Clodion, Montesquieu, MusÃ©e du Louvre, Paris
Paul Rahe, who has written a book on Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La BrÃ¨de 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 â€“ with its separation of powers, its policy of religious toleration, its devotion to industry and trade, and its empire over the sea â€“ had come to occupy a pre-eminence that no existing continental power could hope to challenge. That European monarchy â€“ with its hereditary aristocracy, its ethos of honor, its suspicion of trade, and its appetite for conquest, empire, and glory â€“ could not be sustained in an age in which money had become the sinews of war: this he also knew.
In Montesquieuâ€™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 â€œin full force,â€ Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of Laws, â€œthey did things that we no longer see & which astonish our little souls.â€ If his contemporaries are unable to rise to the same level, it is, he suggests, because the â€œeducationâ€ given the ancients â€œnever suffered contradictionâ€ while â€œwe receive three educations differentâ€ from and even â€œcontraryâ€ to one another: â€œthat 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.â€ In short, there is now â€œa contrast between the engagementsâ€ which arise â€œfrom religionâ€ and â€œthoseâ€ which arise â€œfrom the worldâ€ that â€œthe ancients knew nothing of.â€ This is why the moderns possess such â€œlittle souls.â€
Read the whole thing.