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The Elusiveness of the OrdinaryStudies in the Possibility of Philosophy
By Stanley Rosen
Yale University PressCopyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePolitics and Nature in Montesquieu
A dispute concerning the philosophical authority of science marks the decisive character of the pursuit of the ordinary in the twentieth century. Those for whom ordinary experience is still understood as fundamentally political in the broad sense of that term differ from those who assign no special prominence to politics but arrive at a theoretical abstraction of "the plain man" or the life of "average everydayness," to mention two prominent examples. In the first case, "ordinary experience" is inseparable from the older view, going back to Aristotle, that human beings are by nature the sole political animals. Ordinary life is in this tradition the manifestation of what is common to human beings, not in a purely biological sense, or even merely as private individuals engaged in everyday discourse concerning the pretechnical context of practical life, but as citizens rather than as isolated or self-centered psychological atoms. Political life is primarily the domain of doksa, belief or opinion, and the most important of these beliefs are, in the Aristotelian tradition, the endoksa or views of the most serious and experienced citizens. In this honorific sense, doksa is very close to common sense.
In the second case, the role of politics is minimized. One detects instead the influence of the Christian preoccupation with the destiny of the individual person, or alternatively, the increasing anonymity of late-modern life that is dominated by technology, industry, and the other features of mass society. In this context, the "ordinary" comes to mean the inner life of everyone and anyone, soon submerged by the anonymity of modern society, and reappearing as a locus of theoretical structures, whether these be sociological, phenomenological, or ontological. There is obviously a social and political background to the theoretical devices known as the ordinary speaker or the plain man, even if these mythical personages are not conceived explicitly as "the average citizen."
Contemporary representatives of these competing orientations have a forefather in Montesquieu, a paradigmatic example of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, who himself revised the older, explicitly social and political conception of ordinary experience. Montesquieu is, of course, a political philosopher, and perhaps the grandfather of sociology, not a theoretician of the life-world. But we can see very clearly in his great work, the Spirit of the Laws, the founding of the attempt to explain everyday human practice by means of the inspiration and even some of the techniques of the new experimental and mathematical sciences. This inspiration underlies many of the most influential contemporary philosophical approaches to the pursuit of the ordinary, independently of whether they are explicitly concerned with the political as such. Montesquieu provides us with a classic statement of this approach and enables us to see its intrinsic deficiency with great clarity.
The statement is most fully visible in book 2 of the Spirit of the Laws (hereafter, SL). Montesquieu stands at the intersection between the Aristotelian tradition of practical judgment (phronesis) and the generation in which the model of the natural sciences stimulates the development of the social and political sciences. The ordinary, commonsense, or "doxic" life of the citizen is thus pulled in two differing explanatory directions. The result of this inner tension is not a "science" of states and societies in the sense determined by the model of mathematical physics but almost the reverse: the philosophy of history. The result of the attempt to master everyday life by the rigors of scientific reasoning leads paradoxically to the dissolution of nature into history. The presumed function of history is to supply us with examples from which the natural laws of human practice may be inferred. In the absence of an appropriate model of human nature, however, namely, one that underlies history rather than being inferred from it, we soon become enthralled by the multiplicity of difference. The scientific model is inadequate to the task of eliciting the intelligible structure of social and political life. This is the forerunner of the failure of scientific or ontological theories to explain ordinary experience in the twentieth century. Or so I will argue.
I am in no way claiming that Montesquieu addresses the question of ordinary experience in the style of twentieth-century philosophers. My claim is rather that contemporary partisans of formal analysis, whether scientific in the strict sense or not, are repeating in principle the error that Montesquieu and his generation are the first, or among the first, to make. And the more rigorously our contemporaries exclude social and political content from their analyses in favor of complex abstract structures and transcendental foundations, the less human is the ordinary speaker or plain man who dwells in their doctrines; and the more moribund the life-world of that person, the emptier his or her zone of average everydayness.
Montesquieu is an exemplary representative of the attempt to reconcile the traditional, prudential study of politics and legislation with the spirit of the new natural science. This attempt is characteristic of the early, or moderate, eighteenth-century Enlightenment. By "moderate Enlightenment" I refer to the absence of revolutionary fervor and also to a belief in infinite progress, as well as in the possibility of avoiding war through commerce and in so doing, combining virtue and material comfort. The key to this attempted reconciliation lies in the success or failure of the associated interpretation of the laws of human nature in the light of the conception of natural laws that characterizes Cartesian and Newtonian science. The central question is thus whether there can be a "science" of politics (or for that matter, of society) that articulates the deductive structure of natural and positive law without sacrificing the prudential commonsense experience on which political and moral judgments have always been based, and in accord with which we have tried to construct our social institutions.
Montesquieu himself calls our attention to the difficulty of his text in a passage that deserves to be quoted in full: "I ask a favor that I fear will not be accorded me; that is not to judge by a moment's reading the work of twenty years, [and also] that one approve or condemn the book as a whole and not some few phrases. If one wants to seek the design of the author, one can find it only in the design of the work" (229). Unfortunately, it has not been easy to find this design. I cannot say that I have discovered a concealed deductive structure beneath the somewhat disheveled surface of the SL. Most scholars are struck by the peculiar arrangement of Montesquieu's subject matter, the sometimes arbitrary-looking nature of his transitions, and the apparently random character of his collections of examples. Certainly Montesquieu's practice leaves us in no doubt that the "design" of a work in political philosophy is quite different from that of a treatise on physics or the laws of mechanics.
It has seemed best to me to follow the written order of the text rather than to gather together passages on similar topics for discontinuous analysis. This decision allows me to follow Montesquieu's thought as he himself presented it, and so to allow for the discovery of an inner plan, should one be indicated, rather than to obscure the author's order with an external hypothesis.
What does Montesquieu mean by "esprit" in his title? The laws are themselves "alive" and are sustained by the constitution, by the articulation of the motivating principle of each form of government, but also by "the mores, climate, religion, commerce, and so forth" of each particular political organism. Laws are dead if separated from this living organism, and the organism is in turn derived from its principle. Furthermore, the laws do not determine but rather are determined by the factors mentioned in the full title. It follows that the spirit of the laws is similarly determined. One cannot legislate the climate, which has an effect on the kind of laws that are appropriate for a given geographical region. As to the other factors, Montesquieu means that a people's customs, religion, and even commercial relations have already been determined by the time these people are ready to engage in self-conscious legislation.
For example, a land with a sea coast and natural harbors will develop maritime commercial practices: wharves, fishing, shipping, import and export, maritime law, and so forth. Religions arise rather early in the history of a people; they are not normally legislated into existence but crystallize out of myths, rituals, legends, and from long-standing practices. The prophetic religions, and in particular Christianity, seem to interrupt tradition, but they are not the product of legislative reflection. Religions may be subsequently regulated by laws, but they cannot be created by them. People are accustomed to behave in certain ways, which move them to pass laws of such and such a kind; or alternatively, the ways in which they behave are best served by laws of such and such a kind. It is the task of the political philosopher to determine which laws are best suited to the organisms that emerge in the manner I have just sketched.
It follows from this that Montesquieu is not a "revolutionary" legislator. Laws are produced in accord with nature, a term that has a broad but not an indefinite range of meanings. Nature in this broad sense is revealed by history. In other words, human nature is always the same, but it is diversely individuated by circumstance. Hence we need a knowledge of history in order to see both that different circumstances require different adaptations of natural principles, but also that there are natural principles. Furthermore, these principles are not uniformly applicable in all cases. Instead, they serve as a guide for the improvement of those laws that express the spirit of the local situation. One could say that the regularity of ordinary experience expresses itself in the diversity of custom. Regularity is the basis of science, as is diversity of history. The problem is that these two bases form an unstable conjunction.
So much for the title. It is entirely characteristic of Montesquieu's style that he opens his treatise with a point of terminological clarification, yet in such a way as to produce ambiguity. The word Avertissement does not here mean simply "preface" or "foreword." It is literally a warning to the reader. The "preface" follows this warning. A proper understanding of the first four books of his work, Montesquieu says, depends upon the observation of how he uses the term "virtue" (vertu). No such warning is necessary in the case of "spirit" or even of "laws." Each of these terms has a conventional and noncontroversial sense that will no doubt be refined as we proceed but that is satisfactory to orient us in our study of Montesquieu. "Virtue," however, is the potential source of controversy because it designates distinct and even conflicting senses of "excellence." Montesquieu wishes to distinguish between political and moral or religious uses of the term. We can detect here a resonance of the tradition that begins with Machiavelli and is institutionalized by Hobbes. The scientific study of politics requires that it be separated from the moral and religious dogmas of a particular nation. I hardly need emphasize that Montesquieu must be particularly sensitive to the authority of the Catholic church and the French monarchy. But his concern goes beyond this. If the analysis of political virtue is confused with an account of moral and religious virtue, Montesquieu could be made to speak absurdities "which would be revolting in every country in the world, because in all countries in the world, people want morality" (227).
Reference to "excellence" has immediate moral implications, even and perhaps most of all when it is being used in a morally neutral sense. Montesquieu wishes to emphasize that his terminological distinction is not intended to contradict traditional morality. But the fact that he feels required to issue this warning is itself a sign that the distinction is dangerous. It remains to be seen whether moral virtue supervenes over political virtue. Even further, it remains to be seen whether the expression "political excellence" can be understood independently of moral and religious considerations. If the term is totally neutral, then a dangerous split opens between politics and morality: science or political philosophy in the spirit of modern science is shown to be politically dangerous. But if the term is not totally neutral, then it has moral and religious implications that are potential rivals to the traditional beliefs of the nation. Montesquieu was in fact subjected to extensive criticism by those who spoke for the tradition and by officials of the Catholic church; his masterpiece was placed on the Index in 1751.
Let us now look more closely at the terminological distinction itself. All questions of morality to one side, the distinction as presented by Montesquieu is ambiguous. By separating political virtue from both moral and Christian virtue, he thereby implies, or at least leaves open the possibility, that these two are not identical. But there is a more important ambiguity. In Machiavelli, the distinction between political and moral virtu can be justified on pragmatic grounds that are themselves not scientifically precise, and for that reason allow a certain movement between the two terms. For Montesquieu, however, the distinction is technical, and it is intended to be rigorous. Ambiguity in the definitions of these crucial terms must necessarily be transmitted throughout the work. This seems to be the case with respect to what is arguably the single most important conception in the SL, namely, political virtue.
The second point of importance is that Montesquieu identifies political virtue as "the mainspring" (ressort) that drives the republican government, just as honor is the mainspring that moves the monarchy. It is not until the beginning of book 2 that he introduces his main division of regimes into republican, monarchic, and despotic (239). He also says there that aristocracies and democracies are both republics. Assuming that this classification is already in play, the mainspring of these two regimes is accordingly political virtue.
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