Montesquieu on Nature and Law: A Preface to the Understanding of the Spirit of the Laws
24 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 28 Mar 2012
Date Written: March 13, 2010
While the title of Montesquieu's greatest oeuvre, The Spirit of the Laws, identifies the subject of the work, it nevertheless remains obscure. Many presume to know what law is. The title, however, will prompt most readers to ask: What is the spirit of the laws? Insofar as the title implies the existence of a relation between spirit and law, it also implies that knowledge of what both spirit and law are is a necessary precursor to understanding it. Montesquieu's choice of title, then, should lead any reader who ponders it to raise three philosophic questions: What is law? What is spirit? And, what is their relation? The reader sensitive to the distinction in which philosophy is said to originate - that between nature and law - sees the question of nature lurking in the others. That nature is a foremost concern of the work is hinted at by Montesquieu's use of the word and its derivatives in the book and chapter headings. Thus, to the three questions above is added a fourth: What is nature? The following essay is an attempt to sketch Montesquieu's answers to these four questions as he presents them in both the preface and the first book of The Spirit of the Laws.
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