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INTRODUCTION TO MONTESQUIEU

One of the most influential political theorists for the framers of the American Constitution, Montesquieu is a critically contested figure in Enlightenment-era political philosophy because of his “subtle, playful and elliptical” literary tone. In this article, Paul Rahe situates Montesquieu within the natural law tradition, particularly in relation to Thomas Hobbes, and considers to what extent his theory promotes natural law or natural rights thinking. Although Montesquieu’s theory maintains Hobbesian premises, it departs from Hobbesian conclusions: man in the state of nature is primarily motivated by fear and other passions, but he is not necessarily ruled by them. Moreover, man is cognizant of the laws of nature which are “rooted” in the “constitution” of all human beings. Montesquieu argues that man is capable of grasping four laws of nature through direct, practical experience: first, man desires and seeks nourishment for his bodily preservation; second, man desires peace to sustain his bodily well-being; third, man is drawn instinctively to other people; and fourth, the knowledge derived from interaction with others moves him to desire to live in society. In the establishment of society, and consequently in the establishment of government and law, Montesquieu asserts that no single form of government is always and everywhere superior. Instead, those who seek to govern must take into account the geography, economy, character, and existing laws of the people for whom the government is to be established. In such an endeavor, Montesquieu insists, both prudence and moderation are requisite.