A Brief Inquiry into Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws”: Republican Virtue

Montesquieu writes “A love of the republic in a democracy is a love of the democracy; as the latter is that of equality” to imply that republicanism, is in fact, a virtue not a mere political ideology. “De l’esprit des lois” is a resolute and bold analysis of the complexities of political organization, and social determinants that play a foremost role in the constitution of societal frameworks. In essence, this piece seems to dwell, generally, within the political sciences but also touches upon the peculiarities of sociology, and even class differences. With this in mind, Montesquieu’s radical 1748 treatise proposes that virtue within a republic, is simply the love of the political system itself, all the while he provides a particularized investigation of the ways this can be achieved. While the mediocrity of these arguments seem customary to our own contemporary, Montesquieu was taking a somber risk in displaying such liberal ideals within the constraints of the French aristocracy. Thus, although Locke and other thinkers had a significant role in influencing Montesquieu’s republicanism, it would not be wrong to suggest that Montesquieu was, in fact, the one who developed the virtuous efficacy of republicanism.

The principal argument for a virtuous republic is firmly comprised between the need of the love for equality and frugality. This bicipital dynamic, is formulated both out of the social and economic factors that make a republic run efficiently. Thus, a proper republic can only be upheld by the individual who truly believes in egalitarianism, and who understands the need for democracy. On the other hand, the economic classes must be frugal in their developments in order to maintain the equality between citizens.

In short, the main purpose of this segment of Book V is to promote the idea that republicanism cannot stand on its own as a political system, but must be managed by the virtue of every individual citizen, through education. Yet, the power of the individual alone cannot create the societal basis for republicanism, but it must be exhibited through a just and fare constitution. The use of laws as mediators of both frugality and equality are starkly implied as necessary elements in social structures. Thus, they must be used in a dimensionless fashion to promote virtues that inspire the love of democracy. An example of such a law, as proposed by Montesquieu, is the state abolition of slavery and promotion of citizen equality, which would be the first pillars in the institution of a just and common civil code. In contrast, Montesquieu argues that laws within a despotic of monarchical government cannot promote such ideals, as they are incompatible with the wishes of maintaining power of the despot.

Interestingly, although Montesquieu fosters the republic as an ideal system, he argues that it can only be achieved within small states, where organization and management is effectively simple. The reason perhaps, is best described in D’Alembert’s analysis of “Spirit of Laws” where he affirms that “the republican [states] are more subject to excesses”. What is meant by this is that in purely administrative structures, states where the sovereign is held by the people, resources are not effectively managed. It is for this reason why Montesquieu concentrates so valiantly on the need for proper frugality, in order to prolong the structure of the ‘republic’. This is further promoted by the examples of Athenian and Roman institutions which promoted republican virtue, through the due process of education. Montesqiue argues that education can thus be used to promote frugality and equality within the republic, the same way it “inspires fear” in despotic governments.

The importance of Montesquieu’s treatise is simply contrived in its radical nature, which might have seemed overly dauntless at the time, but was undoubtedly expressed by most political libertarians during the ‘Enlightenment’. The love of democracy and equality, as mutually inclusive elements, have had a considerable effect on the political and revolutionary motivations of Jefferson and Paine, both advocates of republican ideals, also on the vanguard of the French Revolution.

However, the value of this work should not be limited only in its influence on posterity, but also as determinant symbol of the condition of intellectualism in 18th century France. The ‘men of letters’ to varying degrees, and through different mediums, expressed sentiments of liberal politics throughout the course of their careers. However, as the tenacity of literary surveillance in France was relatively ‘philosophes’, as argued by Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre, Montesquieu was forced to publish this treatise anonymously in order to prevent his imprisonment or even exile. Although at great risk Montesquieu was not only promoting the same ideals as Locke in the organization of a republic, but instead produced a rather ingenious manner of mythic promotion of republicanism that had an undeniable occupancy in the colonies of the America, and the incessant change of government from monarchy to republic in 19th century France.

In essence, while Locke proposed the mechanical ideals and basics of republicanism and libertarianism, it seems that Montesquieu instead tried to mold the ideological basis of republicanism at a far more personal level. Not only promoting loyalty and frugality at the national level, but also at the individual, thus transforming it into a virtue.


Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 2, on Sept 9th, 2014.

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