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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 Opposition to Plato’s Belles Idées and Their Diffusion

Montesquieu’s Opposition to Plato’s Belles Idées and Their Diffusion

(p.139) Chapter Five Montesquieu’s Opposition to Plato’s Belles Idées and Their Diffusion
Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe

Vickie B. Sullivan

University of Chicago Press

Montesquieu’s comments on the political works of Plato, The Republic and The Laws, in The Spirit of the Laws reveal that the Frenchman considers the Athenian philosopher to have been a legislator who aimed at the actual establishment of an ideal regime. Indeed, Montesquieu claims that Plato sought to perfect the Spartan laws established by Lycurgus. Montesquieu’s criticisms of Sparta’s institutions — its severe education, cruel treatment of slaves, unnatural laws of the family, and harmful prohibitions on commerce — are meant in part to evince the greater inhumanity of Plato’s project. Montesquieu explains that some undesirable aspects of the Spartan constitution were in reality incorporated by the Romans into their law and eventually permeated French law. The danger of Plato’s legislation persists and his works continue to convey to readers the harmful ideas behind his laws. The ideas Plato puts forward are beautiful, Montesquieu admits, but dangerous insofar as they grant absolute power to the city’s magistrates and mandate excessive punishments. Because of his inclination toward singular institutions, Plato appears in The Spirit of the Laws as the spokesman of the Greek political men, in contrast to Montesquieu himself who emerges in the work as a modern political thinker.

Keywords:   Montesquieu, despotism, Plato, Lycurgus, Sparta, republics, virtue, slavery, Plato's Republic, Plato's The Laws

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