Civilization Revisited

, John Hendershot, Leave a comment

The distance between Left and Right in America seems greater now than at any time during the past forty years, and we are waging a fierce debate over the size, scope, and role of government in our lives. Governments of all stripes fall due to corruption of both principles and people, and if ever there was a moment when we needed insight into the oracles of our Founding Fathers, it is now. Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), was a prolific author. He wrote a couple of fictional books, but the majority of his work is philosophical; even his highly successful satire, Persian Letters, deals heavily with philosophy. As “[t]here is no work on Roman history of comparable length, written before its author’s time or since, that is as penetrating,” his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (1734) might alone have secured him a place in memory, but it is his The Spirit of Laws, a mighty masterpiece spanning twenty years and six hundred and five chapters within thirty-one books and six parts, which earned him a place among the giants. Upon its first publication, in 1748, “it sold like hotcakes. By the end of the century, it had been published in one hundred twenty-eight editions, and it had been translated into” at least eight languages. The list of those whose thinking it influenced reads like a Who’s Who of men who helped to frame the world we live in. Among them we find Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, both the Framers of the Constitution and the Anti-Federalists, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. “In The Federalist, James Madison called [Montesquieu] an ‘oracle.’” Given “evidence of growing popular disaffection” in today’s America, and as it is always “worth pondering anew whether liberal republicanism, for all of its many obvious virtues, displays certain inherent defects as well,” historian Paul A. Rahe (Republics Ancient and Modern; Against Throne and Altar; Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift) delves deep into Montesquieu’s work in Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty.

Rahe begins by exploring the historical and political context of Montesquieu’s world. Louis XIV’s actions and plans, and the policies of his government, had not only an impact on Montesquieu’s thinking, but on his writing; he abandoned a companion volume to Considerations on the Romans “for fear that certain passages would be interpreted ill.” “Montesquieu had to write with the censor in mind . . . indirection was sometimes required . . . in some measure, he had to conceal his design.” Montesquieu seems to have been a master of working around censors, and the necessity of reading between the lines of his work and understanding it in light of his other writings and the contemporary world is a theme that comes up again and again in The Logic of Liberty. Even the structure of The Spirit of Laws has a purpose beyond separating blocks of text from each other: “If one wishes to search out the author’s design, one cannot discover it fully except in the design of the work.”

Within the work itself one is confronted with a staggering variety of topics. Montesquieu dove deep into the very spirit of governments and the laws created by them; the process forced him to examine scores of related ideas, but unlike many modern authors Montesquieu has given them all a great deal of thought. Censors notwithstanding, at times Montesquieu seems to wish for his reader to follow a chain of reasoning to Montesquieu’s own conclusion: “[B]y reflecting ‘on the details’ . . . one ‘will feel the certitude of my principles . . . many of the truths . . . will not make themselves felt until one has seen the chain that links them with the others.’ The chain is not, however, evident to the unsuspecting glance.” Further, his views are both well-informed and quite complex (even if some issues, such as the impact of climate on national character, will cause the modern reader to smirk). He has a great deal, for example, to say about how the English seem to have stumbled on an ideal form of government, but they have paid for liberty with an uneasiness in spirit, and their execution sometimes leaves much to be desired. At times, without other links in the chain, Montesquieu’s views may even seem contradictory.

Fortunately for the reader, Rahe is a thoroughly competent guide. Before going on to examine The Spirit of Laws, he traces the development of Montesquieu’s thinking and themes in the earlier Considerations on the Romans, and only then does he delve into Montesquieu’s masterwork. He works largely with the texts themselves, rather than relying on the interpretations of others. Virtually every paragraph contains quotes, the “Notes” section runs a good 83 pages—and the homework pays off. There is much within The Logic of Liberty to ponder, and Rahe’s skill at linking Montesquieu’s commentaries together and teasing out greater themes helps to illuminate the man’s thinking and bring to one’s attention ideas which might otherwise have easily been missed.

Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty is not easy reading, the kind of book a reader might have taken to the beach had it been published during the summer, but it is extremely thought-provoking, well-researched, and, perhaps most importantly, timely. As historian Paul A. Rahe puts it in his “Afterwards,” “None of this can stop us from wondering just how long political liberty in its relation to the constitution can be maintained,” but his excellent work in examining the insights of Montesquieu is a worthy contribution to the discussion, and should not be missed.

John Hendershot is a freelance writer and a former Messiah College student.