Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics, by Keegan Callanan

Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, or simply Montesquieu, is one of the most influential post-enlightenment political thinkers, famous not least for his doctrine of the separation of powers. In his book Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics, Keegan Callanan interprets Montesquieu as a proto-liberal particularist.

Much 20th century liberal political theory has been universalist. Liberal thinkers have developed competing theories, working from the assumption that the task of political philosophers is to construct universally valid political ideals. Montesquieu, according to Callanan, took a completely different approach to political theory.

Montesquieu instead worked from the assumption that political theory should be sensitive to specific facts about particular societies. He denied the possibility of constructing ”a single model of government that is best for all times and all peoples” (p. 12). Legislators must adapt their institutions to comport with ”the character and circumstances of the people” (p. 37).

For instance, Montesquieu argued that liberty is not only a condition that obtains when rights-holding individuals live under a limited government of distributed powers and the rule of law. Liberty is also contingent on the political subjects’ experience of their own security:

But when a people is not culturally and socially prepared to receive free political institutions, direct attempts to erect such institutions will likely produce an experience of political disquiet and fear – a ”tyranny of opinion” – comparable to the psychological experience of men and women in truly tyrannical states… Under these conditions, free institutions are no longer liberal in effect, for they fail to yield the tranquility of spirit that constitutes the ”liberty of the citizen.” (p. 236)

Callanan’s book is a thorough study of Montesquieu’s political particularism. It is detailed yet accessible to a broad audience. I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in liberal political theory.

Callanan, K. (2018). Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics. Cambridge University Press.


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