Posted: May 11, 2010
Within the space of 18 months, Paul Rahe has published three books that constitute a 1,200-page addendum to his 1,200-page classic, Republics Ancient and Modern (1992). The first volume in this follow-up trilogy, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic, corrected certain "omissions," tracing Machiavelli's influence upon the English Republic (and eventually the American Founders) through the thought of Hobbes and Harrington, Milton and Marchamont Nedham. It was reviewed in the CRB's Winter 2008/09 issue under the suggestive title "A Republic of Devils."
With the second book of the trilogy, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty, Rahe, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, has left the dark side of modernity. Not that Montesquieu sketches a republic of angels exactly, but he does declare, "We have begun to cure ourselves of Machiavellianism, & we will continue the cure all the days of our lives." Like the beloved statesman in "The Devil and Daniel Webster," Montesquieu comes to the defense of the liberty of ordinary folks. Appealing to the spirit if not always the letter of the law, he discovers the moderate, constitutional means by which to restrain the devilish machinations of the despotically inclined. As Paul Rahe says, "Montesquieu's aim is Machiavelli's defeat."
Although largely successful, the Montesquieuan re-founding of the modern republic is not without its dilemmas, defects, and discontents. The final book in the trilogy, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift, explores the troubled horizon of the modern prospect, employing the great triumvirate of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville as philosophic—or perhaps more accurately psychological—guides. While the structural principles of Montesquieu's republic of separated powers are able to decapitate hard despotism, the passionate principles (inquiétude, partisanship, and vigilance—of which more later) that underlie and sustain the modern republic are prone to degenerate. Despotism creeps back, in a gentler, but no less liberty-destroying, guise: thus the "logic of liberty" is replaced by "democracy's drift." Rahe concludes this volume with an exposé of the insidious Administrative State that almost makes one long for the forthright tyranny of a Cesare Borgia (who figures so famously in Machiavelli's Prince). After all, there are traditional remedies against tyrants, like tyrannicide, but there seems no cure for "the French disease" that has spread through Europe and America. "Bureau-cide" is neither a word nor a deed.
Paul Rahe is a scholar whose impressive research agenda has a political point. In crafting this elaboration of the modern side of Republics Ancient and Modern, he is driven by dissatisfaction with "the modern prospect." As Abraham Lincoln famously said before delivering his diagnosis of our internal problem: "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." For Rahe, a historian with a political philosophy bent, figuring out where we are and whither we are tending requires an intense backwards gaze into where we came from and who got us from there to here.
Yale's publication of these two books as companion volumes is a rather remarkable undertaking. Along with the matching cover designs, the volumes share the same Introduction. Moreover, the heart of the Montesquieu volume, entitled "The Modern Republic Explored," is simply reprinted (slightly condensed and retitled "The Modern Republic Examined") to form the first section of Soft Despotism. Reading the books some months apart and in the reverse order in which they appeared, I initially thought I was suffering from paramnesia until I set them side by side. Not that I have any objection to the double dose of Montesquieu. The commentary on him both stands grandly alone and, with a little bit of forcing, trots along in harness with the commentaries on Rousseau and Tocqueville.
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Perhaps because he seems to think in threes himself, Paul Rahe has made an important discovery about an aborted trilogy of writings by Montesquieu. Between his early epistolary novel The Persian Letters (1721) and his late masterpiece The Spirit of Laws (1748), there lies Montesquieu's Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (1734). This is the threesome of published works by which Montesquieu is known. What Rahe has unearthed is very persuasive evidence that the book on the Romans, which has seemed to many readers an antiquarian monograph of philosophic history, was in fact the first stage of a planned tripartite work whose overall intention was anything but antiquarian. Montesquieu decided to suppress the subsequent, more overtly polemical stages in the wake of the uproar that greeted Voltaire's Philosophic Letters—an uproar that led to an order for Voltaire's arrest, the public burning of his book, and Voltaire's exile from France. Montesquieu's second stage, Reflections on Universal Monarchy in Europe, was actually set in type but pulled from publication. Known for many decades only from Montesquieu's careful catalogue of his writings, it was finally found among his papers in 1821, published in 1891, and only now decisively linked by Rahe to the published book on the Romans. The third stage of the projected work was to have been an essay on the constitution of England, material that was written up around 1733, shortly after Montesquieu's extensive travels abroad. Years later, this essay was placed directly into The Spirit of Laws (part 2, book 11, chapter 6), where it became justly famous for having explained the English to themselves, thereby providing a model for the modern constitutional republic that would be much studied by the American Founders.
Once these three pieces are conjoined in the reader's imagination, in line with Montesquieu's original conception, the shape of his three-fold argument can be summarized fairly briskly: Considerations traces the eclipse of ancient Rome and demolishes the allure of Rome's imperial achievement; Reflections on Universal Monarchy in Europe establishes the impossibility of a "new Rome" and critiques the Sun King's misguided aspiration toward universal monarchy; "On the Constitution of England" examines the rise of a "new Carthage"—a republic of balanced and separated powers whose commercial hegemony will be of a better, more sustainable type. Despite Montesquieu's prudent abandonment of the full project, I believe he dropped hints aplenty in the work on the Romans that he was staging a contest between Rome and England that, with his eyes on the fate of France, he meant England to win. (See my article "Women, Christianity, and the Modern in Montesquieu's Considerations on the Romans," in The Pious Sex: Essays on Women and Religion in Political Thought, edited by Andrea Radasanu .) But it's immensely helpful to have something more than hints to go on. Rahe knows how to dig around in archives, notebooks, and the technical arcana of publishers' paper stock and the handwriting of amanuenses. Because he also knows how to think about an author's intentions and read judiciously, he is able to put his historical sleuthing to good hermeneutic use.
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Rahe's groundbreaking discussion of Montesquieu's mysterious trilogy prepares the way for his commentary on The Spirit of Laws. He employs the simpler architecture of the aborted work to understand the elusive design of the big, big book that Montesquieu eventually gave to the world. One of the many excellences of Rahe's presentation is the attention he gives to what Montesquieu's contemporary Jean le Rond d'Alembert insightfully dubbed "the great parts." The 605 chapters ofThe Spirit of Laws are grouped into 31 books, which in turn are grouped into 6 parts. Each chapter and book bears a title, whereas the parts do not. Nonetheless, attention to the themes and sequence of the parts can help orient the reader amidst what Montesquieu himself describes as "the infinite number of things in this book"—an infinity that mirrors "the infinite diversity of laws and mores." Understanding how Montesquieu brings order out of the chaos of the political world requires an understanding of how the parts fit within the whole.
Rahe focuses intensely on the first four parts, documenting and explaining the shifts in perspective from part 1 (ancient virtue) to 2 (modern freedom), and from part 3 (the environmental constraints that nature places upon freedom) to 4 (commerce as the means by which we can transform and overcome the environment). He says much less about parts 5 and 6. Although he notes that religion becomes thematic in part 5, and that the final two parts both deal with the subject of legislation, he does not explore how Montesquieu proposes to tame and regulate religion or how that project is related to the commercial republic of separated powers. Following Montesquieu, Rahe does stress the salutary role of Christianity in gentling the law of nations and bringing about a striking discontinuity between antiquity and modernity, but he doesn't pursue the thread of Montesquieu's other, more negative, assessments of Christian belief and practice. This downplaying of Montesquieu's ambiguous attitude toward Christianity characterizes Rahe's treatment of both the aborted trilogy andThe Spirit of Laws.
More attention to the theological-political problem might have altered Rahe's treatment of another Montesquieuan mystery: the "principle" puzzle. In part 1 of The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu surprisingly uses the word "principle" to describe particular passions that serve as the motivating force or psychological "spring" for particular forms of government. Thus, republics are animated by virtue (a form of self-renunciation made possible by passionate love of one's homeland), monarchies by honor (a highly artificial permutation of the passion of self-preference), and despotisms by fear (the elemental passion of self-preservation). Having established this idiosyncratic usage, Montesquieu then drops all mention of a specific passionate principle when he analyzes England in parts 2 and 3. Instead, he claims that "all the passions are free there." It seems that this new species of government does not depend on the presence or cultivation of a governing passion.
Rahe's solution to the "principle" puzzle is to argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is a single psychic source of action underlying the English constitutional order. Carefully attending to Montesquieu's description of the English character (especially in 3.19.27), Rahe claims that amidst the general liberation of the passions there does emerge a ruling passion: inquiétude—uneasiness or free-floating anxiety. According to Rahe, this restless disposition, first visible in the English, was understood by Montesquieu to be "the distinguishing feature of modern republican man." This disposition is then shaped by the constitutional structure, becoming "partisanship"—which Rahe designates "the fundamental fact of English life." Party conflict, in turn, provokes "vigilance"—the sought-for passion that both animates and preserves the regime. Here, in one sentence, is Rahe's distillation of the English dynamic:
The partisan conflict inspired by the separation of powers transforms the inquiétude characteristic of the English into a vigilance directed against all who might be tempted to encroach on their liberty. This vigilance is the passion that sets the English polity in motion, and it serves as a substitute for the republican virtue that the English need not and generally do not possess.
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While Rahe succeeds in capturing much of the psychological interplay of the English regime, in general I find his account overly schematic. My own hunch is that Montesquieu did not mean to send his careful readers on a treasure hunt for a hidden passion/principle; rather, he was suggesting something more radical, namely the ability of this new regime to dispense with a regime-specific motive force. The operation of the system does not require any separate or special formatting of the human passions (as both the virtue-based republics and the honor-based monarchies did). The free flow of man's self-interested passions channeled through the proper institutions is sufficient.
An interpretation along these lines better accounts for Montesquieu's shifting employment of the term "principle," for in addition to his idiosyncratic usage of "principle" understood as animating passion (prominent in part 1), Montesquieu often uses "principle" more conventionally to refer to a general law or rule that serves as a guide to conduct. Montesquieu refers to principles of war, principles of economics, principles of the civil law, principles of religion, and constitutional principles, to name just a few. Interestingly, this more standard usage becomes predominant as the text proceeds. Montesquieu returns to conventional usage, however, only to make a very unconventional point about the formation of the English character. In 3.19.27 he asserts that the manners, mores, and character of the English are the inevitable consequence of the "principles of their constitution." By contrast, in the ancient republics, the catalytic passion was distinct from the structure; being "additional," it was hard to sustain. Montesquieu wants us to get the constitutional principles right; if we do, the rest (peace and prosperity) follows. By stopping his commentary essentially at part 4, Rahe dilutes the full implications of Montesquieu's logic of liberty—implications that only become clear in part 5's book 26, the book that is most about principles in the sense of rules, and part 6's book 29 where Montesquieu gives advice to the great legislators who might implement his new principles.
Finally, Rahe somewhat skews the reasons for celebrating Montesquieu's genius. Rahe wants to credit Montesquieu with having discerned the foundational features of inquiétude, partisanship, and vigilance. Rahe then asks how lasting this vigilance is. Will modern vigilance, like its more demanding ancient counterpart, also degenerate? Rahe answers yes—the ethos of vigilance that sustains constitutional liberty is in fact "fragile." Furthermore, "the modern republic condemns its citizens to inquiétude and thereby denies them the tranquillity of spirit that constitutes political liberty in its relation with the citizen." So, on Rahe's reading, institutional liberty (what Montesquieu calls "political liberty in its relation with the constitution") is threatened, and personal liberty (what Montesquieu calls "political liberty in relation to the citizen") is psychically compromised. In effect, Rahe transforms Montesquieu from an early advocate of the commercial republic to its critic avant la lettre.
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Montesquieu, of course, was sensible enough to know that all political orders have flaws; his presentation of the English character does indeed highlight some of those human deficiencies. Nonetheless, it strikes me as too ambitious to make Montesquieu both a prime mover in the advent of commercial modernity and the one to foreshadow its collapse into soft despotism. "Sufficient onto the day is the evil thereof." In Montesquieu's day, the primary evil was hard despotism. Given the degree to which hard despotism (in religious and anti-religious variants) still plagues much of the world, Montesquieu remains intensely relevant. He welcomed the commercial republic of separated powers because of its greater (though not perfect) resistance to despotic entropy. Moreover, he argued that the strength of the regime of liberty would derive from its fidelity to nature. Thus, Montesquieu declares, "This nation would love its liberty prodigiously because this liberty would be true." Nothing remotely like this can be said in praise of any other regime. The patriotism of the ancient republic derived from the ruthless repression of all "ordinary passions"; the honor that inspired beautiful sacrifice among the nobility was, according to Montesquieu, philosophically "false." By contrast, English (and American) patriotism makes sense. It is because we are the land of the free that we are the home of the brave. When domesticated or naturalized in this way, patriotism has a better chance of enduring.
On the psychic side, I believe Rahe is wrong to say that inquiétude deprives individuals of "the tranquillity of spirit that constitutes political liberty in its relation with the citizen." Montesquieu speaks of inquiétude in the context of the separation of powers. The perpetual jostling of parties, with all its attendant uneasiness and fears, is salutary. This is the self-correcting motion that keeps the system in equilibrium. However, Montesquieu also emphatically states that "no citizen would fear another citizen." In other words, vis-à-vis one another, citizens feel secure. In book 12 (the book devoted to political liberty in relation to the citizen), Montesquieu says that "the citizen's liberty depends principally on the goodness of the criminal laws." Those laws do not prevent all crime, of course. They do something more important: they protect innocence (by according rights to the accused), and they enlarge the boundaries of innocent behavior (in particular, citizens can write and speak as they see fit, and certain categories of crime—like magic and heresy which set citizens at one another's throats—disappear altogether). Thus, the opinion one has of one's security is largely a function of an independent and impartial judiciary (whose punishments are characterized by moderation and proportionality). By insisting on a uniform foundational passion, Rahe has underestimated the flexibility of the English system, its ingenious combination of partiality and impartiality, of uneasiness and security, of jealousy and confidence—in sum, both constitutional and personal liberty.
Spelling out this multi-layered logic of liberty may steal a little prescience from Montesquieu (on the soft despotism front), but it restores the complex coherence of his project. It also causes his successors, Rousseau and Tocqueville, to stand forth more powerfully for their unique achievements. Although both learned much from Montesquieu (and Rahe is thus correct to detail their indebtedness), they deserve the distinction of having sketched the perils of the modern prospect. I am quite prepared to give Tocqueville full credit for the notion of soft despotism. Rahe concludes his trilogy with parallel accounts of France and America, offering a political etiology of the French disease, and how—through the Progressives—we contracted it. The prognosis is grim, but by no means inescapable. As Joseph Cropsey prophesied years ago, "Our prospects in our third century appear to depend on the possibility that our moral resources will incline to fortify themselves at the spirited wells of modernity." As a scholarly friend of liberty, Paul Rahe has brought up sparkling waters from the great triumvirate of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville to refresh our understanding and strengthen our resolve.