(1734) by Montesquieu
History Meets Philosophy
by Joseph Epstein
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), a leading figure in the French Enlightenment, began his career studying and then practicing law. With the acquisition of his fortune through marriage and inheritance, he settled into the life of a man of letters. He wrote novels, essays (on taste and history among other large subjects), and two books that rendered him famous. “Persian Letters” (1721), a satire on the absurdities of contemporary French society as seen by a visiting Persian, made him a figure of great réclame in his own day; and his “The Spirit of the Laws” (1748), on the influence of forms of government and of climate on nations, remains a central work of political philosophy in ours.
Between those two books, Montesquieu published “Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline” (1734), a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim. In it Montesquieu combines the insights of the historian with those of the political philosopher, set out in brilliant aphoristic style. “At the birth of societies,” he writes early in this book, “the leaders of republics create the institutions; thereafter, it is the institutions that create the leaders of republics.” Everything Montesquieu wrote was against the background of his pervasive and persuasive views of human nature: “For the occasions which produce great changes are different but, since men have had the same passions at all times, the causes are always the same.” Notable among those passions are pride, greed and the love of glory.
To grasp the quality of Montesquieu’s “Considerations,” one has to imagine the 3,000-odd pages of Edward Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” condensed to a mere 220 pages and without losing much. Not that the views of the two men are everywhere congruent, but both are proficient in understanding the great sweep of events while simultaneously discerning the role of character in the play of history. Their art consists in balancing the effect of each upon the other.
Of the letters of Cicero, that last Roman republican, Montesquieu writes: “we can see the dejection and despair of the foremost men of the republic at this sudden revolution [the monarchical-minded triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus] depriving them of their honors and even their occupations.” He finds Cicero’s “genius was superb, but his soul was common. Comparing him to Cato, he notes: “Cicero always thought of himself first, Cato always forgot about himself. The latter wanted to save the republic for its own sake, the former in order to boast of it.”
Of Roman character in general, Montesquieu is most impressive. “Roman citizens,” he writes, “regarded commerce and the arts as the occupations of slaves…they knew only the art of war, which was the sole path to magistracies and honors.” Pillaging was the chief means of enrichment. Courage, he held, came to the Roman soldier naturally. The advantage the Romans had over the Carthaginians in their three wars was that “the Romans were ambitious from pride, the Carthaginians from avarice; the Romans wanted to command, the Carthaginians to acquire.” Pride lay behind the Roman penchant for suicide, a habit encouraged by the teaching of the Stoics, a philosophy whose first lesson was preparing one for the naturalness and ultimately the negligibility of death. Suicide became among the Romans a point of honor in the face of defeat or public disgrace, and a chance for a redeeming heroism. Suicide allowed each man to put “an end to the part he played in the world whenever he wished.” Self-love was the major motive for Roman suicide, for, according to Montesquieu, “such is the value we set on ourselves that we consent to cease living because of a natural and obscure instinct that makes us love ourselves more than our very life.”
With the end of the republic ushered in by Augustus, Roman character itself changed. “In the days of the republic,” Montesquieu writes, “the principle was to make war continually; under the emperors the maxim was to maintain peace.” Political life became secretive. With the Emperor Tiberius, in whom the statesman too often yielded to the paranoid, “flattery, infamy, and crime were the arts necessary to succeed.” The march of Roman emperors, with pauses only for the true nobility of Trajan and the Antonines, was a dance of degradation. “All the Roman efforts of conquest ended “by satisfying the happiness of five or six monsters,” and Roman “citizens were treated as they themselves treated conquered nations.”
The gradual but sure debilitation of Roman character ended in the reduction and ultimate defeat of Roman power. Difficult to read Montesquieu on Rome without thinking of the U.S. in our time, as when, for one example among many, he writes that “more states have perished by theviolation of their moral customs than by the violation of their laws.” A work of genius, one definition of a masterpiece, makes us see the world differently. Montesquieu’s “Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline” qualifies.
- Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of “Frozen in Time, Twenty Stories” (Taylor Trade Publishing) and “Wind Sprints, Shorter Essays” (Axios Press).
#2016 The Wall Street Journal