Weekend Open Comments

Professor Vickie B. Sullivan of Tufts University:

If legal barriers sometimes fail to protect us from miniature despots, then political despotism is not as distant as many think. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French philosopher who brought the term ‘despotism’ into our political vocabulary, would not be surprised at the disjunction between the putative liberty of our society and the experience many have as the victims of irresponsible power within it. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), he shows that despotism is an ever-present danger and a persistent threat to human flourishing everywhere and always. Even those fortunate to live outside the borders of a despotic government can still be victimised by despotic practices. In response, Montesquieu teaches that the unmasking of despotism must remain a central endeavour in social and political life.

To the extent that he is remembered at all today, Montesquieu is credited with being the inspiration for the theory of the separation of powers, those constitutional barriers to despotism that can, paradoxically, render us complacent as to our liberty. The framers of the Constitution of the United States, in fact, termed him the ‘oracle’ of the separation of powers when drawing liberally from his political teachings. Nevertheless, reflection on his writings reveals that despotism is a vastly more pervasive and intransigent phenomenon than individuals in so-called enlightened and free societies tend to believe. Throughout The Spirit of the Laws, he shows that despotism lies at the very core of the European mindset. Salient aspects of its religious and philosophical traditions encourage the concentration of power and a harshness that can too readily eventuate in despotic violence. With this constant countervailing pressure, constitutional arrangements, as critical as they are, cannot alone contain this phenomenon.

Read the rest of Professor Sullivan’s essay here.

Here is a link to Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws.