This paper looks into Montesquieu’s treatment of virtue as it is practiced in an ancient republic. The paper indicates clearly what Montesquieu understands virtue to be and how it is cultivated. Further, the paper discusses in what ways Montesquieu’s account can be understood as an attack on what Aristotle had said in his Ethics and Politics.
In conclusion, this paper points out that some governments are more stable and thus more desirable than others. Balancing between public good and private good in a democracy is more complicated. Therefore, Aristotle’s premise that aristocracy is a better form of governance still holds water.
Practice of Virtue in Ancient Republic
In “The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu provides an explanation on how people come up with laws and how they develop the different social institutions within which they develop and grow. Montesquieu differentiates between two types of laws. On the one hand, there are the physical laws that are instituted or put in place by God.
As for human or social laws, Montesquieu argues, they are purely positive i.e. created by human beings based on their experience of the world and are subject to error (Montesquieu 10). Given social institutions are also based on positive thinking, Montesquieu points out that the same are bound to be limited by human error or oversights and hindsight in human thinking.
He argues that laws practiced by different nations or republics confirm the idea that human laws are purely positive and are subject to human error. Therefore, in trying to understand any human laws or laws that govern the republic, one cannot fail to contextualize or understand as per given context.
The context matters a lot because circumstantial issues dictate the kind of laws or the inclinations of a people. Different societies live in circumstances characterized by different climates, soils, and do different socio-economic activities (Montesquieu 14).
Therefore, in coming up with laws or principles to guide behavior, they necessarily peg them on their way of life. The laws or principles that guide behavior also are meant to respond to the situation and cannot be otherwise. It is for this reason that Montesquieu calls for a more appreciative approach even towards laws that may seem rudimentary or perverse. He argues that such laws understood in the context or situation in which a people live, they make sense or will be found to have served a given clear purpose.
One key thing that should be observed or appreciated about all republics is the extent to which they allow their law abiding citizens to exercise their own free will and act freely. However, we need to notice that every country or republic only allows freedoms as enabled by its context i.e. the situation informs the laws that provide a framework within which citizens are able to exercise their discretion or freedom.
Looking at republics this way, Montesquieu argues, one will be able to find sense even in the rudimentary laws and regulations put in place. Each law or regulation is put in place as informed by a people’s situation to give guidance in terms of what is possible and what is not possible. Therefore, it can be argued that positive laws help in determining what is considered as virtuous or good conduct given certain prevailing conditions.
Based on what has been presented so far, Montesquieu justifies or rallies for appreciation of rules and regulations exercised even under a monarch. His argument is that, even under what many may perceive as a backward form of governance, the established rules or codes of behavior make sense and serve a given purpose.
One would argue blanket that monarchism and other forms of authoritarian governance are likely to lead to despotism as the monarch or authoritarian regime misuses power. Such a notion holds true but Montesquieu advises that reform to any laws in such a republic can only be based on well-founded understanding of the laws or principles upon which such a government operates.
To reform the monarch or any republic, the reformer has to start by understanding the context or situation that informs the existence of principles upon which such an entity operates. Such appreciation helps towards understanding what exactly needs reform and in what way reform has to be constituted. Instituting reform from this kind of perspective ensures that the new structures fit into a context and respond to circumstantial or situational factors that define the dynamics in a given republic.
Montesquieu points out that governance can take three forms (Montesquieu 21). The first form of governance is the republic government. The republican government can either be democratic i.e. a government where the people (general populace) are key decision makers or aristocratic i.e. where an elite few govern the rest.
The second form of governance is practiced by monarchies and in a monarchy, the exercise of power is vested in certain tribes or families and instruments of government are hereditary. The final form of governance identified by Montesquieu is despotism. Despotism is a form of governance characterized by a monarch or any other leader not following established laws in ruling or governing the people.
Therefore, laws or established principles are critical in determining whether a government rules a republic effectively or not (Montesquieu 23). For Montesquieu, there is no good or bad form of governance as each form can become bad depending on whether the rule of law is established or not. Even in the most widely desired form of governance i.e. democracy, unless there are clear established laws that are followed, chaos and problems are likely to be the order of day.
Virtue according to Montesquieu
Each government can only work best if it pegs governance on given virtues. Virtue according to Montesquieu is not natural principles or codes discernible in nature. Rather, virtue as exercised is a conscious human choice or preference of one way of behaving or given interests over others. Like Aristotle, virtue for Montesquieu consists in moderation between extremes.
For instance, in a democracy, governments have to peg their operation on the virtue of balancing between what the majority want and the interests of specific individuals i.e. balance between opposing public interests on one hand and private interests on the other hand (Montesquieu 39). In the balance between public and private interests, Montesquieu points out that virtues consists in preferring or advancing public good or interests over personal or private good and interests.
Therefore, at the heart of good or well functioning democracies is the virtue of patriotism i.e. being able to put the country or nation first before other individual interests.
Such virtue i.e. the virtue that enables individuals to put public good first over private or individual interest, desires or good, education is very critical (Montesquieu 35). For Montesquieu therefore, virtue is cultivated through education. Through education, people are helped to appreciate the need to subordinate their interests to the interests of the nation. Apart from education, Montesquieu advocates for use of censor.
Montesquieu seems to have been greatly excited by monasteries and how they do their things. Monks, are helped through education and conditioning to love their order more than they love themselves. To keep untainted and uninfluenced by the outside world, monks seclude themselves and keenly censor everything that enters and leaves the monastery. The same can be applied in a republic through the government instituting education that imparts selfless patriotism and censoring everything that could be of influence to the citizens.
A government has to censor what the children or citizens in general learn. By censoring, the citizens are protected from outside influence and can thus stick to their tradition, principles or way of doing things. Other measures that can be taken to cultivate virtue have to do with property rights. Montesquieu reckons that unless there is equal distribution of resources, people will not remain loyal to their country (Montesquieu 24).
He thus advocates for legislation that governs acquisition of property to ensure equitable distribution of resources in a nation. Moreover, Montesquieu argues that nations ought to be small territories as opposed to big vast empires. In a small territory, people are able to identify with each other and private interests are more easily tamed.
The virtue of balancing private and public interests in a republic can more or less be understood in the context of Aristotelian moderation. Public interests and private interests are two extremes and to succeed, balance has to be struck between the two. However, the balance is not at the midpoint but rather tipped towards promotion of public good or interest over private good or interest.
The balance is critical because individuals should not advance their selfish interests at the expense of their fellow citizens (Montesquieu 43). However, there is also need to allow for some form of inequality given absolute equality is not possible. This means that even in the determination of public good, it does not follow that everybody will have his or her interests catered for in full measure. On the contrary, such equality is not possible thus need to focus on fair and rational proportionality.
Attack on Aristotle
The exercise of moderation makes even a monarch or an aristocracy a good government. An aristocratic government is acceptable in as long as the ruling elite are able to moderate between their individual interests and the public interests. Therefore, moderation would require restraint from the aristocrats such that they put public interest first over their personal desires and interests.
The same applies to monarch i.e. as long as they follow well established rules that define how power is exercised and executed, honor and sense of belonging associated with monarchs should guide each citizen, included the nobility, to act in a way that subordinates individuals interest to public interest or good.
Such governments are desirable and good as per the circumstances or context of a people. What should be abhorred are despotic governments in which a few impose their will, interests and desires on the citizenry or where the citizenry do not tame their aspirations thus jeopardizing the operation of law.
Montesquieu’s argument appears to be a direct attack on Aristotle. Both agree that virtue is in moderation. However, the two differ in terms of what makes a government good or bad. For Aristotle, justice or fairness as a key virtue that should guide political or governance can only be well executed by the aristocrats.
For Aristotle, the aristocrats have the wealth, education and virtue that enables them to rule properly. For Aristotle, democratic governments are bad because the citizenry are of inferior virtue i.e. they do not have the capacity and will to move away from extremes and choose the mean.
Montesquieu is in disagreement with this notion and argues that through education, all can develop or can be helped to appreciate virtues. Secondly, Montesquieu holds that good governments are those based on the rule of law; the forms they take are dependent on situations and circumstances. Each government operates based on given principles that best respond to situation or circumstances.
Possible rebuttal by Aristotelians
Montesquieu would be challenged by an Aristotelian on the basis that what he propositions is kind of utopia i.e. too idealistic. He argues that virtue can be cultivated through training and censorship. Realistically, not all people are able to achieve the same level of understanding. Therefore, it would be best to leave the best educated, those who have power to enforce virtue to rule. Secondly, discovering the public good or interest in itself is dependent on personal interests.
Finding a balance between the public good and private good is not easy and is likely to result into chaos. Therefore, democracies are not good governments. Such an argument would be pegged on the understanding that democratization has been encouraged all over the world. However, democratic processes e.g. elections tend to create more despotism or chaos in the world than if people subjected themselves to the rule of say aristocrats.
Montesquieu, Charles de Secondant, The Spirit of Laws, Ed. Cohler, M. Anne, Miller Basia Carolyn, and Stone Harold Samuel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989