Montesquieu
Avril 2011

Thomas L. Pangle, The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws

Joshua Bandoch

Thomas L. Pangle, The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press (2010, 193 pages).

Thomas Pangle’s Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism, publi­shed nearly forty years ago, was a power­ful, impor­tant contri­bu­tion to scho­lar­ship on Montesquieu’s Of the Spirit of the Laws. In it, Pangle argued that Montesquieu was, ulti­ma­tely, an advo­cate of the libe­ral, com­mer­cial repu­bli­ca­nism which he saw in England. However, this work had a self-ack­now­led­ged flaw : Pangle “expli­ca­ted Montesquieu’s poli­ti­cal theory, but did so without plum­bing theo­lo­gi­cal argu­men­ta­tion” (p. 10). To address this flaw, Pangle has writ­ten The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws – a “sequel and sup­ple­ment to” his first work – in which he seeks to get at the “foun­da­tio­nal level” of Montesquieu’s poli­ti­cal phi­lo­so­phy. In doing so, Pangle not only has pro­vi­ded a char­ged rea­ding of The Spirit of the Laws ; he has sought to rein­ter­pret the fun­da­men­tal deve­lop­ment of libe­ral moder­nity.

In his new work, Pangle advan­ces his pre­vious the­sis, that Montesquieu is ulti­ma­tely an advo­cate of libe­ral, com­mer­cial repu­bli­ca­nism, by contras­ting this new “reli­gion” with Montesquieu’s treat­ment of other reli­gions, espe­cially revea­led reli­gions, and above all Christianity. Pangle works to show that Montesquieu jud­ged Christianity, and other revea­led reli­gions, to be des­po­tic. Thus, while scho­lars gene­rally find Montesquieu to sup­port reli­gious tole­ra­tion, Pangle’s inter­pre­ta­tion leads us to the oppo­site conclu­sion, that society should not tole­rate revea­led reli­gion, but ins­tead should attack it care­fully and quietly. After for­sa­king Christianity, Montesquieu’s rea­der must choose bet­ween three alter­na­tive “civil” reli­gions : clas­si­cal repu­bli­ca­nism, monar­chy, and libe­ral, com­mer­cial repu­bli­ca­nism. Pangle contends that Montesquieu deems the lat­ter the best regime, though not without conse­quence.

In the intro­duc­tion, Pangle sug­gests that our way of life is “under heavy assault by illi­be­ral and theo­cra­tic for­ces” (p. 2-3), and that to com­bat this assault we must return to Montesquieu, who pro­vi­ded much of the basis for our society. According to Pangle, Of the Spirit of the Laws is “the most ambi­tious expres­sion of the Enlightenment poli­ti­cal phi­lo­so­phi­zing that lays the prin­ci­pled basis for our libe­ral repu­bli­can civi­li­za­tion. At the dee­pest level, that basis is theo­lo­gi­cal – and, by the same token, anti­theo­lo­gi­cal” (1). Pangle is par­ti­cu­larly inte­res­ted in the anti­theo­lo­gi­cal agenda. Montesquieu thought that the “vast exten­sion of Enlightenment science claims to show, at least in prin­ci­ple, the strictly natu­ral cau­ses and cha­rac­ter of all that has been true and good (as well as bad) in all the diverse his­to­ri­cal forms of exis­tence” (5). “The first and most obvious impli­ca­tion” of this, accor­ding to Pangle, “is that supra­ra­tio­nal reve­la­tion is super­fluous as a source of expla­na­tory hypo­the­ses or nor­ma­tive gui­dance for huma­nity’s earthly exis­tence.” Thus, for Montesquieu our foo­ting needs to be on a strictly ratio­na­li­zed and secu­la­ri­zed ground (6). However, Pangle argues, because of the bom­bas­tic nature of Montesquieu’s claim, and the pre­ca­rious his­to­ri­cal situa­tion in which he wrote, “this mani­fold stra­tegy for groun­ding ratio­na­lism is not made expli­cit by Montesquieu” (6). Pangle takes it as his task to explain this stra­tegy.

In Chapter One, Pangle argues that Montesquieu’s “point of depar­ture” is imme­dia­tely and vehe­mently anti-reli­gious. Pangle contends that the very first chap­ter of The Spirit of the Laws “makes loudly and even sho­ckin­gly clear…that nature’s divi­nity as he [Montesquieu] concei­ves it is far from being the Creator Who is belie­ved to speak through the Scriptures” (18). In the second chap­ter, Montesquieu conti­nues by indi­ca­ting “that humans are by nature com­ple­tely unmo­ved by any reli­gious expe­rience and are igno­rant of, undi­rec­ted toward, any god, whe­ther natu­ral or revea­led” (20). Instead of being direc­ted towards God, humans are direc­ted to inte­ract with each other in society, which qui­ckly erupts into a state of war. To over­come this pre­ca­rious situa­tion, Montesquieu pro­po­ses “a new nor­ma­tive and empi­ri­cal poli­ti­cal science” (24-25) which is “cau­tiously refor­mist, while glo­bally ambi­tious” (26).

One widely accep­ted goal of this new poli­ti­cal science is com­ba­ting des­po­tism. Indeed, while scho­lars disa­gree about Montesquieu’s posi­tive agenda, all take his work as a strong cri­ti­cism of des­po­tism. In Chapter Two, Pangle locks his eyes on what he sees as the most impor­tant, and most omi­nous, aspect of des­po­tism for Montesquieu : its reli­gious nature. According to Pangle, the dis­cus­sion qui­ckly turns in this direc­tion when Montesquieu “gives, within the space of a few lines [in II, 4], two very dif­fe­rent accounts of the nature of des­po­tism : the expli­cit account, spot­ligh­ting the ins­ti­tu­tion of the ‘vizier,’ stan­ding in for a self-seclu­ded prince, takes the place that was first, and more plau­si­bly, assi­gned to reli­gion, or to quasi-reli­gious cus­tom” (31). This leads Pangle to sug­gest the fol­lo­wing : “Could he mean that these two – the vizie­rate, sub­sti­tu­ting for a prince abs­condi­tus ; and reli­gion’s role in des­po­tism – are some­how inter­chan­gea­ble ?” Yes, Pangle empha­ti­cally conclu­des, as Montesquieu’s “sole spe­ci­fic his­to­ri­cal exam­ple of the model ‘vizier’ sys­tem” is “the papacy” (id.). To fur­ther his point, Pangle looks to III, 10, where Montesquieu sug­gests that reli­gion can com­bat the will of the des­pot.

Normally, scho­lars inter­pret Montesquieu as sug­ges­ting that reli­gion can help mode­rate des­pots by pro­vi­ding a higher autho­rity to which they must ans­wer. Pangle turns this inter­pre­ta­tion on its head. He notes that in III, 10 we see that a des­pot can­not force peo­ple to drink wine, for exam­ple, if their reli­gion for­bids it. In this Pangle finds strictly anti-reli­gious impli­ca­tions : “To humans who live as the sub­jects of des­po­tism, the will of God comes to sight as a kind of higher des­po­tic will, super­im­po­sed on the human des­pot, and thus cons­trai­ning – even while, pre­ci­sely reflec­ting – the nature and the prin­ci­ple of the regime” (34). Therefore, revea­led reli­gion can only make a society more des­po­tic, not less. In the course of the rest of the chap­ter, Pangle looks at Montesquieu’s anti-reli­gious treat­ment of the Bible (which Montesquieu “is cer­tainly not rea­ding…on its own terms” [39]) as well as Christianity and Islam.

After Montesquieu dis­pen­ses with Christianity as des­po­tic, Pangle spends the next two chap­ters exa­mi­ning the three alter­na­tive regime types in Of the Spirit of the Laws which could replace revea­led reli­gion : a clas­si­cal repu­blic, a monar­chy, or a libe­ral, com­mer­cial repu­blic. Pangle inter­prets Montesquieu’s argu­ment as having three fun­da­men­tal steps. First, he sug­gests that Montesquieu wants to disen­chant his monar­chic rea­ders with monar­chy as a regime type, par­ti­cu­larly by dra­wing them to the appa­rent glory of clas­si­cal repu­blics. Second, Pangle finds that Montesquieu pro­ceeds to detail grave pro­blems with clas­si­cal repu­bli­ca­nism. Finally, disillu­sio­ned with the other options, the rea­der embra­ces libe­ral, com­mer­cial repu­bli­ca­nism as the best regime.

To make this argu­ment, in Chapter Three Pangle exa­mi­nes repu­blics and monar­chies. He wri­tes that Montesquieu “no lon­ger views the vir­tue of the clas­si­cal repu­blic from the pers­pec­tive of the high clas­si­cal stan­dard – of ‘the best regime sim­ply,’ in light of whose flou­ri­shing life of the mind” all other regi­mes “appear seve­rely ina­de­quate as res­pon­ses to the dee­pest lon­gings of the human as ratio­nal ani­mal.” Instead, Montesquieu’s clas­si­cal repu­bli­ca­nism is, accor­ding to Pangle, “sub­po­li­ti­cal and subin­tel­lec­tual rather than supra­po­li­ti­cal and intel­lec­tual” (53). It is esta­bli­shed on a purely civil reli­gion which embra­ces poli­ti­cal vir­tue, not high-min­ded moral vir­tue. Still, it seems impres­sive because of its calls for love of the home­land, and for the great­ness it seems to embody. Its gran­deur cau­ses his monar­chic rea­der to sever his alle­giance to the regime under which they live. In fact, one of Montesquieu’s goal, as per Pangle, is to get the monar­chic rea­der of The Spirit of the Laws to drink “Doctor Montesquieu’s anti­dote to Christian or bibli­cal mora­lism with its pious cen­sure of monar­chic honor” (69).

Pangle argues, in Chapter Four, that the rea­der first will become disen­chan­ted with honor by beco­ming “ena­mo­red of vir­tuous” repu­bli­ca­nism, par­ti­cu­larly its demo­cra­tic form, and impres­sed “with the purely civil cha­rac­ter of its reli­gio­sity” (71). Yet pro­blems with clas­si­cal repu­bli­ca­nism arise. It requi­res “cea­se­less mutual sur­veillance” (72), and is inhu­mane, as Greco-Roman repu­bli­ca­nism was built in part on the backs of sla­ves (76). Having been expo­sed to the grave pro­blems of both regime types, the rea­der must now seek a bet­ter regime, which arri­ves with the emer­gence of “the free but morally lax English cons­ti­tu­tion and com­mer­cial way of life,” what Pangle calls the “modern libe­ral reli­gion” (71). While Pangle sug­gests that the English sys­tem is Montesquieu’s model, “the spe­ci­fic English ins­ti­tu­tions can and ought to be applied rarely, and then only with sub­stan­tial modi­fi­ca­tions, to other nations” (87-88). Rather, “what should be encou­ra­ged and sought out are at most roughly ana­lo­gous ins­ti­tu­tio­nal mecha­nisms and prac­ti­ces, roo­ted in and thus sui­ted to each nation’s pecu­liar his­to­ri­cal spi­rit” (88).

To become fully domi­nant, libe­ral repu­bli­ca­nism needs its “engine of reli­gious libe­ra­tion”, com­merce, which Pangle exa­mi­nes in Chapter Five (99). It is here that Pangle’s ana­ly­sis is most pene­tra­ting and astute. While many have poin­ted to the praise Montesquieu heaps on com­merce, Pangle’s dis­cus­sion is espe­cially rich. The spi­rit of com­merce pro­vi­des great bene­fits and is “fun­da­men­tally oppo­sed, not only to inse­cu­rity, but also to both the aus­tere civic vir­tue of repu­bli­can anti­quity and to reli­gious self-trans­cen­dence or other­world­li­ness” (100). The bene­fits com­merce pro­vi­des com­bat both civic repu­bli­ca­nism and revea­led reli­gion, to such an extent that Montesquieu wants to “make the belief in and expe­rience of supra- and contra­ra­tio­nal divine conso­la­tions and com­mand­ments stea­dily eva­po­rate” (108).

Up to this point, Pangle has offe­red a care­ful, yet contro­ver­sial, inter­pre­ta­tion of this influen­tial Enlightenment thin­ker. Having done so, in the Conclusion he under­ta­kes to cri­ti­cize Montesquieu “at the foun­da­tio­nal level” with the well-worn Straussian approach1. of posing the ancients ver­sus the moderns, and then unques­tio­na­bly favo­ring the for­mer (130). Pangle argues that the Enlightenment has not been suc­cess­ful in achie­ving its goals, and that ins­tead, Enlightenment ratio­na­lism suf­fers from a “mani­fest spi­ri­tual defi­cit” that should drive us back to clas­si­cal ratio­na­lism, roo­ted in Socratic poli­ti­cal phi­lo­so­phy (131). The human spi­rit can­not truly become “basi­cally satis­fied by the secu­rity, pros­pe­rity, engros­sing acti­vity, and mutual ‘self-esteem’ brought about through libe­ral cons­ti­tu­tio­na­lism and ‘com­merce’” (131). For Pangle, Montesquieu’s approach is also ina­de­quate for addres­sing the pro­blems of contem­po­rary society. For exam­ple : “In Montesquieu’s scheme of things, it is sim­ply not sup­po­sed to be pos­si­ble that des­pots” like Lenin, Mao, and Robespierre “are ins­pi­red to unpre­ce­den­ted atro­ci­ties by res­pon­ding to the moral call of great phi­lo­so­phers of moder­nity” (132). Naïvely, “Montesquieu’s tea­ching pro­mi­ses that with the spread of com­merce and science, the vir­tue of huma­nity does and will slowly, yet almost ine­vi­ta­bly, take the place of harsh inhu­ma­nity” (132). To truly solve our modern pro­blems, we must return to Socratic poli­ti­cal phi­lo­so­phy, whose mea­ning Montesquieu “does not appear to have appre­cia­ted” (134). For Pangle, it appa­rently is not enough that Montesquieu thinks phi­lo­so­phers should “take res­pon­si­bi­lity for the fate of huma­nity, for gui­ding the course of world his­tory” (145). Instead, they and we must embrace moral vir­tue, clas­si­cal phi­lo­so­phy, and ulti­ma­tely “great­ness of soul” (141). Pangle’s final indict­ment comes when he sug­gests that Montesquieu him­self is aware of his ina­de­qua­cies, and was per­fectly aware “of the comic figure he knows he would cut before an Aristotle, a Plato, a More, or even a Machiavelli – and before those who appre­ciate what these men really were and were about,” pre­su­ma­bly those like Pangle (145). Knowing that he can­not take men to the “final peak” of human exis­tence, Montesquieu wishes his rea­ders well in fin­ding “the full mea­ning and mea­ning­ful­ness of the phi­lo­so­phic way of life” (146).

While impres­sive, Pangle’s book is not without its pro­blems. After such a sti­mu­la­ting ana­ly­sis, Pangle disap­poin­tin­gly retreats to the tra­di­tio­nal Straussian inter­pre­ta­tion of the his­tory of poli­ti­cal thought – the ancients were sim­ply bet­ter than the moderns – and goes not one step fur­ther. The moderns lowe­red the bar. We, ins­tead, need a higher bar. Pangle sells Montesquieu short. Above all, Montesquieu valued liberty and human dignity. Why are these insuf­fi­cient, lower values, given that he embra­ced them under bor­der­line des­po­tic monar­chi­cal rule, in a time of many forms of sla­very and oppres­sion ? Montesquieu was supre­mely inte­res­ted in esta­bli­shing good laws, good mores, per­so­nal secu­rity, free­dom, pros­pe­rity, and the condi­tions in which man can flou­rish. This is, appa­rently, wholly insuf­fi­cient for Pangle. It is not clear, moreo­ver, what exactly Pangle pre­fers as an alter­na­tive to Montesquieu’s libe­ral, com­mer­cial repu­bli­ca­nism, which Pangle might also label des­po­tic because it suf­fo­ca­tes the year­ning of our soul. Are we to return to ancient Athens ? On what terms, exactly ? Besides, doesn’t Montesquieu’s libe­ra­lism make and leave room pre­ci­sely for the kind of “phi­lo­so­phy” in which Pangle wants to engage.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Pangle’s treat­ment of reli­gion in Of the Spirit of the Laws is that while Montesquieu dedi­ca­ted Part V to reli­gion, Pangle only deals with it for 7 out of 143 pages. While he rightly mines Part I for reli­gious refe­ren­ces, why neglect Part V, where Montesquieu directly dis­cus­ses reli­gion ? This was a fai­ling of his first book, too, and he does not remedy it here. If he had exa­mi­ned Part V, Pangle could have addres­sed other impor­tant issues such as reli­gious tole­ra­tion.

Generally, Pangle inter­prets Montesquieu as being overly anti-reli­gious. There can be no doubt that Montesquieu was cri­ti­cal of cer­tain aspects of reli­gion, and of the Catholic Church. However, it is impor­tant to remem­ber, first, that he did attri­bute cer­tain goods to reli­gion. Second, accor­ding to Montesquieu, reli­gion is sim­ply a neces­sity in many sta­tes, and is an ingrai­ned part of their “esprit”. This need not be a bad thing.

Overall, Pangle’s work is a must read for Montesquieu scho­lars, and for those who want to explore fur­ther the rela­tion bet­ween reli­gion, on the one hand, and liberty and com­merce on the other. By sta­ting his case so stron­gly, Pangle has given us much to consi­der on all of these fronts.

Joshua Bandoch

(University of Notre Dame)

See especially Leo Strauss. 1999. Natural Right and History. University of Chicago : Chicago, and Leo Strauss. 1988. What is Political Philosophy ? University of Chicago : Chicago

The University of Chicago Press