Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government

What would people be like in our natural state, without the artificial props of societies and governments? The Great Books don’t always agree on the answer to that question. Rousseau tells us that Men are not naturally enemiesWar is not, therefore, a relationship between man and man, but between State and State… Obviously civilization corrupts and kills. On the other side is Hobbes. He says that without society and government there would be no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So Roussseau is wrong, civilization provides protection. Montesquieu thinks they’re both wrong because they’re asking the wrong question. For Montesquieu societies and governments ARE our natural state. Living in society under government is as natural for people as it is for bees to live in hives or fish to swim in schools. Montesquieu outlines these four basic laws of nature for human beings: the first is that we all seek peace; second, we all seek food and nourishment; third, we all have a natural inclination for other beings like us; fourth, we all want to live in some sort of society with those others.

We all want to live around other people. But the way we live varies widely from one culture to the next. Montesquieu distinguishes between four types of government which orders societies. First are democracies (or republics); second are aristocracies; third are monarchies; and lastly there are tyrannies (or despotisms). But these are only the FORMS of government. They only provide the shell which gives shape to a particular society. Montesquieu calls this the “nature” of the government. The “nature” of the United States government is a republic. That’s our form of government but that’s not what makes us tick. Montesquieu points out that something has to give society the energy it needs to get things done. This is what he calls the “principles” of government. These principles are what make cultures go. The nature of government (its structure) determines the principle (the driving energy) of its society.

Here’s a simple example. There are different means of transportation available for humans. We can drive a car. The means of transportation (or nature of transportation to use Montesquieu’s term) is the automobile. The principle which makes it go is gasoline. We can use a hot air balloon. The nature is the balloon but the principle which makes it rise is helium. We can take a sailboat. The nature is the boat. Wind is the principle which makes the boat move. And so forth. The way to make things move depends on the form of transportation we choose. And so it is with government. The type of government we have determines the type of society we live in.

Montesquieu outlines the four types of government and the driving force behind each one. The driving principle of DESPOTISM is fear, when a ruler maintains power by making citizens afraid of him. This is the form of government Herodotus describes in his Persian Wars. The driving principle of MONARCHY is honor. In the Iliad of Homer we find two kings vying for power. Neither Agamemnon nor Achilles wants to be dishonored in the eyes of other Greeks. The driving principle of ARISTOCRACY is moderation. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels a breed of talking horses act more rational and moderate than human beings. Despite being horses they form a natural aristocracy by restraining their passions. Finally, the driving principle of DEMOCRACY is virtue. Our own Founding Fathers believed that people can’t govern themselves unless they cultivate the virtues necessary for citizenship in a free republic. The Federalist Papers try to channel the political virtues so government by the people will succeed. This is a modern view of man in his natural state: an American citizen going into a voting booth.


Anonymous WJ Halverson said...

Very clear summary! Hope you are a high school civics teacher, because God knows we are in desparate need of explaining all this to the future voters and leaders of America. My 'boomer' generation has lead us to the brink of civic & moral collapse.

11/11/2011 7:19 AM  

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