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Montesquieu: Luminary of the Enlightenment

 (Please excuse any errors.  I am writing on the fly from New York and time is limited).

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” To paraphrase, he who only knows his own generation is an unwitting slave to those who have a knowledge of the past and an eye on the future.

I recently began rereading Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws  for the third time. This time using two different translations concurrently.  Montesquieu said in his preface of the 1757 edition, that he feared people would read his life’s work piecemeal and as a result not fully and accurately understand his message.

That fear has come to pass, at least in part, due to the fact that we are losing or have lost the art of study. I am just now (I hope) beginning to fully understand accurately what he intended to communicate to the ages.  Not that I didn’t get useful information the other two times (I also did not read this book in its entirety the other two times, sorry Baron), but over the time of the last two readings, I have experienced a lot of new things. I have grown and developed and have become more capable of deeper understanding.

Another huge piece of this problem is the philosophy of our modern method of learning.  We live in a sound-bit world of “just give me the facts” and “instant gratification.”  Thinking that all we need is a summary or the “essential elements,” and we can function fully, is like trying to fly a commercial jetliner after watching a video entitled “How to fly is 6 Easy Steps.”


Montesquieu was a voice of clarity during the European upheaval, particularly in France,  that resulted from the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. While others were busy tearing down all forms good and bad of the ages-old monarchical system of Europe, the founders were deeply engaged in reading Montesquieu who spoke of the underlying concerns and principles of governance.

What I am about to offer is not a “summary” of The Spirit of the Laws, but a teaser, a taste of why you should take the time to read this seminal work that shaped American governance and was the most widely read book in America at the time of the founding, second only to the Bible.

Below is a shortened version of a phenomenal essay written by Sharon Krause entitled:

The Politics of Distinction and Disobedience: Honor and the Defense of Liberty in Montesquieu ( for the full essay, be sure click this link)

Why do men and women sometimes risk their necks to defend their liberties? Citizens with a strong sense of individual agency are crucial to liberal polities because, as Montesquieu pointed out, “any man who has power is led to abuse it. He continues until he finds limits.” The problem of limiting political power is perhaps even more complex in the U.S. than it was for the old regime that Montesquieu knew. The limitation of power as the American founders conceived it makes it “necessary not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but also to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”


In addition to overreaching executives and unscrupulous legislators, the specter of majority tyranny always haunts governments based on the principle of popular sovereignty. So along with such developments as Watergate, Iran- Contragate, Whitewater, and now Kenneth Starr, Americans must be on guard against measures such as Jim Crow laws or Colorado’s Amendment Two—efforts by one part of the society to restrict the individual liberties of another part.


In the United States, a Constitution of separate powers, federalism, and the Bill of Rights all set formal limits on the will of majorities, and on the powers of government. Yet the formal limits specified by our Constitution are only “parchment barriers” without the springs of individual agency that set them in motion: American liberties need spirited guardians.


The spirited defense of liberty once was explained not merely as a matter of self-interest, but also as a point of honor, as when the first Americans pledged to defend their independence with “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”  We rarely speak of honor today. It is a word that lost currency soon after the first Americans declared their independence. These days honor seems quaint, if not entirely obsolete, and it makes us vaguely suspicious. That is not surprising, as honor always has elicited mixed reactions, arousing admiration and envy and contempt all at once. And because honor seeks distinction, it seems to be at odds with equality.


Yet like the American founders who so admired him, Montesquieu saw that a sense of honor could be an effective spring of individual action, one especially suited to resisting the abuse of power when material self-interest could not be relied upon to do so. It is true that Montesquieu was not in favor of revolution, or even sudden reform, but he thought that spirited resistance to encroaching power was crucial for individual liberty, and he saw honor as a spring of such resistance.


In contrast to the traditional honor of medieval soldiers, which required uncritical obedience, on Montesquieu’s account those with honor distinguish themselves through their disobedience, which divides political power and therefore limits it, thus protecting individual security. For that reason, his concept of honor has been called “openly rebellious toward authority,” as well as a form of “regulated disobedience” and “interference.”


As Montesquieu presents it in The Spirit of the Laws, honor contains three components: (1) public honors, the external recognition that attends prizes and special distinctions; (2) the codes of honor establishing general rules of conduct within specified spheres of activity; and (3) an internal quality of character, the ambitious desire to live up to one’s code and to be recognized publicly for doing so. To be sure, Montesquieu was wise to the ways in which honor could be corrupted, slipping easily from “a great and generous courage” to “vain and frivolous conversation.”


Even at its best, honor is a mixed motive. If it sometimes seems similar to the magnanimity of the Aristotelian gentleman, at other times it appears to be nothing more than “having someone to look down on.” That complexity makes honor difficult to categorize.


It cannot be reduced to self-interest, even self-interest well-understood, because honor may motivate the sacrifice of one’s most fundamental interest, life itself. At the same time, honor should not be confused with civic virtue, because even when honor involves personal sacrifice, it does not aim directly for the common good. In contrast to civic virtue, honor is primarily self-serving, rather than other-regarding; it has less to do with what one owes to others than with what one owes to oneself.


No sustained, systematic account of honor in Montesquieu presently exists. Although honor is mentioned by nearly everyone who has written on Montesquieu, it is treated briefly and in passing. This lack of attention partly reflects the difficulty of categorizing honor on the basis of present typologies, but also reflects democratic discomfort with what appears to be an aristocratic concept. Thus honor has been overshadowed by Montesquieu’s remarks on the political virtue of ancient republics. Those remarks capture the attention of many commentators because they seem to contain the precursor to contemporary civic virtue and to speak more directly to today’s democratic citizens.


Yet on Montesquieu’s account, it is honor, not republican virtue, that checks encroaching political power and serves liberty in the form of personal security. Because of the way in which honor divides political power, even supports a nascent form of separate powers, the concept of honor is more significant for Montesquieu’s liberalism as a whole than prior scholarship has acknowledged. It reflects both his conviction that the institutions of limited government need lively defense, and his reluctance to assign that task to civic virtue.


Following a brief account of how honor fits into Montesquieu’s typology of regimes, three features of honor as a quality of character are elaborated: its high ambitions; its balance of reverence and reflexivity; and its partiality. The substantive content of codes of honor may vary from one political society to another, as do systems for distributing public honors, but the features of honor as a quality of character represent more enduring aspects of political agency, or the capacity for intentional, self-initiated action.


In the final section, the tensions between honor and liberal democracy are addressed, and possibilities for mitigating those tensions in the context of contemporary American political society are explored. Forms of honor that ground codes of honor in the American Constitution, for example, and in the plural codes of conduct that regulate the voluntary associations of American civil society, can sustain the strong sense of agency that honor entails without returning to the fixed hierarchies and political exclusions of the ancien régime.


I. the Place of Honor in Montesquieu’s Typology of Regimes

There are three species of government in Montesquieu’s typology of regimes, each with its own “nature” (that which makes it what it is) and “principle” (that which makes it act). The former is its particular structure; the latter consists of the human passions that set it in motion. The nature of a republic is popular sovereignty, and its principle is political virtue; despotism is the rule of one on the basis of arbitrary will, and its principle is fear; monarchy is the rule of one according to fixed established laws, and its principle is honor.


Each regime exists only as a “totality,” as the unity between its nature and its principle. Despotism, for example, cannot be sustained unless the people are made to fear the ruler, because “individuals capable of esteeming themselves very highly would be in a position to cause revolutions.” Therefore fear must beat down everyone’s courage and extinguish even the slightest feeling of ambition. Without the support of fear, the “passion that sets it in motion,” the institutional apparatus of despotism gives way.


Similarly, a republic cannot survive without what Montesquieu calls political virtue. In the absence of a monarch or a despot, a people must do for themselves what a strong central authority would otherwise force them to do. In particular, they must restrain themselves from harming others by loving equality and the laws, and must defend the interests of the state by subordinating their individual interests to the common good. The constant preference of the public interest over one’s own, and even the “renunciation of oneself,” is the essence of political virtue for Montesquieu. Without that, the institutions of republican government collapse; its nature dissolves without its principle.


Honor finds its home in the government of constitutional monarchy, where it serves the division of power that is central to that regime. The structure of monarchy includes the “intermediary bodies” that stand between the king and his subjects. They mediate the flow of political power, and check its exercise, for “in order to form a moderate government, it is necessary to combine powers, to regulate them, to temper them, to make them act; to give a ballast to one, so to speak, to put it in a position to resist another.” By mediating the will of the sovereign, the intermediary bodies support the rule of law, because without limits on sovereign authority, nothing can be fixed and there is no fundamental law.


Honor presupposes an institutional division of power, even as it supports such a division. The intermediary bodies include the lords, clergy, nobility, and towns, those powers recognized as “independent” that “alone arrest arbitrary power.” They provide alternative sites of authority from which the king’s use of power can be contested. Of these bodies, Montesquieu emphasizes the role of the nobility, saying that “the nobility is of the essence of monarchy, whose fundamental maxim is: no monarch, no nobility: no nobility, no monarch; instead one has a despot.”


Military men and lawyers, the nobility were charged with carrying out the will of the sovereign. As members of the parlements they adjudicated and administered his laws, as mayors of local villages they minded his subjects and collected his taxes, and as soldiers they commanded his armies and oversaw his conquests. This charge to take care of the king’s business also gave the nobility the power to interfere in the king’s business; the legislative and judicial functions of the nobility had the status of constitutional rights.


Although in theory the courts were only to receive, record, transmit and enforce the sovereign’s directives, in practice the parlements prided themselves on the right to delay registration of a questionable law while they presented their objections to the king and awaited his response. The right of remonstrance was supplemented with other forms of interference by the nobility at the level of local adjudication, administration, and enforcement of the laws. Both were further enhanced by the ability to arouse public support for such interference.


Every delegation of authority made for a potential pocket of resistance, so that “just as the sea, which seems to want to cover all the earth, is checked by the grasses and the smallest rocks found on the shore, so monarchs, whose power seems to be without limits, are checked by the smallest obstacles.” As Montesquieu presents it in The Spirit of the Laws, honor is the spring that animates the perpetual tumults between the nobility and the crown, tumults that serve liberty by dividing power. Thus honor is indispensable to monarchy, just as virtue is indispensable to republican government and fear to despotism. Without honor the differentiated structure of monarchy would dissolve into the perfect unity of the unopposed will of the sovereign. 


II. Honor’s High Ambitions

The heart of honor is ambition (l’ambition), which Montesquieu defines as “the desire to do great things.” Ambition “is pernicious in a republic,” Montesquieu says, because it subverts equality, and therefore unity; because it is fearless, the spread of ambition would be catastrophic for a despot. Yet ambition “has good effects in monarchy” because of its enlivening influence on the intermediary bodies. Those with honor are contentious, but that serves to divide political power and so limit it, as in moderate monarchies in which the ambitions of the nobles counteract the ambitions of the king. Yet, as everyone knows, ambition can be low-minded and petty, and countless


commentators have faulted Montesquieu for his defense of it. Indeed, honor frequently is interpreted as nothing more than “ambition in idleness, pettiness in pride, the desire to enrich oneself without work, the aversion to truth, flattery, betrayal, [and] perfidy.” Readers who take this account of “the miserable character of courtiers”35 as the sum total of honor have missed a great deal, however. Montesquieu regards honor as a complex quality of character, far more complex than either virtue or fear, because it includes ambition without being limited to the lowest forms of ambition, such as that of the courtiers.


The story of the Viscount of Orte displays the higher ambitions of honor, and its complexity:

After Saint Bartholomew’s Day, when Charles IX had written to all his governors to massacre the Huguenots, the Viscount of Orte, who was in command at Bayonne, wrote to the king: “Sire, I have found among the inhabitants and the warriors only good citizens, brave soldiers, and no executioner; thus, they and I beg Your Majesty to employ our arms and our lives for feasible (faisables) things.” This great and generous courage regarded a cowardly act as an impossible thing.


Orte’s disobedience parallels the “interference” of the parlements, although it is more spectacular. It did not spring from material self-interest, since Orte risked his life to disobey his king’s command. Nor does he give any indication of having acted from civic duty or solidarity, or from the principle of “universalizibility,” as we say today. Instead, Orte’s courage must be understood in light of Montesquieu’s definition of honor as a form of personal ambition. Honor as ambition is primarily self- serving rather than other-regarding. In fact, Montesquieu says that honor has less to do with what one owes to others than with what one owes to oneself: it is “not so much what calls us to our fellows as what distinguishes us from them.”


Orte refused the king’s command because he thought too much of himself to undertake such brutality. He expects more of himself than to kill innocents just because someone, even his king, told him to do so. He is, so to speak, better than that; he would not stoop so low. He owes it to himself to uphold his code of honor because that is what distinguishes him from those who are simply the instruments of someone else’s will, and he is proud that he is more than just that. Honor is therefore a mixed motive, and the courage of Orte is not altogether different from the vanities of the courtly air. What distinguishes Orte from the courtiers is not that his motives are purer than theirs, in the sense of being more altruistic or more universal, for he thinks of himself no less than they do.


If anything, Orte thinks more of himself. It is his high opinion of himself that turns his ambition to this brave act of resistance, rather than to the obsequious social climbing of the courtiers. The courtiers are obsequious because although they think only of themselves, they think too little of themselves, and so freely debase themselves. They are ambitious, and yet they will put up with anything.


Orte’s “great and generous courage” reflects his ambition to be someone special. After all, it is no small thing to refuse a king. That ambition is an unusual (for us) mix of partiality and higher purpose. That explains why Montesquieu says that with honor, “one judges men’s actions … not as good but as fine, not as just but as great; not as reasonable but as extraordinary.” What Orte did was “fine” (belle) in the sense of being beautiful or admirable. It exceeded average expectations.


Honor is something to live up to because it is above average. It is wonderful to see, like a beautiful painting, because it reminds us that there is more to being human than getting by. Yet honor, Montesquieu says, is not virtue; thus it yields “fine” actions, but not necessarily “good” ones. For “in order to be a good man (un homme de bien), it is necessary to have the intention of being one, and to love the state less for oneself than for itself.” The good man or woman has a pure heart, which means doing the right thing for the right reason. But that is not Orte, who acted for himself. If he did the Huguenots a good turn, their welfare was not his sole intention.


Orte treated the Huguenots not only as ends in themselves, but also as the means to his own self-respect, and even his distinction. Their plight was his opportunity, and he made the most of it. Thus one must judge Orte’s courage not as good but as fine.


If honor is not necessarily “good,” neither is it intrinsically “just.” Contemporary accounts of honor very often treat it as a part of justice, but Montesquieu emphatically distinguishes them. With honor, one judges actions “not as just but as great.” What one owes others is the province of justice; what one owes oneself is the province of honor, and by emphasizing this distinction, Montesquieu reminds us that they do not always coincide. Justice and honor may conflict, as what I owe to myself may come at the expense of what I owe to you. Nor does Montesquieu offer a clear rank ordering of the two.


Moreover, except under despotism where there are no fixed laws, one usually can act in a just fashion simply by following the law. So except where the laws are non- existent or very bad, it is possible to be just without making much effort. But honor calls forth a certain “greatness of soul” because it cannot be had so easily. Indeed, “the things that honor forbids are more rigorously forbidden when the laws do not concur in proscribing it, and the things that it requires are more strongly required when the laws do not demand it.” Honorable people such as Orte ask more of themselves than what is minimally required by the laws. Risk is involved in honor, self-assertion, and the willingness to undertake something difficult. So honor is an effort, even if it is not exactly self-sacrifice.


Finally, one judges honorable actions “not as reasonable but as extraordinary” because they interrupt the ordinary processes and resist the constraints that condition our expectations. It is true that Orte’s disobedience is in line with, even demanded by, the laws of honor contained in his code. Yet if the demands of honor can be known in advance, individual acts of honor are more difficult to predict. Honor cannot be “reckoned on” with the same assurance that Hobbes attributed to the need for self-preservation, for example. Honorable acts are risky, and so call forth a greater measure of intention, and therefore agency, than does the automatic response to bodily needs on which Hobbes reckoned. Individual acts of honor are unpredictable because they are so extraordinary.


So honor is ambitious and assertive, and it aims high. That distinguishes it from the contemporary concept of “self-esteem,” which usually is conceived as a good to be distributed, rather than as a form of ambition. Self-esteem even can be guaranteed, it is thought, if only the principles of justice are executed properly.


As John Rawls puts it, “by arranging inequalities for reciprocal advantage and by abstaining from the exploitation of the contingencies of nature and social circumstance within a framework of equal liberty, persons … insure their self-esteem.” It is true that honor in Montesquieu begins in rank, and so depends partly on public recognition and the distribution of public honors. But the story of Orte demonstrates that for Montesquieu honor does not end with either rank or public recognition. Indeed, the fact that Montesquieu associates honor with ambition emphasizes the active quality of honor. Honor as a quality of character never could be “insured,” because it requires an act of individual self-assertion that goes beyond what the laws require or provide, and sometimes even against the authority that stands behind the laws.


The fact that honor cannot be provided by the authorities is what gives it the independence needed to resist them when necessary. Moreover, those with honor have high opinions of themselves, which means that they have much to live up to, which makes them willing to undertake risky actions in defense of their liberties. That explains why the quest for distinction is central to honor.


Would Orte have stood up to the king if he could have esteemed himself either way? If doing something exceptional had not been necessary to his sense of self-respect, would he have gone to the trouble? Would he have bothered to risk his life? If one can be made to esteem ones self regardless of what one does, then there is no incentive for taking the risks and making the efforts that the defense of liberty may require. In a “well-ordered society,” it is true, great acts of resistance to political authority in defense of individual liberties are not often called for. But in those rare instances, great acts can make all the difference, and high ambitions make them possible.



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