History of Fear, Part 2

by Corey Robin on October 5, 2013

Earlier in the week, I inaugurated a series on the intellectual history of fear with a post on Hobbes’s theory of rational fear. Today, I continue with Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror.

Now before you run away in anticipation of a fit of boredom, let me make the case for reading Montesquieu. If you felt like you were frogmarched as an undergraduate through chapter 6 of Book XI of The Spirit of the Laws, jump ahead to his crazy and kooky discussion of climate. If you were bored stiff by the separation of powers, read his gruesome treatment of despotism. Or, better yet, read his scandalous novel Persian Letters—it’s got sex, race, violence, colonialism, and sex (did I mention it’s got sex?)—which prompted Joseph de Maistre’s famous barb against the Rights of Man and in defense of multiculturalism:

The Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world.  In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But, as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.

But more likely you probably haven’t read Montesquieu at all.  Which is a shame.

Montesquieu used to be a theorist of commanding interest and the subject of some excellent (if at times eccentric) left-wing commentary. My favorites include Franz Neumann’s chapter in The Democratic and Authoritarian State; Althusser’s brilliant essay from the 1950s; and Marshall Berman’s discussion of the Persian Letters in his first book The Politics of Authenticity. Also check out Judith Shklar’s short book on him, from Oxford’s now discontinued Past Masters series; it’s terrific.

But lately he’s become a bit of a boutique-y item in the canon. Folks who read and write about him tend to belong to the antiquarian set.  They’re slightly fussy, vaguely conservative, scholars who like talk about things like moderation and who inevitably find in his works a mirror of their own beliefs. Montesquieu becomes, in their hands, the genteel guardian of an anodyne tradition of political moderation (though there is a burgeoning theoretical literature on the passions that sometimes breaks through this encrusted shell).

What gets lost in these treatments is the real Montesquieu, a man of fascinating if contradictory commitments, whose arguments and anticipations will find their fulfillment in some of the most blood-curdling visions of the 20th century.

I’ve tried to recapture some of that Montesquieu here (check out my discussion of Montesquieu, Freud, the death instinct, and WWI). But again, if you want to read more, buy the book. [click to continue…]