Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (Montesquieu)

In more educated times, “Considerations” was a famous book, regarded as the progenitor of modern “decline and fall” analyses. Broad in sweep but short in length, Montesquieu sketches characteristics of Roman society from its beginnings through its (Byzantine) end. His goal is to find the main elements of Rome’s growth and decline and the lessons for modern man.

Apparently he began this book as simply a set of notes for his own clarification of thought, and found the topic rewarding enough to expand. In many ways, though, the book reads like a series of notes not fully bound together. But they’re bound together by a main principle: “It is not chance that rules the world. Ask the Romans, who had a continuous sequence of successes when they were guided by a certain plan, and an uninterrupted sequence of reverses when they followed another.” Montesquieu aims to show us what those plans were.

Montesquieu is not focused primarily on the moral virtues. His analysis has more in common with Machiavelli than with Aquinas or Aristotle. That doesn’t mean he sees no moral virtue in certain actions and governments, merely that practical considerations of power and influence loom larger. But as with Gibbon, he is anti-Christian (though not as volubly so as Gibbon), and his moral virtues are essentially those of the Stoics.

This is interesting enough in the abstract, but only in the past few years, I think, has much of this become truly relevant to America today. So, let’s see how Montesquieu would have viewed America’s political situation today (as of October 2016)!

Montesquieu begins with the overthrow of the Tarquin monarchy and the establishment of the Republic. In legend, at least, the son of Tarquin the Proud raped the virtuous Lucretia, who thereupon committed suicide, leading to a successful revolt led by her husband and father. Montesquieu attributes the revolt, therefore, not to Tarquin’s other harshness (in fact, Montesquieu thinks him not a bad king), but to the humiliation of the people epitomized by this action of the royal family. “Such an action makes the people keenly aware of their servitude, and they immediately go to extremes. A people can easily endure the exaction of new tribunes; it does not know whether some benefit may come to it from the use to which the money is put. But when it receives an affront, it is aware of nothing but its misfortune, and begins thinking of all the possible evils to which it may be subjected.”

So with our modern situation. Donald Trump, a ludicrous defective man, receives the support of more than a hundred million Americans, not because of his virtue, coherence or plan, but because his supporters see clearly the contempt in which the ruling classes, consisting of both parties, and especially Hillary Clinton, see them. They don’t even hide it: Trump supporters, because of who they are, not because they support Trump, are “a basket of deplorables,” “irredeemable” and “not American.” (Later in the book, Montesquieu notes that when “citizens no longer regarded each other as members of the same republic,” the inevitable result was the civil wars of Marius and Sulla.)

Much of America, Trump supporters or not, are already on the receiving end of “affronts” and successful attempts to make them “aware of their servitude.” Such affronts include open contempt and punishment, in the legal, social and business realms, for any breath of support for orthodox religion. They include the contempt elites show by demanding huge increases in energy prices for the common man to address supposed global warming as they cavort and campaign in their private jets. And demands for servitude are shown by the open elite desire to confiscate all private weapons and to encourage rioters as they luxuriate in their safe gated compounds with armed guards surrounding them at all times. Such examples could be multiplied infinitely, but viewed through Montesquieu’s lens, they show why huge numbers of Americans want to topple the current system, even though they are very unclear about what would replace it or why it would actually be better.

Montesquieu attributes Rome’s expansion following Tarquin’s overthrow to its love of and competence in continual aggressive war. Among other things, he attributes this competence to the equality of citizens before the law and rough equality of citizens in wealth (in the form of land). In winning they were assisted by the corruption of their larger opponents, such as Carthage. This corruption resulted from wealth, not from lack of a republic. Unlike in Rome, where virtue led to public office and public approbation, “in Carthage everything the public could give to individuals was for sale, and all service rendered by individuals was paid for by the public. . . . The advantage of a free state is that there are no favorites in it. But when that is not the case—when it is necessary to line the pockets of friends and relatives, not of a prince, but of all those who participate in the government—all is lost.”

Such corruption has reached levels in America today inconceivable to Montesquieu. This is for two reasons. First, today’s required corruption is different in kind, consisting not only of money but of obeisance to whatever politically correct cultural view is today dictated by the administrative state, together with its toadies and allies in big business and in academia. Second, the power and reach of the government into every nook and cranny of individual lives multiplies the impact of all corruption. No business can operate today without engaging in both forms of corruption on a daily basis. And, of course, larger businesses quickly see the path to getting and staying large and powerful is to become wholly part of the corrupt web, leading to a heinous form of corporatist corruption, again inconceivable to Montesquieu. Finally, the flip side is those who successfully practice corruption are immune from punishment, whether you are the lying criminal Hillary Clinton (exempted by the FBI under a Bizarro World interpretation of the law, applicable to nobody else), an EPA bureaucrat who releases millions of gallons of toxic waste into a Colorado river (for which a private individual would receive decades in prison, regardless of intent or mens rea, and the bureaucrat receives a raise), or the lickspittle General Electric corporation (constantly sucking up to and effectively bribing politicians to obtain laws, mostly in the form of submarine, anti-democratic regulations, designed to line its own pockets by repressing free enterprise). Montesquieu correctly identified that a free state is not insulated from these defects of corruption—and as a result, defective states, free or not, are open to attack by aggressive states that are based on virtue and are free, or largely free, from corruption.

Montesquieu views the multi-century expansion of Rome not only as an expression of Roman virtue generally, but specifically as an example of Roman constancy and predictability. This constancy, of course, was founded on virtue of individuals, but also on the strength of the institutions built upon, and composed of, those individuals. The Romans always took the long, consistent view, and therefore their enemies knew that the Romans were in it for the long haul, and were not going to just give up and go away. As a result, cutting the best deal possible often made sense, since often that deal was a good one for the target of the Romans. Nor did the Romans attempt to impose conformity on their conquests. “It is the folly of conquerors to want to give their laws and customs to all peoples. This serves no purpose, for people are capable of obeying in any form of government.” George W. Bush should have taken note of this—but Americans have always had problems with constancy in foreign relations, and in wanting to give their laws and customs to others, and in wanting to grant “freedom” to those neither ready nor worthy.

Montesquieu then turns to Rome’s downfall, beginning with “The Dissensions That Always Existed In The City.” Here the focus is on the natural tension among the various orders, and the changing political structure of Rome over time (which is not in contradiction to Montesquieu’s point about consistent virtue in expanding Rome). “To ask for men in a free state who are bold in war and timid in peace is to wish the impossible. And, as a general rule, whenever we see everyone tranquil in a state that calls itself a republic, we can be sure that liberty does not exist there.”

While dissent is necessary and desirable, it must be confined within bounds of a rigid common morality. Montesquieu notes the role of the censors, who took the census, “and, what is more, since the strength of the republic consisted in discipline, austerity of morals, and the constant observance of certain customs, they corrected the abuses that the law had not foreseen, or that the ordinary magistrate could not punish. There are bad examples which are worse than crimes, and more states have perished by the violation of their moral customs than by the violation of their laws. . . . . In a word, a free government—that is, a government constantly subject to agitation—cannot last if it is not capable of being corrected by its own laws.” Montesquieu assigns primary blame for the decay of morals to excessive wealth corrupting the ruling classes of Rome, because it created too-great inequalities of both wealth and power, resulting in too little focus by the powerful on the common good.

Given today’s endless litany of bad examples by public figures totally lacking in virtue, this seems germane to us today. One possible response is that the role of the censor in America could be, or has been, played by parties outside the government, notably the media and religious leaders. But the former, the news-setting media, is now a wholly corrupt leader of the violation of moral customs, the chief advocate of suppressing dissent from ruling class “morals” (which are an inversion of any traditional morality), and wholly devoted to advancing left-liberal political action, all of which is an exemplar of corruption as that term is used by Montesquieu, the very opposite of the role of the censors. And as to the latter, today’s religious leaders either lack moral authority (the Catholic hierarchy, due to the homosexual abuse scandal and its cover-up), are themselves active agents of the corruption (the leaders of any old-line Protestant denomination), or are intertwined in an unseemly way with the political Right (evangelical Protestants). We could use the Roman censors—but we get Trump.

As the Republic declined, civil war of course resulted. This book has little to say if we will face the same fate, though it certainly seems likely, since regeneration does not occur in real historical societies. But Montesquieu has the interesting observation that “No state threatens others with conquest like the one in the throes of civil war. Everyone—noble, burgher, artisan, farmer—becomes a soldier, and when peace unites the opposing forces, this state has great advantages over those with nothing but citizens. Besides, during civil wars great men are often produced, because in the confusion those with merit come to the fore. Each man finds his own place and rank, whereas as other times each is given his place, and almost always wrongly.” Montesquieu provides various historical examples—though not the obvious one, Napoleon, for of course Montesquieu died before Napoleon was born. Of course, the Roman Republic could not survive this, but the Empire, at times, had its own virtues. Perhaps this is our path—decay leading to a civil war, followed by empire and expansion. It’d be different, that’s for sure.

Montesquieu then summarizes the ups and downs of various emperors, from Augustus onward, noting (again, with a possible lesson for us) that “No authority is more absolute than that of a prince who succeeds a republic, for he finds himself with all the power of the people, who had not been able to impose limitations on themselves.” (He also notes that “it is more dangerous to oppress an armed people than one that is not armed”; yet another lesson for us today, that proponents of gun control are dangerous people, either ignorant or vile, who must be suppressed by any means necessary. Just because we’re in a rapid decline doesn’t mean we should make it easy for those with tyranny in their heart.) This second half of the book is the usual tale of defective emperors, overmighty generals, crafty barbarians and weakling Christians, ending with an unsympathetic view of the Byzantines as small-minded and unable to rise above petty disputes, both secular and theological. It’s not bad, but it’s somewhat tendentious and lacking the insights of the first half of the book. But given the brevity of the book, it’s worth reading the entire thing, and then spending some time reflecting on it.


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