Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism
Now while Montesquieu agrees that virtue is essential to a republic, he objects to Aristotle's interpretation of the good life which is the goal of the republic. He thereby rejects Aristotle's understanding of virtue and substitutes a new understanding of his own. The core of Montesquieu's objection and of his new interpretation of the good life can be stated as follows. Aristotle had held that the goal of a republic was not so much freedom as the virtuous or educated use of freedom. Liberty is inseparable from a liberal education; freedom is subordinated to virtue. Montesquieu reverses this priority. The goal of a republic is not so much virtue as freedom. What 'freedom' means when no longer subordinated to virtue becomes clear when we reflect on the source of the human desire or need for freedom. The natural source would seem to be the desire for self-preservation. It seems to be this desire which leads men to wish to be always in control of the means to their own preservation, or to be never under the control and hence under the potential threat of another human will. Freedom can thus come to be understood as not living under the will of another individual man, and this seems to be achieved only when one rules oneself. The republic aims at such self-rule, or at the closest possible approximation on the level of society. The goal of the republic is the participation of all citizens in political self-rule. The good life is the life of a fully adult human being, the life of a 'free man' who exercises his capacity for self-rule, who controls his own destiny (III 3; IV 6, 8; VIII 3, 12, 16). Such a man is an active participant in great projects; he 'does things that astonish little souls' (IV 4, 6). The 'spirit of liberty' makes a man abandon as 'slavish' all 'professions' and 'pleasures' which prevent him from spending time with his friends and in public affairs (IV 8; III 3). Virtue, although it necessarily takes on the appearance of being an end in itself, is a means to self-rule.
A republic understood as aiming at self-rule is properly egalitarian. For almost no adult male is incapable of participating in such self-rule; and there is no individual or group whose need for freedom or self-rule requires the deprivation of the freedom of others within the community. It is true that some men are more 'talented' than others, but these talents, according to Montesquieu, are revered not as ends in themselves but only as means to self-rule. They cannot justify the exploitation of or rule over others. And the talents will not be submerged in a small democracy—they will be called upon and given a chance to develop. Indeed, the man of talent owes to the democracy, that is, to the others who are not so talented, the fact that his talents are not subject to the threat of arbitrary oppression. Tor if the motive of all political life is freedom or independence, then where men are not in a regime which leads them to identify their freedom with the freedom of all, they will try to oppress others in order not to be oppressed. ^ In other words, if there is no truly common good which transcends political rule, then all political life is directed either at tyranny over others or collective protection from such tyranny. The latter aim is fully achieved only in democracy. This is what justifies Montesquieu in saying that in a democracy,
the citizens cannot all render to the fatherland equal services; but they owe it all equal services. At birth, one contracts toward the fatherland an immense debt which one can never repay. Thus distinctions there arise from the principle of equality itself, even when they appear to arise from happy services, or superior talents. (V 3)It is, however, necessary to qualify the thought of the previous paragraph. Montesquieu is aware that there are some men so extraordinarily talented at ruling that they are capable of preserving their independence, or 'coming to the top,' almost anywhere. These men do not require others in order to be free; they do not owe their freedom to the democracy and they will know that they do not. Their talents, which inevitably lead them to wish to gain greater personal freedom or self-rule than is possible in the democratic community, are dangerous and bad. They can be beneficial and good only in bad circumstances (if tyranny is unavoidable, it is perhaps better to be ruled by a prudent tyrant than a blundering one). The democracy must be wary of unusually talented men:
The good sense and the happiness of the individuals consists very much in the mediocrity of their talents....A republic where the laws have formed many mediocre men, composed of prudent men, will govern itself prudently; comprised of happy men, it will be very happy. (V 3)Montesquieu applauds the ancient practice of ostracism (XXVI 17; XXIX 7; cf. Politics 12843 3ff.). One might say that the freedom of all requires an injustice to the few. But then these few can be counted on to take care of themselves.
Often the people draw from the mediocrity of their understanding a stronger attachment to what is established. (V 2)
Montesquieu's understanding of virtue follows from this interpretation of the goal of republicanism. Virtue is the self-sacrifice necessary for the continued existence of a community where all participate in rule. Virtue is not the goal of a republic; it is the means to the freedom or self-rule which is the goal. The fatherland (the community) does not exist for the sake of virtue, but rather virtue for the sake of the fatherland.
This in no way means that virtue is de-emphasized. Virtue is the 'principle,' the 'soul,' of republican life. For if the republic is to be truly a community where all rule, where no part aims at exploiting the rest, each individual citizen must identify his own good with the good of the whole. Each citizen must then transform his wish for personal freedom or self-rule into a wish for the self-rule of all. And he must make this transformation apply to all his wishes. Every personal desire whose satisfaction might deprive another of the freedom to satisfy his desires must be suppressed. Each, through 'self-renouncement,' must have 'a continual preference for the public interest rather than his own interest' (IV 5): that is, for an interest capable of being shared by all. The fulfillment of interests or desires is achieved through public policy formulated as law. In making and executing law, each citizen must seek his own goals only insofar as they can be generalized in law, or become the goals of all citizens (III 3). Montesquieu thus anticipates Rousseau's 'general will.'