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20 October

Montesquieu, Estates and Liberty


In a dictionary on the web, I read this passage about the political views of Montesquieu:

"Montesquieu's most radical work divided French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of powers existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. These powers were to be divided up among the three classes, which he referred to as Estates, so that each would have a power over the other. This was radical because it completely eliminated the clergy from the estates and erased any last vestige of a feudalistic structure." (http://dictionary.laborlawtalk.com/Charles_de_Secondat%2C_Baron_de_Montesquieu)

This formulates an opinion on Montesquieu's work that I do not share. According to my reading of Montesquieu, the idea that he wanted the state powers "to be divided up among the three classes, which he referred to as Estates", is simply mistaken.

Montesquieu writes:

"Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits? To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. A government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits." (The Spirit of Laws, book XI, ch 4)

So M. is of the opinion that it is necessary, "from the very nature of things", that power should check power. This, rather than any anticlericalism, is the "radicalism" of Montesquieu.

The root of the confusion lies, I believe, in the historical tradition of the more or less periodical assemblies of the Estates, Etats généraux , of France. Assemblies of the Estates, or similar, have played significant, but not decisive roles in various Kingdoms. They might have allowed the King to share his absolute power with his people, at least symbolically, and they also provided the King and his people with an important channel of communication (a "public sphere", albeit one of a temporary and limited kind).

But Montesquieu's thinking about how "power should be a check to power" is inspired by the history of the English Revolutions, not by the tradition of the Etats Généraux. To Montesquieu, the political theorist and philosopher, the political sphere is autonomous visavi the economical classes of the society. Indeed, his political theory is an attempt at establishing, theoretically and practically, a political system that is characterised by liberty.

Montesquieu is not radical, but moderate: "Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments".

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Re: Montesquieu, Estates and Liberty

"La démocratie et l'aristocratie ne sont point des États libres par leur nature. La liberté politique ne se trouve que dans les gouvernements modérés. Mais elle n'est pas toujours dans les États modérés; elle n'y est que lorsqu'on n'abuse pas du pouvoir; mais c'est une expérience éternelle que tout homme qui a du pouvoir est porté à en abuser; il va jusqu'à ce qu'il trouve des limites. Qui le dirait! la vertu même a besoin de limites.

Pour qu'on ne puisse abuser du pouvoir, il faut que, par la disposition des choses, le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir. Une constitution peut être telle que personne ne sera contraint de faire les choses auxquelles la loi ne l'oblige pas, et à ne point faire celles que la loi lui permet."
(Livre XI: des lois qui forment la liberté politique dans son rapport avec la constitution
Chapitre IV,

Postad av: Mikael Böök 20 Oct 2006 14:15

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