Educational History: Montesquieu and Relativism 1689 to 1755

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu was one of the early relativistic thinkers of the 18th century. He greatly contributed to the notion of a science of human society and helped develop a cultural consciousness which was aware of otherness. Although not commonly associated with education his work greatly influenced sociological views of how society is organised and interpreted.

Baron de Montesquieu


His great work, The Spirit of the Laws (L’esprit des lois ) was first published anonymously in 1748 because Montesquieu’s works were subject to censorship. It demonstrates great intercultural vision suggesting a science of societies in an intellectual framework which suggests influence by Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642) who put forward his basic principle of relativity in 1632.


In the Spirit of the Laws it reads “It would be highly unlikely that the laws of one nation could suit another; laws should be relative to the physical characteristics of the country, for the climate, to the quality of the terrain, it’s location and extent; to the style of life of it’s inhabitants whether farmers, hunters or shepards, to the degree of liberty permitted by it’s constitution, to the inhabitants religion, inclinations, riches, number, commerce, moreys, and customs.”


The book’s influence outside of France was considerable as it was rapidly translated into other languages. This kind of relative approach was a sensitive area as demonstrated in 1751 when the Catholic Church added L’esprit des lois to its List of Prohibited Books. Montesquieu’s political treatise had an enormous influence on the thinking of many people across Europe, most notably Catherine the Great who was also friend of Voltaire.


The problem of relativism for Montesquieu is the issue of how much human knowledge and experience is relative to time and place and circumstance, and yet within that how much we can know about the natural order of things.


This problem is echoed in John Locke‘s work, who lived from 1632 to 1704. Locke had asked the relativistic question of ‘what if a creature had a wholey different sensory perspective’, for example, if humans had microscopic eyes, or additional or fewer senses – how might the world in value appear to them ?


Voltaire popularized Locke by positing in his writings visitors to earth from distant galaxies, and despite exponentially longer lives and thousands of senses they lament their ignorance to understand what they are in part experiencing and how bound they are by their relative lack of knowledge. Europe of that age indeed was encountering more intercultural relativisms with the birth of the printing press and explosion of trade with far off places. The Europe of that time is encountering different chronologies from it’s own as cultural diaspora mingle and merge with indiginous ones. Indeed Voltaire begins his own history of the world with China rather than with Judaism.


In France Louix XIV had overridden and bullied the parliaments in the 17th century reducing them to obedience and submission, but after his death the great parliaments of France began to reassert themselves. Montesquieu married a French Huguenot, which deepened his understanding and appreciation of toleration, as well as how much follows from the accident of birth.


The Huguenot’s were Protestants in France inspired by the writings of John Calvin in the 1530s. By the end of the 17th century, roughly 200,000 Huguenots had been driven from France through a campaign of religious persecution.


In Paris he became involved with a group of researchers at the Royal Academy of Inscriptions who’s official role was to decipher various ancient medals, coins and records for the crown. In terms of studying the chronologies of cultures and the nature of past civilisations, the scientists at the academy became scholars of comparative ancient religions and beliefs.


They were shocked by and wrote privately about the functional resemblance of cultures discussing this widely with Montesquieu – ‘each has a clergy, each has an explanation of the creation, each has a justification of its political structure yet all of these are substantively different in the particular’.


One of his close friends in Paris was a Chinese scholar who managed the Kings Chinese Library who was a convert to Christianity whilst in China. He could not wait to get to Europe, having converted to becoming a Christian, because he expected to find a nation in which, if struck on the cheek, everyone would turn the other cheek; when asked to carry something a mile, everyone would carry it two. He was anxious to see the society in which everyone was motivated by charity and kindness as represented by scriptures.


He was, however, astonished to find the difference between the idea and the practical reality. This stimulated Montesquieu to think about how belief and practice can so diverge. Montesquieu published a work called the Persian Letters. The structure of this work is that of an epistolary novel in which Persian travelers see France and the West through alien eyes and write back to Persia about their experiences.


This afforded Montesquieu the opportunity to explore differences between cultures and to deepen his readers sense of the relativity of belief to time and place. In the book he used satire through his Persian characters looking at the Pope, the King, nobles and bishops, through these Persian eyes which lacked European French Christian preconceptions.


Here the Pope is perceived as a great magician who can make the people think that three is in fact one – the doctrine of the trinity. The king is described as an even greater magician who, by debasing the currency, can make people think that ten is one. The bishops are people who gather together to make the laws of the church and then separate to sell dispensations. It raises the humour and question of ethnocentricism.


What Montesquieu wanted to know and distinguish between is plastic what is plastic and malleable in human life; and what is common to all human experience. He looks through various lenses, and in the Persian Letters he looks at systems of power, and in particular systems of despotism, relative to time and place.


In it he explores how the circumstance of French women would be unbearable to the Persian women; and how the circumstance of the Persian women would be unbearable to French women; yet, he writes beneath this, there is a natural law of liberty that revives whenever despotism is loosened.

To summon an example he describes how when Louix XIV dies, France comes alive again in it’s culture. He looks at the varieties of ethical codes in the world which are striking in their multiplicity, yet there is a reality of natural consequences. Nations may adopt various moral codes but nature determines whether humans can live together and survive, and perpetuate a society.


Montesquieu’s major works are Persian Letters (published in 1721), Considerations on the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (published in 1734), and The Spirit of the Laws (published in 1748).


Again and again he revisits the theme that amid the relativity of human perspective there is a science which is a unifying truth. One examines the religions of different cultures; they all make different and often mutually incompatible claims. For Montesquieu it is the laws of natural philosophy which offer a unifying truth across all cultures.


There is a regularity to human nature and that human nature exists in such a stunning variety of circumstances. The task of the student of society is to recognize what are the common forms and the common laws at work beneath the surface differences of human affairs.


Montequieu sets out to classify the different types of human political association, not by their structure of power but by what he calls the spirit that animates them. His fundamental distinctions are that all societies may be divided into republics in which either the whole people (a democracy) or some part of the people (an aristocracy) rule; or monarchies in which there is the rule of one man guided by law and by custom and by intermediary institutions of power and despotism in which human beings are governed by the will and caprice of a single individual which has absolute dominion over their lives.


He posits there are different spirits which animate each of these forms of human association. Essential to republics is virtue; without virtue there can be no republic – central to this form of government is a concern for the common good, a concern for the business of the public.


Monarchies depend upon honour, obedience to the rule of law, acceptance to the obligation of the rule of law and intermediary institutions (courts, aristocracies, parliaments) which all must be bound by honour. Without honour the whole system would fail and despotisms are always governed only by fear.


One of the problems of Montesquieu is the instability of these forms and the fact that would seem morally the most desirable a democratic republic animated by the virtue of all is one of the least stable forms of human association though all of them carry within them the seeds of their own non-stability and destruction.


That instability allows us to understand predictable cycles of human history. In the Persian Letters, Montesquieu relates the story of the Troglodytes, an ancient people who over throw a king and after a period of anarchy they come to self government. They come to self government because with absent virtue or honour, or fear, their anarchic state (after overthrowing despotism) cannot survive because they cannot cohere as a society.


No-one fulfills an obligation, no-one protects anyone else, no-one honours a contract, no-one will return to do business with the Troglodytes a second time. By a kind of natural selection the virtuous survive and there is a period of self government but self governance and virtue produce prosperity. Free virtuous people prosper, but prosperity produces selfishness, avarice, greed, a laziness about the public business. This work long predates Rousseau’s critique on civilisation where he suggests that the mores of civilised culture are decadent trappings.


The Troglodytes seek a king who says I will be bound by your laws but this is the saddest day in history for you are no longer virtuous enough to govern yourselves; and this predicts the cycle which leads back to despotism.


For Montesquieu, this is the case of Rome as well. The virtue of the Roman republic made it the most formidable force, it defended itself so successfully after which it then went on to conquer, and as it conquered, it increased in size, militarism and wealth losing the virtue which animated the republic, which then could not sustain itself thus leading into the cycle of monarchy and then to despotism.


In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu asks the question that historians do in thinking about how so much chance and contingency goes towards influencing the paths of a civilisation. He answers that this is true that there is a role of chance in history but consider if one says this republic or empire fell because it lost a battle, one must ask the deeper structural questions, what kind of society falls from the loss of one battle ? What kind of society put itself into that situation. The accidental theory of history cannot account for coherence entirely.


Human societies can achieve any number of forms but they cannot survive unless the problem of linking the individual to the broader society, of security, of equity, and of justice; but such success however, given human nature, will not be permanent.


Virtue at some point weakens, monarchy at some point becomes despotism, despotism is at some point overthrown when fears weaken producing anarchy and a whole new cycle of human phenomena. Despotism is a particular problem which he focuses on. All cultures in general, and those in a position of power assume that their particular forms of association are natural and never see despotism in their own behaviours.


Despotism is the subjection of one persons life to the whim and caprice of anothers will. When the despot is unable to exercise terror, freedom reasserts itself against arbtirary will. Only terror can make despotism seem stable and permenant.


How can one overcome this tendency towards despotism in human affairs. For Montesquieu there must be rights and law without anarchy. To correct the tendency of every form of power to degenerate there must be a separation of powers. The ideal would be to have a popular power, an artistocratic, a senatorial power, a monarchical or executive power but separated, each acting as a check and balance upon the other.


With those ideas one can see the influence that Montequieu had on the founders of the American republic who read him with great attention to detail and passion. They found in his work a naturalism and took from it that it was the task of the founders of the new republic to learn from nature, to learn from the past whilst avoiding idealising man, to introduce checks and balances into the foundations of the new republic.


They learned that they were all under the necessity of mutual restraints upon centres of power so that each might prevent the degeneration of the other. They knew also that any experiment in self government depended, in final analysis, upon public virtue, and that in it’s absence nothing on paper could be stable.


Montesquieu is considered one of the precursors of anthropology along with names like Herodotus and Tacitus. He was to extend comparative methods of classification to the political forms in human societies. Georges Balandier, the French political anthropologist, considered him to be “the initiator of a scientific enterprise that for a time performed the role of cultural and social anthropology”.


D.F. Pocock the social anthropologist suggests Montesquieu’s ‘On the Spirit of Laws’ “is the first consistent attempt to survey the varieties of human society, to classify and compare them and, within society, to study the inter-functioning of institutions”.


In book four of the Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu relates education to the polis in ‘That the Laws of Education Ought to Be in Relation to the Principles of Government’, Of the Laws of Education. The laws of education are the first impressions we receive; and as they prepare us for civil life, every private family ought to be governed by the plan of that great household which comprehends them all.


If the people in general have a principle, their constituent parts, that is, the several families, will have one also. The laws of education will be therefore different in each species of government: in monarchies they will have honour for their object; in republics, virtue; in despotic governments, fear.
Of Education in Monarchies. In monarchies the principal branch of education is not taught in colleges or academies. It commences, in some measure, at our setting out in the world; for this is the school of what we call honour, that universal preceptor which ought everywhere to be our guide.