January 18


Charles de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu, born today, at Château de La Brède, a rather aristocratic commune in the Gironde department of Nouvelle-Aquitaine in southwestern France.

We were made to study "Les Lettres Persanes" as part of the B.A. French Literature course at my Polytechnic (oui, polytechnique, dans l'ancien monde, il y a très longtemps, presque l'époque de Montesquieu), but without really being told anything about the man. I took him for a satirist in the manner of Voltaire and Molière, and only later, studying the Jewish Haskalah, did I realise how significant a contribution he had made, with Locke, Hulme, Rousseau, Spinoza et al, to the European Enlightenment, but also, indirectly, to that beacon of democratic idealism the American Constitution. 

Having now re-read "The Spirit of Laws" in the wake of nearly forty years of post-student experience, it is not hard to see why Voltaire fell out with him: for all his liberality, he was by birth, by conviction, and by intellectual stance aristocratic, and while I share his view that a hereditary monarchy fenced round with safeguards is much better than a political Presidency, I am not convinced that he and I really mean the same thing by this. He wanted the monarchy for its own sake, because it supported, indeed required the aristocracy; I want it because it prevents the Presidency: better a Queen Elizabeth who does nothing political but apogees the tourist economy, than a self-important demagogue with megalomaniacal tendencies who can't stop interfering with his absurd and usually undemocratic ideological idealisms.

What Monsieur le Baron has to say about Spinoza requires more space than I have here; except to observe that he is wrong, that you can espouse Spinoza's views and also be a Deist, that in fact it was the common position of most left-wing religious intellectuals in the 20th century, and a good few of the atheists as well, and still is in the 21st: Spinoza wished to overturn religion in favour of human law and humanist morality, which is an existentialist position, not necessarily an atheistic one, and Spinoza to the last insisted that he was not an atheist.

This portrait of him is quite magnificent. If you were shown it in a quiz and asked to guess, you would probably go for Marcus Aurelius or Pericles or some austere Greco-Roman general. Aristocratic to his very bone structure - and not simply in the class sense of that word.

There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.
To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.
The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.

For much more on who he was and especially what he thought, click here

Amber pages:

1867, birthday of Ruben Dario, the poetical equivalent of Cervantes in the history of Spanish literature

1535, Pizarro founded Lima in Peru

1778, James Cook discovered 
the Hawaiian Islands (found out for Europeans; the native population had long before worked out that they were there, and where "there" was), and named them the Sandwich Islands (not to be confused with the South Sandwich Islands)

1788, first convicts at Botany Bay

1919, opening of the Versailles conference

1943, end of the siege of Leningrad

1966, Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India (but see January 30, 
May 21 and October 31)

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