Montesquieu and Modern Republicanism

AuthorRobin Douglass
Publication Date01 October 2012
Date01 October 2012
SubjectOriginal Article
Montesquieu and Modern Republicanismpost_932 703..719
Robin Douglass
University of Exeter
In this article I explore Montesquieu’s discussion of republics and the constitution of England in order to question the
extent to which he should be accorded a central place in a tradition of modern republicanism. This involves
challenging Paul Rahe’s recent thesis that Montesquieu thought both that monarchy wasnot at all suited to moder nity
and that England was a republic all along.By stressing the importance of honour and ambition I argue that the liberty
that Montesquieu thought exemplif‌ied in the English constitution was, in large part, secured by its monarchical
principle. Moreover,by eschewing the relevance of political virtue for modern commercial societies, Montesquieu set
his own proposals out in opposition to the prevalent French republican discourse of his time; thus it is highly
problematic to view him as having proposed a republic for the moderns. The article also serves to disentangle
Montesquieu’s understanding of political liberty from his analysis of republics in order to refute the idea that he
provides support for a distinctively republican conception of liberty as non-domination. This undermines the
republican critique of liberalism set forth by Philip Pettit, which is further challenged by considering the aff‌inities
between Montesquieu’s and Constant’s conceptions of liberty.Many commentators have argued that Montesquieu
repudiated classical republicanism,yet on the reading advanced in this article it is equally problematic to view him as
a modern republican.
Keywords: Montesquieu; Philip Pettit; republicanism; liberty; constitution of England
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, is widely recognised as having occupied
a pivotal role in the development of eighteenth-century republicanism and he has been
credited with setting the terms of republican debate for the remainder of the century in
both America (Shklar,1990, p. 265) and France (Nelson, 2004,p. 176).While the extent of
Montesquieu’s inf‌luence is relatively uncontroversial, the details and implications of his
analysis of republics are a matter of much scholarly debate and his legacy for modern
political thought remains greatly contested.
Most of the ancient peoples, Montesquieu wrote,‘lived in governments that had virtue
for their principle, and when that virtue was in full force, things were done in those
governments that we no longer see and that astonish our small souls’(IV.4).1There is some
basis, then,for claiming that Montesquieu ‘more than any writer of his time, did the most
to popularise the idea that the ideal form of government was a republic based upon political
virtue ’ (Linton,2001, p.13) and many commentators have argued that he aimed to recover
something of the ancient republic for modern states (Hulliung, 1976; Keohane, 1972;
Thiemann, 2009). Yet although Montesquieu deeply admired ancient polities, it is not so
clear that he thought their principles and virtues at all applicable to eighteenth-century
Europe. For every commentator who reads Montesquieu as a republican, another is ready
to argue that he repudiated classical republicanism (Carrithers, 2001; Pangle,1973; Shklar,
1990). The debate has only intensif‌ied recently, with Annabel de Dijn arguing that
Montesquieu developed a conservative aristocratic liberalism opposed to republicanism
(Dijn, 2008, pp. 20–32), and Michael Sonescher maintaining that Montesquieu sought to
propose an ideal of monarchy for modern times (Sonescher,2007, pp. 95–172).Contesting
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2011.00932.x
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2012 VOL 60, 703–719
© 2012The Author.Political Studies © 2012 Political Studies Association
such views, Paul Rahe argues that Montesquieu thought that monarchies had no place in
modernity and that he instead provided the foundations for modern, commercial democ-
racies (Rahe, 2009). Rahe’s account is forceful and particularly important given that he
accords Montesquieu such a prominent position in the founding of modern republicanism.
This article advances two interrelated theses in order to understand better the relation-
ship between Montesquieu and modern republicanism. First, against Rahe,it is maintained
that Montesquieu cannot be viewed as having proposed a republic for the moderns. This
involves refuting the claim that Montesquieu thought that England was really a republic all
along, which is pursued by emphasising the distinction between the natures and principles
of the different types of government.Moreover,keeping this distinction in mind reveals the
importance of honour and ambition in Montesquieu’s analysis of England and in his
proposals for modern commercial societies, which were set out in opposition to the
prevalent French republican discourse in which the concept of political virtue was central.
Second, this article argues that Montesquieu’s analysis of republics should be thoroughly
disentangled from his ideas on political liberty. This is especially signif‌icant in light of the
recent revival of a form of republicanism that is primarily characterised by an adherence to
a conception of liberty as non-domination.2The revival owes much to the theoretical work
of Philip Pettit and the historical work of Quentin Skinner, both of whom view republi-
canism and liberalism as conf‌licting traditions based on rival conceptions of liberty (Pettit,
1997, pp. 7–11; Skinner,1998, p. x). Montesquieu is one of the ‘big names’ of the tradition
that Pettit draws on (Pettit, 1997,p. 19),pr imarily because he provides support for the idea
of liberty as non-domination. However, when his ideas on political liberty are viewed
alongside his discussion of political virtue and modern commercial societies, analysis of
Montesquieu rather confutes the very viability of the distinction between the two traditions
upon which the modern republican critique of liberalism rests.
Taken together these two theses expose the problems with placing Montesquieu within
any distinctively republican tradition, be it classical or modern. Indeed, one of the greatest
problems within the existing literature is that there is some equivocation over what
republicanism actually entailed for Montesquieu;3thus the present aim is to elucidate the
precise nature and bearing of his discussion of republics. The article begins by examining
Montesquieu’s typology of the different forms of government in order to show, against
Rahe, that the principle of the English government resembles honour. This is further
supported by analysis of Montesquieu’s chapter on the English constitution, which reveals
the importance of honour and the constitution’s monarchical elements in securing political
liberty. Moreover, the analysis demonstrates that Montesquieu did not identify anything
distinctively republican about his def‌inition of political liberty, a point that undermines the
basis on which Pettit has accorded him a place in the tradition of modern republicanism.
Montesquieu rather associated republics with the principle of political virtue, yet the article
proceeds to show that he repudiated the relevance of this principle and instead sided with
the doux commerce theorists against those who sought to revive political virtue in modernity.
It is therefore deeply problematic to view Montesquieu’s proposals for modern states as
being distinctively republican. The article concludes by showing how the reading of
Montesquieu advanced confounds the distinction between republican and liberal traditions
as they are understood in much contemporary political theory.
© 2012The Author.Political Studies © 2012 Political Studies Association

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