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Montesquieu and law as a fishing net (1720)

A theme which runs through Montesquieu’s collection of Thoughts (1720) is that the law is like a fisherman’s net. In a free society it is a large net which gives the fish the illusion of liberty. In a despotic state is a very tight net where the fish know immediately that they are trapped:

The men who enjoy the government I have spoken of are like fish who swim in the sea without constraint. Those who live in a prudent and moderate monarchy or aristocracy seem to be in large nets, in which they are caught, though they think themselves free. But those who live in purely despotic States are in such tight nets that they feel themselves to be caught right at the outset.

[434] Admirable idea of the Chinese, who compare God’s justice to a net so big that the fish that wander into it think they are free, but actually they are caught. Sinners, likewise, think they will not be punished by God; but they are in the net.

[597] In a well-ordered monarchy, the subjects are like fish in a big net: they think they are free, and yet they are caught.

[828] The men who enjoy the government I have spoken of are like fish who swim in the sea without constraint. Those who live in a prudent and moderate monarchy or aristocracy seem to be in large nets, in which they are caught, though they think themselves free. But those who live in purely despotic States are in such tight nets that they feel themselves to be caught right at the outset.

[874] [A free government can be compared to a big net in which fish move around without thinking they are caught; the nonfree government, on the other hand …]

[943] Pure liberty is more a philosophical than a civil condition; which does not prevent there being very good and very bad governments, nor does it even prevent a constitution from being more imperfect to the extent that it is further removed from this philosophical idea of liberty that we have. An ancient compared the laws to those cobwebs that, being only strong enough to stop flies, are broken by birds. As for myself, I would compare good laws to those big nets in which fish are caught, while thinking themselves free, and bad ones to those nets in which they are so squeezed that they immediately feel themselves to be caught.

About this Quotation:

A theme which runs through Montesquieu’s collection of “Thoughts” is that the law is like a fisherman’s net. In a well ordered state the law is like a fishing net which is so large that the “fish” can swim around thinking they are free because they very rarely get caught up in the line. Nevertheless, they are still trapped within an admittedly large net and the purpose of a fishing net is to catch fish for the fishermen. On the other hand, in a despotic state the fishing net is so small that any movement of the fish gets them caught in the mesh. These fish are very conscious of the fact they they have been caught by the fishermen and that they have no liberty. This raises an interesting question for the Montesquieu-ian, namely is liberty feeling that one is free or the fact of actually being free, in this case free to escape the fisherman’s net and avoid being hauled in to be eaten? There is also an interesting side-thought in Pensée 943 which raises the question of the equal applicability of the law. If the law is like a cobweb it is designed to trap only small creatures like flies for the spider to eat. This kind of law has no applicability to large and powerful creatures like birds who are “above the law” and can burst through it with no consequences. Furthermore, some birds eat insects like spiders. One might also speculate about the possibility that there is another level of nets for the birds – the bird catchers with their nets, and perhaps ad infinitum. Maybe the only way out of this recursive nightmare is not to have any nets at all.

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