Liberty Matters

Ambivalent Montesquieu


In his response post “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Luxury,” David Carrithers usefully surveys some of the individual authors who did indeed express skepticism toward the traditional regime of sumptuary legislation embraced by European governments. Nicholas Barbon’s A Discourse of Trade, Bernard Mandeville’s A Fable of the Bees, Jean-François Melon’s An Essay upon Commerce and David Hume’s essay “Of Refinement in the Arts” (originally entitled “Of Luxury”) were among the smattering of works that poured cold water on the whole project. Montesquieu, too, in his usual nuanced way, thought such laws inappropriate in at least some circumstances.
The problem, of course, is not only that these skeptics were in a distinct minority, but that the record of government activity itself was quite mixed in the 18th century--some countries scaled down their sumptuary efforts (France in particular) while others increased theirs (Sweden, for example). The incompleteness of the “skepticism” project was revealed during the French Revolution, when calls for the restoration of such laws became vocal once again.
As David Carrithers himself shrewdly notes, Montesquieu cited Tacitus as a source authority on the growing popularity of luxuries among the Romans during the Empire. Tacitus was of course widely read as an insightful observer on the loss of liberty and of virtue among the Roman people. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that this fact was itself one of the great impediments to the emergence of a genuinely “modern” view of luxury consumption: thinkers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries were deeply anxious about repeating what they saw as the catastrophic fate of the Roman project.
We may then read Montesquieu in this light as being himself ambivalent. On the one hand, he does suggest that under monarchies, sumptuary law is inappropriate, and for more than one reason. On the other hand, he expressly rejects the idea, advanced by his friend Melon and a few others, that virtue-based republics of the ancient sort are fundamentally out of kilter with the broader conditions of modern life and are therefore simply not fit models for modern states to emulate. In addition, he described England as a “republic in the guise of a monarchy,” casting doubt on exactly which rubric he would attach to the dramatis personae in his national survey. This all being the case, it was and is not impossible to read him as using a kind of civic-republican language as a subtle and indirect way of criticizing the policies of modern monarchies such as France.
Paul Rahe is absolutely right in “Why Did Sumptuary Laws Disappear?” to call attention to Pierre Nicole, redoubtable ally of Pascal during the religious quarrels of the 17th century. For a long time now, it has been known how important Nicole was as a conduit of ideas for the 18th-century Enlightenment. The conduit is certainly a paradoxical one. Jansenism is mostly associated with the kind of austere Augustinian Christianity that we think of as an obstacle to modernization rather than as one of its sources. Those historians who take Weber as their lodestar would of course not be deterred by such a paradox. To them, Jansenism would look--as it did to Weber himself--like an analogue to Puritanism: a source of that “calling,” that “predestinarian” anxiety, that “inner-worldly asceticism” that Weber saw as essential to the massive accumulation of capital supposedly defining the rise of capitalism.[102]
But I agree with Paul Rahe that Nicole and the Jansenists are also of note for another and quite different reason: their naturalization of the passions, including passions like self-love that might lead in practice to consuming rather than saving activities. In particular, I would place emphasis on what we might think of as the “wonder” of the civilized order felt by Pascal, Nicole, and others like them. From Pascal’s marveling at the way concupiscence can breed such a refined system of social conduct, it is but a short step to Mandeville remarking on the multiplicity of hands that went into some ordinary Yorkshire cloth,[103] (repeated pretty closely by Adam Smith),[104] and on down to Leonard E. Read’s example of the making of a pencil, which Milton Friedman later spotlighted on television.[105]
Of course, to my knowledge, Nicole never actually discusses sumptuary law in his published writings. Had he done so, furthermore, it strikes me as not a foregone conclusion that he would necessarily have supported their abolition. Even though it is true that thinkers from Mandeville on were able to use Nicole’s clever reworking of the theory of self-love in what we might call “modernizing” ways as concerns the theory of consumer society, Nicole himself was not necessarily one of them. All of his (quite few) discussions of “luxury,” for example, a term that was a favorite reference point for the whole debate over consumer society in 18th-century Europe, were of the traditional variety. For example, at one point he pairs “luxury” with blasphemy and debauchery as counting among the great number of “sources of disorder and of crime.”[106] This was exactly the language of traditional moral control and marks a continuing gulf between his world and our own.
Speaking of tradition, David Carrithers, in “Why Sumptuary Laws Endured,” takes us on a tour of one of the specific anxieties of premodern governments, namely wedding expenses. It is no doubt true that in a world much closer to the Malthusian trap than our own, dowry customs and wedding expenses could devour the savings of private households in ways that might alarm the authorities. That example itself, of course, spotlights the gulf between their world and ours. For modern governments, private expenses are mostly private matters. Great fortunes can be and are being lost all the time without states feeling the kind of generalized anxiety for the very stability of the social order manifested by Professor Carrithers’ Renaissance rulers.
As our original discussion of Montesquieu made clear, however, this modern posture of ours is fragile, hard-won, and provisional. One might point out, for example, that although our private fortunes are private matters, our private firms deemed “too big to fail” are another thing altogether, and perhaps a fit subject for a separate Liberty Matters forum.
Moreover, we can easily overlook how the scramble for status that drove so much of the wedding market in Renaissance Italy continues to be viewed in a variety of different ways in our own time. On the one hand, to be sure, status-seeking has been domesticated into the more innocent language of the “land of opportunity” or of “seeking the American dream.” One reason why this domestication was successful is the interiorization of the ideal of the individual in modern life. Adam Smith called it the “desire of bettering our condition,” and he saw it as a natural and universal desire. Nor was he far removed from Pierre Nicole in doing so.[107]
But on the other hand, there remains a whole strand of cultural criticism stretching from Veblen to Robert Frank that continues to fret about the messy spectacle of a consumer society, and that looks to government to correct it.[108] If such proposals seem to us considerably more quixotic, more intrusive, more marginal than they would have seemed to an 18th-century reader steeped in jeremiads on luxury and corruption, that is because we have inherited more of Adam Smith’s view of personal consumption than of Montesquieu’s. How and why that is the case, and how far it is the case, remain--or so it seems to me--one of the elusive cogs in the fragile machinery of modern liberty.
[102.] See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, ed. Richard Swedberg (New York: Norton, 2009), 113n14, 118-19n17 and n26, 122n57. For an alternative view, see Jacob Viner, Religious Thought and Economic Society, ed. Jacques Melitz and Donald Winch (Durham: Duke University Press, 1978), 23 and passim.
[103.] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, ed. F.B. Kaye (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924; repr. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1988), 1:169. See the quote by Mandeville "On the social cooperation which is required to produce a piece of scarlet cloth (1723)" </quotes/542> and on Yorkshire cloth </titles/846#Mandeville_0014-01_520>.
[104.] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. W.B. Todd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976; repr. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981), I.i.11. Online version Cannan edition: Smith on the making of a woolen coat I.i.11 - Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, edited with an Introduction, Notes, Marginal Summary and an Enlarged Index by Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen, 1904). Vol. 1. </titles/237#Smith_0206-01_149>.
[105.] Leonard E. Read, “I, Pencil,” Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1958: Leonard E. Read, I Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Reed (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1999). </titles/112>. Friedman’s television version;
[106.] Pierre Nicole, “De la Grandeur,” pt. 2, ch. 3 of Essais de morale (Paris: Desprez, 1701), 2:216.
[107.] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, II.iii.28, 341 for one example. Online version: Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, edited with an Introduction, Notes, Marginal Summary and an Enlarged Index by Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen, 1904). Vol. 1. </titles/237#Smith_0206-01_917>.
[108.] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: A Study of Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1899) and Robert Frank, Luxury Fever: Happiness in an Era of Excess (New York: The Free Press, 1999).