- Montesquieu, the Modern West, and Democracy's Drift:An Interview with Paul A. Rahe
Paul A. Rahe, Holder of the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in Western Heritage and professor of history at Hillsdale College, has written extensively on the history of Western political thought. His Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (North Carolina University Press, 1992)—reissued in 1994 in a three-volume paperback edition—examines Western republics and republican thought from ancient Greece and Rome up to the founding of the United States. His most recent books, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic (Yale University Press, 2009) and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville on the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press, 2009), focus largely on the ideas of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, who Rahe values especially for his treatment of the challenges faced by modern liberal societies. Joseph Lucas recently spoke with Rahe about Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift. Directly following the interview is John Dunn's review of Rahe's Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2008), which considers the influence of the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s on modern political thought.
What are you trying to accomplish with Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift?
I'm looking for what Michael Oakeshott called a "practical past"; something in the past that will help us understand the present. I came to the conclusion as I was working with some of this material that a sea change took place with England's 1688 Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution was England's second 17th-century attempt to settle the relationship between the king and the parliament. The choice was either absolute monarchy on the French model or what Montesquieu describes as a republic concealed under the form of a monarchy. Montesquieu became aware of the latter kind of regime's unique capacity to project power when the Duke of Marlborough annihilated the French army over and over again between 1704 and 1709 in the War of the Spanish Succession. Montesquieu at the time was a teenager from an aristocratic family, someone who could look forward to a position in public life in France. Watching his country, the predominant nation on the continent of Europe, get shellacked in a very great war caused him to reflect on what had happened in Britain. He saw that Europeans had entered a world in which liberal, commercial, religiously tolerant republics were able to govern an extended territory because the separation of powers had emerged. He foresaw that these liberal regimes would be dominant and that regimes modeled on classical Rome in one fashion or another—imperial Rome or republican Rome—would not be able to stand up to these modern Carthages.
Montesquieu's insights drew from a new species of political science that emerged in the work of the 17th-century thinker Pierre Nicole. Largely forgotten today, Nicole was the first European writer to articulate the idea that out of private vice can come public virtue. Motivated by vanity and self-interest, people in a commercial society make thousands of minute social contracts with each other, which constitute what Nicole and the many writers he influenced—Pierre Bayle, Bernard Mandeville, and others—called politeness and civility, the glue of an advanced society. Montesquieu applied this idea in his analysis of England.
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Do you judge Montesquieu to be the premier political thinker of the modern West?
Yes, I do. He is certainly the premier political thinker of the 18th century. The Scottish Enlightenment occurred in the shadow cast by Montesquieu and Hume. And much of it is derivative from Montesquieu—a development of his thinking. Scholars know this, but the general public doesn...