IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Montesquieu's Enlightened Laws

The Spirit of the Laws was published in 1748 and was an immediate sensation. Its author, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, was perhaps the grandest figure of the French Enlightenment, though representating a more moderate and conservative voice than the philosophes. Montesquieu's work was well received in England and Scotland, earning praise from figures such as David Hume and Adam Ferguson, and was often cited with respect by the American Founding Fathers. Montesquieu, as the following passages show, sought to impose a limit on conquest while allowing for a right of defensive war. He thought Europe to be suffering from a disease of militarism that would render it impoverished, and he spoke eloquently and forcefully against the domineering spirit that crushed out the life of conquered peoples. His explication of the fundamental principle of the law of nations remains without peer.  

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The law of nations [le droit des gens] is by nature founded on the principle that the various nations should do to one another in times of peace the most good possible, and in times of war the least ill possible, without harming their true interests. The object of war is victory; of victory, conquest; of conquest, preservation. All the laws that form the law of nations should derive from this principle and the preceding one. (1)
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The life of states is like that of men. Men have the right to kill in the case of natural defense; states have the right to wage war for their own preservation. . . . [A]mong societies, the right of natural defense sometimes carries with it a necessity to attack, when one people sees that a longer peace would put another people in a position to destroy it and that an attack at this moment is the only way to prevent such destruction. Hence small societies more frequently have the right to wage wars than large ones, because they are more frequently in a position to fear being destroyed. (2)

Conquest is an acquisition; the spirit of acquisition carries with it the spirit of preservation and use, and not that of destruction . . . It is clear that, once the conquest is made, the conqueror no longer has the right to kill, because it is no longer for him a case of natural defense and of his own preservation.(3)
What good could the Spanish not have done the Mexicans? They had a gentle religion to give them; they brought them a raging superstition. They could have set the slaves free, and they made freemen slaves. They could have made clear to them that human sacrifice was an abuse; instead they exterminated them. I would never finish if I wanted to tell all the good things they did not do, and all the evil ones they did.(4)

If a democracy conquers a people in order to govern it as a subject, it will expose its own liberty, because it will entrust too much power to the magistrates whom it sends out to the conquered state. What danger would not the republic of Carthage have run if Hannibal had taken Rome? Having caused so many revolutions in his own town after his defeat, what might he not have done there after that victory? (5)
Rome, whose passion was to command, whose ambition was to subject everything, who had always usurped, who usurped still, continually pursued great matters of public business; its enemies plotted against it, or it plotted against them. As it was obliged to conduct itself, on the one hand, with heroic courage and, on the other hand, with consummate wisdom, the state of things required that the senate direct public business. The people quarreled with the senate over all branches of legislative power, because they were jealous of their liberty; they did not quarrel with it over the branches of executive power, because they were jealous of their glory. (6)

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If a republic is small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it is large, it is destroyed by an internal vice. This dual drawback taints democracies equally, whether they are good or whether they are bad. The ill is in the thing itself; there is no form that can remedy it. Thus, it is very likely that ultimately men would have been obliged to live forever under the government of one alone if they had not devised a kind of constitution that has all the internal advantages of republican government and the external force of monarchy. I speak of the federal republic. This form of government is an agreement by which many political bodies consent to become citizens of the larger state that they want to form. It is a society of societies that make a new one, which can be enlarged by new associates that unite with it. Such associations made Greece flourish for so long. By using them, The Romans attacked the universe, and with their use alone, the universe defended itself from the Romans; and when Rome had reached its greatest height, the barbarians were able to resist it by associations made beyond the Danube and the Rhine, associations made from fright. Because of them, Holland, Germany, and the Swiss leagues are regarded in Europe as eternal republics. (7)

The spirit of monarchy is war and expansion; the spirit of republics is peace and moderation. (8)
Just as monarchs should be wise increasing their power, they should be no less prudent in limiting it. While they put an end to the drawbacks of being small, they must always have an eye out for the drawbacks of being large. (9)

The enemies of a great prince who has long reigned [Louis XIV] have accused him a thousand times, more from fears than from reasons, I believe, of having formed and pursued the project of universal monarchy. If he had succeeded in it nothing would have been more fatal to Europe, to his first subjects, to himself, and to his family. Heaven, which knows the true advantages, has better served him by defeats than it would have by victories. Instead of making him the only king in Europe, it has favored him more by making him the most powerful of all. (10)
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A new disease has spread across Europe; it has afflicted our princes and made them keep an inordinate number of troops. It redoubles in strength and necessarily becomes contagious; for, as soon as one state increases what it calls its troops, the others suddenly increase theirs, so that nothing is gained thereby but the common ruin. Each monarch keeps ready all the armies he would have if his peoples were in danger of being exterminated; and this state in which all strain against all is called peace. Thus Europe is so ruined that if individuals were in the situation of the three most opulent powers in this part of the world, they would have nothing to live on. We are poor with the wealth and commerce of the whole universe, and soon, as a result of these soldiers, we shall have nothing but soldiers and we shall be like the Tartars. (11)

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These extracts come from Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

1. “On positive laws,” Book 1, Chapter 3, pp. 7-8
2. “On war,” Book 10, Chapter 2, p. 138
3. “On the right of conquest,” Book 10, Chapter 3, pp. 139-40
4. “Some advantages for the conquered peoples,” Book 10, Chapter 4, p. 142
5. “On a republic that conquers,” Book 10, Chapter 6, p. 143
6. “On executive power in the[Roman] republic,” Book 11, Chapter 17, pp. 177-78
7. “How republics provide for their security,” Book 9, Chapter 1, p. 131
8. “That the federal constitution should be composed of states of the same nature, above all of republican states,” Book 9, Chapter 2, p. 132
9. “On the defensive force of states in general,” Book 9, Chapter 6, pp. 135-36
10. “Reflections,” Book 9, Chapter 7, p. 136
11. “On the increase in troops,” Book 13, Chapter 17, p. 224