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Keywords:

  • Montesquieu;
  • Philip Pettit;
  • republicanism;
  • liberty;
  • constitution of England

In this article I explore Montesquieu's discussion of republics and the constitution of England in order to question the extent to which he should be accorded a central place in a tradition of modern republicanism. This involves challenging Paul Rahe's recent thesis that Montesquieu thought both that monarchy was not at all suited to modernity and that England was a republic all along. By stressing the importance of honour and ambition I argue that the liberty that Montesquieu thought exemplified in the English constitution was, in large part, secured by its monarchical principle. Moreover, by eschewing the relevance of political virtue for modern commercial societies, Montesquieu set his own proposals out in opposition to the prevalent French republican discourse of his time; thus it is highly problematic to view him as having proposed a republic for the moderns. The article also serves to disentangle Montesquieu's understanding of political liberty from his analysis of republics in order to refute the idea that he provides support for a distinctively republican conception of liberty as non-domination. This undermines the republican critique of liberalism set forth by Philip Pettit, which is further challenged by considering the affinities between Montesquieu's and Constant's conceptions of liberty. Many commentators have argued that Montesquieu repudiated classical republicanism, yet on the reading advanced in this article it is equally problematic to view him as a modern republican.