Annelien de Dijn, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville : Liberty in a Levelled Society ?

Joshua Bandoch

Annelien de Dijn, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville : Liberty in a Levelled Society ?, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 222 pages.

ISBN : 9780521877886

« Montesquieu’s sha­dow has been a very long one indeed. » Thus conclu­des Annelien de Dijn’s French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville : Liberty in a Levelled Society ?, which is an impres­sive, extre­mely well-resear­ched work on how Montesquieu’s « aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism » sha­ped poli­ti­cal dis­course in France for the next cen­tury and a half after the publi­ca­tion of De l’Esprit des lois. Montesquieu scho­lars, and French intel­lec­tual his­to­rians more gene­rally, should read this book.

De Dijn’s the­sis is that « apart from the clas­si­cal lais­sez-faire libe­ra­lism, and the demo­cra­tic, repu­bli­can-influen­ced brand of libe­ra­lism, yet ano­ther variety of libe­ra­lism, which can be des­cri­bed as an ’aris­to­cra­tic’ libe­ra­lism, was widely pre­va­lent in the nine­teenth-cen­tury context » (5). By « aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism » she means « a very par­ti­cu­lar set of ideas, deve­lo­ped by a num­ber of thin­kers (not neces­sa­rily, or not even pre­do­mi­nantly, aris­to­crats by birth) who drew their ins­pi­ra­tion mainly from Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (1748) […] [A]ris­to­cra­tic libe­rals belie­ved that liberty should be safe­guar­ded through the che­cking of cen­tral power, rather than through the self-govern­ment of the peo­ple. Their ideal was that of a plu­ra­list, rather than a self-gover­ning, society, in which »inter­me­diary bodies« (often envi­sio­ned as an aris­to­cracy, but not neces­sa­rily so) exis­ted bet­ween the govern­ment and the peo­ple. Aristocratic libe­rals belie­ved that a level­led, ato­mi­zed society, which lacked such inter­me­diary bodies, offe­red no pro­tec­tion against des­po­tism. » To sup­port this the­sis, she looks at a vast array of thin­kers, begin­ning with Henri de Boulainvilliers, and going through the « short » nine­teenth cen­tury, ending with the esta­blish­ment of the Third Republic in 1870-1875 and thin­kers such as Charles Dupont-White.

Following squa­rely in the Cambridge-school approach, de Dijn exa­mi­nes poli­ti­cal « dis­course » ; she « focu­ses on the way in which these nine­teenth-cen­tury libe­rals used a spe­ci­fic poli­ti­cal voca­bu­lary, deve­lo­ped by Montesquieu in his Esprit des lois, in post-revo­lu­tio­nary France. »

In Chapter One, « Political thought in eigh­teenth-cen­tury France : the inven­tion of aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism, » de Dijn begins by loo­king at Boulainvilliers because she thinks that his ideas pre­cede even those of Montesquieu in impor­tant ways. She contends that he thought an aris­to­cracy was neces­sary for the pro­tec­tion of liberty. Events like the expul­sion of the Moors from Spain in 1605 and the abro­ga­tion of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 sho­wed that « the abuse of royal power was an ine­vi­ta­ble conse­quence of the demise of the nobi­lity » (20). De Dijn then turns her focus to the star of the party, so to speak - Montesquieu

For Montesquieu, the dif­fe­rence bet­ween monar­chy and des­po­tism « was of a more struc­tu­ral nature. While des­pots ruled unfet­te­red, accor­ding to their own caprice, the monarch’s power was always che­cked by the exis­tence of what Montesquieu des­cri­bed as »inter­me­diary powers,« rival cen­ters of autho­rity such as the nobi­lity and the par­le­ments. By posing a bar­rier to the royal govern­ments, these inter­me­diary powers pre­ven­ted any encroach­ment beyond its legally impo­sed limits » (22). She contends that for Montesquieu, « liberty was pre­ser­ved in the typi­cal conti­nen­tal monar­chy through ins­ti­tu­tio­na­li­zed insu­bor­di­na­tion. In par­ti­cu­lar, the nobi­lity’s sense of honour crea­ted bar­riers against arbi­trary power. While honour encou­ra­ged obe­dience to the prince, it pre­ven­ted a blind obe­dience » (25-26). At the heart of Montesquieu’s argu­ment was his appa­rent desire to defend « monar­chi­cal govern­ment against its repu­bli­can detrac­tors. It was his goal to argue that the monar­chy as it exis­ted in eigh­teenth-cen­tury France, was equally as capa­ble of pre­ser­ving liberty as the clas­si­cal repu­blics of anti­quity » (26-27). Indeed, de Dijn thinks that Montesquieu’s pri­mary pur­pose was to « defend the monar­chy from repu­bli­can attacks rather than cri­ti­cize it » (32). She contends that Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des lois pro­vi­ded impor­tant intel­lec­tual fire­po­wer for later thin­kers such as Necker, for in this work they « found both a cri­ti­que of and an alter­na­tive to the revo­lu­tio­nary equa­tion bet­ween liberty and equa­lity » (35). While such pro­tests fell on deaf ears after the Revolution, in the years directly « fol­lo­wing the res­to­ra­tion of the Bourbon dynasty in 1814, a par­ti­cu­lar set of cir­cum­stan­ces made aris­to­cra­tic liberty into one of the cen­tral poli­ti­cal concepts of the post-revo­lu­tio­nary era » (39).

In Chapter 2, entit­led « Liberty and Inequality : The Royalist Discourse, » de Dijn looks at the dis­course of roya­list publi­cists and thin­kers imme­dia­tely fol­lo­wing the Restoration. She contends that bet­ween 1814 and 1830 roya­lists deve­lo­ped a cohe­rent ana­ly­sis that drew hea­vily on Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des lois. The roya­lists were staunch defen­ders of liberty, but of a par­ti­cu­lar kind of liberty which was very dif­fe­rent from the repu­bli­can liberty that had been defen­ded by the revo­lu­tio­na­ries (43). For exam­ple, in 1832 « A. Creuzé de Lesser, a for­mer pre­fect and a staunch roya­list, publi­shed a trea­tise entit­led De la liberté, that contai­ned a sus­tai­ned cri­ti­cism of the revo­lu­tio­nary iden­ti­fi­ca­tion bet­ween repu­bli­can self-govern­ment and liberty […] Political liberty was not just dif­fe­rent from civil liberty, it was often acti­vely harm­ful to it » (43). So some roya­lists found the revo­lu­tio­nary ideal of free­dom quite harm­ful. The roya­lists argued, ins­tead, that the pre­ser­va­tion of liberty - and not self-govern­ment - « was the hall­mark of a free state » (46). To pro­tect this liberty, roya­lists thought that pri­mo­ge­ni­ture, and a spe­ci­fic legal sys­tem, « in which land was kept in the same hands over time through pri­mo­ge­ni­ture and entail­ments, » were neces­sary. Ultimately, then, roya­lists found liberty and equa­lity to be incom­pa­ti­ble, because level­led social condi­tions had the result of remo­ving bar­riers against des­po­tism (67).

When wri­ters in the nine­teenth cen­tury were consi­de­ring what poli­ti­cal order was most appro­priate for France, England loo­med large. It too was a kind of monar­chy, and roya­lists stu­died care­fully the extent to which the English model could fit France. As such, in Chapter 3, « A society of equals : the libe­ral res­ponse, » de Dijn dis­cus­ses how many libe­rals, inclu­ding Jacques Necker, admi­red the English poli­ti­cal model because it « had shown itself capa­ble of gua­ran­teeing liberty as well as pre­ser­ving a high degree of poli­ti­cal sta­bi­lity during dif­fi­cult times » (68). What is more, their admi­ra­tion for the English exam­ple led seve­ral impor­tant libe­ral thin­kers to adopt a posi­tion remar­ka­bly close to the roya­lists’ aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism« (68). Restoration libe­rals, on the other hand, argued that the »English socio-poli­ti­cal sys­tem, pro­pa­ga­ted so enthu­sias­ti­cally by the roya­lists, was not a model to be imi­ta­ted, but an obso­lete type of society that would pro­ba­bly decay in the near future ; in any case, it did not offer an exam­ple for the French« (80). Issues concer­ning pri­mo­ge­ni­ture and the cau­ses and conse­quen­ces of com­mer­cial society, such as the fact that pro­perty had become essen­tially mobile, were very impor­tant to these wri­ters. In all cases, de Dijn insists that the »libe­ral dis­course« of this time period »star­ted at all times from the assump­tion that theirs was an equa­li­zed, level­led society, and that this condi­tion should be taken into account in the crea­tion of a via­ble poli­ti­cal sys­tem" (88).

In Chapter Four, « Liberty in a level­led society : Charles Dunoyer, Benjamin Constant, and Prosper de Barante, » de Dijn looks at dif­fe­rent libe­ra­lisms that arose. She dubs the libe­ra­lism of Dunoyer « lais­sez-faire libe­ra­lism » and contends that his wri­tings « seem to vin­di­cate fully the tra­di­tio­nal view of nine­teenth-cen­tury libe­ra­lism as an indi­vi­dua­list doc­trine, which crea­ted a radi­cal anta­go­nism bet­ween state and indi­vi­dual » (95). Constant, by contrast, « belie­ved that indi­vi­dual liberty could only be safe­guar­ded if post-Revolutionary France acti­vely par­ti­ci­pa­ted in govern­ment to make sure that the gover­ning clas­ses - be it the king’s minis­ters or the repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the peo­ple - did not abuse power. Or to put it in terms clo­ser to Constant’s own, he belie­ved that civil or modern liberty could only be safe­guar­ded through a mea­sure of poli­ti­cal or ancient liberty » (97-98). De Dijn contends that public spi­ri­ted­ness was abso­lu­tely cri­ti­cal for citi­zens being free, accor­ding to Constant, and that the govern­ment should acti­vely encou­rage public spi­ri­ted­ness. De Dijn thus appears to sug­gest that Constant sought to blend the liberty of the ancients and moderns toge­ther, and so she seems to offer a somew­hat novel por­trayal of Constant. Barante, for his part, equa­ted liberty with the secu­rity of each indi­vi­dual citi­zen, and de Dijn sug­gests that he clearly bor­ro­wed his concep­tion from Montesquieu.

These poli­ti­cal and phi­lo­so­phi­cal deba­tes were not merely abs­tract dis­cus­sions ; ins­tead, they cen­te­red on addres­sing real, pres­sing poli­ti­cal issues, such as refor­ming the Chamber of Peers, the debate about decen­tra­li­za­tion in the Restoration period, and liberty of the press. De Dijn dis­cus­ses these deba­tes in Chapter 5, « The new aris­to­cracy : a theme in Restoration libe­ra­lism. » Having adop­ted Montesquieu’s pers­pec­tive that « an aris­to­cra­tic inter­me­diary body was neces­sary for the pre­ser­va­tion of liberty and sta­bi­lity in post-revo­lu­tio­nary France, » many libe­rals were ini­tially enthu­sias­tic about the Chamber of Peers ; later, though, they gra­dually became more cri­ti­cal of the here­di­tary cham­ber (111). Reason being, they thought that the Chamber of Peers, which was com­po­sed of govern­ment pen­sio­ners, had « become an ins­tru­ment in the hands of the govern­ment on which it was finan­cially depen­dent » (113-114). Restoration libe­rals also broadly agreed that decen­tra­li­za­tion was neces­sary, but for dif­fe­rent rea­sons. Some advo­ca­ted decen­tra­li­za­tion because they thought a cer­tain rela­tion­ship bet­ween the cen­tral and local govern­ment was neces­sary, others thought decen­tra­li­za­tion would encou­rage public spi­ri­ted­ness, and still others thought that decen­tra­li­za­tion was neces­sary because the aris­to­cracy was no lon­ger a suf­fi­cient check (115-118). During this time, many Restoration libe­rals came to see the ter­ri­to­rial aris­to­cracy as obso­lete, and advo­ca­ted other alter­na­tive means of che­cking power, such as new inter­me­diary bodies com­po­sed of a new elite or public opi­nion (125-127).

Chapter 6 focu­ses on one of the most pro­mi­nent 19th Century French libe­rals, Alexis de Tocqueville, and is aptly entit­led « The dan­gers of demo­cracy - Orléanist libe­ra­lism and Alexis de Tocqueville. » De Dijn claims that Tocqueville’s new poli­ti­cal science was « first and fore­most an attempt to for­mu­late an alter­na­tive to the doc­trine of aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism » (137). Tocqueville saw many threats to liberty throu­ghout society and he advo­ca­ted a multi-pron­ged approach to pro­tec­ting it. Liberty, for Tocqueville, « was defi­ned by the exis­tence of gua­ran­tees against arbi­trary govern­ment » (139). De Dijn wri­tes that Tocqueville’s thought one should pro­tect liberty through « self-govern­ment, through a repre­sen­ta­tive body on the natio­nal level, directly exer­ci­sed on the local level, was the only alter­na­tive to des­po­tism in post-revo­lu­tio­nary socie­ties » (141). Yet this self-govern­ment came with risks, chief among them the tyranny of the majo­rity ; as such, coun­ter-weights were nee­ded against demo­cra­tic pre­do­mi­nance. Still, Tocqueville found that the grea­test threat to free­dom « came from the ’indi­vi­dua­lism’ typi­cal of level­led socie­ties, a sen­ti­ment which pre­dis­po­sed each citi­zen to iso­late him­self from the rest of the popu­la­tion, and to with­draw into a pri­vate sphere » (146).

De Dijn pro­ceeds to argue that the the­mes of aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism were wides­pread all the way through the 1850s and 1860s, though they repre­sen­ted a sort of amal­ga­ma­tion of thin­king from the pre­vious cen­tury or so. They were still influen­ced by Montesquieu’s aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism, but also Tocqueville’s ana­ly­sis of the dan­gers of demo­cracy. What is more, they « rea­ched back to the the­mes deve­lo­ped during the Restoration period » and re-appro­pria­ted many ele­ments of the roya­list dis­course such as « their condem­na­tion of revo­lu­tio­nary ega­li­ta­ria­nism, their idea­li­za­tion of England and pri­mo­ge­ni­ture » all while remai­ning com­mit­ted to « the demo­cra­tic myth deve­lo­ped in the Restoration period, which denoun­ced all attempts to revive the aris­to­cra­tic past as an impos­si­ble enter­prise. » The conse­quence of this was that these libe­rals des­pai­red of imi­ta­ting the English model as well as the decen­tra­list model (155-156). They also were convin­ced of the dan­ger of a sin­gle, popu­lar legis­la­ture (157), and even enter­tai­ned res­to­ring the ter­ri­to­rial aris­to­cracy (171).

The Epilogue offers ana­ly­sis of the Third Republic. While the cons­ti­tu­tion of the Third Republic « clearly sho­wed the dis­trust of its fra­mers vis-à-vis popu­lar demo­cracy » (185), bet­ween 1875 and 1879 the Third Republic became a « par­lia­men­tary repu­blic, with the cen­tre of gra­vity of power lying inside the elec­ted assem­blies, rather than in the exe­cu­tive. In turn, popu­lar control over the legis­la­tive was quite consi­de­ra­ble » (186).

Perhaps more impor­tantly, de Dijn clo­ses by explai­ning how her book contrasts with or adds to the lite­ra­ture on these sub­jects. She explains : « the evi­dence pre­sen­ted in this study ques­tions the tra­di­tio­nal dis­tinc­tion bet­ween Anglo-American poli­ti­cal thought, based on the prin­ci­ple that power must be che­cked and divi­ded, and a French tra­di­tion sup­po­sedly pro­pa­ga­ting an étatiste view on poli­tics, in which either king or popu­lar will rei­gned abso­lu­tely. Many French poli­ti­cal thin­kers, it has become clear, far from adhe­ring to an abso­lu­tist concep­tion of poli­tics, were almost obses­sed with the idea that power nee­ded to be che­cked. The dif­fe­rence bet­ween Anglo-America and French poli­ti­cal thought, one might argue, is rather that the French were more concer­ned with the crea­tion of bar­riers within society itself than with the esta­blish­ment of cons­ti­tu­tio­nal checks and balan­ces, as embo­died in the British or American cons­ti­tu­tions […] Montesquieu’s les­sons were not igno­red by his coun­try­men ; on the contrary, French libe­ra­lism was to a large extent a libe­ra­lism à la Montesquieu » (189). Still, nine­teenth-cen­tury French libe­rals adap­ted Montesquieu’s doc­trine to their his­to­ri­cal situa­tion while conti­nuing to empha­size the need for inter­me­diary powers (190). As such, de Dijn explains that « this study illus­tra­tes the capa­city of a par­ti­cu­lar approach to intel­lec­tual his­tory for exca­va­ting the convic­tions and views of poli­ti­cal actors in the past, even though we no lon­ger share these convic­tions and views today. By unear­thing a par­ti­cu­lar dis­course that has more or less disap­pea­red from the pre­sent-day record, this study has aimed to enrich our unders­tan­ding of the diver­sity and rich­ness of modern poli­ti­cal thought » (193).

Still, this tho­rough and well-writ­ten book has some short­co­mings, or is at least nar­row in cer­tain ways. Consider, for exam­ple, what de Dijn wri­tes in the Epilogue : « At the same time, howe­ver, it is pos­si­ble to argue that the study of aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism does not just satisfy our his­to­ri­cal curio­sity, but that it also helps us to unders­tand the pedi­gree of cer­tain tro­pes used in pre­sent-day poli­ti­cal deba­tes. While key tenets such as the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion bet­ween aris­to­cracy and liberty are no lon­ger a part of our poli­ti­cal culture, other the­mes pro­pa­ga­ted by aris­to­cra­tic libe­rals have sur­vi­ved into pre­sent-day poli­ti­cal deba­tes » (193). De Dijn offers pre­cious lit­tle of this kind of ana­ly­sis of how her study of aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism still bears on socie­ties today. One rea­son her ana­ly­sis is limi­ted in this way is that she fol­lows the Cambridge-school approach, and in par­ti­cu­lar that of Quentin Skinner, too clo­sely. Her focus is on the « dis­course » of the thin­kers she stu­dies, but this still begs the lar­ger ques­tion of whe­ther and how not only their dis­course, but their ideas, remain rele­vant, to say nothing of whe­ther they were good ideas. One might say, for exam­ple, that while we no lon­ger ought to desire a ter­ri­to­rial aris­to­cracy, the need for inter­me­diary ins­ti­tu­tions of other sorts, or the need for dif­fe­rent kinds of checks on power, remains. If de Dijn had told us not only how « other the­mes pro­pa­ga­ted by aris­to­cra­tic libe­rals have sur­vi­ved into pre­sent-day poli­ti­cal deba­tes » but, per­haps more impor­tantly, whe­ther they should sur­vive, the study would be stron­ger.

Given the venue for this review, it seems appro­priate to focus the rest of my remarks on de Dijn’s treat­ment of Montesquieu and how his thought impac­ted later thin­kers. Despite the fact that the argu­ment of the book is essen­tially that Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois reso­na­ted loudly with many libe­rals throu­ghout the nine­teenth cen­tury, de Dijn gives rela­tive short shrift to Montesquieu’s poli­ti­cal phi­lo­so­phy. In total she only directly addres­ses Montesquieu over less than 13 full pages. This seems curious given the impor­tance she atta­ches to his ideas. The conse­quence of this bre­vity is that de Dijn is una­ble to fully treat some of the other impor­tant aspects of Montesquieu’s thought that bear greatly on her topic. For exam­ple, what of the other govern­ment types that Montesquieu seems to treat favo­ra­bly, such as the mixed regime, aris­to­cra­tic repu­blics, and fede­ral repu­blics ? If Montesquieu vie­wed these as poten­tially via­ble - and good - forms of govern­ment, then de Dijn’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Montesquieu as an aris­to­cra­tic libe­ral beco­mes pro­ble­ma­tic, because Montesquieu may not have recom­men­ded aris­to­cra­tic libe­ra­lism to many dif­fe­rent peo­ples. Indeed, this cuts to the core of de Dijn’s argu­ment. I would sug­gest that Montesquieu argued for a spec­trum of accep­ta­ble poli­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, and moral out­co­mes. There are others who contend that Montesquieu was in fact a par­ti­san of the English regime, yet de Dijn does not engage their work.

What is more, there is much more to Montesquieu’s poli­ti­cal phi­lo­so­phy than his treat­ment of inter­me­diary ins­ti­tu­tions. In a book about « libe­ra­lism » and the­re­fore liberty, de Dijn lea­ves out many impor­tant pas­sa­ges, inclu­ding Montesquieu’s famous defi­ni­tion of liberty in XI, 3, as well as Books XI, XII, and XII, which are about poli­ti­cal, per­so­nal, and eco­no­mic liberty. Additionally, while de Dijn refe­ren­ces the idea of « liberty in a level­led society » fre­quently, she does not consi­der Montesquieu’s ana­ly­sis of what he vie­wed as the most power­ful mecha­nism for leve­ling society : com­merce. Indeed, Part IV, where Montesquieu prai­ses com­merce, is a neces­sary part of unders­tan­ding Montesquieu’s pers­pec­tive on liberty, pros­pe­rity, and poli­tics more gene­rally. So too is Book VII, on luxury.

In terms of de Dijn’s contri­bu­tion to the lite­ra­ture, there are other scho­lars who have com­men­ted on the aris­to­cra­tic ele­ments of Montesquieu’s libe­ra­lism. They include Jean-Jacques Chevalier, Louis Althusser, Sharon Krause, and Céline Spector.1 De Dijn could have dis­tin­gui­shed her work from theirs by enga­ging it directly.

Finally, when de Dijn evo­kes the « repu­bli­cans » who cri­ti­cize the monar­chy, of whom is she rightly spea­king ? Consider, for exam­ple, that she does not men­tion Jaucourt in the Encyclopedia, who pulls Montesquieu direc­tion that is less aris­to­cra­tic.

Nonetheless, this book war­rants scho­lars’ atten­tion, as it points us to a cons­tel­la­tion of sorts in the libe­ral tra­di­tion that is often over­loo­ked.

Joshua Bandoch

Brown University

See for example J.-J. Chevalier, « Montesquieu ou le libéralisme aristocratique, » Revue internationale de philosophie, 1955/3-4, p. 330-345 ; Louis Althusser, Montesquieu. La politique et l’histoire, Paris, PUF, 1959 ; Sharon Krause, « The Politics of Distinction and Disobedience : Honor and the Defense of Liberty in Montesquieu, » Polity, 31/3, Spring 1999, p. 469-499 ; Céline Spector, Montesquieu. Pouvoirs, richesses et sociétés, Paris, PUF, 2004.

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