Yale University Press announces the publication of Paul A. Rahe’s latest book:
Montesquieu & The Logic of LibertyWar, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, The Spirit of Political Vigilance, & The Foundations of the Modern Republic
Outside the scholarly world, almost no one has any idea who Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu was and what he did. There was a time, however, when his was a name to be conjured with, for the author of The Spirit of Laws bestrode the second half of the eighteenth century like a colossus. In this volume, award-winning historian Paul A. Rahe examines the reasons for Montesquieu's fame and argues that he deserved his reputation and needs to be studied with close attention today.
Every major work that Montesquieu ushered into print quickly found a wide audience. By 1800, his Persian Letters, which first appeared in 1721, had been published in ninety-three editions and had been translated into English, Dutch, German, Polish, and Russian - while his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, which was first published in 1734, had appeared in sixty-two editions and had been translated into English, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Polish, Russian, and Greek. Neither of these bore comparison with Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws. This last work was in a self-evident way serious, and enormous it was as well. One purchased it expecting instruction and not diversion - diverting though it might be. And yet, from the moment of its release in the Fall of 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 English, Italian, German, Latin, Danish, Dutch, Polish, and Russian. To this one can add that, in the period stretching from 1748 to 1800, these three books were published together in editions of Montesquieu's complete works no fewer than thirty-six times.
The Spirit of Laws was a publishing phenomenon, and it was much, much more. As the eventful second half of the eighteenth century began, Montesquieu's great work became the political Bible of learned men and would-be statesmen everywhere in Europe, and beyond. In Britain, it shaped the thinking of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, William Blackstone, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, John Robertson, John Millar, Lord Kames, and Dugald Stewart among others. In America, it inspired the Framers of the Constitution to embrace federalism and the separation of powers, and it provided their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, with ammunition as well. In Italy, it had a profound effect on Cesare Beccaria, and in Germany, it was fundamental for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In France, it was the starting point for all subsequent political thought. Its impact can hardly be overestimated.
If Montesquieu was so often consulted and cited by men of consequence in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, if no political writer was more often mentioned and none was thought to be of greater authority in the era of the American and French revolutions, it was largely because, in The Spirit of Laws, he had announced his discovery, on the very doorstep of his native France, of a new form of government more conducive to liberty and graced with greater staying power than any polity theretofore even imagined. Students of the form of political liberty peculiar to modern republics may still have much to learn, Rahe suggests, from considering what Montesquieu had to say a quarter of a millennium ago concerning the constitution of England - for, James Madison to the contrary notwithstanding, Montesquieu did not profess for "the particular government of England" an "admiration bordering on idolatry." He was a profound critic as well as an admirer, as sensitive to the imperfections inherent in the English form of government as he was to its many virtues; and the defects he and his intellectual heirs discerned in that polity and the propensities that arise therefrom are pertinent to understanding the political psychology of all modern republics and to tracing the sources of our present discontents.
If, then, we wish to understand whither we are tending today, we would be well-advised to reacquaint ourselves with a forgotten form of political science and to read with care Montesquieu and then those, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville, who closely followed his lead and expanded in crucial regards upon what he had to say. This is, however, easier said than done. Montesquieu wrote in a time now largely forgotten and unfamiliar, and he couched his arguments with an eye to an immediate public that has long since disappeared. Moreover, he lived in an age of censorship, and he composed his works in conformity with unwritten rules of discretion, intimating that which could not with profit openly be said. In consequence, the challenge we face in attempting to understand his thinking is not just intellectual; it is also literary, and it is unavoidably historical. One might even call our task archaeological. Before we can hope to be able to return to our own age; to rethink our situation in light of the penetrating analysis offered by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville; and to recognize that situation for what it is for the first time, we must undertake a journey into the past, to Montesquieu's day and, then, to that of his greatest successors, in search of treasure that is buried there.
In this volume and in its sequel, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect , Rahe conducts his readers on just such a journey. Montesquieu's importance is rooted, he contends, in two crucial facts. He had come of age in the course of the War of the Spanish Succession; he had watched from afar with dismay as England's duke of Marlborough repeatedly annihilated the legions of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, and he was the first to recognize that, at the end of the seventeenth century, a profound and arguably permanent transformation had taken place in European politics. He saw that commerce had replaced war as the force dominant in international relations; that a well-ordered Carthage could now defeat Rome on the field of the sword; and that, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, Great Britain - with its separation of powers, its policy of religious toleration, its devotion to industry and trade, and its empire over the sea - had come to occupy a pre-eminence that no existing continental power could hope to challenge. That European monarchy - with its hereditary aristocracy, its ethos of honor, its suspicion of trade, and its appetite for conquest, empire, and glory - could not be sustained in an age in which money had become the sinews of war: this he also knew.
Montesquieu was also the first to analyze the mores, manners, national character, and political psychology fostered within England by "the republic concealed under the form of a monarchy" that he discovered when he visited the island kingdom. Fear, the love of honor, and the love of equality, the fatherland, and its laws may be, as he contended, the passions that respectively set in motion despotisms, monarchies, and republics of virtue. But there is no such psychological principle animating the English form of government. In England, he tells us, the passions are left entirely free, and in the absence of guidance men tend to fall into the grips of the uneasiness, the anxiety, and fear without a certain object called inquiétude. Where this inchoate disposition is given a focus and transformed into something like a principle by a separation of powers and a system of balances and checks - especially if, as Tocqueville would later emphasize, there is also a division of prerogatives between a federal administration and state and local governments - it inspires a habit of self-reliance and a species of vigilance favorable to political liberty and the rule of law. If given no focus, however, inquiétude can engender a sense of helplessness and distress and foster a degrading desire for aid, solace, and providential care incompatible with the spirit of self-reliance and the taste for self-government. Moreover, in a time of crisis, such as the time in which we now live, inquiétude can all too easily collapse into an abject fear conducive to a posture of fawning servility in the face of despotic ambition. In Rahe's opinion, the warning intimated by Montesquieu and fully articulated by Tocqueville concerning the Achilles heel of modern, liberal, democratic society is one that - now more than ever - citizens within such societies throughout the world desperately need to heed.
Paul A. Rahe holds The Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College and is the author of Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992), Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (2008), and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (2009). His latest book, 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 , will be released on 24 September 2009.