The Multiculturalism of Fear

By Jacob T. Levy | Go to book overview

1 The Multiculturalism of Fear

Montesquieu's Multiculturalism

The political and social thought of the eighteenth-century French liberal Baron Charles Secondat de Montesquieu spanned a sometimes dizzying range of subjects and interests; it is notoriously difficult to reduce to a system or doctrine. But a number of themes and methods reoccurred throughout his life. A central normative ideal of his work was moderation, closely linked with the prevention of cruelty. Despotic governments, which ruled by cruelty and fear, were contrasted with moderate governments of whatever form. Immoderate religious passions contributed to the violence and atrocities of the wars of religion. Even immoderation of sexual lusts and jealousy can give rise to monstrous cruelty and tyranny, as demonstrated by Usbek's rule over his harem in Montesquieu's 'sortof novel,' The Persian Letters. Montesquieu's political vision was centrally concerned with diminishing cruelty and violence in social life.

Another frequent theme was the plurality of cultures in the world, the differences among nations and peoples. This is most famously true of his Spirit of the Laws, which is in part an attempt to account for both the similarities and the differences among the laws of different nations. It is also in part a compendium of those laws, and in part an argument about what laws—ranging from form of government to regulation of marriage—are best suited to people in a variety of different circumstances. But it is also clearly true of The Persian Letters, which satirizes the mores and customs of France by viewing them through the eyes of fictional Persians, while also commenting on (what Montesquieu took to be) the customs of Persia. Cross-cultural comparisons were central to Montesquieu's method. But he also had crucial substantive concerns about coexistence and conflict among different peoples with different ways of life, concerns which were often related to the normative arguments about violence and cruelty. 1

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