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This paper offers an interpretation of the behavioural evidence that casts doubt over whether people always have preferences or, if they do, that they are stable. If people do not have preferences in this sense, then the usual policy evaluation standard of preference satisfaction cannot be used in these cases. The paper then develops, to fill this gap, a Millian policy framework where policy is judged by whether it advances what Mill understands by individual liberty in On Liberty. This yields many recognisable policies but offers a different evaluative standard for them. It also yields some policy innovations: e.g. a basic income and a flat tax.
Chapter 5 locates Montesquieu in an intellectual context he fashioned through his own choice of interlocutors in The Spirit of the Laws – his world of ancient political writers and lawgivers. Montesquieu turns to the classical world in search not of models for imitation but knowledge of the science of politics. This chapter considers the relationship between Montesquieu’s critique of the substantive ideals of classical politics and his significant debts to the Aristotelian mode of regime analysis.
This chapter clarifies the philosophic dimension of Montesquieu’s essay on Rome, which comes to sight when, in chapter 18, Montesquieu makes explicit that he is presenting here a preeminent case study vindicating the contention that “it is not Fortune that dominates the World”; there are “general causes, some moral, some physical, which operate,” and “all the accidents are subject to these causes.” This foreshadows the claim with which Montesquieu opens his Spirit of the Laws: “I have posed the principles, and I have seen the particular cases unfold therefrom as if by themselves; the histories of all the nations are nothing but the consequences.” These statements signal the emergence of the modern philosophy of history, as a major component of Enlightenment rationalism’s most ambitious project and hope: to show that human reason can provide a system of universal causal explanation that will leave no room for plausible evidence of governance by supra- and contra-rational providential and legislative divinity (which is profoundly opposed not only to revealed religion but to ancient political rationalism.)
How did Montesquieu, born into a noble family in rural Bourdeaux, become a world-historical figure? In what particulars was he a man of his own times? That he lived when he did and where he did is obvious. How he managed to escape the limitations imposed upon him by time and place is not. The volume opens with a chapter introducing the reader to the development of Montesquieu’s thought throughout his literary and philosophical career. The essay will situate this account within the relevant biographical and historical context. It will consider the relationship between the major works and pursue insights into Montesquieu’s intellectual development derived from the study of minor works such as his Reflections on Universal Monarchy in Europe and Pensées.
The Spirit of the Laws (1748) is often considered one of the founding works of political liberalism. Yet more recently, a series of interpreters have thrown doubt on this dominant reading. In order to revisit and assess this debate, this contribution delineates Montesquieu’s definition of political liberty as distinct from so-called “philosophical” liberty. It considers his “solution” to the threat despotism poses to all forms of government, namely, the distribution of state powers and the division of social forces, while evaluating the status of the “English model.” Finally, it probes the original distinction between political and civil liberty, while showing that Montesquieu’s political theory cannot be integrated into the tradition of republicanism conceived as a theory of participatory self-rule. In The Spirit of the Laws, the understanding of liberty fits neither a standard liberal view nor a civic republican one; it includes elements that reach beyond both, such as a political culture grounded on honor as much as on the love of liberty.
Chapter 10 picks up with an exploration of sovereignty. This chapter will offer an analysis of the meaning and practices of political sovereignty with a focus on Montesquieu’s seminal treatment of the English constitution, where sovereignty is ambiguous and divided in ways that are constitutively connected to liberty. The chapter considers Montesquieu’s treatment of sovereignty in the context of other major modern theories of sovereignty and its relevance for contemporary liberal democratic states.
This chapter explores the particularity of Montesquieu’s political vision that includes a commitment to traditional social orders alongside a defence of liberty. It demonstrates how later theorists associated with the liberal tradition develop at least one of three features largely derived from Montesquieu’s work that we now associate with modern liberalism once combined with a commitment to social and political equality. These features are: institutional and constitutional organization to guarantee political accountability and the rule of law; social pluralism and representative government as a structure for the aggregation, education and voicing of broad social interests; and an ethos of moderation and avoidance of cruelty in social and political life. They characterize broad aspects of the liberal tradition at the level of institutional design, the structure of civil society and the broad social ethos needed to sustain it. The chapter concludes with reflections on perceived threats to liberalism today.
This chapter offers an interpretation of Part VI of The Spirit of the Laws, the least-discussed and least-understood section of the book: The Spirit of the Laws and its purpose in the book. Part VI systematically unravels all of the various accounts of a unitary founding moment of a unitary French state, all the attempts to find an ancient legitimate principle that could dictate what lawful government would mean in the eighteenth century. Montesquieu rejected founding narratives in favor of evolutionary history and unplanned development; he connected that move to his rejection of legal uniformity in favor of pluralism. Montesquieu rejects all of the contemporaneous theories of political normativity grounded in foundings and origins – la thèse nobiliaire as much as la thèse royale, historical contractarianism as is found in the monarchomachs as much as both hypothetical contractarianism and Machiavellian-republican founding principles. He demonstrates the falseness and impossibility of all of these, rejecting them as incompatible with the pluralism and complexity of history, the contingency and accident that shaped the development of political authority.
The “woman question” is at the heart of Montesquieu’s epistolary novel, The Persian Letters, and other early works like the erotic-philosophic tale, The Temple of Gnidus. In these works of the imagination, women are important both as characters and as potential audience. Although women do not seem as central to either Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline or The Spirit of Laws, they do appear at key moments in the unfolding argument of both works. The chapter examines the place of women within Montesquieu’s oeuvre, with special emphasis on the links between women and the politics of liberty in The Spirit of Laws. Not only does the condition of women serve as a paradigmatic case for the status of liberty altogether, women actually become the agents of the liberalizing reforms that Montesquieu cautiously forwards.
The first goal of the chapter is to establish that Montesquieu was as much a moral philosopher as a political theorist, as is revealed in numerous discourses, dissertations and dialogues only recently translated into English. His purpose in writing The Spirit of the Laws, he remarked in his “Preface,” was to provide reasons for loving one’s “duties” while encouraging readers to “practice the general virtue that includes love of all.” In a discarded fragment of his “Preface” he even termed his work “a treatise on morality.” A second goal of the chapter is to establish that Montesquieu was critical of the political virtue he attributed to the republics of antiquity and to explain that the grounds for his rejection of Lycurgus’ Sparta have not previously been sufficiently explained. And, finally, the chapter analyses why Montesquieu strongly preferred the principle of honor motivating monarchical subjects, as compared to the political virtue of the ancients, which he likened to the hardships monks endure. Most revealing is his remark in a text Robespierre unfortunately failed to heed that “even virtue is in need of limits.”
This chapter situates Montesquieu’s economic writing within broader political and economic developments that favored the emergence, in France and all over Europe, of political economy. For Montesquieu, the rise of international trade; the increasing dominance of mobile forms of wealth; and transformed expectations for material well-being in modern societies undermined traditional social structures and the forms of political authority that went with them. In this context, Montesquieu’s political thought can be read as a kind of political economy insofar as it employed a moral psychology of other-directedness and self-interest that was better adapted to an emerging commercial society than traditional models of duty and virtue. But Montesquieu, unlike the more straightforwardly economic writers of his time, did not organize his inquiry around questions of plenty so much as he sought, through his comparative method, to explore the diverse ways in which statecraft in the age of commerce could contribute to his ideal of moderate government.
At first blush, Montesquieu seems to exemplify a typical Enlightenment attitude towards revealed religion. Nevertheless, as I argue in this chapter, Montesquieu did not just promote a critical, irreverent attitude to religious dogma and practice. While subtly undermining the idea that Christianity was the one true religion in his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, he at the same time developed an original defense of established religion in general, and Christianity in particular, on instrumental grounds, as being socially and politically useful. Taking account of this aspect of Montesquieu’s work sheds new light on a topic that has provoked considerable scholarly discussion: the diversity of enlightened attitudes towards religion. In particular, my analysis of Montesquieu’s views on religion helps bring into focus a particular strand of Enlightenment thinking that has hitherto remained unacknowledged in the literature and that we might describe as the “Complacent Enlightenment”.
In Chapter 8, the volume turns to the international dimensions of Montesquieu’s ethical and political thought. We can identify Montesquieu with the cosmopolitan and internationalist vision of the Enlightenment, anchored in the ideal of a common, rational outlook. Yet he understood that this aspiration came with coercion and cost. Universal rationality pushed against the expectation that each people and regime was rooted in particular mores, manners, and dispositions. The costs of cosmopolitan detachment are stamped on the figures of Usbek and Roxanne in Persian Letters, and they are evident in his praise of six “good enough” empires in The Spirit of the Laws. Despite a deserved reputation as a critic of colonialism, Montesquieu’s work also suggests justifications for empire on grounds of survival and sustenance, international security, human rights, the spread of science and enlightenment, and finally, doux commerce, whose global ambitions Montesquieu discerned but never with the naïve, coercionless expectations some readers erroneously drew from his work.
Montesquieu deems slavery a form of despotism. His interest in how slavery has manifested itself in various cultures through history suffuses The Spirit of the Laws, and he devotes Book 15 of the work to the subject. Montesquieu’s treatment of slavery there is ambiguous, and scholars have reached differing assessments of his ultimate position on slavery. This chapter argues that Book 15 offers a biting satire of slavery in the face of the deeply entrenched prejudices and financial interests of his time. His satire conveys difficult truths in a manner that perhaps could prick European consciences more effectively than outrage and condemnations. Nevertheless, so subtle an approach to the prejudices and cruelties of his age brings with it the possibility of misunderstanding, and his views were cited on both sides of the subsequent debate over slavery.
Chapter 6 takes up the crucial question of foundational principles and Montesquieu’s relationship to the natural law tradition. Montesquieu rejects the traditional skeptical argument that history and cultural diversity indicate that humankind is ruled simply by “fancy.” His explanation of diversity is elaborated in terms common to the natural law tradition: laws defined as “necessary relations” derived from “the nature of things.” For the natural lawyers, “the nature of things” meant “man” defined as “a rational and sociable being”; the laws of morals and justice were a logical deduction from this definition. But the natural lawyers held that positive laws could not be deduced in this way. Montesquieu’s originality is to take as his starting point not a monolithic definition of man as a rational and social being but an account of the “nature” of the different forms of government or possibilities of human nature and to deduce, from the definition of each, the laws that ought to guide both rulers and subjects or citizens.
With Persian Letters (1721) Montesquieu opens the Enlightenment era. In this fiction, more similar to the essay than to the novel but good-humored and ironic, the France as seen by Persian visitors satirizes the practices of an ossified society and desacralizes established values, in particular those related to religion and authority. Its key word is diversity: Ethics and metaphysics alternate with derision to affirm notions as fundamental as the primacy of reason or the unalienable right to happiness and freedom for all. For such daring touches the book was banned in France, but its success was as meteoric as it was durable and extended to all of Europe. A posthumous edition in 1758, enriched and corrected, shows that Montesquieu maintained his boldest positions as well as justifying his approach. A genuinely critical kind of thought was born that combined philosophy and fiction, amusement with reflection, and forthwith defined the field of Enlightenment.
Chapter 7 explores political virtue. The central feature of Montesquieu’s reflections on the Ancients was his claim that the Greeks and the Romans had been motivated by a form of civic patriotism that Europeans of his day appeared incapable of achieving. The size of most modern nations and the progress of modern commerce conspire to foreclose a return to communities moved by passionate commitment to the common good. The aim of this chapter is to consider the relationship between the obsolescence of political virtue and Montesquieu’s project of political liberty and political moderation. The chapter will consider his critical appraisal of both classical virtue and its leading modern replacement, Machiavellian virtù. It will also consider the ways in which ambiguities in Montesquieu’s presentation of virtuous republics led to polemical and often distorted uses of his views on civic virtue during both the American and French revolutions.
In this article, the confidence that has been placed in hard and, in particular, soft paternalistic measures in the field of behavioural public policy is questioned. The four purported limitations of human reasoning – i.e. limited imagination, willpower, objectivity and technical ability – are considered, but ultimately it is concluded that these are insufficient justifications for paternalistic intervention, for two principal-related reasons. First, it is impossible for a policy maker to discern what people desire for their own lives, and second, so long as they are not harming others, people ought to be free to pursue their own desires. The vision for the future of behavioural public policy proposed here is thus consistent with classical liberal, and in particular, Millian thought: i.e. aim to educate people on the pros and cons of their actions and inactions so that they are better equipped to live the lives they wish to lead but do not interfere directly in guiding them towards any particular end.
Montesquieu was among the most influential writers of the eighteenth century, and the study of his thought enriches and complicates our understanding of the Enlightenment. Following renewed interest in his writings over the last three decades, the Cambridge Companion to Montesquieu brings together the variety of disciplinary and interpretive approaches that have shaped the scholarship on his work and legacy. This Companion offers an integrated volume on Montesquieu as philosopher, novelist, historian, economic thinker, political scientist, and political theorist. It introduces readers to key themes and ongoing debates, reflects developments in the field, breaks fresh ground, indicates avenues for future research, and provides multiple perspectives on the relevance of Montesquieu's thought to contemporary problems in political theory.