Friday, July 15, 2016

Who Put the “Skew” in Montesquieu?

During my first ten-year reading plan, the plan that came with the Britannica Great Books set, Mortimer Adler had me read the first twelve books of The Spirit of Laws by Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. My notes tell me that Montesquieu spends a long time explaining the differences between a republic, a monarchy, and despotism – somewhat obvious material that’s been covered by others before – and then gets to the good stuff very rapidly over the course of just a couple of pages: Liberty is freedom from fear under a system of laws, and this is best achieved where the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government are separated. Ah! Now I see why Adler had me read this portion.

This year I set out to read another large chunk of The Spirit of Laws, without worrying about finishing the longish treatise. I started at book 13, the point at which I had stopped reading with the first ten-year plan, and at first, I thought Adler had perhaps included the only good part in his plan. Montesquieu tries to explain how characters of nations differ according to climate: those who live in colder climates and terrain that's tough to farm become industrious and ambitious, those in the opposite conditions, lazy. And he says that laws should suit the differing characters nurtured by the variant geography. OK, slightly interesting, but mostly simplistic, reductive, and racist. Then he gets really racist in what appears to be a justification of slavery of Africans. But he ends this passage by saying that it must be true that blacks ought to be slaves, else Europeans couldn't be Christians. Did he actually intend the passage as an ironic attack on Europeans acting decidedly un-Christianly toward Africans? The cultural distance between the author and I make it too difficult for me to tell.

So it was rough going for me for several days. But then, just as the first reading assignment had years ago, this year’s segment of Montesquieu suddenly got good, in books 18 and 19. That laws should be suited to the land, he says, indicates that different laws might be right in different situations. Laws whose rigorous observance by locals preserves liberty might in some larger context be arbitrary? Very interesting. As a good, believing Catholic, he says that even the inspired Mosaic Law is not absolute. How else, he reasons, could God say through Ezekiel that he had given statutes that were not good?

Going on, Montesquieu introduces another important idea by making a distinction between laws and mores, each having power to shape certain aspects of society. But legislators have to understand the difference in their respective spheres. No aspect of mores should be legislated; if the leader wants to change these, he needs to set an example, not punish. And in this section I came across one of the coincidences that occur so frequently in my reading adventures. In an argument that I didn’t completely follow, Montesquieu says that China, by making laws and customs exactly the same, never changes. So its conquerors have always had to adapt to the Chinese rather than the other way around – exactly the point about the Chinese that I read last month in Henry Kissinger’s World Order.

At the end of book 19, Montesquieu, in describing the prototypical free nation, seems to predict the United States with amazing accuracy. The citizens of a free nation, he says, operate from passion and act against their own interest at times. (How have we nominated two people for President that, according to the polls, we find unfavorable?) The free nation must have a system of credit to borrow from itself and from its subjects by taxation. It is on an island and not fond of conquering. It trades. Its people retire in countries of slavery with low taxes. It preserves the style of the aristocracy it comes from. It is tolerant of and has many religions. Its citizens are esteemed only for riches and personal merit. They are not extremely polite, and they love satire. If some of these characteristics raise in me the desire to see Americans become more virtuous and educated, at least I have the comfort of seeing them as symptoms of a land of liberty.

Reading The Spirit of Laws has gone downhill for me since that point. Maybe I’m acting against my own interest by forcing myself to continue reading. But in a couple of days, I’ll have finished the part I assigned myself, and on Monday, I’ll start declining the Roman Empire with Gibbon again. If by some weird chance some reader of these posts decides to read portions of The Spirit of Laws, I recommend you read books 11, 18, and 19, and leave the rest to historians.

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