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Reflections on Fear: Montesquieu in Retrieval

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Corey Robin
Brooklyn College, City University of New York
E-mail address:


According to most scholars, Montesquieu argues that fear threatens a loss of self. Disconnected from the exercise of reason, fear is an emotion that is supposed to prevent the individual from acting with any kind of moral or rational agency. Fear is also premised on the liquidation of civil society; intermediate institutions and plural social structures are destroyed so that despots can act with unmitigated power and violence. I argue that this view does not capture Montesquieu's theory. In my alternative account, fear is intimately connected to our capacity for reason and to our sense of self. It is built on a network of elites, the rule of law, moral education, and the traditional institutions of civil society. I conclude that twentieth-century social science remains too indebted to conventional interpretations of Montesquieu's views, and contemporary theorists would be better served by the alternative analysis proposed here.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 2000

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