Montesquieu on moderation, monarchy and reform

History of Political Thought 31 (2):283-308 (2010)

Montesquieu's respect for moderation is almost universally acknowledged, but not very well understood. In recent scholarship, his moderation has been interpreted as inclusive and pluralistic with a view to the range of regimes that are hospitable to liberty. This paper challenges this currently dominant interpretation of Montesquieu by revisiting his understanding of moderation. On reflection, he does not simply discourage radical change, he even provides advice as to when and how such change is to be enacted. French absolute monarchy requires fundamental change, not least because monarchy as such is not sufficiently accommodating to liberty. While the English commercial republic is better suited to liberty than French monarchy, there is no doubt that monarchy is more attractive than commercial republicanism. Montesquieu offers a profound and perhaps unsettling account of the possible incompatibility of honour, generosity and greatness of spirit, on the one hand, and safety and liberty, on the other
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