Baron de Montesquieu
Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 334th anniversary of the birth of Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (18 January 1689–10 February 1755), who was born at the Château de la Brède on this date in 1689.
David Carrithers in his paper “Montesquieu’s Philosophy of History” gives an overview of Montesquieu’s conception of history as follows:
“What is important about Montesquieu’s contribution to historiography is that he understood better than most of his contemporaries that history is not just a record of man’s impress on events. If great men sometimes shape history, it is also true that sometimes the cumulative weight of past events coalesces into a general cause inclining a given society in one direction rather than another so that the role of particular individuals is reduced to a near nullity. As Gibbon, too, was aware, Montesquieu perceived that these general causes sometimes overpower secondary causes and predispose events toward one historical outcome rather than another. As Raymond Aron aptly observed, Montesquieu was trying to replace ‘incoherent diversity’ in the social universe with ‘a conceptual order,’ having concluded that ‘beyond the chaos of accidents, there are underlying causes which account for the apparent absurdity of things.’ Hence Montesquieu can be interpreted as the Kepler, or Newton of the social world. If nature had been shown to be subject to rationalistic explication, so too might the world of man be made to give up its secrets to a suitably perspicacious philosophe. For Montesquieu to have advanced historical studies by means of this keen insight must certainly be judged a substantial achievement.”
If Montesquieu is to the social sciences as Kepler and Newton were to the natural sciences, this has not be widely recognized, though we could pursue this line of thought by tracing the fundamental ideas of the social sciences as we know them today accordingly as Carrithers attributes to Raymond Aron.
Note that Aron’s interpretation is an appearance and reality distinction: incoherent diversity is an appearance, but the deeper reality behind the apparent absurdity of incoherent appearances is a conceptual order that can be grasped through the social sciences. According to Aron’s interpretation, then, Montesquieu is the foundation of a metaphysical conception of history. A similar point is made by Suzanne Gearhart in her 1980 paper “Reading De l’Esprit des Lois: Montesquieu and the Principles of History”:
“History cannot produce a truth which would be pure and unmarked, for history marks all the concepts which it produces (including the ideal of history) as different from themselves and as determined by an irrecuperable contradiction. In this sense, history is the history of differences. But at the same time, history prevents any and all differences from being posited as absolute, as truth. History is the multiple origin of all ideals and of all states of nature, and it is history in this fundamental sense which is the object of De l’Esprit des Lois. When Montesquieu asserts the priority of his principles, he is asserting the priority of history and at the same time the fundamental plurality or multiplicity which that priority implies.”
Montesquieu is best known for The Spirit of the Laws (De l’Esprit des Lois), a taste of the historical interpretations of which can be gathered from this passage:
“The history of Gregory of Tours and other records show us, on the one hand, a ferocious and barbarous nation; and, on the other, kings who were no less so. These princes were murderous, unjust, and cruel because the whole nation was. If Christianity sometimes seemed to soften them, it was only through the terror that Christianity gives the guilty. The churches defended themselves from them by the miracles and prodigies of their saints. The kings were not sacrilegious because they dreaded the penalties for sacrilege, but, in other areas, they committed, both in anger and in cold blood, all sorts of crimes and injustices because they did not see the hand of the divinity so present in these crimes and these injustices. The Franks, as I have said, tolerated murderous kings because they were murderous themselves; they were not struck by the injustices and pillaging of their kings because they too plundered and were unjust. There were many laws established, but the kings rendered them useless by certain letters called precepts, which reversed these same laws; these were nearly like the rescripts of the Roman emperors, either because the kings took this usage from them or because they drew it from the depths of their own nature. One sees in Gregory of Tours that they murdered coolly and put the accused to death before they had even been heard; they gave precepts in order to make illicit marriages; they gave them to transfer inheritances; they gave them to remove the right of relatives; they gave them for marrying nuns. They did not, in truth, make laws on their own initiative, but they suspended the practice of the ones that were made.”
A couple of pages later Montesquieu says simply:
“History must be illuminated by laws, and laws by history.”
This is an appropriate epigraph for the whole of the work.
Montesquieu - Wikipedia
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Montesquieu's Philosophy of History on JSTOR
David Carrithers, Montesquieu's Philosophy of History, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar…
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Carrithers, D. (1986). Montesquieu’s Philosophy of History. Journal of the History of Ideas, 47(1), 61.
Reading De l'Esprit des Lois: Montesquieu and the Principles of History on JSTOR
Suzanne Gearhart, Reading De l'Esprit des Lois: Montesquieu and the Principles of History, Yale French Studies, No. 59…