Front Page Titles (by Subject) Montesquieu\'s Faith in Rights and Liberty - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1982, vol. 5, No. 2
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Montesquieu's Faith in Rights and Liberty - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1982, vol. 5, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Montesquieu's Faith in Rights and Liberty
“Rights, Relativism, and Religious Faith in Montesquieu.” Political Studies 29 (June 1981): 204–216.
Credited with refounding sociology, Montesquieu (1689–1755) is also admired for his doctrine on the institutional context of liberty. “In his character of libertarian he supported his attitude to liberty with a doctrine of natural law and a rather undeveloped doctrine of natural rights.” Masterson discusses the tensions between these two strands of Montesquieu's thinking, “the scientific strand which attempts to analyse, explain and predict human behaviour and the prescriptive stand which declares human duties and fights for human rights.”
Montesquieu believed in natural law and rights, notably the right to liberty. Yet he advanced physical explanations of individual behavior and a mixture of physical and social explanations of cultural differences in moral and aesthetic attitudes, religious belief, and the capacity to sustain liberty. Such explanations conflict with the assertion that human beings can know and follow universal natural laws. Despite his explanations of religious beliefs, Montesquieu resolved the intellectual and emotional tensions between his doctrines by recourse to his own religious beliefs—for a working knowledge of moral principles—and the notion of a freely acting, immaterial soul, although his science seems to leave it almost no room for action.
Montesquieu was not always a strong individualist since he was deeply religious in the fundamentals of his thought. He stressed God's laws rather than any secularized version of the rights of man. There can be no doubt, however, about his commitment to liberty or of his readiness to criticize political and legal institutions from the point of view of freedom, as he did in the Persian Letters and The Spirit of the Laws. Opposed to servitude, Montesquieu viewed liberty as the foundation of happiness. He believed that political liberty depended on divisions of power between individuals, institutions, and social classes, but his scientific theories stressed the difficulties of reforming society and institutions. When thinking as a physical or social scientist, Montesquieu was a causalist and relativist and thus at odds with his role of moral critic advancing ideas of natural law, right, and natural liberty. He, nevertheless, was sincerely opposed to that form of determinism known as “Spinozism” and sought to escape its logic through religious faith and the notion of an immaterial soul giving free will and the capacity to act either morally or immorally. Only religious faith protected Montesquieu's moral doctrines from eradication by his own deterministic science. Montesquieu's science limited the range of human knowledge and of man's ability to choose: this effectively implied the impossibility of a critical morality of natural duty and right. His own scientific causalist and relativistic views on the social origins of religion should, logically, have undermined his faith, but he arbitrarily exempted Christianity from his scientific explanations. Likewise, his religiously based belief in an immaterial soul allowed him to assert free will even against the unbearable consequences of his scientific principles.