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Liberty in Montesquieu


The Spirit of the Laws (1748) is often considered one of the founding works of political liberalism. Commentators such as Emile Faguet, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, Leo Strauss, Thomas Pangle, and Pierre Manent have all canonized Montesquieu – alongside John Locke – as one of the forefathers of liberal political thought. On this reading, the essence of Montesquieu’s philosophy lies in his theory of the separation of powers, which he takes to be a precondition of political liberty. Since “any man who has power is led to abuse it,” Montesquieu contends, “power must check power by the arrangement of things.” (SL 11.4, 155). Yet more recently, a series of interpreters have thrown doubt on this dominant reading. In order to revisit and assess this debate, I begin in part one by examining definitions of political liberty as distinct from so-called “philosophical” liberty. In part two, I consider Montesquieu’s “solution” to the threat despotism poses to all forms of government, namely, the distribution of state powers and the division of social forces, while evaluating the status of the “English model.” I conclude in part three by probing the original distinction between political and civil liberty. Finally, Finally, Montesquieu’s political theory cannot be integrated into the tradition of republicanism conceived as a theory of participatory self-rule. It challenges the contemporary conception of republicanism (especially that of Philipp Pettit ) emphasizing non-domination as athe republican definition of freedom. Rather than view Montesquieu as a defender of certain aspects of republicanism (non-domination) but not others (civic participation), we should consider whether the usual distinction whetherbetween political liberalism and classical republicanism is partly flawed. Montesquieu’s understanding of liberty fits neither a standard liberal view nor a civic republican one; it includes elements that reach beyond both, such as a political culture grounded on honor as much as on the love of liberty.
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hal-04031678 , version 1 (16-03-2023)


  • HAL Id : hal-04031678 , version 1


Céline Spector. Liberty in Montesquieu. Sharon Krause; Keegan Callanan. The Cambridge Companion to Montesquieu, Cambridge University Press, pp.147-161, 2023. ⟨hal-04031678⟩
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