Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws is a sprawling work with six untitled and seemingly unconnected parts. How are these parts related, and how, especially, does the sixth part, on the history of Roman, French, and Feudal laws, relate to the other parts? In particular, why does Montesquieu pay special attention to the evolving understanding of property in these different legal environments, and what might his treatment of this subject have to do with his more well-known treatments of liberty, commerce, and religion? This dissertation offers answers to these questions through a close reading of the text of Spirit of the Laws, paying particular attention to Montesquieu’s use of the figure of the barbarian in parts 6, 2, and 3, and connecting these passages to books 11–12, on political liberty, and portions of book 26 on political and civil law. It connects Montesquieu’s arguments in support of political liberty—in which he implicitly makes common cause with thinkers like Hobbes and Locke—with the more determinist, historicist, and even sociological portions of his work, which have inspired a different strand of political philosophy. Finally, it gives an account of how parts 4 and 5, on commerce and religion, are based upon the first half of the book. This investigation yields the following conclusions: Montesquieu reinterprets the history of law in Europe in order to separate out the barbarian spirit from its Christian and Roman admixtures and translate it into the modern context. He takes from the barbarian the grounding of property rights in the individual conscience in order to make psychological security central to the social contract. His teachings on commerce and religion are, in his order of presentation, manifestations of the barbarian use of property as a sacred and inviolable space of security for the individual. Religious liberty and commercial republicanism are, for Montesquieu, adaptations of the barbarian spirit to the Christian world, meant not to usurp religious authority or undermine virtue, but to make concessions to human weakness. This teaching, however, effectively transforms religion into privacy of conscience, and makes property into the palladium that protects that most sacred of possessions.
Peterson, John Matthew, "Property and Privacy of Conscience in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws" (2018). Electronic Dissertations & Theses. 17.