Books: Cultural Amnesia — Montesquieu |
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Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755) is one of our ambassadors in history. Like Thucydides, Tacitus and Montaigne, he represents us in the depths of time, as if his mind were a space station built by the modern world and positioned in an observational orbit above the surface of the past. His well-known commemorative medal, on the other hand, makes him look like a projection into the future from the Senate of ancient Rome. The real man was a creature of his age, and very good at being so. Noble birth helped, but his brilliance was not of the kind that precluded sociability. He was a hit in the grand salons and no stranger to frivolity. The Persian Letters (1721), his first famous book, started as something of a joke. A measure of his success is that today we regard its central trick as commonplace: foreigners observe our society and find it strange. The French society that Montesquieu’s two imaginary visiting Persians described was in fact heading downhill towards revolution, but it was delighted to be so wittily told that it was in a mess. Montesquieu was a Persian visitor himself when he spent two years in England, moving at the highest level, fêted everywhere: a period of observation that was to yield crucial results for his later work. First, however, came his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (1734), a thriller which is probably the best port of entry for the new reader. His undoubted masterpiece is heavier going: The Spirit of Laws (1748). One of the formative books of the modern world, it is still, in a hundred different ways, relevant today. Perhaps, at the moment, it is most conspicuously relevant in the critique it implicitly delivers of its ostensible subject, multiculturalism. Montesquieu had practically invented the concept that all cultures evolved in different ways from separate imperatives; and in The Spirit of Laws he continued that theme, but by then he had seen the danger. In allowing the suggestion that all cultures might be equally valuable, room had been left for supposing that they might be equally virtuous. To guard against this, he advanced the further proposition—buttressing his argument with reference to the British constitution he had studied at first hand—that beneath cultural variety there were, or should be, values that did not change. In modern terms, he was concerned that a legitimate delight in the multiplicity of cultures should not develop into an ideology, multiculturalism: an ideology that would entail the abandonment of any fixed concept of justice. Seemingly in the face of his own cultural relativism, Montesquieu declared that justice was eternal. There is a fine introductory essay to Montesquieu by Isaiah Berlin (collected in his Against the Current), but Berlin strangely failed to see that Montesquieu’s point had deep consequences for liberalism, which Berlin thought a matter of contending values. Montesquieu thought the same, but he thought there was a fixed point. Proposing, at least by implication, a liberalism dependent on a hard core of principles, and not just on tolerance, Montesquieu thus made a decisive pre-emptive intervention into the debate that we are having now.

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It is not impossible that the things which dishonoured him most served him best. If he had shown a great soul from the start, the whole world would have distrusted him; and if he had been hardy, he would not have given Antony time for all the extravagance that led to ruin.


AFTER FINALLY LEARNING enough French to put myself in a condition where he might teach me more, I found Montesquieu too big to begin at the beginning. The above citation was the passage that addicted me to him. Dipping at random into one of his Pléiade volumes, I chanced on this characterization of Augustus, and knew very soon that I would be occupied with Montesquieu for a long time into the future, so I put the books away in full confidence that when I came back to them later I would be reading nothing else for days on end. That was how it worked out, except that the days turned to weeks. (I own two complete sets of the Pléiade Montesquieu now, one to be occasionally carried with me on my travels, the other to be kept always safe at home against a rainy day, such as might happen at the end of the world, an event that would have left him sad but not stunned.) Decades before, when I was first a student in Sydney, North’s Plutarch had had the same effect. The big, ugly Modern Library edition was hard to love from the outside, but hard to leave once you were in. I could see straight away what Plutarch had done for the posters on Shakespeare’s marquee. Even today, I can’t believe that the lists of dramatis personae for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra—my favourite plays on a Shakespearean roster in which almost all are favourites—would strike us as quite so rich if Shakespeare had not already found Plutarch to be a crowded bench of well-established characters all looking for what Hollywood used to call Additional Dialogue. Beyond that obvious connection, would all the other Shakespeare plays be the same as they are without Plutarch: that is, without the idea and the example of character being destiny? Montaigne, said Stefan Zweig (in his Europaisches Erbe—The European Heritage), read history not in order to become learned, but to see how other men had handled events, and so set himself beside them. By assessing the behaviour of prominent characters in history we find a measure for ourselves. But one of our first assessments of ourselves is that we would be unlikely to attain such a magnificent objectivity on our own: we need our guides to the human soul, and among them Montesquieu is hard to beat, because he can withhold his moral judgement to the cracking point without letting go of it. Obviously he does not much admire Augustus as a man; but he can see Augustus’s greatness as an emperor; and finally he can see the connection between Augustus’s greatness and his not being much of a man. This is quite a feat of detachment. Most of us would table our decision long before that.

Montesquieu can delay his judgement on Tiberius: a forbearance that not even Tacitus could show. Montesquieu, it should be said, thought the world of Tacitus, “qui abrégeoit tout parce qu’il voyoit tout.” (“He abridged everything because he saw everything.” Perfect.) Tacitus was charmed by Tiberius, but only as a maiden with a soft neck is charmed by the approach of a trained vampire. Like Tacitus, Montesquieu could appreciate Tiberius as an artist of bastardry. “There is no crueller tyranny,” said Montesquieu, “than the one exercised in the shadow of the law, and with the colours of justice.” A connoisseur of murderous casuistry, Montesquieu was impressed by the efficiency Tiberius brought to the business of perverting the judicial system. From a distance of sixteen hundred years, Montesquieu rewarded the imperial perpetrator with the quality of his prose: “les couleurs de la justice” is a magnificent phrase, one of those perfect formulations that should be left in its original language as a tribute to the culture from which it emerged. Tacitus had seen that Tiberius not only wanted the Senate to be servile, but despised it for flattering him. Yet Tacitus, as much fascinated as repelled, had his sense of irony exhausted by a satanically gifted individual. Montesquieu, less emotionally involved, saw a point about Tiberius that extended to all mankind. “Like most men, he wanted contradictory things; his general politics were nowhere in accord with his particular passions. He would have liked a Senate free and capable of making its government respected, but he also wanted a Senate to satisfy, at all times, his fears, his jealousies and his hatreds: finally the statesman gave way contentedly to the man.” We are left free to deduce a universal principle. Unless constrained to do otherwise, the statesman will always give way to the man. Lord Acton’s later observation about the corrupting nature of power is already there, and already expounded in apprehensible human terms. Part of the impact comes from our recognition of what has happened so often within ourselves: the feeling of relief and release as we slip from a rigid civic obligation into a spastic self-assertion.

Montesquieu was well aware, however, that the dolorous road of arbitrary imperial power led far past the point set by the demoralization of the sane, and that beyond the corruptible personality there was such a thing as the outright psychopath, demented from the womb, or anyway from the cradle. Montesquieu had no doubt that Caligula was crazy. But Montesquieu is able to enrich his condemnation—to make it an analysis, and not just a bleat of anguish—by examining how Caligula’s blatant insanity did not preclude subtlety of intellect, and might even have encouraged it. He drew Caligula as a sophist of cruelty. Descended from both Antony and Augustus, Caligula said he would punish the consuls if they celebrated the day of rejoicing established in memory of the battle of Actium, and that he would punish them if they didn’t. (For the puzzled or the innocent, here’s how it worked: Antony lost the battle of Actium to Octavian, the future Augustus. Therefore, those who celebrated the battle dishonoured Antony, while those who didn’t dishonoured Augustus. The way was thus left open to punish everyone.)

By entertaining the possibility that cruelty could be allied with a kind of artistic ingenuity, Montesquieu pioneered a field of study that we by no means exhaust by reading the Marquis de Sade: if only it were so. Many of de Sade’s effects were merely cumulative, and anyway they were almost all fictional. They were ideas he masturbated to in gaol, and the quill was the only conduit between his imagination and reality. He didn’t have an office with a telephone. In the twentieth century, alas, one of the ways that the same brand of madness proved itself in power was by the ingenuity which added, to physical tortures unseen since medieval times, a range of psychological tortures which had been thought to have died with the nuttier Roman emperors. If Saddam Hussein needed to acquire by education what he did not have from instinct, he could have learned from Stalin the techniques of mentally destroying parents by attacking their children. (“My handsome son Uday,” we can imagine him saying, “is looking forward to meeting your daughter.”) But not even Stalin’s ingenuity was without precedent in ancient times, and Hitler’s fondness for Sippenhaft—the German term for punishing the innocent family along with the guilty criminal—was a direct hand-on from Tiberius. (Stalin’s penchant for obliterating the entire family of an Enemy of the People was not really Sippenhaft, because he was cleaning up a whole bourgeois element anyway: i.e., they couldn’t not be guilty, so there was no arbitrariness to the punishment.) On a less exalted level in the infernal Nazi world, Victor Klemperer, in his diaries—I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End—records the exquisite dilemma of the Dresden Jews in the years when they supposedly still had a life, before the Final Solution officially got under way.

Victor Klemperer is sometimes given a niggling press because he seems lost in everyday detail. But when everyday detail was so horrible, to record it was an act of heroism, and nobody who has read his diaries should lose an opportunity of pointing out to anyone who hasn’t that they constitute one of the great documents of the twentieth century. At the heart of the document is the perception that the Jews were placed under designedly intolerable psychological pressure from the first day of the new regime. When they were still granted the luxury of travel by tram to their increasingly distant places of decreasingly remunerative work, they were permitted to ride only on a platform which could not be reached except though a compartment they were forbidden to enter. Their dilemma was between either walking to and from work, which was steadily less possible, or boarding the tram and facing almost certain punishment. The “almost” made things worse: if there had been no alternative to staying at home and starving yourself and your family to death, it might have been easier to face. But there was an alternative. The alternative, however, was to face the dilemma. A more delicately calibrated mechanism for inducing neurosis in human beings could scarcely have been devised. But devised it was: though it would be a relief to hear that the idea had simply evolved without a creator, there can be no doubt that some perversely talented Nazi factotum sat down to a desk and thought it out. Like Tacitus only more so, Montesquieu deserves our thanks for preparing us to face our own time. Tacitus thought that there were arguments for the use of torture. Montesquieu agreed, but said that there was something in our nature that cried out against it. Tacitus predicted what we have to face, but Montesquieu predicted us facing it, and thus ranks even higher among those men of the past who tell us that the future was always there—or anyway that enough of it had already happened to reassure us that the rest was not really unprecedented, just anachronistic. There is thus a kind of solace in reading them, saddening though it is; and with Montesquieu the solace becomes an inspiration, as if our doubts had met their voice.

I believe that the thing above all which ruined Pompey was the shame he felt to think that in having elevated Caesar the way he did, he had lacked foresight. He accustomed himself to the idea as late as possible; he neglected his defence in order not to avow that he had put himself in danger; he maintained to the Senate that Caesar would never dare to make war; and because he had said it so often, he went on saying it always.


Apart from the hundred ways that this is better than anything in Gibbon, think of its pedigree. The psychological analysis of powerful men was already there in Thucydides: our Alcibiades is his Alcibiades first and foremost. It was there again in Sallust and Suetonius, and above all in Plutarch: through discovering in North’s Plutarch the minds of other great men, Shakespeare discovered his own. If there had been no translation of Plutarch, Shakespeare might have learned the same possibilities from Montaigne alone, because Montaigne was saturated with the absorbed judicial powers of everyone we have so far mentioned, and nothing is more certain about Shakespeare than that he knew Montaigne by heart. Add all these names together, however, and even including Shakespeare you still do not reach a sum of political analysis that touches Montesquieu, of whom it can be said that not even his supreme artistic talent could lead him to a premature conclusion, and that he could find within himself the wellsprings of all human behaviour while yet maintaining a benevolent sanity. Pompey, when he became champion of the people, sacrificed his influence among the aristocrats. Unlike Julius Caesar, he lacked the instinct to hedge a bet. The two men were equally charismatic and equally ruthless, but eventually Caesar took control of the end-game. It could have happened only because Pompey had a psychological weakness. Without denigrating Pompey’s intelligence, Montesquieu tells us what the weakness was, and makes the story of a mentality as gripping as a thriller. (The same thrill is what the numberless readers of a book like The Da Vinci Code are really after: they have just chosen arid territory in which to seek it.)

The mind perfectly open is usually vacuous: Montesquieu’s is full of linked perceptions, a warehouse of networks in which truths connect with each other seemingly by themselves, because the medium, his prose, is so transparent. But the best way of knowing that psychology is not a science is that Montesquieu was its master, and was such an artist. There is a truth about mentality that Montesquieu would have taught us if Shakespeare hadn’t: somewhere behind even the most universal comprehension there must be an individual mind. To take the two of them as a single example: they could not be so like each other if they were not so different. Here is Shakespeare being Montesquieu, in Timon of Athens II: 2. Flavius, for what must be the millionth time, is trying to make the prodigal Timon see prudent sense.

Ah! When the means are gone that buy this praise
The breath is gone whereof this praise is made:
Feast-won, fast-lost ...

That would be Montesquieu if it did not sound like Shakespeare, and it sounds like Shakespeare not just because it is in verse, but because, in the third line, its otherwise uninterrupted prose argument is momentarily condensed beyond the point where we can go on failing to notice that it is something written in transcendence of the power of speech. Shakespeare, even in prose, has the essence of a poet; and Montesquieu takes his prose always towards the unalterable interior balance of poetry; the extremes touch. The power of generalization is the same, because in each case it is energized by an unsleeping gift for specific psychology. Whether or not Montesquieu was right about Pompey, for example, he was right about you and me. Once we invest our opinion, we hang on to the investment; so the more we have at stake the more we risk, even by doing nothing. And the more powerful we are, the more likely we are to stick to our rusty guns: because it was firmness of purpose that made us powerful.

Montesquieu’s Pompey resists being told the obvious, and answers by his behaviour the question why: he is obtuse in the matter because he is Pompey. Montesquieu has traced the blind spot to the centre of the character’s vision. Degas developed a fault in his eyesight which eventually meant that he could not see when he looked straight ahead. Pompey has a dead patch in the centre of his moral retinas, and it makes him Pompey. In the same way, Shakespeare gives us the essence of Timon, who can’t see that his generosity will destroy him; and of Coriolanus, who can’t see that he must either woo the people or else decline to be their tribune. These are big things not to see and it takes big men not to see them.

Or it can take a big villain. In my time—this actually happened while I was alive, although fortunately I was not able to be present at the scene—Josef Stalin refused to believe that Nazi Germany would attack the Soviet Union. There is some doubt about the initial motive for his folly, but the best guess is that it sprang from the madness which placed ideological considerations above all others, even above the ability to maintain a state over which he had spent the best part of his life manoeuvring in order to assume control. Stalin had purged the Red Army of its best generals: deprived it, in fact, of its entire operating elite, and therefore of the ability to fight. If he had engineered the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in order to give himself an opportunity to finish carrying out the purge, that would have been a logical chain of events, even if it started from an unhinged premise. If he thought, however, that there would not be a battle because his army could no longer fight it, there was no logic to his course of action at all. Under scrutiny, the second and stranger thought process seems the more likely, because everything he did next was equally deluded. Stalin staked his by now worldwide reputation for infallibility on his judgement that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact meant what it said, and that Hitler would not attack him while it was still in force. If Hitler had not already proved that a document signed by himself meant nothing to him whatsoever, Stalin’s own behaviour—in which no promise had ever outranked expediency—should have warned him that his opponent might repudiate a bargain which both of them had reached in the first place out of nothing but the cynical desire to share the spoils of a ravaged Poland while putting the democracies at a potentially ruinous disadvantage.

Yet Stalin, of all people, put himself in the position of declaring his faith in Hitler, of all people: and Stalin stuck to it even as the dissuasive evidence became overwhelming. By the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets had been supplied from the West with intelligence that described the German preparations in detail. The Ultra decrypts, fed to Stalin by personal order of Churchill, gave the German order of battle all the way down to the individual units. The Soviet intelligence authorities had long overcome their suspicions of a Western trick. Even without Ultra, they had plenty of evidence from inside German-occupied Poland and from inside Germany itself that an invasion was imminent. High-echelon Soviet intelligence officers continued trying to put the evidence on Stalin’s desk even after it became clear that they were risking his wrath, and therefore their lives, by doing so. The spectacle of otherwise impeccably ruthless men ready to commit suicide in order to tell him the truth did nothing to shake Stalin’s convictions. Instead, they were confirmed. His orders that the forward troops were to give no signs of being ready to defend themselves—lest the signs provoke the Germans—were not rescinded. They were reissued, up to and beyond the hour of attack. As a result, the invaders rolled forward almost unopposed. The attack was a long way into its first day before the flood of information at last gave Stalin pause for thought. When he paused, he collapsed.

As a measure of how well he had organized his monopoly of power, his disgusted colleagues felt that even in those circumstances they had no favourable opportunity to kill him. To the world’s enduring loss, they fed him pabulum on his cot instead of smothering him with a pillow. In consequence, he was given the chance to recover from his nervous breakdown and resume the leadership, with a characteristically unlimited surplus of lies, wasteful violence, stupidity and perversion. Though he had enough sense to kick the propaganda effort screaming into reverse and transform the catastrophe from the Party’s blunder into the Great Patriotic War, the illusion that the Communist Party saved the nation was to flourish from an early date. Mainly because of the immense mental investment by Western intellectuals in the Soviet Union’s existence, the truth has taken more than half a century fully to emerge, but it was widely known in the Red Army from the first weeks of hostilities. Stalin not only came close to losing the war in its opening stages by his arrogance and ignorance, he found, later on, the most expensive possible way of winning it. From start to finish, there was not a single successful battle that could not have cost a fraction of its casualties: a fact attested to even by the Stalinists among the officer corps who managed to survive not only the war, but the peace. The peace proved almost as dangerous as the war, because finally Stalin had the temerity, once again and with not a tinge of irony or common shame, to purge his own army, which had got above itself by being indispensable to him: the very thing, probably, which had led him to purge it in the first place. From the end of World War II until the present day, it has been a constant source of bilious entertainment to hear desk-bound Western intellectuals, all of whom know even less about strategy than I do, praise Stalin as some kind of military genius: an opinion exactly coinciding with his own, and just as utterly divorced from reality. It ought not to matter, but there were too many good Russian soldiers who found out the hard way that the German army was only the start of their troubles. Their souls cry out from the snow, the minefields where they were used as human detonators, and above all from the prisoner-of-war pens, where, given up by the hundred thousand to please the will of a ruler for whom they mattered less than dirt, they were starved to death by another maniac who achieved the difficult feat of caring for them even less. I still can’t believe that these obscenities happened in my time, and that during the Anzac Day march through Sydney in 1946 I was actually wearing a forage cap with a badge on it celebrating Stalin’s heroism and genius. Now sixty years have gone by and my heart is with the young Russian soldier who starved to death in one of the prisoner-of-war compounds. I don’t know his name, and by the time hunger and the weather had finished with him not even his mother would have known it. The words of the Persian general at Salamis are still with me: “Where are the names of those who perished?” Stalin, of coure, had a very good memory for names on death warrants: we ought to grant him that. But of the broad judgement and the detailed knowledge that it took to run military operations, Stalin had not a trace: not a scintilla, not a smidgin. Any historian who contends otherwise is simply incapable of giving up an illusion, for fear of the exertion that might be brought by reappraisal. What kind of history is that? Alas, it is scarcely even therapy.

A similar obstinacy to Stalin’s was shown by Hitler, although Hitler had a better excuse. In his early campaigns, Hitler really did seem to know more than his generals. But it was mainly because he had a better estimation than they did of the state of mind prevailing in the opposing armies. When, in the second phase of the war, the opposing armies were better prepared to resist, Hitler’s inflated conviction that his own general staff didn’t know what they were talking about proved fatal. (The best argument for the general staff’s being even more at fault than Hitler is provided by Alan Clarke’s Barbarossa, a book which should not be belittled merely because its young author later grew rather too doe-eyed at the Führer’s memory.) Though all the surviving generals pretended after the war that they had tried to dissuade him from his folly—the smart ones, spotting the danger of seeming to hanker after a more successful Nazi Germany, pretended that they had tried to dissuade him from war altogether—there were in fact few at the time who dared to say a word. Rundstedt and Guderian were both sidelined for telling him that his “no retreat” policy did nothing but rob the armoured formations of their mobility and ensure defeat. Manstein, the most able soldier of the lot but also the best psychologist, rarely raised his voice because he knew that Hitler would pay it no heed. In his book Verlorene Siege—Lost Victories, and thank God they were—Manstein says a great deal about how frank he was with Hitler. Even though the success of his fighting withdrawal prolonged the war, we ought to give Manstein credit for getting his way in the matter of the retreat from the Caucasus. But the officers who approached him in hopes that he might join a coup were all informed that what he had to offer Hitler was loyalty, not opposition. How Hitler had earned such loyalty remains in question, but bribery might have had something to do with it. Certainly it had nothing to do with Hitler’s military understanding, which Manstein found out the hard way was a bigger threat than the enemy. (It was while Hitler was visiting Manstein’s forward headquarters that the Russians, by refraining from an air attack, offered tacit evidence of their opinion that Hitler’s continuing in supreme command would serve their interests.) Hitler proved incapable of listening to advice, even to the advice that might have saved his reputation from disaster. Insanity won’t do for a reason: he was already insane while winning his victories, but he could listen then. The most likely explanation seems to be the one Montesquieu discovered for Pompey. Because he had said it so often, he went on saying it always.

There can be a stubborn investment even in cruelty: Daniel Goldhagen, in his unfortunately famous book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, is too much startled by the not very amazing fact that the Nazi concentration camp guards went on maltreating their victims even when the game was up. They had always done so: to stop voluntarily would have meant admitting that it had all been useless. The most spectacular example of blind stubbornness in the World War II period was the behaviour of the Japanese officers in high command who not only wanted to go on fighting after the war was clearly lost, but actually seemed to believe that some kind of victory could still be won. Or it should have been the most spectacular example, but the palm belongs to Stalin. By a quirk of personality, being right about military matters was so important to him that he added millions of innocent lives to the total his political vision had already cost his unfortunate nation. For his ideological crimes there might have been some justification: certainly foreign observers as intelligent as Jean-Paul Sartre thought so. But for Stalin’s pig-headedness in the face of towering evidence that he had made a mistake there was no justification at all. The consistent irrationality of his behaviour from the eve of the war to its end is well recorded by Dmitri Volkogonov in his indispensable biography of his father’s murderer. What concerns us here, however, is its normality: the pre-emptive, silent tantrum that we call a refusal to listen, and the disabling consequences of realizing that we ought to have done so. Montesquieu transfixes the issue with that single word, honte. It is the shame of the child who has been caught out. Though Montesquieu understood all evils, it was not because he could trace them to suppressed propensities for evil in his own nature. He was too good for that. It was because he could trace them to memories of childhood: those memories which reading helps us to outgrow, but not to forget. Not even the uproar in the nursery, however, could make Montesquieu despair of human nature. He said he had a better opinion about himself when he read Marcus Aurelius, because Marcus Aurelius gave him a better opinion about people. One feels the same about him.