Book Review: Great Books Of The Western World Vol. 38: Montesquieu / Rousseau

Great Books Of The Western World Vol. 38:  Montesquieu / Rosseau:  The Spirit Of The Laws, by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu / On The Origin Of Inequality, On Political Economy, and The Social Contract, by Jean Jacques Rousseau

To be honest, I would have greatly preferred this book had it been just Montesquieu’s excellent and thoughtful work on the spirit of laws.  Although Montesquieu and Rousseau are both 18th century French thinkers with a massive world historical importance (good enough to make the top 40 of the University of Chicago’s Great Books collection, no mean feat), they exist on two different sides of a very important line.  In reading Montesquieu, one understands one is dealing with a suave and sophisticated writer who has a deep and abiding interest in exploring historical examples for reflection in the present-day (for him) as well as a high degree of interest in comparing Europe with the rest of the world as well, and France to other countries within Europe as well as the wider world.  On the other side of the line is Rousseau, who lacks the suave and easy-going style of Montesquieu and also has very little interest in history and a great deal of interest in presumptions and assumptions about the noble savage and the importance of the general will and other catchphrases which would eventually become a horror to the rest of the world.  It requires no great insight to understand which I prefer.

About 3/4 of this book’s material (over 400 pages total) is taken by Montesquieu’s Spirit Of The Laws.  And if one has never read this book, it is a revelation of close historical analysis and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about ancient realms and rulers as well as the thoughts of travelers for nations like China and the Ottoman Empire and other realms.  This masterpiece contains 31 smaller books, with numerous subheadings, that read like some of the best writings of Calvin, a man I am not used to praising.  This book is one of the best ways to become familiar with the laws and politics of late antiquity among the late Roman Empire as well as various successor kingdoms like the Franks and Burgundians, for example.  And that is no mean feat.  The writing by Rousseau is less pleasing, containing three influential but not very worthwhile works, two of them discourses on the origin of inequality and on political economy where the author shows himself familiar with other contemporary thinkers of a similar bent but not as familiar with cultural or historical context, and a short work on the social contract where the author confuses his first principles with the state of the actual past, a common affliction among theorists.

And while I greatly prefer Montesquieu to Rousseau, it makes sense to put these two thinkers together for a variety of reasons.  For one, they were both contemporaries working with the problems of the legitimacy of social and legal systems within the French Enlightenment tradition.  Yet they form a natural contrast to each other as well, for while Montesquieu’s close analysis of history as well as contemporary societies helped inspire the classical American political tradition of the founding fathers of our nation and read similar to clear-thinking successors in the French political economy tradition like Bastiat and de Tocqueville, Rousseau’s thinking is ancestral to Marx and Lenin and Stalin and Hitler and other authoritarian theorists that followed in the aftermath of the French Revolution and its continuing turmoil throughout Europe.  Again, it is no secret which of these two roads forward I prefer, but in reading these works one can see the parting of the ways at their beginning based on how they approached the subject of political economy and how they approached their subject matter as well as the implications of their thinking and reasoning on the lives of the people who would be influenced by their writings, some for good and some for ill.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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