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Spirit of the Laws (Montesquieu)

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Slides on Montesquieu's notion of the Spirit of the Laws for an undergraduate course in Political Thought that I taught between 2003-2005.

Slides on Montesquieu's notion of the Spirit of the Laws for an undergraduate course in Political Thought that I taught between 2003-2005.


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  • 1. the spirit of the laws
  • 2. Overview
    • Montesquieu
    • Law
    • Essential aspects of democracy
    • Liberty
    • Separation of powers (within and between states)
    • Religious tolerance
  • 3. Montesquieu (1689-1755)
    • Classically educated French nobleman
    • Satirized western culture and the Roman Catholic Church
    • Avid follower of John Locke
    • Ingratiated himself with the English high court
  • 4. Law
    • Laws arise when individuals enter into societies
      • Law of nations
      • Political law
      • Civil law
    • Laws are simply specific expressions of human reason
  • 5. The Spirit of Laws
    • The “spirit of laws” consists in the relationships of the laws to various objects
    • To understand a law, it is necessary to look up the specific circumstances that surround it
    • Laws are relative (contextual)
  • 6. Essentials of Democracy
    • Laws that bestow and regulate the right to suffrage
      • The people are competent enough to decide who to represent them
      • In a democracy, suffrage should be conducted publicly and by lot
    • Subsidiarity
  • 7. Essentials of Democracy
    • Direct or indirect choice of legislators
    • The division of the populace into effective electoral districts
    • A fixed number of positions in the public assemblies
    • Enactment of laws by the people
  • 8. Essentials of Democracy
    • Intrigue
      • Keeps the people abreast of public affairs (combats apathy)
    • Moderate equality
    • Virtue
      • Precisely because the authors of the law will be subjected to it
  • 9. On Liberty
    • “…liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will”
    • - Montesquieu
  • 10. On Liberty
    • Liberty does not consist in doing whatever a person wants
    • It consists in doing what one ought to do
    • “Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit”
    • Liberty may only exist where there is no abuse of power
  • 11. On Checks and Balances
    • Between States
      • Confederacy
    • Within States
      • “Mixed Constitution”
      • e.g. English government
  • 12. Religious Tolerance
    • Montesquieu was not a strict advocate of the separation of Church and State
    • He did advocate that permitting certain religions should be accompanied by enforcing tolerance among them