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MLN 117.4 (2002) 737-753



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Montesquieu and the Spirit of Childhood

Robert Mankin


". . . je sentois tous les jours les mains paternelles tomber" 1

Although De l'Esprit des lois (1748) is a work of vast historical and political imagination, Montesquieu cares relatively little to introduce children or childhood into his discussion. This indifference, which could seem simply topical, is remarkable for being at loggerheads with some of the founding ideas of Western political thought, as articulated by Plato and Aristotle. Like Plato, Montesquieu foregrounds education (book 4) in the context of different political systems, but he stops short of considering that children (or certain children) are the ones to be educated. He often refers to the republic of Sparta but barely acknowledges one of its most unusual features, its treatment of children. And though he sometimes alludes to the role of patriarchal authority in society, and though he employs terms like gouvernement domestique and gouvernement politique, he does not take up the Aristotelian debate about the relation of oikos to polis. Clearly Montesquieu is one of the great interpreters of the Greek and Roman traditions, which he discusses at length, and so the question of childhood is worth pursuing. Montesquieu's indifference may help in appraising his redefinition of ancient thought. [End Page 737]

Even if he had not been schooled and interested in the ancients, Montesquieu would also have had compelling modern reasons for reflecting on the subject of childhood. The first philosopher mentioned in the Esprit is a modern, Thomas Hobbes (235; bk. 1, ch. 2). 2 Hobbes was a political philosopher who thought that time spent in reading the Greeks might well be time wasted, and he conveyed in powerful language his vision of a society in which patriarchal authority was defective. To demonstrate "the naturall condition of Mankind," and the consequent need for Leviathan, Hobbes appeals to the contemporary reader's experience of society:

Let him therefore consider with himselfe, when taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his dores; and of his children, and servants, when he locks up his chests. 3

There are laws and people armed to enforce them, and patriarchs who preside in their homes, but their powers are incomplete. The instability of the state of nature shows through the most ordinary institutions of political society, and fathers must take umbrage even at their own children. Hobbes's point is not that there are problems in the family, but rather that children are simply human beings, and this is the way that all human beings get on with one another, regardless of kinship. In an earlier passage from Leviathan, he had even claimed that most people are analogous to children when it comes to the use of reason:

For as for Science, or certain rules of their actions, [most men] are so farre from it, that they know not what it is [...] they who have not been taught the beginnings, and some progresse in [sciences], that they may see how they be acquired and generated, are in this point like children, that having no thought of generation, are made believe by the women that their brothers and sisters are not born, but found in the garden. 4 [End Page 738]

Children are defined by Hobbes as beings who have not yet developed the faculties of speech and reason, 5 and the condition of adults suggests that most of them never will be much more than children. This is the start of a demeaning and paradoxical identity for common people (as children who have learned to speak but still remain childish), and it is striking that Hobbes's example refers to a different kind of mystery about where or how humans come into being. Without science...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 737-753
Launched on MUSE
2002-09-01
Open Access
No
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