Saturday, November 27, 2010

Duncan Kelly's "The Propriety of Liberty"

Duncan Kelly is a University Senior Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Propriety of Liberty: Persons, Passions, and Judgement in Modern Political Thought, and reported the following:
On p. 99, my argument concerns the relationship between legislative passions and civil religion in the political thought of Montesquieu, the famous eighteenth-century author of L’Esprit des lois. At this point in the book, I have already discussed some of the ways in which Montesquieu considers justice in relation to classical moral philosophical arguments about politics, friendship, and despotism, and have also explored his analysis of the human passions.

If we are to have political liberty, Montesquieu tells us, we must struggle to regulate our own passionate natures. Moreover, if we are to have the greatest possible political liberty, we will need to live under a moderate government that can adequately align itself with our natural desires and thereby help to cultivate our freedom. Balance, moderation, and prudence are crucial to the enterprise, and the combination of internal and external regulation this requires, according to Montesquieu, hints at the more general argument of the book. For in essence, this book considers the historical development of a particular idea of liberty as a form of propriety. In this history, propriety is understood both as an internal form of self-governing conduct concerned with the quality of individual agency, and also as an external standard of judgement for assessing the actions of others, rooted in a common conception of justice. The story begins with John Locke and ends with Thomas Hill Green, but covers the works of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill (as well as Montesquieu) along the way. Here is a passage:
True political virtue, the spring (ressort) for action that unites the good man to the ideal republic, is neither moral, nor Christian, nor indeed classical and heroic virtue. Only political liberty, and hence moderation or propriety, can foster the promotion of political virtue through the artificial manipulation of natural passions, and while monarchy might best achieve this aim, part of the human ingenuity that makes this artifice possible stems from the wisdom of the legislator who knows how to relate religion to politics. Civil religion is another tool, like honour, for promoting a well-ordered polity. Just as intermediary powers help to balance moderate regimes by cultivating good citizens, so too should ‘religion and the civil laws’ aim ‘principally to make good citizens of men’. To the extent that one or the other ‘departs from this end’, the other force should attempt to counterbalance it.
Montesquieu clearly sees himself as part of a much broader political tradition here. As an earlier discussion from the same page suggests:
It is unsurprising therefore to find Montesquieu suggesting that the connections between laws, the constitution of the state and the various passions of the people, all ‘meet [in] the passions and prejudices of the legislator’. It was a claim that allowed him to present Aristotle and Plato, Machiavelli, Thomas More, and James Harrington as precursors of his argument. Balance, moderation and propriety structure Montesquieu’s political thinking, and he saw the need for it everywhere, whether in terms of balancing property and political power, or in terms of the need to balance our natural self-interest with the demands of political stability. It was equally vital, though, that the ‘genius’ of the legislator recognize the need for concision and simplicity in style. Laws should be like the Roman Twelve Tables, not the ‘Novellae of Justinian’ or the overly rhetorical laws of princes in the East. They certainly should not change ‘without sufficient reason’. They should also sit well with the mediocrity or generality of the middling sort, as Aristotle had proposed.
Outlining some of these connections in Montesquieu, and in the works of other major figures in the history of modern political thought, the book as a whole makes the case for reconsidering our current sense of the relationship between free agency and political freedom. By looking again at the intellectual history of the idea of liberty in modern political thought, it tries to show how such an account might help to move us beyond some of the conventional, and occasionally misleading, categories of contemporary political argument.
Read an excerpt from The Propriety of Liberty, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue