Montesquieu and law as a fishing net (1720)

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu

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.

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.