BMCR 2019.10.02

Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics

, Montesquieu's Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 312. ISBN 9781108428170. online version.

Cambridge Core

Keegan Callanan’s study of Montesquieu is a masterful contribution to the history of political thought with provocative lessons for contemporary liberal politics. Montesquieu’s science of politics and law, Callanan argues, confronts the familiar coalition of liberalism and political universalism, which holds that liberalism consists in a single set of institutions or principles that can be replicated anywhere (5, 265). Montesquieu challenges this coalition by combining a commitment to liberty with what Callanan calls “political particularism” (12). Teaching regime pluralism, Montesquieu argues that liberty is attainable under a variety of different institutional arrangements. Moreover, Montesquieu analyses the political culture necessary to receive and maintain free institutions. In the absence of this political culture, direct attempts to erect liberal institutions based on universalist assumptions produce “political disquiet and fear…comparable to the psychological experience of men and women in truly tyrannical states.” This constitutes Montesquieu’s liberal critique of political universalism—political universalism is, effectively, not a friend of liberty (29).

Callanan’s chief contribution lies in his claim that these lessons are best understood as Montesquieu’s modern political science interpreting a classical theme. In evaluating a political order, Montesquieu attends to both the institutional arrangements of political offices, and to the way of life within the political order. He reflects on how these two subjects are related: how the way of life, or êthos or character, shapes liberal political institutions, and in turn how liberal political institutions shape êthos. These tasks constitute Aristotle’s analysis of the theme of regime ( Politics, 1278b8-10; 1295a40; 1337a14-15; 1273a36-9). It is this Aristotelian theme of regime, Callanan argues, that Montesquieu appropriates for his own project. By addressing the understudied question of classical reception in Montesquieu, Callanan demonstrates Montesquieu’s discreet debt to the political science of Aristotle and the Ancients, and how Montesquieu uses this source to draw conclusions that depart from Ancients.

Since Montesquieu does not explicitly claim the classics as his source, Callanan extracts this argument through a careful reading of Montesquieu’s published and unpublished works, as well as his library—to say nothing of classical texts. Classical political science teaches that there is a best regime by nature, but that it is legitimate or just only given the right circumstances. Because it depends on these circumstances, the best regime is not actual and may never be actual. In the absence of the right circumstances, only lesser, imperfect regimes are just. For that reason, classical political science’s teaching on the best actual regime is a teaching of regime pluralism, promoting a variety of regimes according to prevailing circumstances. Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero become Montesquieu’s sources for rejecting a universal regime type and uniformity in statecraft (39, 58).

One of the ablest demonstrations of how Montesquieu uses the classics lies in Callanan’s analysis of what Montesquieu calls a “Paradox of the Ancients” ( The Spirit of the Laws, I.4.8). The paradox is that apolitical facets of human life, character or êthos, shape politics. Montesquieu deploys this Aristotelian analysis himself. Callanan notes that Montesquieu provides well-known reflections on the powers of moeurs or coustume, yet these are the two translations of êthos in French editions of Aristotle with which Montesquieu was familiar (45). Furthermore, Montesquieu’s celebrated elevation of commerce, often interpreted as distinctly modern, in fact takes place in classical terms. Montesquieu agrees with Plato that commerce corrupts pure mores. But Plato also teaches that commerce polishes and softens barbarous mores. Montesquieu applies Plato’s teaching to a different context. Modern Europeans lack pure mores and are closer to barbarous mores; because of this, they require laws suited to their lower character (47-8, 220).

This use of Plato clarifies how Montesquieu’s conclusions depart from the Ancients. It is not that he disagrees with their political science; rather, he thinks that in the changed circumstances of the present, the republic can no longer be held up as the best actual regime, as it was for the Ancients. For moderns, political science must set aside the pursuit of the best regime for the sake of discovering political liberty in actual constitutions. For Callanan’s Montesquieu, this means that both existing republics and (more controversially) monarchies can favour political liberty (106-10, 131-2, 144).

By elevating the theme of regime, Callanan produces a Strauss-inflected study of Montesquieu. Leo Strauss argues that ‘regime’ is the true theme of political philosophy.1 Callanan’s study is an exemplary case for how to provide this inflection without misrepresentation. Consider how he handles Strauss’s duality of the ancients and the moderns. While some of Strauss’s students regard his dualities as dichotomies, for Callanan (and arguably for Strauss) the dualities are not about taking sides, but to allow both sides to guide thinking.

Likewise, Callanan’s Montesquieu refuses to take sides in the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. The quarrel, Montesquieu concludes, “makes me see that there are good works among the Ancients and the Moderns.”2 Because Callanan is attuned to both sides of Strauss’s duality, he does not deduce (as other Strauss-inflected studies do) that, because Montesquieu is a modern, his more “sociological” analysis on êthos necessarily de-emphasises politics (43-4). Attentive to Montesquieu’s sources, Callanan demonstrates that it is precisely this “sociological” analysis of character that Montesquieu owes to antiquity—namely to Aristotle’s regime-analysis (33).

Now, as Callanan reminds us, this account of the Ancients is highly selective and the Ancients are not Montesquieu’s only source (31). Callanan also addresses Montesquieu’s more proximate historical context, in which Montesquieu’s political particularism is in some measure the culmination of the French tradition of legal humanism, which emphasised particularism against the universalist pretensions of the monarch. The political science of Callanan’s Montesquieu is not unlike the political science of Raymond Aron, who is, as we shall see, the quiet hero of the book (cf. 11, 147-8 n.). Political science must draw from ancient and modern sources to evaluate regimes not by an abstract standard, but by how well they cohere to their historical circumstances.

What, then, of the particular êthos or political culture that is required to establish and maintain liberal political forms? This liberal political culture is the subject of the book’s longest section; one topic that bears on how Montesquieu interprets the classics is worth summarising here. Montesquieu’s considerations on how commerce softens mores are well known, but in an intriguing argument Callanan emphasises their insufficiency for fostering free government (231-3). This insufficiency should not surprise us, since it follows from Plato’s suspicion of commerce. The remedy, Callanan argues, is to support commerce with religion. This raises that bugbear of the Enlightenment, Christian religious intolerance. Yet while other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Pierre Bayle, contrasted Christian intolerance to the idealised tolerance of the ancient Romans and offered up the latter as a model, Montesquieu demurs. While he agrees that the Romans were tolerant, he does not think their model of toleration is applicable to modernity. Again, a different solution must be found to meet modernity’s distinct circumstances (207-13).

This interpretation, that Montesquieu was favourable to religion, leads Callanan to counter another Strauss-inflected argument: that Montesquieu welcomes the demise of revealed religion. Based on a careful reading of key passages, Callanan persuasively refutes this view by distinguishing between Montesquieu’s strictly theological analysis of religion and his strictly political analysis (195). The former analysis leads to Montesquieu’s sceptical conclusions. But the latter assesses religion by its effectual truth. On these terms, Montesquieu concludes that religion (especially the hope for eternal life) plays a beneficial role in forming the manners and mores that strengthen character and soften the demand for harsh laws; as Montesquieu puts it, “whoever is not afraid of being hanged has to be afraid of being damned” (192; cf. 214). Montesquieu’s project is not to eliminate religion but to amend it, removing its “destructive prejudices” (202).

Nevertheless, Callanan overstates his case for Montesquieu as a friend of religion when he argues that Montesquieu does “not encourage the elimination of traditional religious piety” (203). Interpreting religion by its effectual truth has theological implications (c.f. 201-2). For example, it is possible to reject atheism, argue that religion’s practical postulates (especially the hope for eternal life) have positive social and political effects—and still aim for a radical transformation of orthodox Christianity. Not long after Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant argues that:“Gradual Transition of Ecclesiastical Faith to the Exclusive Sovereignty of Pure Religious Faith is the Coming of the Kingdom of God.”3 Kant aims not to reject Christianity but, by reinterpreting the meaning of hope for eternal life, restructure it. He sets in motion an arguably more insidious challenge to Christianity than mere anti-religious atheism. It is this Enlightenment challenge to Christian orthodoxy that the Jansenists of Montesquieu’s day grasped (cf. 195). Strauss and his best students also grasp this, even if they err on the theologico-political positions of some Enlightenment thinkers.

It remains to speak of the book’s framing as a challenge to contemporary liberalism. Callanan acknowledges that an interpretive study of Montesquieu cannot address contemporary concerns directly (cf. 9). But he frames the book as a critical account of the quasi-imperial quality of liberal ‘regime change’ projects, which justify themselves in terms of political universalism. Yet, after the foreign policy failures of the Bush and Obama administrations, this framing seems ill-timed, as the weakness of liberal political universalism is readily acknowledged. Why contend for Montesquieu’s relevance in these terms?

However, Callanan urges a second examination of liberalism’s relationship to political universalism. In calling attention to the flawed “minimalist conceptions of the requisites of liberal citizenship” (261), Callanan confirms why Raymond Aron is the quiet hero of the book. In the 1950s, as France’s Algerian Crisis intensified, Aron’s fellow liberals in the French political class were intégrationnistes, subscribing to the idea that the French Algerian settlers and native Algerian Muslims could adhere to the same conception of the requisites of liberal citizenship, under the same set of liberal institutions. Yet this project meant solidifying the agent that provided those liberal institutions, Algérie française. For this reason the liberals of the day championed intégrationnisme and imperialism.

It fell to Aron and Charles de Gaulle to challenge that link, because they took political culture seriously. Recognising that the intégrationniste project could not dispel persistent divisions between political cultures, respect for the political particularism of Montesquieu’s day led them to reject imperialism and intégrationnisme (“The Kings of France would never have had the idea of transforming Muslims into subjects of his Most Catholic Majesty!”).4 A political culture could not be coerced into liberalism (cf. 253). This lesson also applied within French territory. Rejecting intégrationnisme entailed slowing down the pace of immigration into France, because the French state could not bear the task of direct cultural transformation. Increasing the pace of immigration from other political cultures would require turning a blind eye to illiberal cultural practices—a criticism that some liberals would make of post-Gaullist France.5

For Aron, de Gaulle’s political particularism made him “more liberal” than the liberals in the National Assembly.6 Following the road taken by Aron and de Gaulle, Callanan’s conclusions lead away from naïve enthusiasm in liberal statecraft, from regime-change to immigration. Guided by Montesquieu’s political particularism and Callanan’s able interpretive hand, we can discover what contemporary concerns demand of liberal statecraft: how to moderate these enthusiasms with the “fine, gradual emendations” which allow us to be an effective friend of liberty (270). ​


1. Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 33-4; Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 137, 140.

2. Montesquieu, My Thoughts, ed. Henry C. Clark (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 111. Cited in Callanan at 35.

3. Immanuel Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft 7 (Berlin Academy Edition vol. 6, 2 nd edn., Berlin, 1914, p. 115).

4. Raymond Aron, “La fondation de la Ve République et l’avenir du gaullisme”, Commentaire 164 (2018), 791-8 at 796.

5. Susan Moller Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? edited by Joshua Cohen and Matthew Howard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 9-10.

6. Aron , “La foundation” (n. 4 above), 796. ​