-242)

    If Montesquieu is right, modern republics possessing the advantages that he attributed to Great Britain enjoy an economic and moral superiority that virtually guarantees their survival when pitted against traditional monarchies and old-fashioned despotic states. Our own experience in more recent times would suggest that they profit from a similar, if perhaps less decisive, superiority when pitted against the populist tyrannies and the totalitarian regimes that emerged in late modernity. Over the last three hundred years, though they may at times have stumbled, they did endure.

    None of this, however, can alter the force of Montesquieu’s disturbing claim that, “just...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 243-326)
  12. Index
    (pp. 327-369)