Sunday, December 4, 2011


How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Yesterday I took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).  I have been studying about 10-20 hours a week for the last 10 weeks and I took 17 practice tests.  Basically this was my only "hobby" for the last three months and I had very little time to read anything worth blogging about.  I am anxious to get back on my reading schedule now that I do not have this exam looming over me. 

Although there are many factors involved, reading the Great Books of the Western World, especially the recent series on Law and Government, has influenced my decision to study law.  It seems ironic that I have not had time to keep reading the GBWW because these books encouraged me to spend time studying for a law school entrance exam.  Furthermore, if I do go to law school, I doubt I will have any time to read the GBWW for at least 3 years.  However, I still find it interesting how reading a few books can significantly affect your life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Camus and the Absurd

Death makes life absurd. For Camus, the Absurd is a philosophical concept to understand the conflict between the rational mind and the large, uncaring universe. It is difficult for us to accept that we do not matter, that Good is not always rewarded, Evil is not always punished, and that we will eventually be wiped clean from the surface of the earth - like we never existed.  The absurd doesn't exist because there is no God, it would exist even if there was a God.

For Camus, understanding the Absurd is to confront the meaninglessness of life.  Death is a certainty, but we must act as though life has meaning.   Our only salvation from this despair and nihilism comes through taking responsibility for our lives.   Living the Absurd comes down to these tenets:

1.  To confront the meaninglessness of life
2.  Recognizing it is cowardly to kill oneself (we must live between hope and suicide)
3.  We must act as if life had meaning (with "clown-like" distractions)
4.  Continue walking the tightrope between these extremes and we accept full responsibility for our lives

Life without meaning

Camus said that "Life will be more fully lived in so far as it has no meaning". Now man can "live out his adventure within the confines of his own lifetime" and recognize the "optimism without hope".

We are not abandoning ourselves to despair, but recognizing the futility of our existence.  We are in a sense living a much more fulfilled life.  To illustrate these, Camus uses the the Myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a stone endlessly up to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down and to start his task all over again. Camus thought about the "pause" when Sisyphuss has to go back down the hill to collect the stone.  It is at this moment when Sisyphus confronts the consciousness of his fate and acceptance begins.  Even though his task is pointless (futile), this is Sisyphus's greatest strength and he has become a master of his own fate. The worst torture would be "the hope of succeeding". 

Living the Absurd, above all, "means a total lack of hope (not the same as despair), a permanent rejection (not renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (not a juvenile anxiety)"

If life has no meaning, why do we keep living? 

Camus said, "There is only only really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."

For Camus, to reconcile with the irrational, to commit suicide, "is a lack of understanding".

In the absence of a god (a divine judge) a human being becomes both the accussed as well as his own judge and has the right to condemn himself.  A suicide "is prepared in the silence of the heart in the same manner as a great work of art".  To die by one's own hand means recognizing "the lack of any serious reason for living...and the futility of suffering." However, living means "keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is basically a question of observing it."  Therefore, if one commits suicide they have chosen to reject the fact that they are living, which is irrational since only a living individual can commit suicide.  Furthermore, they have not understood that the "meaning" of life is to live a "meaningless" life, living for the sake of living. 

Camus: The Plague

Can we have meaningful lives if we believe we will die tomorrow? Faced with the shadow of death, should we distract ourselves to avoid thinking about our mortality - or should we confront it?  In The Plague, Albert Camus presents these questions in dramatic fashion when death is a constant companion.  This novel describes the consequences of a plague in the French-Algerian city of Oran, circa 1940's.  The government quarantines the entire city allowing no one in or out and people must endure the daily deaths without outside assistance. Many people wonder if they will ever see the outside world again, and their loved ones beyond the city walls.   

Much of the novel focuses on how medical workers and common people adapt to this plague: the changes in society, the loss of freedom and the constant reminder of our mortality.  The ability of these people to accept or ignore death can help them survive.  It also sums up Camus's own philosophy of why we keep living when our own survival is finite.  The difference here is that your death is not 40-60 years down the road, but right in front of you. 


Dr. Bernard Rieux, the main character and narrator, is the first to recognize the plague in Oran. His wife left before the plague arrived and is therefore separated from him following the quarantine.  Rieux spends the novel providing assistance to the sick and dying.

Father Paneloux tells the citizens that the plague is an act of God punishing them for their sinful nature. Many citizens flock to the churches. "But where some saw abstraction others saw the truth."   However, as the plague worsens, Paneloux becomes disillusioned about why his god would allow such more suffering.  Eventually Paneloux dies as well. 

Cottard tries to commit suicide during the opening of the novel.  Later, as the plague arrives, Cottard becomes a wealthy smuggler adapting well to his circumstances.  However, when when the plague receedes, Cottard is unable to re-adjust to living in normal society.

Jean Tarrou is vacationing in Oran when the plague strikes, trapping him in the city.  He is a stoic man and become a friend and helper for Dr. Rieux.

Rambert is a young journalist visiting Oran who is also trapped in the city following the quarantine.  He seeks to escape so he can be reunited with his wife in Paris. However he begins to feel guilty about leaving Rieux and others in the city and changes his mind. 

Confronting Mortality

One mechanism people use to cope with their imminent death is to give themselves distractions to keep them from confronting reality.  Some of this is involves activity while in other cases it is letting their minds wander. 

"The habit of despair is worse than despair itself...those who had jobs went about them at the exact tempo of the plague, with dreary perseverance."

The journalist Rambert was visiting Oran for his Paris-based paper and is now trapped by the plague.  He tries to work with the bureaucracy at the Prefect's office to make an exception and let him leave, which they will not do.  What is amazing about this scene is that despite the death and despair all around, the bureaucrats continued doing their jobs with mechanical efficiency, as if busying themselves with this almost meaningless work helps them avoid confronting the reality around them - that they could likely die any day.

Some people, in contrast, shifted aimlessly from hope to despair. "They drifted through life rather than living it, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows..."

In Tarrou's diary, he contemplates about how we can become more conscious of our time even while it is slipping away from us:  "Querry: How to contrive not to waste one's time?  Answer: by being fully aware of it all the while"  This can be done by spending time in a dentist's chair, listening to lectures in an unknown language, lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat, etc.

Trapped in Oran, the citizens could still be "free" by imagining themselves with loved ones or in better situations, or by re-interpreting their situation. Even with many of their freedoms lost, people still had ways to be free. 
"Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future". It was like living in a prison where one's imagination was only thing to help you tick away the hours of your remaining life.
"...the bitter sense of freedom that comes of total deprivation". These are only memories, but you are completely free to imagine whatever you want.

Struggling against the inevitable

The doctor Rieux doesn't believe in god.  "...if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to leave that to Him"  No one ever throws himself completely on divine providence.  Rieux is actually "fighting against creation as he found it". 

The order of the world is shaped by death and the plague only makes that more clear.  For a doctor, life is "a never ending defeat".  The victories never last.   It is like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain only to watch it tumble back down again.   

Tarrou says in a sense we are all plague stricken with the desperate weariness of life.  The key is to try and not infect others and keep ourselves busy with life's little distractions.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Camus: The Stranger

The Stranger presents us with a most unusual character, Meursault, who seems completely apathetic toward society.  The opening lines of this novel begin with his mother's death, which he seems to care little about:

"Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know."

This could be explained as Meursault merely being stuck with grief and unable to grasp his mother's death. However throughout the novel we can see Meursault weaving his way through life with the same indifference toward other people and toward life itself.  Unless something directly affects him, Meursault takes very little interest in it.  His reaction to his mother's death and his unemotional state at her funeral will later be used to condemn him at the end of the novel.

The Stanger takes place in sunny French-Algeria, pressed up against the Mediterranean Sea.  Meursault attends his mother's funeral, returns home, relaxes at the beach and has casual sex with a girl he knows.  What he remembers most about the funeral was being hot and uncomforable.  This is perhaps what stands out most about Meursault, his need to satisfy his immediate physical requirements. If he is hungry he eats, if he wants to have sex he can find a girl,  he smokes when he wants and finds pleasure in idle amusement.  Meursault is not the kind of guy who would have a 401k plan, he does not think about long-term happiness or consequences, only immediate satisfaction for himself.

Meursault still has friends, holds down a decent job and the girl he slept with wants to marry him. However his apathy is apparent in all these situations. For example, his response to the girl is that it does not matter to him if he gets married, but if it makes her happy it it OK with him that they get married.  When Meursault is offered the chance to relocate to Paris for work he does not seem to care, except that he would miss the sun and the sea.

Meursault is invited by one of his friends, Raymond, to spend some time at a beach house.  While Meursault seems cool-headed and almost passionless, Raymond is the opposite, dressing in flashy clothes, having a violent temper and a loud personality.  Raymond has upset some Arabs who are also staying on the beach and one of the Arabs cuts Raymond.  Seeking to perhaps settle the score Raymond brings a gun with him to the beach, but even-keeled Meursault persuades Raymond to give him the gun.  Meursault later finds himself alone on the beach when he confronts one of the Arabs, whom he kills with the gun.

The second half of the book focuses on Meursault's trial for murder.  Most people seem to think that Meursault's trial will be dismissed as manslaughter, especially as another high profile case for patricide is making its way through the courts.  However, when people learn of Meursault's shocking indifference at his mother's funeral he becomes regarded as some kind of sociopath, devoid of feeling for his fellow man. Meursault's conviction for murder becomes more about his apathy at his mother's funeral than for the killing the Arab on the beach.

There is no difference between dying now or 20 years from now.  People won't even know that he has died or even lived today.  It reminds me of my wedding day.  It is one of the most important days in my life, but to almost everyone else it is just another Saturday.  The tender indifference of the world. 


Friday, August 19, 2011

Albert Camus

Is life still livable if we know it is meaningless?  If we can accept the banality and purposeless of life than why should we continue to exist?  Can there be optimism without hope? These are the questions asked by Albert Camus (1913-1960), a French-Algerian author and philosopher. Camus has been labeled an existentialist, an appellation he and his friend John-Paul Sartre denied.   However, Camus's writings clearly describe a division between "existence" and "essence" and our freedom to define our own lives, a hallmark of existential philosophy.

Perhaps reflecting his existentialist proclivities, Camus was a man of contradictions.  He was born and raised in French occupied Algeria and supported the colonial policies of France. However he also called for greater equality with the native Arab population.  Once a pacifist, he eventually joined French resistance against the Nazis and edited the paper "Combat". Camus joined the Communist Party only to abandon it later and decry the violence of the Soviet Union against the Hungarians in 1957. 

My first exposure to Camus was watching Talladega Nights with Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) reading "The Stranger" behind the wheel of his Formula One car while racing Ricky Bobby (Will Farrel). I had absolutely no idea who Camus was, other than a Frenchman.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit that now, but I have already stated I am "An Unread American". Besides "The Stranger", Camus's other great works include "The Plague" and "The Myth of Sisyphus".  Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, the second youngest recipient of that prize. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Roussseau: Democracy is for the gods

Jean-Jacque Rousseau favored republics as the best form of government, although he did not think a pure democracy could be successful.  Nevertheless, he did present several thoughts on what he thought a successful republic or democracy required. 

Rouseau believed that John Locke's idea of a representative democracy would not work because the representatives would only support local interests and their own experiences and not work toward the "general will" of the country.  He felt the best social contract is one in which everyone participates in politics. However, Rousseau's idea of a republic was even broader than Montesquieu's. Rousseau thought a "republican government" could be administered as a democracy (the many), an aristocracy (the elite few) or a monarchy (the one) as long as all the citizens could write the laws.

Given that Rousseau tolerates a monarchy it is not surprising that although he supports a republic he is not wedded to the idea of democracy being the best form of government.

"If we take the term [democracy] in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed....there is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is..."

I would agree with Rousseau on his first point; there never has been a true democracy in any state larger than a small village. His second point is supported by Montesquieu who said that virtue and love of country are required for a successful democracy. 

A real Greek democracy - how did that work?

"Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men"

Rousseau is saying what many of us know. A pure democracy is not a reality, but something that we strive towards. It is an idea that takes continual work, dedication and discipline for us to approach this form of government, but it is the highest form of governance.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Law According to Rousseau

Laws and the General Will

In Rouseau's republic, the people are the soveriegns. We make our own laws and we must obey them.  The question is, how do we agree what laws to make? For Rousseau, the answer was the "general will" or the greater opinion. The general will is the will of all the individuals which is directed toward a particular interest. It is determined by voting and majority interests. I suppose the problem with Rousseau's idea would be whether it can protect the views of minorities.

"In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less that that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence."

But how can a citizen be free (have liberty) if he does something contrary to the general will? Rouseau says that "the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition..." Therefore his freedom is having the ability to express his opinion and views along with others, but everyone needs to follow the general will.

"The general will is always right, but the judgment which guides it is not always enlightened...The individuals see the good they reject; the public wills the good it does not see. All stand equally in need of guidance. The former must be compelled to bring their wills into conformity with reason; the latter must be taught to know what it wills."

Who makes the first laws? The constitution?

Rousseau says that laws are "acts of the general will", therefore everyone makes the laws and everyone is subject to them. However, before there are laws and a constitution we need people of supreme character to write laws that they are not subject to or have the authority to write - like our Founding Fathers. Rousseau calls these people "legislatures".

"Thus in the task of legistlation we find together two things which appear to be incompatible: an enterprise too difficult for human powers, and, for its execution, an authority that is no authority.

Who can be one of the legendary lawsgivers from history? Who has the gravatis to be a Lycurgus (Sparta), Numa Pompilius (Rome) or Solon (Athens) ? Luckily we were able to find men like that in revolutionary America.

For legislators, religion can be useful tool for having your laws accepted by the masses. Rousseau quotes Machiavelli saying, "In truth, there has never been, in any country, an extraordinary legislature who has not had recourse to God; for otherwise his laws would not have been accepted: there are, in fact, many useful truths of which a wise man may have knowledge without their having in themselves such clear reasons for their being so as to be able to convince others:" (Discourses on Livy)

Of course using religion as a tool to promote your agenda is duplicitous and "Machiavellian", but it may be necessary for the "lawgiver" of a new country. Certainly invoking the name of "God" was important to our Founding Fathers as they laid the foundations of our government, even though many of them were quite apathetic towards religion.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rosseau - The Social Contract

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.  One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they."

These are the famous opening lines to Rousseau's book The Social Contract, a work that outlines the importance of equality and liberty in modern republican governments. The idea of subjugation would have been familiar to many of Rousseau's contemporaries.  Most governments during Rousseau's time were absolute monarchies with very few rights for their subjects. This was true in Rousseau's day and for many previous centuries, as it was the only form of government most people knew.  This left the common man subjugated by the ruling class, a system that Rousseau vehemently rejected.  Instead he proposed two revolutionary concepts: the only legitimate government is a republic where people govern themselves and that all citizens enjoy equal rights under that government.  Paradoxically, Rousseau later goes on to challenge us with the provocative idea that our subjugation to a state or an idea is actually necessary for us to be truly free.

Man in his "state of nature"

Rousseau's is critical of Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who coined the idea of a "state of nature" before governments existed where life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes said that men will do anything to get out of the state of nature to protect themselves, even if that means living under a despot.  Rousseau recognized the hypothetical idea of a "state of nature" but he did not think this justified the reason why man was now in chains, especially under absolute monarchs.

Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau thought that man did not need to completely submit himself to a sovereign - man should "remain as free as before".  The solution in Rousseau's mind was the social contract: "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."  Therefore, the "chains" we live under is the "social contract".  So man gives up freedom in a state of nature in exchange for freedom in a civil society.

Rousseau's Liberty and Equality

Rousseau said that the two most important ends of law are equality and liberty.

"What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses."

The cost of freedom is freedom

Rousseau's idea of "liberty" is a bit different than our current concept. He wrote about liberty stating that it "can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will" which is not the same as doing whatever we please. However, this is similar to what Thomas Aquinas suggested in his Summa Theologica.

Rousseau thought that we only truly had liberty when were followed rules, even personal guidelines we have set for ourselves.  Obedience to our own personal laws is liberty "for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty".  Therefore, saying to yourself that you won't eat cookies after 10 pm at night gives you liberty, but breaking that rule to yourself takes away your liberty, since you are a literal slave to your appetites.

More equal than others?
 The second pillar of Rousseau's social structure was equality, however, Rousseau also believed that excess equality could ruin a democracy.  A successful democracy should protect every one's rights and give them the opportunity for happiness, but it should not try to force equality - sounds like capitalism!  

The whole social system should rest not on destroying inequality, but on providing equal legal rights for everyone regardless of their innate intelligence or strength. "Under bad governments, this equality is only apparent and illusory: it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped. In fact, laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much." 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the most important political philosophers for the French Revolution (1789) and significantly influenced philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Nietzsche,  Marx and Engels among others.  He also contributed to American ideas of equality and liberty.

Rosseau's thoughts on government propounded a popular sovereignty with equality and education for everyone.  Although his writings did not contribute directly to the development of our Constitution as Montesquieu's had,  Rousseau's ideas did have a profound impact on political thought in Europe and throughout the world. 
Born in Geneva to a Swiss watchmaker, Rousseau's education began early under his father, reading Plutarch when he was only ten years old. Originally Rousseau was training to become an engraver. However at the age of sixteen he abandoned the trade and began a series of wanderings and adventures which he later described in the first six books of his Confessions.  Hungry and homeless he eventually took refuge with a Catholic priest who introduced him to Madame de Warens, a woman known for her good works. 

Converting to Catholicism, Rousseau began his formal education studying music, science, Latin and philosophy.  He supported himself as a tutor and began writing a book on "political institutions".  Rousseau eventually gained fame in 1749 for an essay he wrote: "Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption of purification of morals?".  He followed this in 1755 with the Discourse on Origin of Political Inequality, followed by Emile, on Education in 1758 and the Social Contract published in 1762.

Provocative works like these gave Rousseau literary street cred and financial rewards, but also earned the enmity of a great number of people. He was condemned by the French Parliament for Emile and caused him to flee to Prussia.  Controversy followed him there and he was forced into exile in Berne, then fleeing again to England upon the request of David Hume.  Later quarrelling with Hume, Rousseau fled back to France in 1767 where he was told he would be unmolested.  He then spent the next nine years working on his autobiography and pursuing his former occupation of copying music.

Rousseau's ideas on education and political philosophy still reverberate to this day.  In regards to principles of governance, The Social Contract and the Discourse on Origin of Political Inequality are still presented to students of political science as major works of historical and philosophical importance. His main treatise is that equality and liberty are central to a successful popular sovereignty.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Montequieu's Guide for Dictators

Dictators have been around for as long as we have had civilization. How do these dictatorships arise?  Do we ever have a need for dictators?  How do they stay in power?

Some societies, such as republican Rome, actually had laws establishing temporary dictatorships in desperate times.  In general, however, a dictator has concentrated all the government's power and this usually leads to bad governance and diminished liberty for the masses.   There is rarely anything good about living under a dictatorship. 

When is it appropriate to have a dictator? 

Montesquieu clearly does not support despotic governments, but he does admit that a given group of people need to find the form of government that is best suited for their particular needs.  The best government for a people depends on their own local situation (climate, industry, farming, religion, degree of liberty they can tolerate, manners, custom, commerce, etc).  For example, Montesquieu states taxes can be lower in a dictatorship since people has less liberty.  Conversely, democracies can tolerate the highest taxes because they have the greatest liberty. 

Montesquieu also states that the size of the country is important.  He states that it is, "the natural property of small states to be governed as a republic, of middling ones to be subject to a monarch, and or large empires to swayed by a despotic prince." Therefore a large country is easier to control as a dictator.

 I once had a friend from Pakistan who was telling me about why her country would never have a true democracy.  She said that it would just not work with their values.  It is easy to say that Pakistan and other  countries without pure democracies are backward.  However, we have to recognize that democracy may not be the best form of government all the time, for everyone. There is probably a good reason why the people in Pakistan cannot tolerate that kind of liberty and freedom that other democracies enjoy.  In fact the rest of the world may be better off having a less democratic Pakistan. 

According to Montesquieu, the key to a successful despotic government is maintaining fear in your subjects.  This is not a new idea; Machiavelli said that for a prince it was better to be feared that to be loved.  If people do not fear you they may rise against your government.  This is similar to the mutual fear that everyone has in the "state of nature".  Therefore, maybe dictators provide true equality?  No one is above suspicion....

Advantages to a dictatorship

Having Montesquieu's roles of executive, legislative and judicial concentrated in one individual allows the dictator to move decisively and unilaterally. This can be highly advantageous in desperate times, such as in war or when fighting a rebellion.  Dictatorships are also useful for smaller countries as Montesquieu explains, "Thence it follows that petty states have oftener a right to declare war than great ones, because they are oftener in the case of being afraid of destruction." Therefore weaker states (Germany and Japan in WW2, North Korea today) are more likely to wage war because their needs require this and it is justified - and also a dictatorship helps.

Modern Dictators

There are many well-known dictators today (Kim jong il of North Korea; Bashar al-Assad of Syria; Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, etc). All these dictators need to maintain fear in the populace to retain power.  Therefore, if they lose this attribute they will lose the ability to control to masses. An example of this is the "Arab Spring" in Syria and other countries. In Syria, Assad one day brutally suppressed protesters and the next day made vacuous concessions. He thereby diminished his ability to promote fear in the populace by weakening his position. The police have reflected this lack of authority by no longer issuing citations.  A dictator can never appear weak, lack confidence or be reluctant to use force, as per Montesquieu. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Montesqueiu's Guide to Government

While Montesquieu travelled Europe and studied history he examined many different forms of government and observed what characteristics made each successful.  When writing The Spirit of Laws he divided these governments into different classes and judged what motivated the citizens of each government and how each one operated.  In this process, Montesquieu created a new classification for governments. This differed slightly from Aristotle's system, long recognized as the predominant categorical platform for classifying governments.  I have outlined the two systems below:

Click to Enlarge

Although it clearly influenced the development of our government, The Spirit of Laws is not necessarily written as a guide for producing a successful democracy. Montesquieu also explores others forms of government such as dictatorships, monarchies and republics.

Origin of government: Hobbes vs. Montesquieu

Before we had governments Thomas Hobbes said we lived in a "state of nature" where men were at constant war. Societies were established to protect our property and our rights from this struggle of man against man. For the development of government to occur we needed to surrender some of our liberty and freedom to a sovereign. We did this by agreeing to an unwritten covenant which we are not allowed to rebel against.  In the process we have created a super-being, an artificial man (the prince) to rule over us and preserve our equality and rights by subjugating us. We are all equal because we are all equally subjugated.

Montesquieu did not agree with this idea of Hobbes. He believed that men formed governments out of fear and weakness and that no covenant was required.  In addition, the people could be their own sovereign. Therefore there is no requirement to ennoble a single individual (the prince) with all this power. 

Society takes away equality: Karl Marx vs. Montesquieu

In a "state of nature" all men are equal because they are all afraid. Even if a man is stronger he may not necessarily want to subdue others since he still fears for his own security. However, when we have formed a society this equality is lost - we are no longer equals since there is no common fear, and men may try using this to their advantage.

"As soon as man enters into a state of society he loses the sense of his weakness; equality ceases, and then commences the state of war". This is because individuals become aware of their own strengths and seek to use the state to further their desires. Thus the state needs to be constantly protecting equality by preserving liberty, something that an all powerful sovereign cannot do effectively.  A good refute of Hobbes! 
"In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws." The inequality that inherently arises from society is something Karl Marx would have agreed with if he read Montesquieu a hundred years later.  However, Marx did not want to counter inequality by granting more liberty and opportunities, but rather by suppressing those who had property (the bourgeoisie).  So in comparing these two, Karl Marx wants to force equality while Montesquieu wants to give everyone the opportunity to acquire more.

Montesquieu made detailed observations on several different forms of government and in The Spirit of Laws and he outlines the characteristics of each.

A Guide for Monarchies

A monarchy is a society ruled by a sovereign that also has a class of nobles who help the king or queen maintain power. Both nobles and a strong clergy prevent the prince from slipping into despotism by holding him accountable.  The main motivating force for a monarchy is "honor".  The basic guidelines for a successful monarchy include: 1) Setting a value on fortune, not on life, 2) Not looking weak and never appeating inferior to your rank and, 3) Recognizing that honor overrides laws that do not concur with honor.

A Guide to Republics: Democracies and Aristocracies

The word "republic" has a nebulous definition in modern language.  Montesquieu called both democracies and aristocracies republics, since both provide representation. A democracy has equal representation while an aristocracy is representation by the best or the elite of society.  By this definition, our government in the US is largely an aristocracy.

Republics require continued self-sacrifice. The key to a successful republic is to make people love their government; make public interest more important than private. In contrast to an honor-loving monarchy, virtue is the key to a democracy and an aristocracy. A republic cannot tolerate avarice or reckless ambition. In a republic the lawmakers are subjects to their own rules and should therefore have a vested interested in producing the most fair and balanced laws. In the particular case of a democracy the people need to be educated so they can govern themselves and they must love equality as  "...real equality be the very soul of a democracy", even if it is difficult to establish in exactness.

This being said, too much equality can destroy a democracy.  "The spirit of inequality, which leads to aristocracy or monarchy, and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads to despotic power, as the latter is completed by conquest."  The highest level of virtue and ability is required in the citizens of a pure democracy and that is rarely found.  Therefore in a true democracy with perfect equality we will find ourselves subject to poor leaders and bad government. 

Perhaps reflecting this, Montesquieu suggests that voting should be public so that, "The lower class ought to be directed by those of higher rank...".  In contrast, he believes that votes in the senate ought to be secret to prevent intrigue.  In our government the opposite is true, but it is interesting to imagine what it would be like if we had followed Montesquieu's advice in this regard. 
Is an aristocracy better than a democracy?

Montesquieu says that "In a democracy the people are in some respects the sovereign, and in others the subject." In a true democracy anyone can be chosen to direct the administration of the state (selected at random), but only the best are actually chosen as we have seen in ancient Athens. The Athenian law-giver Solon gave the citizens the option of being included in a lottery for a position as a senator or a judge. However, at the end of their tenure the people "elected" were then judged on how well they had done their job. Therefore you would not want to submit your name for a position by lot unless you were sure you were qualified. In addition, everyone had the right to accuse someone if he were found unworthy of office.  This means that everyone had the option of being elected if they chose, but really only the best (or more confident in their ability) were selected.  Therefore, ancient Athens was a proto- or pseudo-aristocracy.  However, I do wish we held our politicians to same standards that then Athenians did. 

I'm one of you...don't you trust me? 
I believe America is an aristocracy, similar to ancient Athens, and I do not have a serious problem with that. Considering that we have "aristocrats" representing us in government, we can see how Montesquieu's next words of advice apply. We have all observed members of our aristocracy pretending to be "regular Joes" by riding motorcycles, drinking beers or wearing hardhats.  They want to appear like us - the hoi polloi, the vulgar masses, when they are of course the ruling class.  Montesquieu's advice is very apropos:

"Aristocratic families ought to therefore, as much as possible, to level themselves in appearance with the people. The more an aristocracy borders on democracy, the nearer it approaches perfection: and, in proportion as it draws toward monarchy, the more it is imperfect."

Continuing with the duplicitous theme: "When they affect no distinction, when they mix with the people, dress like them, and with them share all their pleasures, the people are apt to forget their subjection and weakness". Therefore the perception of inequality causes disorder in aristocracies and our leaders should appear to be "regular people" in order to successfully direct the majority. 

Seperation of Church and State

Montesquieu says that in a republic ecclesiastic power is harmful for a republic, since it interferes with the people's will.  This is in contrast to an monarchy where is plays a critical role in helping the sovereign stay in power.  I imagine several of the Founding Fathers took this to heart where they were preparing our Constitution.

The Death of Democracy

Montesquieu says that many things indicate the decline of a republic or a democracy.  For example, as the penalties for crime increases this correlates with a loss of liberty.  Consider our laws against marijuana use; are they too strict or even useful?  How about California's law of "Three Strikes" ?  Are the penalties justified or are we concealing deeper problems in our society?  Norway is held up as a model a democracy where citizens have cradle-to-grave health care, have a high standard of living and have almost no crime.  Interestingly, the harshest penalty for a crime in Norway is 21 years!  That's it!  Montesequieu's words ring true here.

Montesquieu also states that republics often end in luxury while monarchies end in poverty.  Perhaps the decadence of Republican Rome lead to its acceptance of a dictator. We should ask ourselves if our democracy end in luxury.  Will this be in the wealthy or the masses?  Perhaps it is like what Aristotle said about the important role of the middle class in maintaining a republic - equality is the key.  As long as the middle class is taken care of, we will forget our subjugation by the aristocracy.

"It is a general rule that great rewards given to individuals in monarchies and republics are a sign of their decline; because they are a proof of their principles being corrupted, and that the idea of honour has no longer the same force in a monarchy, nor the title of citizen the same weight in a republic."

Of course since we live in aristocracy we should also consider Montesquieu's words here.  An aristocracy is corrupted if the power of the nobles becomes arbitrary because then there is no virtue. "The extremity of corruption is when the power of the nobles become hereditary; for then they can hardly have any moderation."  Therefore, we need to keep that "death tax" running to prevent our aristocrats from corrupting themselves.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Montesqueiu and the American Constitution

Montesqueiu’s greatest contribution to our government is his outline for the separation of political power into three branches: the executive, legislative and judicial bodies.

James Madison
James Madison, while defending this principle, cited a lengthy quotation in Federalist Paper Number 47 which demonstrated this idea originated with Montesquieu. We can probably regard Madison as a reliable source as he is considered the "Father of the Constitution" as well as the Bill of Rights. The division and distribution of power from one body to several is not a new concept; the Greeks and Romans attempted similar schemes. What Montesquieu does is to fully investigate the reasons for this divestment of political power into multiple (three) branches and why it is required for maintaining a strong republic and preserving liberty.

In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu states that government should consist of one body that makes laws (legislative), one that makes wars and peace, directs the military and foreign relations (executive) and one that punishes criminals (judicial). Montesquieu believed that many governments have become corrupt, weak or collapsed because too much power was invested in too few people, which is one reason for the distribution of power. In addition, concentrating power will naturally lead to decreased liberty for the masses.

"When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty…Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive."

It is noteworthy that John Locke, discussed previously, proposed to separate power between a legislative and an executive. However, he retained the judicial powers with the executive.

Montesquieu also proposed checks and balances between the different powers. This included dividing the legislative power into two bodies.

“The legislative body being composed of two parts, they check one another by the mutual privilege of rejecting. They are both restrained by the executive power, as the executive is by the legislative." In addition, Montesquieu believed that the judicial power should decide court cases, not the executive, but the executive should be allowed to overrule the courts: for example by granting a pardon.

The Spirit of Laws also made several other contributions to our government:

No cruel and unusual punishments

Montesquieu cites the Valerian and Porcian laws passed in ancient Rome which exempted Roman citizens from degrading and shameful forms of punishment (such as scourging with rods or whips and crucifixion).

In addition, he believed that if punishments are too strict criminals would become "inured to the cruelty of punishments, would no longer be restrained by those of a milder nature". In other words, we should make the punishment fit the crime and not exceed it.

State Rights

We need strong provinces to have a strong republic, so let states have some control in their governance.

Freedom of speech

"It is not the words that are punished, but an action in which words are employed".

Therefore is OK to say you want to overthrow our government, but don’t actually try it.

Equal rights for women

Montesquieu supports suffrage for woman which he says can flourish in a republic and contribute to its success. "In republics women are free by the laws and restrained by manners". For example women had more rights in ancient Greece and this likely explains the success of that ancient government. Montesquieu also states that women make better leaders as they have "more lenity and moderation, qualifications fitter for a good administration than roughness and severity".

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Montesquieu: The Spirit of Laws

The authors of our Constitution depended on the ideas and writings of Montesquieu more than any other single political thinker.  No writer is more highly cited than Montesquieu by our Founding Fathers and he profoundly influencedThomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. However, I expect most of us have never heard of him. 

Montesquieu (1689-1755) was born Charles Louis de la Brède  in the French area of Gascony near Bordeaux. Montesquieu took his name from his estate, just like another French political thinker from Gascony, Montaigne. Initially Montesquieu pursued interests in literature and science. However a tour of Europe observing local social and legal institutions inspired him to explore the deeper meanings of law, human rights and the purpose of government.   Montesquieu distilled his thoughts in his book, The Spirit of Laws

Montesquieu's work was largely criticized in his native France, but was embraced in Britain and the American colonies.  The Spirit of Laws promoted the separation of government into three branches (executive, legislative and judicial powers) and the rights of all men.  He also discusses at length the differences between governments such as republics, monarchies, and despotic regimes.  Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws is a stark contrast from Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, which supports a strong, almost omnipotent central government. We therefore have an interesting juxtaposition of a Frenchman (Montesquieu) celebrating the British constitution and an Englishman (Hobbes) idolizing the French monarchy.   

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shakespeare: King Henry IV part 1 & 2

Henry IV of England
The next GBWW on political theory are Shakespeare's plays King Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, which seemed at first like an odd diversion from political philosophy.  However, I can appreciate how these two plays complement the previous readings.  In 1399 King Henry IV usurped the crown from his unpopular relative King Richard II.  Henry IV then spent the remaining years of his life trying to suppress rebellions throughout his kingdom.  One can imagine all the legal and political questions Henry IV has to address, not to mention the irony of having to suppress revolts similar to the one he participated in.  What make those rebels different from Henry IV overthrowing Richard II?  There is only one great difference: now Henry IV is the king. 

Many of Shakespeare's plays deal with the overthrow of rulers, as for example Hamlet and MacBeth. Interestingly, both King Cladius in Hamlet and MacBeth have to worry about being overthrown, similar to Henry IV.  The question should therefore be, "by what right does a king govern?"  Hobbes and others would say by the majority consent, but he would add that no subject can rebel against a sovereign.  John Locke and Thomas Aquinas would like counter that the rebellion of Henry IV against Richard II is justified since the former king does not maintain the common good.  However, this is a delicate and subjective arguement. I think this is the most fascinating question raised by Shakespeare's interpretation of history.  There is even some Machiavelli in King Henry's son, Prince John, who tricks rebel leaders into surrendering and then has them executed. 

After King Henry IV dies his son, Prince (Hal) Harry, assumes the throne as Henry V.  The transition is peaceful, but Shakespeare's description of Prince Harry's wild youth would make one wonder if he is ready for the responsibility of governing a kingdom.  Fortunately Prince Harry will depend more on his royal council for guidance than on his previous drinking companions like Falstaff.  It is this dual persona that I think it quite fascintating.  Nearly everyone, including his father, feels that Prince Harry would rather spend his time in a bar associating with characters of ill repute rather than shouldering the burdens of a king.  Even if Harry does become king, many fear he will bring ruin to England.  However, as King Henry V, Prince Harry actually becomes one of England's greatest kings.  Therefore, having spent his formative years in the association of commoners does not appear to have diminished in any way Harry's noble character or innate ability to lead.  In fact he may be a greater king for having  had these experiences.