- Montesquieu: An Introduction. A Universal Mind for a Universal Science of Political-Legal Systems by Domenico Felice
This brief work offers a translation from the Italian of the Introduction that Domenico Felice, a prolific and distinguished scholar of Montesquieu’s thought, included with the work that he edited and published in 2014, Montesquieu, Tutte le opere (1721–1754) (Milan: Bompiani). Felice begins by referring to the Frenchman as a traveller akin to Odysseus. Although as a young man Montesquieu travelled widely in Europe, and lived in England for nearly two years, Felice suggests that Montesquieu’s true odyssey occurred through his intense study of books, through which he travelled to both distant lands and time periods. Montesquieu’s intellectual journeys provided the material for his own writings, and Felice’s monograph devotes five of its nine chapters to specific works (the Lettres persanes, the Traité des devoirs (now lost, but which Felice reconstructs), Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, and finally De l’esprit des lois). Some chapters are as short as four or six pages, whereas the one on De l’esprit des lois consists of forty-eight. Felice identifies ‘Montesquieu’s real and nagging thought’ as ‘the oppression of man by man at all levels, in particular in political and religious spheres’ (p. 44). Scholars would surely agree with this assessment, but the particulars of Felice’s conclusions are distinctive. With respect to [End Page 454] oppression in the political sphere he finds, for example, that in Montesquieu’s early work, Lettres persanes, ‘contrary to prevalent assumption, the accusation of Montesquieu against the prototype of the absolute kings of Europe (that is Louis XIV of France) is far from veiled’ (p. 38). In noting that De l’esprit des lois is different in this regard, as the ‘French monarchy is not associated to [sic] despotism, as in’ the earlier work, ‘but to a monarchy tending to despotism’, Montesquieu nevertheless reveals in the later work, in Felice’s view, Europe’s susceptibility to despotism (p. 109, n. 56). With respect to the religious sphere, Felice, in keeping with his other work on Montesquieu, sees him as a believing Christian and a devoted Catholic (p. 66; see also pp. 57, 97, and 119). As pleasant and informative as the journey Felice provides into Montesquieu’s thought is, it must be said that the idyll is jarred by numerous mistakes in copy-editing. One finds, for example, that the English ‘and’ is rendered by the Italian ‘e’ (p. 152, n. 42). In some instances, the errors are so consequential that they necessarily slow the progress of the reader who must stop to puzzle over the intended meaning. For example, Felice offers that the ancient Mediterranean was divided between two competing republics: ‘that of Rome, and that of Cartage [sic]’, and continues that the ‘latter emerged victorious and went through a phase of extraordinary growth’ when he clearly means the former —Rome — not the latter (p. 26). Nevertheless, Felice’s effort is a most welcome addition to the literature available to English-speaking students and scholars of Montesquieu.