Montesquieu – The Spirit of the Laws – Part 1

[For a brief explanation of this project go here.]

I am starting my public reading project with Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws.  I had a few reasons for picking this.  First, it is an absolute classic, but I’ve never read it, not even excerpts.  Second, this is a presidential election year and I know the book was influential with the founding fathers, so it seems appropriate.  Finally, it is quite long, over 700 pages, so I’m hoping that this project will help me understand the book better.  Since I’m no longer a student, I don’t read as attentively as I used to.  I’d like to change that.

I will be using the Cambridge University Press edition translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller and Harold Samuel Stone.  It is part of the “Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought” series.  And the ISBN is 0521369746, if you’re interested in such things.

I started this reading with the Author’s foreword and Preface.  The purpose of the foreword is simply to explain some language choices that I will find throughout the book.  I need to keep in mind that “virtue” is used in the sense of “political virtue” and in a republic is “love of the homeland” or “love of equality”.  He does state that different types of states have different virtues and gives the example of monarchy having honor as the “spring” that makes it move.  He ends the foreword by stating that when he talks about a “good man”, he means a “political good man” as opposed to a “Christian good man”.

Nothing in the foreword was particularly exciting, but I appreciate it’s presence.  It’s easy to forget that language changes.  This was written over 20 years and published in the 1750s.  Thanks to the foreword, I know that he was using words both differently than we use them now and differently than his contemporaries used them then.

The Preface is less important.  It is basically a plea for the reader’s patience and understanding.  He is cautioning us to remember to judge the work as a whole rather than in parts.  He is also trying to preempt any backlash for his controversial views.  Since I haven’t read these views yet, I can only imagine that they were controversial by 18th century standards, but won’t be so controversial now.  This makes the Preface interesting from a historical perspective rather than a philosophical perspective.

So, that’s it for my first post in this series.  This is a work in progress.  I’m sure it will change a bit as I go.  And if you know the text or decide to read along, feel free to comment about anything I miss or get wrong.

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