04 Jan 2010

Montesquieu on Modernity

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Clodion, Montesquieu, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Paul Rahe, who has written a book on Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, posts on Montesquieu’s valuable observations on the changes marking the transition into Modernity in politics, religion, and war.

Montesquieu 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.

In Montesquieu’s opinion, two successive revolutions, neither likely to be reversed, provided this transformation in politics with its underpinning. The first of these took place in the sphere of religion. Montesquieu was persuaded that Machiavelli was correct in supposing that, when Christianity supplanted paganism, it made classical republicanism obsolete.

When the virtue of the ancients was “in full force,” Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of Laws, “they did things that we no longer see & which astonish our little souls.” If his contemporaries are unable to rise to the same level, it is, he suggests, because the “education” given the ancients “never suffered contradiction” while “we receive three educations different” from and even “contrary” to one another: “that of our fathers, that of our schoolmasters, that of the world. What we are told in the last overthrows the ideas imparted by the first two.” In short, there is now “a contrast between the engagements” which arise “from religion” and “those” which arise “from the world” that “the ancients knew nothing of.” This is why the moderns possess such “little souls.”

Read the whole thing.

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