Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty

January 21, 2010

Paul Rahe's new work is not only an erudite challenge to traditional views of Baron de Montesquieu as a backward-looking aristocratic liberal seeking to restore feudal limitations on the dictatorial tendencies of the 18th-century French monarchy, but also a warning to modern liberal democracies that complacency about the enduring nature of their polities is unwarranted. Not only is the reader encouraged to seek modern parallels in Montesquieu's writings, but arguably Rahe reinforces this by an interpretation that is skewed more to the present than the past.

Although Rahe acknowledges that Montesquieu is concerned with the imminent collapse of the French monarchy into despotism, he focuses more attention on his interest in the English polity. This interest is roused by the startling defeats of the mighty power of France by Britain, made possible by its growing commercial power and its constitutional system, which facilitated consent to taxation to pay for war. Whereas Spain had been ruined by mistaking gold and silver for wealth, France followed another incorrect route by pursuing land and conquest in an age when trade and commerce were the keys to power. The message is that the power of modern states depends on their financial basis, which is liable to constant change: Rahe quotes Montesquieu that "every state that shines is in decline".

The novelty of Rahe's interpretation is to attribute to Montesquieu the prescience of understanding the emerging English constitution with its checks and balances and commercial underpinning as the model and basis for all modern liberal democracies. European monarchies appear either doomed to despotism or transformation into commercial republics such as Britain.

This appears a persuasive thesis given Montesquieu's view that all forms of government will give way to new ones when any major change takes place in any of the factors that condition their form, as well as his recognition that commerce subverts traditional polities.

Logically persuasive this might be, but the problem is that Montesquieu never actually says this and Rahe acknowledges that he refrained from spelling out in detail the implications of commerce for his native France. That Montesquieu "intimates" the dissolution of monarchies has to be set against numerous references in his texts to them being the best form of government for Europe, provided they are moderated.

However, it is Rahe's concentration on Montesquieu's understanding of the political psychology of different types of government, specifically commercial republics such as Britain, which rings warning bells in modern ears. Its liberty is seen to be based on a commercial order that gives rise to a watchful state of "uneasiness", a fear and insecurity leading to an atomisation of individuals not conducive to moral and social solidarity in any form. The equality, rule of law and checked political systems required by commercial republics do safeguard liberty, but there lurks an intrinsic lack of tranquillity, and a fear and insecurity somehow unrelated to reality.

Rahe points out that whereas Montesquieu sees the principles behind ancient republics, monarchies and despotism as virtue, honour and fear respectively, he fails to pinpoint the principle behind the new English system. Although it has been interpreted as liberty, he thinks it is closer to fear, and fear is the principle of despotism. Hence, despotism is an inherent danger in commercial republics that may well be corrupted and destroyed by this restless uneasiness; an uncontrolled passion for self-interest and a lack of moderation that could destroy liberty itself.

Liberty appears a fragile entity, whereas despotism seems to pop up easily and certainly becomes a danger when powerful states bankrupt themselves in war. Given that Montesquieu rated the climate as a major influence on the political order, neither he nor Rahe would have been surprised by the recent declaration by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that "fear and selfishness have created an environmental crisis" that will surely result in destructive political reverberations.

Although one feels this book has an American audience in mind, it clearly has relevance for us all. Despite its predominantly historical and scholarly approach, it has one thinking and reading into it all sorts of modern concerns - a technique that Montesquieu himself employed.

One could perhaps accuse Rahe of reading back the concerns of modern market republics into Montesquieu's thought and rendering it more consistent and relevant than it really is, but this is a beautifully crafted, erudite work that stimulates thought, challenges old views and invites us to heed the dangers implicit in what might disarmingly appear to be a triumphant and safe liberal-democratic market order.

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

By Paul A. Rahe. Yale University Press, 400pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780300141252. Published 30 November 2009

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