by David Gordon
by David Gordon
Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. By Paul A. Rahe. Yale University Press, 2009. Xxiii + 374 pages.
Paul Rahe's outstanding book can be considered an extended commentary on a famous passage in Tocqueville's Democracy in America:
Over these [citizens] is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle It works willingly for their happiness, but it wishes to be the only agent and the sole arbiter of that happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs, directs their testaments, divides their inheritances In this fashion, every day, it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will within a smaller space and bit by bit it steals from each citizen the use of that which is his own. Equality has prepared men for all of these things: it has disposed them to put up with them and often even to regard them as a benefit. (pp. 187—88, quoting Tocqueville)
As Rahe abundantly demonstrates, this passage has great relevance to recent American history. Tocqueville's comment, he shows, represents the culmination of a line of thought that began with Montesquieu. Although Montesquieu in the eighteenth century was regarded as a great thinker, he does not figure much today in discussions of political theory. Most people view him as a figure merely of historical interest. Rahe shows that the modern view is seriously mistaken: Montesquieu offered a penetrating discussion of the problems of modern political regimes.
Montesquieu in Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline rejected both the desirability and possibility of a modern return to the virtue characteristic of classical antiquity, with its preeminent stress on military valor.
The point that Montesquieu intended to make is clear enough. We should not want to imitate the Romans And even if for some perverse reason we wanted to imitate the Romans, he then demonstrates in his Universal Monarchy, we could not succeed. (p. 7)
Instead, a commercial society, of which England was the foremost example, offered the best prospects for a flourishing social order under modern conditions. England, though ostensibly ruled by a king, was in fact a "republic concealed under the form of a monarchy" (p. 37). Unlike a genuine monarchy, it aimed at liberty and economic prosperity and demanded no particular virtue from the people.
It by no means followed from the success of English society, though, that the people in it lived in contentment. Quite the contrary, they found themselves in an anxious state, which Montesquieu termed "inquiétude." With characteristic erudition, Rahe traces this notion to the Jansenist Blaise Pascal and his disciple Pierre Nicole. They held that after the Fall, human beings were in the grip of concupiscence. Though a malign emotion, it could simulate the effects of the virtues and produce, in unintended fashion, a workable society.
Nicole devoted a seminal essay suggesting that Christian charity is politically and socially superfluous — that, in its absence, thanks to the particular providence of God, l'amour propre is perfectly capable of providing a foundation for the proper ordering of civil society, of the political order, and of human life in this world more generally. (p. 43)
Montesquieu, following Montaigne, secularized this notion; here we have a principal source of Bernard Mandeville's view that private vices were public benefits and more generally, of the Scottish Enlightenment concept of the unintended consequences of human action.
In the modern world, then, we can obtain a tolerable, though not ideal, order by following the English model. But a danger threatens this happy outcome: in certain circumstances, the executive might seize control of the reins of power and transform society into a despotic system.
In Montesquieu's judgment, the legislature within a modern republic would be in serious danger of succumbing fully to executive influence only in the unlikely event that the management of commerce and industry within that republic were somehow, to a very considerable extent, entrusted to the executive. In such a polity should the populace in general and the middle class in particular ever be beholden to government for their economic well-being, the situation of the citizens would indeed be grim. (p. 58)
To prevent this transition to despotism, it is essential to preserve the intermediate powers, such as the nobility and clergy, who can interpose their authority between the central government and the people. Without these powers, the executive may take control, in the manner just described. The course of French history prior to the 1789 illustrates an analogous transition, though in a monarchy rather than a republic. Under Louis XIV and his successors, the power of the nobility to resist royal authority had been suppressed; the ensuing growth of an all-powerful central state helped bring about the revolution, as a reaction against the state's excesses. Malesherbes, a highly placed liberal aristocrat and close reader of Montesquieu, warned Louis XVI of the dangers of undue centralization, to no avail. In the Grandes Remonstrances of 1775, Malesherbes and his colleagues on the Cour des aides charged "that the system of administration put in place by Louis XIV and further developed under Louis XV had made of the French monarchy an 'Oriental despotism'." Malesherbes, who was executed under the Revolution for his defense of Louis XVI, was Tocqueville's great-grandfather, and like his ancestor, Tocqueville continued the line of analysis begun by Montesquieu.
June 10, 2009