chapter  V
21 Pages

Montesquieu's Basic Doctrine of Society

N ATURALLY and necessarily, this doctrine of man has. decisive implications for, Montesquieu's doctrine of.. society. If society is composed of free men, then it will only flourish-indeed, then it will only hold together-if these men act in such a way as to make social relationships stable and fruitful; if they act, to some extent at any rate, unselfishly. There is little trace in Montesquieu's writings of the doctrine so prominent in Vico and so many other authors looming large in the history of social thought, of the "heterogony of ends"-the doctrine according to which individual selfishness mayor even must lead to social advancement, "private vices" may, by· dint of a sort of social chemistry in which they are intermixed and mutually neutralised, mean "publick benefits".1 He comes nearest to this theory so widely current in his own (the Leibnizian) age in the following fragment: "It is the desire to please which gives cohesion to Society, and such has been the good luck of the Human Race that this vanity, which would seem to tend to dissolve Society, in fact fortifies it and makes it unshakeable" (I, 1274). But already a second stray note introduces some sense of distance to the comfortable sociology of Leibniz's disciples: "In the world, Cleland says, there are many people who appear virtuous and are only vain, but this is the same thing for society: vanity represents virtue, as the bank-note represents [true] money" (II, 1381).2 This

passage is certainly still capable of being construed in an optimistic vein, in the sense that all works out, ultimately, for the best; but who does not notice that Montesquieu implies that a social order that is underpinned, not by a direct moral effort of its members, but only by the oblique consequences of their personal vices, is not the genuine article, but only a regrettable fake? The most that Montesquieu really admits (taking the body ofhis work as a whole, and disregarding a few stray passages such as those just quoted) is that one vice may at times inhibit another~in favourable circumstances, a minor vice a major-and that society may gain by this internecine warfare among men's immoral propensities. "The world is very corrupt: but there are certain passions which find themselves very cramped; there are favourite ones which forbid the others to appear. Consider the men of the world among themselves; nothing could show more timidity: it is pride which does not dare to reveal its secrets, and which, in the regard which it pays to others, is only put aside in order to be taken up again. Christianity gives us the habit of curbing that pride; the world gives us the habit of hiding it. With the modicum of virtue which we possess, what would become of us if our whole soul were given freedom ...?" (II, 1163). A rhetorical question this which proves that Montesquieu was far from believing that men's inborn tendencies, if left unchecked, would spontaneously blend themselves into social tendencies, tendencies favourable to the social whole.