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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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Religious Ideas and the Force of Christian Ones in Modern Europe

Religious Ideas and the Force of Christian Ones in Modern Europe

(p.81) Chapter Three Religious Ideas and the Force of Christian Ones in Modern Europe
Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe

Vickie B. Sullivan

University of Chicago Press

This chapter clarifies Montesquieu’s elusive comments on Christian doctrine in The Spirit of the Laws to offer his appraisal of its effects, both salutary and pernicious, on the laws and mores of modern Europe. Montesquieu favorably compares Christendom to pagan Greece and Rome in regard to slavery, the right of nations, the conduct of rulers, and the role of women in society. This praise is tempered by sharp criticism of the violent enterprises undertaken in Christ’s name against non-Europeans. Montesquieu indicates, however, that one need not look beyond Europe to find instances of shocking abuse inspired by Christian ideas. Injunctions in scripture and canon law have encouraged Christians to avenge God by imposing vicious penalties for religious infractions and by punishing sacrilege as a crime of treason. The inquisitorial tribunals of Montesquieu’s own time appropriated the awful methods of divine judgment through their boundless scrutiny of the human conscience. Montesquieu seeks to correct the religious ideas that have continued to stain Europe with barbarity. Instructing his readers on the principles of belief and criminal judgment, Montesquieu fulfills his intention of uniting the Christian faith with the interests of moderate politics.

Keywords:   Montesquieu, despotism, Roman law, canon law, Christianity, Inquisition, slavery, right of nations, treason, heresy

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