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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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(p.205) Conclusion
Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe

Vickie B. Sullivan

University of Chicago Press

Throughout The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu critically engages with the despotic practices and ideas of Europe and demonstrates that such harmful ideas can persist through generations, millennia even. Once committed to writing, ideas take on a life of their own; although written in one historical context, they can survive so that readers can adopt and apply them in another. Recognizing the possibility of progress in human history and pointing especially to the positive effects of commerce and of the advent of representative assemblies, he simultaneously notes the ever-present possibility of regress. He indicates that a perceptive individual in any historical epoch can discern commerce’s salutary effects and points to Alexander the Great as one such outstanding individual. Montesquieu’s peculiar depiction of Alexander indicates that Christianity’s advent was not necessary to build a global empire based on commerce. The conclusion explores the similarities between Montesquieu’s project and the one that he attributes to Alexander and notes that Montesquieu regards himself as a new type of founder in thought. In this role, he is acutely aware of the harm that philosophical legislators can do even when they attempt to improve the human condition. His approach is one of moderation.

Keywords:   Montesquieu, despotism, Alexander the Great, representative government, commerce, historical understanding, philosophical legislator, Christianity, moderation

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