— Montesquieu, 1748, The Spirit of the Laws
How fortunate for us that his idea was floating around at the time the country was founded. And how fortunate was he that someone was about to write a constitution for a new nation. It's no coincidence, of course, that new ideas and revolutions often dance together, but Montesquieu probably took less pride for this than others in his shoes might have. In Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, published in 1734, Montesquieu stated his philosophy of history that "minimized the role of individual persons and events." He believed that "each historical event was driven by a principal movement." (ibid.) I wonder if the Income Inequality / Occupy Wall Street movement that is bubbling up around the world at the moment is at all strong enough to lead to a new "historical event." I rather hope so.
But I still haven't said how Montesquieu rose to prominence. He was born to a wealthy and titled family in the southwest of France near Bordeaux. He went to top schools, became a lawyer, and served in the local parliament. But then after his father and uncle both died, leaving him a fortune as well as his title, Montesquieu "withdrew from the practice of law to devote himself to study and writing." (ibid.) About five years later, in 1721, he achieved literary success with the publication of Persian Letters, a satirical novel that criticised the absurdities of contemporary French society through the literary device of presenting fictional letters back and forth between two imaginary Persian visitors to Paris and Europe. The Persian Letters is "both one of the funniest books written by a major philosopher, and one of the bleakest. … While Montesquieu was not the first writer to try to imagine how European culture might look to travellers from non-European countries, he used that device with particular brilliance." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page) So he was a man who withdrew from government work to write fiction and philosophy. That's just like me! Only without the deaths of fathers or uncles with fortunes and titles...
Draining the Swamp, "doubles as a sort of American civics textbook, explaining the functions of each agency while adding the spice of insider knowledge. … It’s bookended with references to Ayn Rand’s brand of libertarianism, which provides philosophical power to the concluding moral. … [I]ts crisp dialogue...and deep knowledge of Washington's inner workings make it an edifying read. … A philosophically charged critique of government, couched in the form of a novel."
An author is a fool who, not content with having bored those who have lived with him, insists on boring future generations.
NO NOT THAT QUOTE! THIS ONE:
The success of most things depends upon knowing how long it will take to succeed.
There, that's better. And while it took Montesquieu 5 years to produce a successful novel and a further 27 years before he wrote his influential political tract, I am hoping I can cut that down by just a year or two. Even if I'm never anywhere near as influential as Montesquieu, and even if no countries plan to rewrite their constitutions any time soon. (Unless it's Norway, with the help of the Evolution Institute, in which case I'm sending them many, many resumes.)
My personal link to Montesquieu isn't just for fiction and philosophy though. His idea of the separation of powers within government (along with the modern business need for specialisation) ended up leading to the very breakdown of individual power that I tried to point out through the structure of my novel. In Montesquieu's time, a few men had too much power. Now, as illustrated in Draining the Swamp, no one, not even "the world's most powerful man" can accomplish very much on his or her own. There are reasons why that is a good thing, but it means our need to cooperate is higher than ever. Let's finish this profile with a few more good quotes from Montesquieu before I take a look at how he fared in my analysis of the survival of the fittest philosophers and add to that point about cooperation.
I shall ever repeat it, that mankind are governed not by extremes, but by principals of moderation.
The deterioration of a government begins almost always by the decay of its principles.
This punishment of death is the remedy, as it were, of a sick society.
Charles-Louis de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755 CE), generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions throughout the world.
Needs to Adapt
Montesquieu saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. This was radical because it completely eliminated the three estates structure of the French monarchy: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people at large represented by the Estates-General, thereby erasing the last vestige of a feudalistic structure. The separation of powers is an enormous contribution to political design as it removes the dominance of a competitive absolute hierarchy and replaces it with a structure that encourages and ensures a balance between cooperation and competition. Keeping a sovereign around undermines the cooperative spirit of the society. It would be done away with in France soon after this though.
Likewise, there were three main forms of government, each supported by a social principle: monarchies - free governments headed by a hereditary figure, e.g. king, queen, emperor, which rely on the principle of honor; republics - free governments headed by popularly elected leaders, which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms - enslaved governments headed by dictators, which rely on fear. Fear is no way to prosper and survive. Life seeks to avoid fear. Despotism is easily ruled out. Honor is used to justify hierarchies (I am honorable / you must honor me), which are inherently unstable. Society is stronger when humans cooperate because they are considered equals. Progress is greater when effort and innovation can come from anyone and bring rewards and benefits to all. Monarchies are therefore dismissed. When virtue is understood to come from actions that promote the long-term survival of the species, then that is a proper basis to build a society upon. Republics that don’t rely on virtue will eventually crumble and give way to virtuous ones. This is the best way to organize government.
Thanks Baron! You helped save us all from a lot of despotism and fear. Now if only our republics could be governed with more virtues of cooperation...