The politics of mores and the tasks of liberal statesmanship

Frank Flagg Taylor, Fordham University


My dissertation argues for the centrality of mores in Montesquieu's political thought. His detailed studies of particular regimes (Rome, the French monarchy, and England) allow him to understand the importance of mores in different contexts, and how different political principles demand different approaches to shaping and maintaining mores. The problem of political corruption and the permanent possibility of despotism convince Montesquieu that the relation between laws and mores is a problem all legislators must confront. I argue this all important problem of the relation between laws and mores sheds light on one of the most prominent questions for all scholars confronting The Spirit of the Laws: how to understand the relation between England, monarchy and republicanism. My dissertation articulates Montesquieu's understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each regime, and also attempts to explain a key structural problem of Spirit: why England (analyzed in books eleven and nineteen) eludes the conceptual frame of the initial regime analysis (books two through eight). I also attempt to make sense of Montesquieu's puzzling relationship to the modern liberal tradition. While it is true that his regime-centered approach is reminiscent of Aristotle, he has deep reservations about the ancient conception of virtue and its political consequences. However, he is also critical of the understanding of human nature exhibited by the social contract theorists, and is suspicious of their articulation of political legitimacy. I argue that it is Montesquieu's understanding of the relation between theory and practice that explains his muted invocation of nature and his qualified turn to history. His emphasis on mores and history seeks to account for the accumulated weight of events (or historical effects) that place limits on human action. Montesquieu's understanding of historical causation attempts to balance an acknowledgement of the place of accident with an ability to give a rational account of the rise and fall of regimes. An overconfidence in the ability of theoretical principles to lead to salutary political change is a looming danger for Montesquieu, especially in the modern context. I argue Montesquieu seeks to clear a path between the twin dangers of a voluntarist, revolutionary, destructive approach to reform and a weary resignation to historical inevitability.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Taylor, Frank Flagg, "The politics of mores and the tasks of liberal statesmanship" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3240065.