Montesquieu – The Spirit of the Laws – Part 3

[For a brief explanation of this project go here.  And for bibliographical information go here.]

BOOK 1 – On laws in general.  Chapter II – On the laws of nature

Chapter 2 is short, just a little over one page, but Montesquieu covers a decent amount.  He starts by saying that the laws of nature are prior to the political and civil laws.  Therefore, we must look to the nature of people before we look at societies.

Montesquieu says that, “The law that impresses on us the idea of a creator and thereby leads us toward him is the first of the natural laws in importance, though not first in the order of these laws.”  This stuck out because it’s not what we normally think of when we think of laws.  I suppose it can be interpreted as a scientific law.  Just like F=ma, we have an idea of a creator.  It feels like a stretch, but I can’t think of another way to look at it.

He is on more solid ground in the rest of the chapter.  Peace, seeking nourishment, “the natural entreaty” people make to one another and the desire to live in society are the four other natural laws discussed.  Peace comes from a natural timidity which comes from our desire for self preservation.  Montesquieu even takes a paragraph to rebut Hobbes’ more violent State of Nature.  Seeking nourishment comes from feeling hungry.  “The natural entreaty,” seems to be caused by the fact that people like being around other people, and we have natural sexual desires.  And a desire for society comes from the natural gaining of knowledge in conjunction with the other three laws.

Book 1 – On laws in general.  Chapter III – On positive laws

This chapter opens with, “As soon as men are in society, they lose their feeling of weakness; the equality that was among them ceases, and the state of war begins.”  So optimistic.  Montesquieu says there are two different states of war.  One is between different nations and the other is between the individuals within a society.  It is these two states of war that bring about the need for laws among people.

The laws bearing on the relations between people of different nations is the “right of nations”.  The laws bearing on the relations between the governed and the government is the “political right”.  The laws bearing on the relations between fellow citizens is the “civil right”.

The right of nations derives from two principles, “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,” and, “The object of war is victory; of victory, conquest; of conquest, preservation.”  It’s hard to say at this point much of anything about this.  It’s asserted, but not really defended.  And it’s not entirely clear how these principals would be put into practice.  I guess we’ll see.  I have a feeling Montesquieu will come back to this.

The political right comes from the fact that a society cannot exist without a government (I kind of agree with him on this, so we’ll just ignore the hard core anarchists for now).  A government can take many different forms.  “The government most in conformity with nature is the one whose particular arrangement best relates to the disposition of the people for whom it is established.”  Viewed generously, this could work.  There are also a lot of easily foreseeable problems.  Again, we’ll see where he goes with it.

Montesquieu doesn’t say much here about the civil right.  He views it as a way of uniting individuals so that our individual strengths can be united.

Next he says that law and reason are pretty synonymous.  However, since circumstances differ, particular laws are not transferable from one society to another.  Laws should be appropriate for the people  in that society.  And they must relate to the principle of the government.

All of these relations together are “The Spirit of the Laws” (that would make a catchy title).  This is the end of Book 1.  So, it has basically been stage setting so far.  I must admit, though, he’s got me curious to see where it will go.

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