The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu's

The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws"

by Thomas L Pangle


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The Spirit of the Laws—Montesquieu’s huge, complex, and enormously influential work—is considered one of the central texts of the Enlightenment, laying the foundation for the liberally democratic political regimes that were to embody its values. In his penetrating analysis, Thomas L. Pangle brilliantly argues that the inherently theological project of Enlightenment liberalism is made more clearly—and more consequentially— in Spirit than in any other work.

In a probing and careful reading, Pangle shows how Montesquieu believed that rationalism, through the influence of liberal institutions and the spread of commercial culture, would secularize human affairs. At the same time, Pangle uncovers Montesquieu’s views about the origins of humanity’s religious impulse and his confidence that political and economic security would make people less likely to sacrifice worldly well-being for otherworldly hopes. With the interest in the theological aspects of political theory and practice showing no signs of diminishing, this book is a timely and insightful contribution to one of the key achievements of Enlightenment thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226645490
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/15/2010
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 860,243
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Thomas L. Pangle is the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy and Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham, among other titles.

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The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws"

By Thomas L. Pangle


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-64549-0

Chapter One

Montesquieu's Point of Departure

In the preface to The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu expresses both his admiring gratitude to his "great" modern predecessors and his claim to make a major new contribution to their common enterprise. Montesquieu closes his "Defense of The Spirit of the Laws" by offering some rules for the criticism of books such as his; among other things he writes (OC 2.1161): "When one criticizes a work, and a great work, one must try to procure for oneself a special understanding of the science which is there treated, and must read well the approved authors who have already written on that science, in order to see if the author has departed from the received and ordinary manner of treating it." We do well to begin, therefore, with a brief synopsis of key relevant elements in the structure of theologico-political theorizing bequeathed to Montesquieu by his chief forerunners.

Those major thinkers who stand at the origins of modern liberal theory—above all, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke—disagree considerably over the design of the political system that will most effectively answer humanity's natural needs; but they agree, in large measure, on a radically new conception of those needs, and of the fundamental natural norms the needs entail. Breaking with the previously regnant Aristotelian tradition, these modern theorists contend that we can best understand the permanent, underlying causes of observable human behavior if we jettison the classical supposition that humans are by nature political animals, innately directed to a specific fulfillment attained through civic community and lawful hierarchy. The omnipresence of fiercely vying quests for power, prestige, and dominion, along with the irresolvable contradictions between the spiritual goals that conflicting regimes struggle to impose, suggest a very different hypothesis. It is much more plausible to infer that all political arrangements are merely conventional products of artificial and historical human contrivance, aimed (without full self-consciousness) at repressing the innate, self-destructive anarchy toward which humanity naturally drifts.

We can best clarify what is simply and truly natural in the human animal if we carry out an illuminating thought experiment. We need to envisage in our mind's eye humans denuded of their historically constructed social bonds and constraints. We can thus imagine what human existence was or would be if the passionate proclivities restrained in civil society were given their full, spontaneous expression. The picture that emerges, the "State of Nature"—"this inference made from the passions," as Hobbes aptly calls it (Leviathan, chap. 13, para. 10)—reveals humans to be at their permanent core intensely antagonistic individuals, lacking either fixed or shared fulfilling goals, but desperately seeking to flee the pains of hunger and death in an environment of scarcity—and therefore driven to seek power through striving to dominate and to exploit one another. The result is a mutually life-threatening antisocial sociability. In Locke's mordant words, as he argues against any innate moral ideas: "I deny not, that there are natural tendencies imprinted on the Minds of men": "Principles of Actions indeed there are lodged in Men's Appetites, but these are so far from being innate Moral principles, that if they were left to their full swing, they would carry Men to the overturning of all Morality." Or as Locke puts it in his treatise on education: "I told you before that Children love Liberty; ... I now tell you, they love something more; and that is Dominion; And this is the first Original of most vicious Habits, that are ordinary and natural."

Yet humans also have the natural potential to summon reason to serve their amoral passions—by guiding, and even by modifying, the spontaneous expression of the passions. This natural efficacy of reason, together with humanity's lack of adequate natural instincts as well as natural ends, has rendered the human species malleable. In order to escape or to mitigate the unstructured natural condition, in order to render their rivalry for power no longer so life-threatening, humans have slowly and painfully devised the vast array of different familial and social and political institutions, laws, customs, and rituals that we find characterizing human existence. But, in all these historical contrivances, reason can be seen to have been misled by ignorance, and deceived by imagination. The latter, fueled by, and flattering, human hopes and fears, and reinforced by the power of custom and example, has concocted dangerous delusions—including anthropomorphic, immortal beings who are believed to control the environment and thereby to promise protection and assistance, in return for all sorts of sacrificial worship and obedience.

In truth, the only god that reason can discover to exist is the divinity which, as Locke says, "speaks" to us through our "Senses and Reason" (TT, 1.86–87). If only we heed divinity thus understood, we can learn—with the help of the philosophers—that the sole steady basis for objective social norms is to be found in the most basic needs that all humans share equally, and whose satisfaction mankind can contrive to pursue through peaceful competition. These most fundamental needs are for what Locke calls "comfortable preservation," and for the liberty to act in ways that maximize such preservation—especially, through the economic liberty to labor and to trade in order to accumulate ceaselessly the power to dispose of useful material possessions. Locke and his philosophic partners teach certain normative rules, implicating a range of specific moral habits, all deduced as what is required to repress human nature enough to make possible stable societies in which individuals will be able to compete economically in the greatest security.

These rules are called, by Hobbes and Locke, the "laws of nature": a traditional terminology handed down from the Stoics, rich with connotations of self-transcending duties and the soul's sublime calling. This terminology Hobbes and Locke usurp, and exploit as somewhat deceptive adornment for their radically lowered, utilitarian, and self-centered moral outlook. In their new scheme, "natural laws" are not—as they had been understood by Thomas Aquinas and his legacy—commandments implanted in the conscience, by nature or by God, conducive to and derivative from mankind's spiritual ends and communal fulfillment. "Natural laws" are instead learned conventional rules, deductively contrived by reason as being essential to the maximization of the security that spontaneous nature by itself renders intolerably precarious. As Hobbes candidly declares, these norms are "dictates of reason" that "men use to call by the names of laws, but improperly; for they are but conclusions, or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defense of themselves, whereas law, properly speaking, is the word of him that by right hath command over others." Or as Locke stresses, the new natural laws are akin to the more complex theorems of mathematics or geometry, describing the necessary or unvarying (and in that loose sense "eternal") properties of relational structures constructed by the human mind and will.

Successful habituation in the dispositions that embody these rules constructed by reason constitutes the new version of the rational moral virtues; and a new moral education in these specific, universal virtues thus becomes a major theme of modern political theory and practice. Hobbes blazes the trail, by deducing and specifying with precision a code of nineteen laws of nature, and by then elaborating their political application. He leaves it to prudent government to transform the universities from sinks of reactionary Aristotelianism into fountainheads of popular moral education in this new ethical code. Hobbes does not tire of stressing that such public moral education, in this "true and only moral philosophy," is government's chief domestic policy concern.

Hobbes seems to think that he has accomplished the major theoretical part of the educational task, by laying out "the rules of just and unjust sufficiently demonstrated, and from principles evident to the meanest capacity" (Behemoth, p. 39). Locke takes a different approach, characteristically diverging from what he evidently regards as Hobbes's insufficiently nuanced understanding of human psychology (and hence too shockingly frank, as well as overly authoritarian, teaching). Although not so democratic as Spinoza, Locke shares the latter's doubts as to the efficacy of any political solution or moral education that fails to flatter the natural human pride in liberty and equality. Moreover, as is especially evident from his treatise on education, Locke is even less inclined than are either Spinoza or Hobbes to think that plain reasoning, even from manifestly universal needs and wants, wields adequate influence over the human heart in most people. Locke is more impressed by the power of habit and of custom or tradition, and especially of traditional moral authority. Locke accordingly goes much further than do Hobbes and Spinoza in obfuscating the fundamental difference between the traditional natural law, to which his contemporaries have been long accustomed, and the new natural law. Among other things, Locke is more fervent than are Hobbes and Spinoza in preaching that nature's God is to be understood as sanctioning the rationally constructed natural laws through rewards and punishments in an everlasting afterlife. In his vastly influential Reasonableness of Christianity and Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, Locke assimilates the teaching of Jesus and Paul to the new moral matrix. Locke claims to show that the heart of the Gospel is no more than "Natural Religion"—supplemented, to be sure, with a new clarity and appeal to the masses that was lacking before, or missing from "pure natural religion."

The fulcrum of the new code of natural "laws" is the imperative to regard oneself as having entered into the great "Social Compact." This is a solemn agreement, by which each is presumed to have laid down his natural right to provide for his security as he sees fit, in return for a similar promise from his partners. All in unison authorize a representative, sovereign government to employ the united force to sanction peace, and to guarantee security, through the rule of frightening laws equally applicable to all, and which all promise to obey. To ensure that government does not abuse its fearsome police powers, natural law in its Lockean form dictates specific limits on the scope of government, including "no taxation without representation" and structural separation of legislative from executive powers, and thus checks and balances within government. To the extent that any actual government fails to conform to the universal standards set by these rational laws of nature, such government loses its legitimacy and rightly becomes suspect in the eyes of its subjects and the world (see esp. TT, 2.192). The world-revolutionary implications become fully explicit a century later, in famous revolutionary declarations of universal rights and in popular writings such as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1792).

Montesquieu's New Beginning

In the first book of The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu makes evident his embrace of key portions of the preceding framework, even as he simultaneously delineates crucial respects in which he strikes out on his own. As we emphasized in the introduction, the work opens with a shockingly unprecedented theological declaration—whose impact is heightened by an impudent appeal to pagan theological authority. The first sentences of the first chapter ground everything that follows on the "necessary relationships that derive from the nature of things"—and this nature includes "the divinity," which is ruled by the "Queen" that is lawful necessity. We learn in the fourth paragraph that such necessity governs the divinity not least in its activity as creator: "God has a relationship with the universe as creator and as preserver"; "the laws according to which he has created are those according to which he preserves."

To be sure, Montesquieu stresses that the creator's action in accordance with these laws of necessity is not mechanistically determined, since this action is a consequence of the creator's knowledge—his knowledge of the necessitating laws. Moreover, this knowledge is the privileged knowledge belonging to the one who "made" the laws. But Montesquieu at once shows that God's "making" of these laws is not biblical "creation"—not an un-necessitated bringing into being, let alone a bringing into being out of nothingness. For God's "making" of the laws follows from "the relationship these laws have to his wisdom and power." This underlying necessary relationship, or set of relationships, is not made by God—and is prior to, and thus governing of, all his making. This absolutely prior set of unmade necessary relationships would seem to be what Montesquieu spoke of at the outset as the "laws" that "the divinity has," in his condition as one of the "beings" characterized by "necessary relationships that derive from the nature of things."

In the eighth paragraph, Montesquieu moves in the direction of a still more radical train of thought. For he indites: "The particular intelligent beings can have laws which they have made; but they also have some that they have not made. Before there were intelligent beings [emphasis added], they were possible; they had therefore possible relations, and as a consequence possible laws." This raises the question: have all "intelligent beings," including "the divinity," as "creator," emerged from (mere) potentiality into actuality? Is the Creator included in this paragraph's discussion of "intelligent beings?" An affirmative answer may be suggested by the manner in which Montesquieu proceeds to formulate the most thought-provoking of his examples of "possible relations" that imply "possible laws": "if an intelligent being were to have created an intelligent being, the created ought to remain in the dependence which it had had since its origin."

This much seems certain: wisdom and power, and preeminently divine wisdom and divine power, consist in "an intelligent being's" self-conscious conformity to eternal necessities. As for divine will, Montesquieu never mentions it in this context (see Spinoza, TPT, chap. 4, para. 4, and chap. 6, para. 1).

Montesquieu dares to go still further. In the fifth paragraph he concludes that "if one could imagine a world other than this one, it would have constant rules, or it would be destroyed." The reason Montesquieu gives for this conclusion is the following: "we see that the world, formed by the movement of matter, and deprived of intelligence (privée d'intelligence), subsists always." "Thus" (Montesquieu continues, in a new paragraph), "the creation, which would appear to be an arbitrary act, presupposes rules as invariable as the fatality of the atheists. It would be absurd to say that the creator, without these rules, could govern the world, since the world would not endure without them."

It is true that Montesquieu seems just before this to rule out the possibility that the world can be understood in such a way that intelligent beings, including the creator of our given articulated world, might have emerged out of "the movement of matter," which "subsists always." For, in the second paragraph Montesquieu emphatically declares that "those who have said that a blind fatality has produced all the effects that we see in the world, have uttered a great absurdity" (emphasis in original). "All the effects that we see in the world": when we consider carefully these words, we see that this formulation is perfectly compatible with the proposition that the coming into being of intelligence itself is the effect of blind fatality. As Montesquieu stresses in "The Defense of The Spirit of the Laws" (OC 2.1128–29), this was precisely the doctrine of the Stoics, at least as Montesquieu understands them. Still, Montesquieu insists in the same breath (in the "Defense") that "from the first page" of The Spirit of the Laws he has "attacked that fatality of the Stoics." This insistence refers most obviously to the reason that Montesquieu provides, here in the second paragraph of The Spirit of the Laws, for rejecting the fatalist (Stoic) position: "For what greater absurdity, than a blind fatality which would have produced intelligent beings?" One is prodded to wonder why Montesquieu here chose the logically weak form of a mere rhetorical question. However this may be, it does seem pretty plausible to contend that beings with intelligence cannot be produced by a fatality that is blind, that is, that utterly lacks intelligence; and this plausibility makes Montesquieu's positive conclusion attractive (if cryptically expressed): "There is then an original/primitive reason (une raison primitive)."


Excerpted from The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws" by Thomas L. Pangle Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Chapter One: Montesquieu’s Point of Departure

Montesquieu’s New Beginning

The New Conception of the Laws and the State of Nature

Human Nature at Its Core

Natural Society as the State of War

Montesquieu’s New Political Science

Chapter Two: The Theological Significance of Despotism

The Nature and Principle of Despotism

The Strangeness of the Presentation of Despotism

Despotism and Revealed Monotheistic Law

The Hypothesized Origin of Biblical Religion

The Hypothesis Applied to Islam

The Hypothesis Elaborated as Regards Christianity

Chapter Three: The Theological Significance of Republics and Monarchies

Republican Religiosity

Monarchy and Its Religiosity

Why Christianity Is So Powerful in Monarchic Europe

Montesquieu’s Educational Strategy

Chapter Four: From Classical Civil Religion

Modern Liberal Religion

Republican Slavery

The Commercial Republic and Its Religiosity

Liberal Constitutionalism and Its Religiosity

The Application of the Standard Found in England

Chapter Five: Commerce and the Great Theological Experiment

Commerce as Engine of Religious Liberation

The Rational Redemption of Christianity

Commerce and Despotism

Montesquieu’s “Prophetic Vision”

Concluding Critical Reflections


Works Cited


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