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Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of EuropeAn Interpretation of "The Spirit of the Laws"$
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Vickie B. Sullivan

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226482910

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226483078.001.0001

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Montesquieu’s Attack on the Political Errors of Hobbes

Montesquieu’s Attack on the Political Errors of Hobbes

(p.50) Chapter Two Montesquieu’s Attack on the Political Errors of Hobbes
Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe

Vickie B. Sullivan

University of Chicago Press

When Montesquieu advances his conception of the state of nature in the first chapters of The Spirit of the Laws, he explicitly rejects Thomas Hobbes’s reasoning regarding the inclinations of primitive human beings and the origins of society. This initial engagement establishes Montesquieu’s familiarity with Hobbes’s teachings but far from exhausts the Frenchman’s criticisms of his predecessor. Montesquieu’s treatment of despotism targets the ideas of Hobbes’s Leviathan. While Hobbes claims that fear of an immense power can guarantee individual security, Montesquieu associates fear with the arbitrary and gratuitous violence that inevitably follows from such a concentration of authority. The Frenchman recommends certain checks on monarchical rule that Hobbes disavows as sources of instability, including the separation of political and religious authority and the vigorous competition for honor among citizens. Montesquieu’s prescription for the ballasting of power in monarchy is intended to correct Hobbes’s erroneous teachings, which had been all too well received by the advocates of absolutism in 17th-century France. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu recognizes the dangerous enticements of sole rule and offers proposals to counteract the complacency fostered by Hobbes’s offer of commodious living.

Keywords:   Montesquieu, despotism, Thomas Hobbes, state of nature, monarchy, Leviathan, separation of powers, honor, commodious living, England, absolutism

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