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Montesquieu and the Nature of Political Societies

The following was submitted as work for “Creation of the Constitution” with Prof. Robert Allison in Harvard Extension School.

Throughout history, Christians have believed that “every soul [should] be subject to higher powers”, but that these higher powers are subject to God’s authority.  The burden of proof in political disputes lies with the subjects, since the “powers that be” would have providence on their side. Seeking to establish what might be the highest authority in political matters, Montesquieu asserted that, “Laws are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things.”  

The term “necessary” is important because it makes any alternative impossible.  Once discovered, not only men, but God himself would be constrained by such laws.  More important, however, was the assertion that such laws are derived from the “nature of things” themselves.  From the 16th century, it was argued that since the subject was created things, the investigation of the nature of such things ought to be undertaken by empirical sciences.  

Montesquieu held human nature to be the source of political science and described a fairly common Christian view of man. He argued that due to man’s perceived weakness, he possesses a “desire of living in society”.  He added that once gathered together into society, men “become sensible of their force” and make laws to govern the dealings of their society with others, and with one another.  He concluded that “No society can subsist without a form of government.”

Whether Montesquieu was right about the nature of political societies is unclear.  What is clear is that while his arguments may be plausible, he fails to supply any proof appropriate for his purpose.  Unlike Newton, who used mathematical proofs to demonstrate the necessity of his conclusions, Montesquieu provides no evidence that shows his judgments to be “necessary”.  That laws, for example, are intrinsic to created things and that the Creator himself would be subject to such as if they were immutable is not proven, and on this principle his entire argument depends. In this sense, Montesquieu is not like Newton and the modern natural philosophers.

Furthermore, Montesquieu’s division of political systems into three species appears to be incomplete. He states the principal difference in the first book: “The general strength may be in the hands of a single person, or of many.” Thus, if the possession of supreme power is the essential difference, government systems would divide into two species:  (1) government by one man and (2) government by more than one.  To further divide the first species, Montesquieu uses the difference of whether the one ruler is subject to laws, leading to the species: (1a) monarchy and (1b) tyranny.  

However, he divides republican government into (2a) aristocracy, and (2b) democracy.  The difference used to divide the class seems to be whether supreme power rests with a finite number or with all. That only two possible species arise from such a division is not true. The first division would be a government of two, then three, then some other number, then, finally, all.  Once these divisions were made, the resulting species might be divided according to a second difference, which by his previous division Montesquieu seems to think should be whether the government is subject to laws or not.  Considering the differences, there are more options available for consideration than are listed by Montesquieu. While the three systems he listed may have been most prevalent in history, if his intention was to establish a science of political systems, there are other possibilities requiring consideration.

In summary, Montesquieu’s argument on the nature of political societies appears to be inconclusive and his classification of them incomplete. 

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