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  Spirit of Modernity - Back Cover
Description of Montesquieu and the Spirit of Modernity

Crucial to an understanding of Montesquieu’s work is the contrast he drew between ancient and modern mentalities. “The political men of Greece, he wrote in his classic work The Spirit of Laws (1748), “who lived under popular government recognized no other force to sustain it than virtue. Those of today speak to us only of manufacturing, commerce, finance, wealth, and even luxury.” Ancient philosophers had conceptualized model regimes where human beings would flourish in accordance with their natural purposes and potentialities shaped by good laws well obeyed. Such moderns as Montesquieu, on the other hand, ceased to regard the state as a school for morality. No longer concerned with improving mens’ souls, modern politics focused instead on the achievement of liberty, security and material prosperity.

Clearly something novel and distinctive, something recognizably modern, arose in the climate of European opinion during the period from Machiavelli to Montesquieu. A teleological universe suffused with transcendent meaning and purposeful ends was supplanted by a more secular, “disenchanted” world-view. Both the Christian conception of a life lived in humble devotion to the moral commandments of revealed religion and the classical conception of a virtuous life devoted to ethical perfection were challenged by a new political realism stressing the dominance of the passions over reason and the constructive potential of self-interest properly channeled and rightly understood.

The American and French authors of the eleven essays in this volume explore the complex relations between Montesquieu and modernity and between Montesquieu and antiquity. Assessing the content of his three major works, they conclude that whereas the label “modern” suits Montesquieu, he nonetheless retained certain philosophical approaches characteristic of antiquity as well as a high regard for the primacy accorded to politics and philosophy in the classical era.

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