Montesquieu – The Spirit of the Laws – Part 2
[For a brief explanation of this project go here. And for bibliographical information go here.]
BOOK 1 – On laws in general. Chapter I – On laws in their relation with various beings.
Here is my second entry in my public reading series. I must apologize for the delay. My life has been challenging lately. I hope to be more consistent going forward.
Chapter I of Book 1 is pretty basic and introductory. Montesquieu tells us that laws, “are the necessary relations deriving from the nature of things.” Because of this, everything has its laws, even god. And these laws are eternal and unchanging. God created the universe according to his laws and inanimate matter behaves according to its laws. Plants and animals behave according to their laws. And intelligent creatures (people) behave according to their laws. God always behaves correctly because he understands the laws. Inanimate matter, plants and lower animals also always behave correctly because they lack intelligence. Intelligent creatures break the laws because they are prone to error.
The laws, according to Montesquieu, are the “primitive reason.” This is the, “relations that exist between it and the different beings, and the relations of these various beings to each other.” He goes on to use math to illustrate his point. He says that the laws, the primitive reason, are like the radii of circles. All of a circle’s radii are equal both before and after its creation, the laws are eternal. Likewise, the law of fairness is eternal. It is fair to punish a wrongdoer regardless of whether there is actually a wrongdoer. The point seems to be that the law is the base upon which everything else is built.
Next, he explains that the intelligent world is less well governed than the physical world. This is because our intelligence is limited and we make mistakes and because people tend to act by themselves. He also says that not only do we fail to follow the primitive laws, we fail to follow the laws we give ourselves.
He goes on to say that he doesn’t know to what degree “beasts” follow the laws. He seems to see them as a kind of middle ground between the intelligent and physical worlds. He also see advantages and disadvantages in this intermediary stage. They don’t worry about the future, but they are subject to passions.
People are fully in the intelligent realm. Montesquieu concludes this chapter by summarizing that people are governed by invariable laws like everything else. However, we constantly violate both those laws and the laws we create for ourselves. This is partly due to ignorance and error and partly due to the passions. The passions can cause us to forget our creator, our fellows and even ourselves.
There is one other thing I wanted to mention. It is completely unimportant as far as the argument goes, it’s really just of personal interest. There is a note from the translators that Montesquieu never capitalizes dieu, “god.” This is only of interest to me because I once go in trouble in school for failing to capitalize “he” in reference to Jesus. I thought my teacher was being an idiot back then, and it’s kind of nice to know that Montesquieu would agree with me.
So, there’s part 2. I hope to be back with part three soon.