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Dr. Paul Rahe Of Hillsdale College On The Life And Works Of Montesquieu

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HH: It is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue, which we are going to do today. It is so appropriate to be doing it today, because we had Montesquieu scheduled. And when you find out what he wrote about, you’ll be amazed at the timeliness of this topic, and of course breaking news as it occurs. My guest, Dr. Paul Rahe, who you have heard on this program many, many times, an authority on French literature and thinking, and of course, on Montesquieu, always a pleasure to have Paul Rahe back with us on the Hillsdale Dialogue, available at Professor Rahe, Happy New Year to you. It’s been a grim week, though.
PR: Awful. Just awful.

HH: Have you been often to the City of Lights?

PR: Yes, yes, maybe eight, nine times.

HH: And so in the course of that, have you seen it change over the years from being the most relaxed city in the world to now, a city, a country on the edge, as we speak?

PR: Well, actually, in some ways, it’s the opposite. The French were earlier, in the 50s and in the 60s, a pretty tough lot. And the sort of thing that has happened this week, I can’t imagine happening at that time, because they would have rounded people up, and they’d have dealt with him. They were rough. And France had a kind of national spirit, and a sense of its own greatness, all the way through the period of de Gaulle, and even for a time afterwards. I think what’s happened now is they’ve ceded control of their country, or parts of their country, the suburbs of Paris, for example, to foreigners with foreign ideas and foreign ways. And you know, they’ve failed to do what they were so successful in doing in the past, which is inculcate what they called republican values into everybody. And now they’re in trouble. But it’s a general pattern in Europe.

HH: But talk to me a little bit about why the French were particularly susceptible to this.

PR: You know, France is like the United States, a country with a revolutionary background. And it is a country that has since 1789 been focused on the rights of man as man. So the consequence is France is open to immigrants to a degree that other countries aren’t, and weren’t, just like the United States in that regard. And France had colonies in North Africa, Algeria in particular is very, very important. But there’s Tunisia as well. And the consequence is that they came to have an Arab minority, you know, much in the way that we had an Italian minority, and Irish minority, a Jewish minority and so forth. But they’ve been unable to assimilate the Arab minority. The Italians, the Jews, the Irish, the Slovaks, the Poles who came to America became Americans.

HH: Now the Mexicans and the Central Americans, yeah.

PR: But the Arabs that, many of them, I mean, there are exceptions, this is a problem you use a broad brush. Many of the ones who have come to France have not really become French. They speak the language, of course, because they’ve learned it there. But they want to impose the Sharia on France. That is to say they’re Muslims, and they’re Muslims who are committed to the imposition of religious law. I mean, one of the things that we don’t understand very well is Islam is a political religion. Christianity has implications for religion, but the Church has never directly ruled. And in fact, the Church is, in some sense, thinks that it shouldn’t directly rule. And Christianity is not a religion that brings with it a law that is supposed to govern you in all the fine details of your life. It brings a spirit that is supposed to govern the way you adjudicate issues that come up in your life. Islam, at the heart of it, lies a holy law, and a holy law that has to be enforced. And that, and it demands not just respect in the sense that we don’t insult it, it demands supremacy.

HH: Now a week ago, Sunday, the president of Egypt, al-Sisi, went to the leading university in Cairo, and called upon the imams there assembled to reform Islam.

PR: Yes.

HH: Do you think that’s possible, Paul Rahe?

PR: I’m not going to say it’s impossible. What I will say is it has not yet happened. And al-Sisi impresses me as a man with very great insight. Up to now, I didn’t know much about him. He was a military guy who took order when the Muslim Brotherhood blew it in Egypt. But he’s clearly a figure of greater seriousness than we have known thus far, because he understands that there’s a fundamental problem. And the reform of Islam would, if it were to work, would have to transform it into a religion of private life, that is to say a religion that governs those people who adhere to it, and not those people who don’t adhere to it, and that governs them in terms of how they conduct themselves with regard to one another, and how they conduct themselves with regard to people who are not Muslim. But it would also, you know, it would have to involve not toleration, but religious freedom.

HH: Now we go from there to a French revolutionary write. I don’t know if you will call Montesquieu revolutionary. He was born a hundred years before the French Revolution, but who had impact on revolutionaries as long as there have been revolutionaries by virtue of what he wrote. And you brought to my attention, I did not know this, Paul Rahe, that his first book was Persian Letters.

PR: Yes, yes, yes. It was a scandalous book that he wrote. It’s a novel. And in this novel, three Persians come to Europe, and they write letters back to people back in Persia. And they write letters to one another. And so what he asks Europeans to do is to see themselves through the eyes of these three Persians. And these three Persians are Muslim. So the religious issue of Islam and Christianity comes up at every turn. Montesquieu is born at about the time of the glorious revolution. And he grows up…

HH: That being the revolution in England which replaced the would-be Catholic king with William and Mary, without violence, but with the agency of Marlborough.

PR: That’s exactly right.

HH: Right.

PR: And it results in a war between England, led by William III, that is to way William of Orange, and the France of Louis XIV. And there’s a war in the 1690s, and then there is a second war that begins about 1702, 1703, and lasts to 1715. It’s during that second war that Montesquieu came of age. And he was deeply impressed by the fact that England, which had about a third of the population of France, defeated France. The English and the Dutch in alliance managed to do this. And France had been extremely successful on the European continent for 250 years prior to this time. And the Duke of Marlborough defeats the French.

HH: Aren’t we obliged at this point to say for the benefit of Dr. Arnn the Duke of Marlborough, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Winston Chruchill?

PR: That’s true, and you could even go further than that. Winston Churchill wrote a stunning biography of Marlborough, which is in print from the University of Chicago, in two thick volumes. And it’s one of the great reads.

HH: Yes, it is.

PR: It is the finest book Churchill wrote.

HH: Oh, I think you might get some arguments, but we’ll pass over that for a moment. Let’s go back to Montesquieu arriving in the middle of the carnage, because it was bloody. Oh, my gosh it was a bloody war.

PR: Yes, and Marlborough manages to annihilate the French Army four times in that war, starting with the great battle of Blenheim in 1703. And it shocks France. It brings it to its knees. And it shocks it in the sense that the regime is actually in danger. And Montesquieu grows up during this, and he wants to understand what it is that enabled England to do what it did. What it is that enabled a modern Carthage to defeat a modern Rome.

HH: And when we come back from break, we’re going to do that. But I do have to note for the benefit of everyone listening that this great political theorist, like those who followed him in the United States, is a lawyer.

PR: Yes, God help us all.

HH: I just want to point out that the people who wrote the constitutions and the laws and the books upon which they are all proceeding, because Dr. Arnn and many at Hillsdale seem to have this animus against lawyers, are all building on the foundation of lawyers.

— – – —

HH: When we went to break, Dr. Rahe was saying he came of age, meaning he came of lawyering age and writing age in the middle of the carnage that was the second half of the long war between Queen Anne’s England, first William’s England and then Queen Anne’s England, and Louis XIV’s France. So how did that impact him, Dr. Rahe?

PR: Well, it caused him to have doubts about the viability of the French monarchy, and of the French model, which was modeled on Rome, and modeled on the notion of glory and conquest and the establishment of a universal monarchy. And so Montesquieu after publishing the Persian Letters, this satirical novel on French life and on the French Church, and also on Islam, he journeyed to England. And he and Voltaire both, and they spent extended periods there. I think in Montesquieu’s case, it was something like a year and a half, eighteen months, learned the language, attended Parliament, got to know everybody. And then he came back, and he tried to write a three-part book, one part on Ancient Rome, one part on attempts to establish universal monarchy in modern Europe, and the other on England, arguing, this is what he was attempting to do, that the English model, which looked more like Carthage than it looked like Rome, that is to say it was mercantile, it was naval, it was maritime, and it was more interested in peace than in war, but it could fight, and that the future lay with England. And he didn’t, he published part of this book, because Voltaire published his Philosophical Letters in 1733, and all hell broke loose in France, and Voltaire had to flee, and it was burned by the public hangman. And Montesquieu had this little book in his hands in something like page proofs at the time. And he decided that it was prudent to cut. And so he cut everything except the argument about Rome. And then he launched another project, which resulted in his publication in 1748 of The Spirit Of Laws. And buried within The Spirit Of Laws is this earlier book.

HH: Oh, interesting. Now I’ve got to go backwards in time a little bit. When he published Persian Letters, he had to have had an opinion both about Islam and about Catholicism. What were they?

PR: He was profoundly critical of Islam. He thought that Islam was closely connected with despotism, and that, and he also had enormous respect for the power of religion, for its dominance. So he did not have high hopes for the Muslim world.

HH: And as to the Roman Catholic Church, then, of course, dominating in France, what did he think of that also hierarchical and occasionally despotic organization?

PR: He was highly critical. He was more friendly to Protestantism, though he was nominally a Catholic himself. His wife was a Huguenot, a Protestant, and he was persuaded that Protestantism was more friendly to liberty than Catholicism.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask, out of this period where you’ve got Montesquieu and Voltaire working, and Rousseau and all these different people coming out of the French soil, how could a despotic, aristocratic, authoritarian, Catholic-dominated culture produce such people?

PR: Well, you know, the answer is you shouldn’t go too far in pushing this notion of it being despotic and authoritarian. To begin with, the division between the Church and the monarchy opened up the space of freedom, because you could be protected by the monarch against the Church, and by the Church against the monarch.

HH: A-ha, division of, the separation of power.

PR: Yeah, and the second thing is that this was what David Hume would call a civilized monarchy, which is to say the monarch did not pick his successor. He was monarch by dint of the law, which meant that he was bound to the law. And it was a law-abiding monarchy. In other words, law was not simply the will of the king. The king was king by law. It was law that made him king, and therefore, he had to honor the law. And so in France, you had a body called the Parlement, which were chosen by the king, but once you became part of the Parlement, you, he couldn’t boot you out. So it was something like the Supreme Court in the relationship between the United States Supreme Court and the presidency.

HH: Now I’m curious, in the 100 years that come between Montesquieu’s birth and the French Revolution, and most people will know it if not from anything else, then from A Tale Of Two Cities, something happens in France. What is it that eats away and destroys the credibility and the institutional stability of the monarchy?

PR: Ah, that’s a good question. In Montesquieu’s view, and in my own, it is that France proved incapable of pursuing the project of conquest and glory that was tied up closely with the monarchy from the time of Louis XIII and Louis XIV on. They lost wars. And the only war they won in the 18th Century is called The American Revolution. And they contributed very greatly to our victory in the American Revolution. You know, there were more French troops at Yorktown than there were American troops.

HH: And there was a French fleet off of Yorktown.

PR: That’s right, making Yorktown possible. So it’s, but that victory bankrupted them. And part of Montesquieu’s argument, and critique of the French monarchy as it operated in his time, was that it was not economically viable. That is to say it was committed to pursuing a policy of conquest that it couldn’t fund. And the consequence is the British could fund things, because they didn’t care about conquest in Europe. They cared about trade. And they cared about a balance of power in Europe that would not overwhelm them just off the coast of Europe.

HH: You know, at the conclusion of that, I think it’s Pitt the Younger starts the Sinking Fund to again remove the debt that had ridden up during the first set of wars with France, and I think accomplished that, if my history is correct. Did France realize it was teetering on bankruptcy?

PR: Yes. Yes, I mean, the French monarchy was desperately seeking sources of funds. And from 1713, ’14, ’15 on, it’s always on the edge of bankruptcy. And every time they get into a war, it pushes them further into debt, and further into trouble. And what sets off the French Revolution is an attempt to raise taxes.

HH: And we will be back to talk about how it is that Montesquieu came to have such impact upon the framers, what he wrote, and how it traveled here, and how it so deeply got into the water they were drinking, and what it manifested itself in the form of not just the Constitution, but the Declaration, with Dr. Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College.

— – – – –

HH: So Dr. Rahe, let’s start by saying, if you can, if you’re talking to your freshmen at Hillsdale, and you’re giving them the introductory five minutes on why it’s important to read The Spirit Of The Laws, what do you tell them?

PR: Well, the minute it’s published, 1748, it sells like hotcakes. Everybody reads it. It is the fundamental work for Rousseau, who read it immediately after it was published, and took 500 pages of notes on it.

HH: Wow.

PR: It’s the most important book for Edmund Burke. It is the most important book for the American founding fathers. It is cited more often in pamphlets and in newspapers in North America between 1762 and 1800 than any other work. And Montesquieu is cited more often than any other writer, more often than Locke, more often than Blackstone, who was another disciple of Montesquieu. It is the bible of political men all the way through, say, the time of Hegel.

HH: Can I pause here? How does it just physically travel? I mean, he’s not that well known, right? I mean, Persian Letters might have been a bestseller, but he’s still one guy from an obscure family in France.

PR: Right, but everything that he writes becomes a bestseller, and everything he writes gets translated. You know, The Spirit Of Laws gets translated into English immediately. And it gets translated into Dutch, and into Russian, and into German, and into Italian, and into Greek and so forth. And this is true for the Persian Letters, it’s true for his Considerations On The Causes Of The Greatness Of The Romans And Their Decline, a little book on Rome, and then of The Spirit Of Laws. So it is, even though it’s a big, massive book, it’s very entertaining, let me add.

HH: So he’s a bestseller. He’s a Daniel Silva or a C.J. Box, or a Ludlum or something like that, everybody knows, and they wait for his next book.

PR: That’s exactly right. And it is the book in the 18th Century that you study if you are interested in political questions. And the 18th Century is the great period in modern times for political questions. They take priority over everything else. You know, think about the American Revolution, think about the French Revolution, and the literature to which they gave rise, this massive outpouring of pamphlets and newspaper articles and so forth. And Montesquieu stands behind it all. The arguments that take place in the United States over the Constitution are arguments against one school of Montesquieu readers and another school of Montesquieu readers, and the same thing is true about the French Revolution. That is to say…

HH: All right, so he’s undeniably at the center of all this. What is it that makes it so impactful?

PR: He is the great reviver of republicanism. In other words, he writes in a time of monarchy everywhere. And what he believes he has discovered in England is what he calls a republic disguised as a monarchy.

HH: Then can we go back to his little book on the Roman republic…

PR: Yes.

HH: …and define what he understood to be a republic based upon that before we go forward to his hidden republic within a monarchy?

PR: Well, the key difference is that republics involve the government of more than one. But the larger is that republics can make what he calls a correction of course fairly easily. It’s very hard for a monarchy to make a correction of course unless the monarch dies and is replaced by somebody else. New men usually do bring new measures. But in republics, what happens is you have new men all the time, because you have elections from time to time. And things are discussed and debated. And so the thing that interests him about Rome is that Rome was capable, very easily capable of a correction of course, and he points to England in his little book on the Romans as the modern example that is capable of a correction of course.

HH: When we come back from break for our last segment, we’ll talk at length about In The Spirit Of The Laws what he proscribes, what he suggests, and how the framers picked up on those suggestions as they sat down in Philadelphia.

— – — –

HH: So what’s at the heart? What’s his prescription that Jefferson and Madison and all the others pick up on?

PR: Well, here’s what his concern is. It’s a fundamental principle. And he studied history, so this is what he’s come to, is that political regimes are relative to the extent of territory on which they exist. He argues that if you have a massive territory like China, or the Ottoman Empire, you’re going to have a despotism, because the emergencies require a concentration of power in the hands of one man. A polity of moderate size tends to be a monarchy, that is to say a civilized monarchy that is governed by the rule of law.

HH: His own France.

PR: Yes, and republics, historically, were limited to cities, small communities. And his Roman book is about the way a city begins as a republic and turns into a despotism as it becomes a great imperial power. Now what’s interesting about The Spirit Of Laws is he thinks he’s found a way around this problem. And one aspect of it is federalism. That is to say you can box at the level of a monarchy, but still be a republic if you are part of a federation of republics such as the Dutch or the Swiss.

HH: Did he point to the Athenian League of the Spartan League as well?

PR: No, because those were empires.

HH: Okay.

PR: We’re talking about federal states.

HH: Okay, with equal partners, not a dominant partner.

PR: That’s exactly right. The second thing is he points to the separation of powers, which enables England to be larger than the ancient cities, and to maintain liberty, because power is divided, but also it is disbursed in terms of function – executive, legislative and judicial power. And the Americans faced this as a practical problem. That is to say they are separating themselves from England, and the question is what kind of government can they sustain given the circumstances in which they exist? And their problem is the territory is vast. That’s a great advantage if you want to be a great nation that can defend itself, because you have resources.

HH: Right.

PR: But it can be a disadvantage, because you have a government at a distance from the people. And governments that are at a distance from the people, because literally of the physical extension of the territory, have a tendency to drift towards despotism. The way to avoid that is federalism and the separation of powers. So he is fundamental for the political science of the American founding fathers. And the debates that take place between the federalists and the anti-federalists are all built on what they have learned from Montesquieu. And they’re trying to think through their problems of their time in light of what he has learned from his long study of history.

HH: So go back with me to the framing of the Virginia plan, which Madison brings with him to Philadelphia in 1787. How much of that can we find in Madison’s notes to depend upon The Spirit Of The Laws?

PR: It’s, Madison looks to two figures. He looks to Montesquieu, and he looks to David Hume, who was a contemporary of Montesquieu’s in Scotland, and a great admirer of Montesquieu. There’s some reason to think that the two long chapters in The Spirit Of Laws that get published in English right away in Edinburgh, are actually translated by David Hume himself. He is certainly behind their publication, but they read like David Hume. It can’t be proved that he did it, but I’ll tell you, I believe it. Just every time I go back and look at that translation, I think whoa, the inspiration, what he’s doing in that, is he is asking the question can we establish a republic on an extended territory in America, and make it work? And so his reflections in his preparations for the Virginia plan, and in a little essay that he wrote prior to the convention, and in the deliberations of the convention, he’s wrestling with the questions posed by Montesquieu. And he is inspired to a considerable degree by Montesquieu, though he also thinks Montesquieu’s wrong on certain questions, and that his own political science can be, in certain regards, an improvement on Montesquieu.

HH: Okay, we’ll come to that. I’ve got to ask, though, about Montesquieu, and your deep study of him. Did he intend to change the world? I mean, did he sit down with the intention of actually having people in a young world read what he wrote and act on it?

PR: Yes.

HH: How interesting.

PR: He is a legislator.

HH: How interesting. And, but you are also somewhat ambitious if you think you can get people to set up a government based upon what you write.

PR: He is ambitious in the way that Plato and Aristotle and Machiavelli and Hobbes are ambitious, yes.

HH: You know, it’s different, because Madison is actually charged with doing it. You know, he has to get it done. So you can see him going to the library shelf and saying oh, I’ll read Montesquieu. But Montesquieu, when he writes it, has to count on a Madison being there, because he has no standing in France, right?

PR: No. Well, I mean, they read him, but no, he doesn’t, he has no political authority. In fact, his little trip to England, things that he said at parties in England got back to the French government. He wanted to be a French diplomat, and they would not take him.

HH: How interesting. And so we have a minute left. So our debt to him on this week of French stories is enormous.

PR: Yes, yes, absolutely.

HH: What would you have people read first?

PR: If they want fun, the Persian Letters. If they’re interested in Rome and its trajectory, the Little Book On Rome. But the great book is The Spirit Of Laws.

HH: Is it accessible still? The Federalist is accessible. Is The Spirit Of Laws accessible?

PR: Oh, yes. And it’s not only accessible, it’s great fun. You love Montaigne. He is inspired as a writer by Montaigne. So there’s this playfulness that you run into all the time in Montesquieu.

HH: Well, he’s a lawyer, Paul. I mean, that explains much of his ability and facility with words, right?

PR: (sigh)

HH: Dr. Paul…

PR: My wife is a lawyer.

HH: Dr. Paul Rahe…

PR: Okay.

HH: …from Hillsdale College, what a great introduction to Montesquieu. Talk to you again soon.

End of interview.


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