Towards a Metaphysical Framework
It is of the greatest significance for the appreciation of Montesquieu’s moral idealism that the earliest indication of the notion of “esprit général,” that combination of moral, social and physical factors determining the life and destiny of nations, should occur in the Traité des Devoirs. This idea, of seminal importance for sociology, seems to have been the direct outcome of Montesquieu’s meditations on justice and of his consequent desire to rebut the principles and practices of that “realpolitik” whose evil results were manifest in the economic and moral decay of contemporary France, and to which the political thought of Machiavelli, of Hobbes and even of the righteous Bossuet, had lent powerful but illconceived support.1 In the Lettres Persanes, using, as Roger Caillois has demonstrated,2 a relativistic sociological method of profoundly disturbing implications, Montesquieu had already achieved a caustic though not wholly negative satirical portrait of contemporary society; not wholly negative, since the notions of absolute justice, of republican virtue and of moderate government were weighed against the description of corruption and folly. The Traité des Devoirs inspired by Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, was conceived as a more systematic and comprehensive exposition of the theoretical grounds of this optimistic idealism;3 however, when he reached the point of demonstrating in antithesis the injustice of “la politique,” Montesquieu went beyond a priori argument, attempting to base his refutation on historical evidence.
KeywordsMoral Idealism Human Reason Divine Nature Moral Doctrine Natural Religion
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