M. N. Roy Jawaharlal Nehru

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296 great political thinkers

  • ments. Here Bertrand Russell correctly remarks that if "once an international government has been created, much of Locke's political philosophy will again become applicable, though not the part of it that deals with private property."13

  • II Russell, B., op. cit., p. 665.

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  • MONTESQUIEU (I 689- I 755)

  • His Intellectual Environment

  • Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Sccondat, was the son of a dis­tinguished French lawyer steeped in legal traditions from his very birth. He was a true French litterateur of the mid-eighteenth century. He reacted against the absolutism and general conditions prevailing in the age of Louis XIV.

  • He was in active touch with the intellectual movement of his time. A man of a strong temperament, he loathed the atmosphere of the degenerate French court and found in study 'the sovereign remedy against all his disappointments'. He gave a number of historical references to substantiate his conclusion. There is a marked tendency in his writings to correlate political philosophy with physical sciences. His mind was moulded not only by wide study, but also by an extensive travelling. It was the study of Roman history of contem­porary English institutions which determined the purpose as well as the content of Montesquieu's political philosophy. These two sources gave him the conception of liberty which forms the central theme of his speculation.

  • The Persian Letters of Montesquieu embodied a brilliant satire on the existing social, political and religious institutions in France. Montesquieu felt a keen interest in historical study, especially in the history and political institutions of ancient Rome. His Considerations on the Greatness and Decay of the Romans shows the great political insight and catholicity of view of Montesquieu. He studied the histories of Rome, France, England, Egypt, Persia, India, China and Japan, which left their deep impressions on the cultivated mind of the philosopher. But Montesquieu did not draw his views primarily from history, but used history to illustrate and verify them.

  • It is true that Montesquieu made use of history and experimental method to support his conclusions, but he also had a penchant for the past. Within the soul of Montesquieu there were, in fact, two men struggling for the mastery : the political philosopher and the practical reformer. The one, as Voltaire and Helvetius were not slow to detect, essentially conservative ; reverent of the past; keenly alive to the organic unity of national life in all its varied expressions ; averse to innovation, if only because he was aware that a change in one direction commonly brings with it, and ought to bring with it, a thousand changes more ; firm in the conviction, the fruit of long

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    1. study and reflection, that without religion there can be no healthy national existence, and that the established form of religion is not more but less easily altered than that of any other object to which men have given their loyalty and devotion.55 The other, a true child of his age and country, eager for reform ; impatient of abuses, especially when they cut athwart his instincts of humanity ; and in matters of a religious observance, critical, sceptical and, at moments not a little contemptuous and satirical. The two strains are not easy to reconcile. But the one is no less characteristic than the other ; the one needs to be no less carefully reckoned with than the other.

    2. There is one point, however, in which the two strains meet and mingle. If any case presents itself in which the abuse, so far from being of old growth, was a recent innovation—still more, if it should appear that the innovation was one of those which strike root rapidly and threaten to spread swiftly and widely—it is evident that then both the conservative and reforming instincts of the author would be enlisted under the same banner ; that his whole nature would at once rise in rebellion ; that he would put forth all his powers to warn his countrymen of the danger and to combat it with every weapon at his command.

    3. Hence there is the deep undertone of uneasiness which makes all that he writes about Monarchy and Despotism. It is the exasperation of the thinker who sees his most cherished distinctions trampled under foot; the auguish of the patriot who watches his country driven to ruin by a dissolute monarch and a gang of placemen who sacrificed everything to the alleged convenience of the moment, content, like their master, with the coward's maxim : 'After us, the deluge.' Unless this be borne in mind, some of the most striking pages of Esprit des his will remain an undecipherable riddle.56

    4. His Empiricism

    5. In the formulation of ideas, Montesquieu's indebtedness to Aristotle is obvious. The method of treatment of both is empirical, based on observation. Aristotle shows his distaste for idealism ; Montesquieu discards the contemporary ideals of the sovereignty of the people, natural rights, etc. Aristotle hints at the separation of powers, Montesquieu develops the theory. Both dilate on the influence of geography on the form of government. Both classify governments on the basis of law. Both uphold monarchy as the best form of government.

    6. As a Progressive Conservative

      1. 2 Ibid., viii, 6-9 ; ix, 6-7 ; x, 9.

      Montesquieu, in fact, was a progressive conservative. He was neither a radical democrat, nor an egalitarian denouncing privilege.


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    1. He criticized the social, religious and political institutions of France with a view to reforming them and not so much in a hostile spirit of destructive criticism. He was more concerned in his writings with the real spirit of liberty and harmonious working of political institu­tions than with the political dogmas of the age like the Rights of Man, Sovereignty of People and Natural Equality of Men etc. He wanted to reform political life in France by infusing in it the British sense of liberty and by introducing into the French constitution the principle of separation of powers, particularly the separation of legislative and executive functions of the government, which he thought was charac­teristic of the British constitution. His Spirit of Laws represented an effort in this direction. To him, climate and geography, as also eco­nomic conditions, had a great hand in moulding the character and the national institutions of a country. All the philosophers of the 18th century, on the whole, demand a constitutional type of government. They want religious toleration, civil freedom and a rational system of jurisprudence. As a rule, they do not condemn a limited monarchy. They fear the demos and stick to their rights and privileges, including the sacred rights of property.

    2. If we observe the world around us, we see that there is both uniformity and diversity of behaviour. There is a certain order, regularity and similarity of cause and effect and yet there is variety, because things do not happen always in exactly the same way. The unity and diversity are harmoniously reconciled m the universe. In the human world, behaviour patterns are not unalterable because of the free will of man, but they are fixed to some extent, because man is a physical being also. In the human world, there is uniformity and diversity of behaviour pattern. Uniformity is provided by the univer­sal law of self-preservation and natural impulses and diversity by the variety in customs, conventions, moral codes and institutions arising out of differences in environment, climate, soil and genius of a people and so on.

    3. importance of Laws

    4. "Laws, in the widest possible connotation, are any necessary relations arising from a thing's nature. In this sense all beings have their laws: the Deity His laws, the material world its laws, the intelligences superior to men their laws, the beasts their laws, man his laws. . .." Though man has his laws, yet because of the exercise of free will and because of defective human intelligence, "the intel­lectual world is far from being so well-governed as the physical." Man is a free agent, but is subject to ignorance, error and impetuous passions. "Such a being might every instant forget his creator ; God has, therefore, reminded him of his duty by the laws of religion. Such a being is liable every moment to forget himself; philosophy has provided against this by the laws of morality. Formed to live m society, he might forget his fellow-creatures; legislators have therefore

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    1. by political and civil laws confined him to his duty." Before those laws were made, man was guided by the laws of Nature. The first law of Nature enjoined on him the necessity of self-preservation, peace and security. Other laws point out the advisability of satisfaction of human wants, the necessity of leading a life in association with his fellow-beings. Social contract develops human intelligence. There develops a rational desire to live in society. Life in society necessitates positive laws.

    2. It follows from the above fact that, if there are any laws which the political life of man follows, any generalizations to be drawn from his actions as a civic being, they are to be discovered solely by a study of the relations in which he stands to his outward surroundings and to his fellow-men : including, and including above all, those relations, which, just because they are the most intimate and deep-reaching, we roughly describe as constituting his intrinsic nature : on the one hand, that relation to bis fellows which we have in mind when we say that he is essentially a moral being, with a sense of duty and responsibility both to other men and to God ; on the other, those evident relations, both to other men and to the world without, which spring from his primary instinct of self-preservation, his innate desire to secure his own welfare and happiness.

    3. Each of these two main kinds of relation—alike that of duty and that of interest—carries with it far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, if man is by nature a moral being, a being bound to his kind by ties from which there is no escape and no release, and if those ties of duty are further strengthened by innumerable promptings of self-interest, then there is no need to ask when and how civil society had its origin, no need to look for that origin in any 'covenant' such as has been supposed to constitute the obligation which binds men to civil society, in any 'contract' such as is sometimes alleged to have drawn him from a previous 'state of nature*. The real state of nature, for man, is civil society ; and there was no need of any contract or covenant to draw him thither. For this reason, if for no other, the individualist theory of the state must be rejected without ceremony. Man is what he is by relation to his fellows. The naked, isolated individual is an abstraction, and a false abstraction, if there ever was one.57

    4. 'All knowledge is knowledge of relations.' To our ears this may sound little better than a truism. It would be accepted—doubtless in different senses and with widely different implications—by all schools of thinkers: by materialist as well as idealist; by disciples of Bentham, as well as by disciples of Rousseau or disciples of Mazzini. To the eighteenth century, however, it was a dangerous heresy. And Mon­tesquieu, if not the first to proclaim it, was at least more to give it


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    1. currency in the field of politics. What is yet more to the purpose, he was the first to grasp it as a general truth ; the first to apply it to the whole range of political discussion. What Vico had been dimly groping after is set in the clearest light by Montesquieu. What is implied throughout the Scienza nuova is explicitly asserted and worked out in VEsprit des Lois.

    2. Positive Laws

    3. That is why the idea or relation is placed in the very forefront of his treatise ; that is why his opening sentence defines Law as 'the sum of relations which necessarily flow from the nature of a given object'. Montesquieu, in fact, did not care for abstract notion of things. To repeat, to him 'all knowledge was knowledge of relations.' Human positive laws were not merely the dictate of reason or a command of sovereign lawgiver. The laws, according to him, re­present a body of rules to regulate the life of a nation in accordance with the spirit and genius of that nation. Due to this reason, a study of social rules is important because the positive laws of a people must have, as their basis, national social customs. Law is related to social environment. There is no universal positive law, because a number of influences determine its course. It is a rule of action based on social relationships and social experiences. It is rooted in society and varies with the different types and structures of society.

    4. Developing his conception of positive laws, Montesquieu tells us that man in the State of Nature was a timid creature. He was not an intelligent creature as Locke thought, nor a wilful brute as Hobbes conceived. With the formation of societies and increase of knowledge he lost his timidity and equality, sought for dominion over others and inaugurated a state of war. There began a conflict in two directions : between individuals and societies. This gave rise, accord­ing to Montesquieu, to positive laws which are of three types corres­ponding to three sets of relations : (1) law of nations corresponding to the relation between nation and nation, (2) positive law corres­ponding to the relation between ruler and ruled, and (3) civil laws governing the relation between individual citizens. The law of nations is common to all, but positive and civil laws differ from society to society. The positive laws must be related to the character of a people ; and the civil laws must be related to topography, climate, size of population, religion of a people, and soon. Further, these three laws must be related to one another. This is what we understand by the spirit of laws. Here he repudiated clearly social contract theory. The state, according to him, was the product of environment and was organic, and not conventional in nature. The laws of Nature taught the man the desirability of peace and security, and of living in society in a friendly spirit. Types of Government

    5. In his Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu analyzes the different types of

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    1. government and examines the characteristics of each different type. He does not overtly accept the traditional classification of govern­ments into monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Surprisingly, he explained his reasons neither for adopting in part the traditional threefold classifications nor for departing from it. He merely assert­ed that governments are of three types : monarchy, which represents the rule of one man with law ; despotism, rule of one man without law ; and republic, which would be further classified into aristocracy and democracy. Despotism differs from monarchy in being arbitrary and capricious, while the latter is a constitutional government accord­ing to forms of law and require the continuance of 'intermediate powers', such as, the nobility or communes, between the monarch and the neople. His republic represented an idealized type of govern­ment in a country where the moral and intellectual attainments and standards of the people were very high. The essence of a republic lay not in whether the government was in the hands of a few or many, but whether the government was animated by 'virtue' or not. Thus, to each of these forms of government he attached a 'principle', or motive force in the character of subjects from which its power is derived and which is necessary to its continuance and functioning. Popular government (whether republic or democracy) depends upon the civil virtue or public spirit of the people, monarchy depends upon the sense of honour of a military class, and despotism depends upon the fear or slavishness of its subjects

    2. Montesquieu saw a definite relation between the nature of govern­ment and the constitutional law of a country. "For monarchy the most important laws relative to its nature are those which insure the pre-eminence of the privileged classes, especially the nobility." While dealing with the relations of laws and institutions to the basic prin­ciples of various forms of government, Montesquieu makes a number of pertinent observations. Education and legislation must corres­pond in character to the principles of a particular government. In a democracy the laws must aim at promoting the love of equality and the practice of frugality. In a monarchy the main object of the laws should be to protect the privileges of the nobility.

    3. Relation between Form of Government and Religion and Size of a State

    4. Likewise, Montesquieu finds out relationship between various types of government and different religions and size of a state. According to him, certain religions had a definite affinity for certain forms of government. Protestantism goes well with a republican form of government, Roman Catholicism with a monarchical form, while Mohammedanism and despotism are well suited to each other. For him, the size of a state also provides a basis for the classification of government. A republican form of government is possible only in a state of small size, monarchy suits the moderate-sized state, while


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    1. a big country or an empire must have a despotic government. Change of size is attended with change in the type of government. He was against the policy of expansion and aggrandizement. He decried international rivalry and pleaded for international justice. To pre­vent small states from being absorbed by the bigger ones, he favoured the principle of federation.

    2. Influence of Physical Environment on National Life

    3. Montesquieu, like Bodin, also dilated on the influence of physi­cal environment on the social, economic, religious and political insti­tutions of a country. Of these the climate plays the most important part. Climate influences character and institutions. Heat produces a spirit of monasticism and indolence, cold energy and drunkenness. People of cold country are restless and irritable in spirit. Then again from different wants in different climates arise different ways of living and these different ways of living result in different kinds of laws. According to Montesquieu, there is a direct relation between climate and liberty. He illustrates this theory by reference to England. English climate promotes irritability with a tendency to suicide. This irritability makes it impossible for Englishmen to tolerate personal despotism. English constitution is primarily the result ,of English climate. He traces the extreme conservatism and the general back­wardness of the laws, customs, manners and religions of the Asiatic countries to warm climate. Hot climate breeds despotism and slavery of both domestic (of women) and civil kind. The cold climate, as of Europe, makes for the virtues of strength, self-reliance and frankness and these virtues produce political and civil liberty. According to him, geography, too, plays an important part in the growth of national institutions. You will have liberty in the hills which are difficult of cultivation as well as conquest, and despotism in the plains which are more easily cultivable and conquerable. Again, the larger the area of a country, the smaller the chance of constitutional government and political liberty there. Then again continental people are more open to attack and, therefore, more liable to despotism than an isolated nation.

    4. Thus, it is difficult to see that Montesquieu's classification followed any principle at all. He made many observations about many things at different times and his conclusions were mostly epi­sodic and had little dependence on what he alleged to be evidence. With respect to his main purpose it may be said that he oscillates between two tendencies inherent in the confused principles from which he started. On the one hand, he was inclined to assume that human law is rational and that accordingly there is a good reason, under the circumstances, for any usage that is widely and permanent­ly established. Such an attitude agreed with his generally conserva­tive inclination and with the theory that physical causes, such as Climate, act directly on mental and moral capacities. Carried to its logical conclusion, however, it would have meant a complete moral

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    1. relativism, and this was certainly never Montesquieu's position. On the other hand, he perhaps usually thought of climate and certain institutions (like slavery and polygamy) as adverse conditions which have to be compensated by legislation to produce a good moral result. This way of interpreting political evolution implies that the moral ideas at least of legislators are independent of social causation and that the causal influence of climate and the like is effective mainly as it enters into their calculations. Such a view cuts under a socio­logical theory of politics and repeats the exaggerated ideas about the influence of rulers which Machiavelli had made current. In fact, however, Montesquieu was less guilty on this score than his contem­poraries.

    2. It is difficult, therefore, to attach any importauce to Montes­quieu's celebrated dictum that laws must be adopted to the circum­stances in which a nation lives. And the statement that Montesquieu really envisaged and used an inductive and comparative method of studying social institutions must be taken with extreme qualification. Probably few important political theorists were more addicted to hasty generalizations or less inclined to distinguish between exact in­ference and the impulsion of prior convictions. He was indeed a man of wide readir j, but his knowledge was inexact, judged not by the scholarly standards of a later time but in terms of the sources at his disposal. His curious erudition was largely used to illustrate beliefs that would have been exactly the same if be had never heard of Persia. Even of political affairs in Europe, which lay under his eyes, Montesquieu was not so profound an observer as Machiavelli, Bodin, or even Harrington, who made no such pretensions to universal knowledge. What saves him from the charge of being an amateur was not his scientific achievement, but his whole-souled enthusiasm for liberty. He was a moralist, writes Sabine, "for whom the eternal verities had begun to wear thin but who lacked the constructive power to get on without them."*

      1. 4 Sabine, G. H. : op, cit., p. 471.

      It is not wrong to say Montesquieu's importance lay in spread­ing and strengthening the belief in British institutions as the means of political liberty. His dwelling in England freed him from the preconception that political liberty depends upon a superior virtue known only to the Romans and realized only in a city-state. It gave support to his rooted dislike for despotism and suggested a way in which the evil effect of absolutism in France might perhaps be remedied. He ascribed liberty in England to the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers, and to the balancing of these powers against each other. He set these doctrines as dogmas of liberal constitution-making. The extent of Montesquieu's influence in this respect is beyond doubt and may be read at large in the bills of rights of American and French constitutions.


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    1. Montesquieu's Conception of Liberty

    2. Montesquieu borrowed his ideas of liberty, to some extent, from John Locke, although he rejected the abstract Lock-an notion of natural rights and natural justice promoting liberty. him, poli­tical- liberty meant a relation between the state and the subjects. It meant 'the right of doing all that the laws permit*. If an individual violated law, he could not retain liberty because then everybody would violate law and there would be liberty for none. Political liberty, therefore, is to be gained by conforming to laws and not by violating them. It means freedom of action in accordance with and under the protection of the laws. It follows naturally that if in a state an individual or a body of individuals are above the laws, there can be no liberty. In a despotism, liberty is not secure because of the reasoned caprice of an individual ruler. Montesquieu does not define clearly civil liberty. His chief aim was to discover a govern­mental organization that would best secure political liberty because of its system of checks and balances.

    3. Separation of Powers for Liberty

    4. Montesquieu found in the separation of the three powers of government—executive, legislative and judicial, the best guarantee for liberty. He was of the opinion that if the legislative power is united with the executive power in the hands of one person or of one body of officials, there can be no liberty ; nor can there be any liberty if the power to judge is not separated from the legislative and executive powers. Again, there would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and that of trying the causes of individuals. The separation of powers ensured liberty by imposing a healthy check on the despotism of the governmental officials. In England the contro­versies between the crown and the courts of common law and bet­ween the crown and parliament had given concrete importance to the separation of powers. Harrington had considered it to be essen­tial to free government and Locke had given it a subsidiary place in his theory of parliamentary priority. But it was Montesquieu who developed the doctrine of the separation of powers into a system of legal checks and balances between the parts of a constitution. He, however, did not really contemplate an absolute separation of the three powers : the legislative ought to meet at the call of the execu­tive ; the executive retains a veto on legislation ; and the legislature ought to exercise extraordinary judicial powers. The separation of powers, as Montesquieu described it and as it always remained, was crossed by a contradictory principle—the greater power of the legis­lature—:which in effect made it a dogma supplemented by an un­defined privilege of making exceptions.

    5. Montesquieu's theory of liberty shows traces of the rationalizing

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    1. spirit of the eighteenth century ; but whereas his contemporaries, as also Locke, defended liberty, political and civil, on the score of natural rights, Montesquieu cared little for the dogma of 'natural rights'. According to him, not the 'rights of man', but the separation of powers was the panacea for liberty. For him all laws and insti­tutions were relative, while his rationalistic friends drew from 'nature* rules of universal validity.

    2. Liberty was writ large on the U Esprit des Lois, but he was no democrat. He did not believe in popular sovereignty. He was a sort of 'French Whig' and his whiggism considerably influenced political theory in the 19th century.
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