Category Archive 'Montesquieu'

24 Jan 2012

A Self-Correcting Revolution

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Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755)

Paul A. Rahe optimistically contends that we are rapidly approaching a revolutionary moment, but the revolution that occurs with be a Montesquiean Counter-Revolution.

In a word,” Montesquieu explained, “a free Government, which is to say, a government always agitated, knows no way in which to sustain itself if it is not by its own Laws capable of self-correction.” In our case, as in the case of the English government, the ultimate guarantee of “self-correction” comes from the separation of powers, from public debate, and from free elections. We have institutionalized revolutions. Ours tend, in consequence, to be peaceful.

But they can also be dramatic. In his Spirit of Laws, with an eye on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II lost the English throne and William of Orange replaced him, Montesquieu observed that if the terrors fanned by the party opposed to the English executive were ever “to appear on the occasion of an overturning of the fundamental laws, they would be muted, lethal, excruciating and produce catastrophes: Before long, one would see a frightful calm, during which the whole would unite itself against the power violating the laws.” Moreover, he added, if such “disputes” were to take “shape on the occasion of a violation of the fundamental laws, and if a foreign power appeared,” as happened with the arrival of the Dutch Stadholder William of Orange in 1688, “there would be a revolution, which would change neither the form of the government nor its constitution: for the revolutions to which liberty gives shape are nothing but a confirmation of liberty.”

We are not in the latter circumstance. No foreign power is about to appear, but we are witnessing an attempt to overturn “the fundamental laws.” We have a President who promised his supporters on the eve of his election that he would “fundamentally transform” America. We have had a series of Presidents who signaled the radicalism of their administrations and their intention to break with the past by calling them The New Freedom, The New Deal, The New Frontier, and The Great Society, and the current incumbent has let the cat fully out of the bag by naming his administration The New Foundation. As John Kass clearly recognizes and Kevin Williamson evidently does not, there is an enormous amount at stake in this election.

The good people of South Carolina recognize as much. They understand the crisis we face. They know that the administrative entitlements state was bankrupt before Barack Obama became President. They recognize that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are already unsustainable in their present form, and they sense that Obamacare will only add to our woes. In consequence, they are not looking for a temporizer. They want a standard-bearer who can reverse the course that we are now on.

Read the whole thing.

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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