Modern virtue, the pursuit of liberty, and the work of self-government in The spirit of the laws




West, Samuel Mitchell

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In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu distinguishes between governing regimes and positive law based on principles that emerge from relationships within the actual world and laws based on prejudices or ignorance which encourages one group to exert political power adverse to others. The reduction of the influence of prejudice becomes a central component of Montesquieu’s political theory. It requires the promotion of moderation and political liberty and becomes the central work of the legislator in “free and moderate” or self-governing states. Montesquieu’s conception of moderation and liberty requires him to develop a conception of liberalism in contrast to the approaches of both the ancient republics of singular institutions and the modern political theorists, Machiavelli and Hobbes. Both the ancient and modern conceptions of liberalism rely on a version of prejudice-inspired regimes that are inappropriate to modern self-government. The English Constitution provides the best practical example of a “free and moderate state” that can aspire to political greatness. England promotes political liberty in its two forms through the separation of powers and political partisanship, while it encourages moderation by the prudent harnessing of England’s “mores, manners, and received examples” in the form of religion, commerce, and politics (XIX, 27). The English Constitution demonstrates the difficulty of reducing prejudices for other states, and highlights Montesquieu’s ambivalence regarding man’s potential to govern himself given the constraints upon him.




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