The History of Fear, Part 2

Yesterday, I inaugurated my series of posts on the intellectual history of fear with a discussion of Hobbes’s theory of rational fear. Today, I continue with a discussion of Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror. (Each of these discussions is an excerpt from my book Fear: The History of a Political Idea.)

Montesquieu is not often read by students of political theory. He’s become a bit of a boutique-y item in the canon, the exclusive preserve of a small group of scholars and pundits who tend to treat him as a genteel guardian of an anodyne tradition of political moderation. With their endless paeans to the rule of law and the separation of powers, these interpreters miss what’s most interesting and disruptive in Montesquieu. I’ve tried to recapture some of that here.

But again, if you want to read more, buy the book.

Fear always remains. A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt, but as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.

Joseph Conrad

Hobbes wrote about fear in the midst of political collapse, when the centripetal forces of civil war could no longer be contained by established norms of religion or history. So unnerving was this experience of political entropy that he sought to have it permanently imprinted on the European mind, there being “nothing more instructive towards loyalty and justice than . . . the memory, while it lasts, of that war.” Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu—a French aristocrat born in 1689, a full decade after Hobbes’s death—took up the question of fear just as that memory began to fade. Montesquieu’s was a world suffering not from the confusion of disorder but from the clarity of established rule. By the time of Montesquieu’s birth, Louis XIV had turned a country that only narrowly escaped the revolution that wrecked Britain into the most orderly state in Europe.

Convinced that “a little harshness was the greatest kindness I could do my subjects,” Louis concentrated political power in his own hands, subduing nobles and commoners alike. He seized control of France’s armies, turning semiprivate militias into soldiers of the crown. He banished the aristocracy from royal councils of power, relying instead on three trusted advisors and an efficient corps of officials in the countryside. He snatched veto power from local grandees accustomed to striking down royal edicts in regional parlements. He bankrupted the nobility through obscure methods of taxation; others he corrupted with frivolous titles, assigning them to positions of responsibility over his kitchen and stables. A class that had shared power with the royal family for generations was reduced to competing for such privileges as helping the king get dressed in the morning and perching on a footstool near the queen. Louis, the French historian Ernest Lavisse aptly noted, ruled with “the pride of a Pharaoh” and possessed, according to a character in Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters, “a high degree of talent for making himself obeyed.”

Louis XIV

Montesquieu had a visceral awareness of this aristocratic displacement. As a participant in the Bordeaux parlement and a substantial landowner involved in the wine trade, he chafed at royal interference in local matters, especially restrictions on the production and sale of wine. Everything about the reign of Louis XIV—the eclipse of the nobility, the drive toward centralized power, the loss of local institutions—he identified with despotism, and any limitation on royal power earned his support as the mark of reform. Combining a rearguard defense of noble privilege with a visionary critique of centralized power, he took positions sometimes traditional, sometimes reformist, but always opposed to the absolutism favored by Hobbes.

This was the world and the politics that prompted Montesquieu to launch his reconsideration of Hobbesian fear, a revision so profound and complete it would shape intellectual perception for centuries to come. Political fear was no longer to be thought of as a passion bearing an elective affinity to reason; from now on, political fear was to be understood as despotic terror. Unlike Hobbesian fear, despotic terror was devoid of rationality and unsusceptible to education. It was an involuntary, almost physiological response to unmitigated violence. The terrorized possessed none of the inner life that Hobbes attributed to the fearful. They were incapable of thought and moral reflection; they could not deliberate or even flee. They cowered and crouched, hoping only to fend off the blows of their tormentor.

Montesquieu also reconceived the politics of fear. Where Hobbesian fear was a tool of political order, serving ruler and ruled alike, Montesquieu believed that terror satisfied only the depraved needs of a savage despot. Brutal and sadistic, the despot cared little for the polity. He had no political agenda; he sought only to quench his thirst for blood. The Hobbesian sovereign was aided by influential elites and learned men, scattered throughout civil society, who saw it in their interest to collaborate with him. The despot decimated elites and obliterated institutions, subduing any social organization not entirely his. While the Hobbesian sovereign generated fear through the rule of law and moral obligation, the despot dispensed with both.

Why this shift from fear to terror? Part of it was due to context. Creating political order in the wake of Louis XIV simply did not pose the same challenge to the Frenchman that it had to the Englishman. When Montesquieu tried to imagine a state of nature, as he did in the opening pages of The Spirit of the Laws, he could barely muster eight short paragraphs on the topic. The sheer brevity of his account—not to mention its benign descriptions—suggests how unfazed the political imagination of his day was by the specter of civil war.

But part of this shift was due to a change in political sensibility. Unlike Hobbes, who yearned for absolute government, Montesquieu sought to limit government power. Where Hobbes believed sovereigns should guard all political power as their own, Montesquieu argued for a government of “mediating” institutions. In his ideal polity, individuals and groups, housed in separate institutions, would share and compete for power. Forced to negotiate and compromise with each other, they would produce political moderation, the touchstone of personal freedom. Montesquieu argued for social pluralism and toleration—also checks, he believed, on the one-size-fits-all regime Louis XIV seemed bent on creating. With his vision of limited government, tolerance, political moderation, and personal freedom, Montesquieu was to become one of liberalism’s chief spokespersons, about as similar to Hobbes as a butterfly is to a wasp.


And yet beneath their considerable differences lay a deep vein of agreement. Like Hobbes, Montesquieu turned to fear as a foundation for politics. Montesquieu was never explicit about this; Hobbesian candor was not his style. But in the same way that the fear of the state of nature was supposed to authorize Leviathan, the fear of despotism was meant to authorize Montesquieu’s liberal state. Just as Hobbes depicted fear in the state of nature as a crippling emotion, Montesquieu depicted despotic terror as an all-consuming passion, reducing the individual to the raw apprehension of physical destruction. In both cases, the fear of a more radical, more debilitating form of fear was meant to inspire the individual to submit to a more civilized, protective state.

Why would a liberal opposed to the Hobbesian vision of absolute power resort to such a Hobbesian style of argument? Because Montesquieu, like Hobbes, lacked a positive conception of human ends, true for all people, to ground his political vision. Montesquieu’s liberalism was not the egalitarian liberalism of the century to come, nor was it the conscience-stricken protoliberalism of the century it had left behind. Unlike Locke, whose argument for toleration was powered by a vision of religious truth, and unlike later figures such as Rousseau or Mill, whose arguments for freedom were driven by secular visions of human flourishing, Montesquieu pursued no beckoning light. He wrote in that limbo period separating two ages of revolution, when weariness with dogma and wariness of absolutism made positive commitments difficult to come by and even more difficult to sustain. His was a skeptical liberalism: ironic, worldly, elegant—and desperately in need of justification.

Despotic terror supplied that justification, lending his vision of limited government moral immediacy, pumping blood into what might otherwise have seemed a bloodless politics. Montesquieu did not know—and did not care to enquire—whether we were free and equal, but he did know that terror was awful and had to be resisted. Thus was liberalism born in opposition to terror—and at the same time yoked to its menacing shadow.

But hitching liberalism to terror came at a price: It obscured the realities of political fear. Montesquieu painted an almost cartoonish picture of terror, complete with a brutish despot straight out of central casting, and brutalized subjects, so crazed by terror they couldn’t think of or for themselves. So did he overlook the possibility that the very contrivances he recommended as antidotes to terror—toleration, mediating institutions, and social pluralism—could be mobilized on its behalf. An expression of the despot’s deranged psyche, Montesquieu’s terror was an entirely nonpolitical or antipolitical affair, circumventing political institutions and sidestepping the political concerns of men. The polemical impulse behind his account was clear: If Montesquieu could show that despotic terror destroyed everything men held dear, and if he could show that terror possessed none of the attributes of a liberal polity, terror could serve as the negative foundation of liberal government. The more malignant the regime, the more promising its liberal alternative.

Built into Montesquieu’s argument, then, was a necessary exaggeration of the evil against which it was arrayed. Though repressive, the rule of Louis XIV did not entirely warrant Montesquieu’s overheated depictions, prompting Voltaire to complain that Montesquieu “satirizes more than he judges” and that he “makes us wish that so noble a mind had tried to instruct rather than shock.” Montesquieu was not unaware of the flaws in his account. In a youthful work, The Persian Letters, he offered plentiful evidence to suggest that his mature conception of despotic terror, stated in The Spirit of the Laws, was as much political pornography as it was social vision. In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu described a form of fear quite similar to that depicted by Hobbes. Rational and moral, fear relied upon education; it aided rather than subdued the self; it depended upon a powerful ruler working in concert with elites; it required the collaboration of all sectors of society. But in his later years, Montesquieu could no longer abide this youthful gloss. So he rejected the earlier vision, as have subsequent writers, who would ignore or misinterpret The Persian Letters, resulting in the distorted vision of terror we possess to this day. Montesquieu’s, then, is a cautionary tale, revealing the pitfalls of a liberalism that relies on terror and thereby misconstrues it, making the Frenchman a creature of not only his own time, but also our own.

But what exactly was this fear, this despotic terror? Curiously, The Spirit of the Laws never defines it. Part of Montesquieu’s unwillingness to define it was due no doubt to his intellectual temperament. He was repelled by the austere architecture of Hobbesian thought, in which unadorned definitions gave rise to severe edifices of theoretical conclusion, a style of deductive reasoning he believed mirrored the harsh simplicity of despotic rule.

But Montesquieu’s refusal to define terror registered an even deeper conviction. Terror, he had come to believe, was a great nullifying force, so oriented toward destruction and negation it could not sustain anything suggesting presence or concreteness. “Everything around” despotism, he observed, was “empty.” Terror’s most telling sign was silence, the desolation of verbal space signaling both the dissolution of men capable of speech and the disappearance of a world capable of description. No words, no definitions, could withstand terror’s decimating energies.

Hobbesian fear—and the fear Montesquieu described in the harem—traveled in a world of things, among men with ends to pursue and goods to be sought. Absence and loss were certainly fear’s companions: there was, after all, no more categorical loss than death. But the fear of death was a powerful emotion for Hobbes precisely because it conveyed to its sufferer the prospect of losing the goods he valued in life. The fact that the generation of Hobbesian fear required the cooperation of elites and institutions only added to this sense that fear flourished in a world of things. The denser the world, the more opportunities for depriving men of the objects that mattered to them, the greater the possibilities for arousing fear. In an empty space where human affections were thin and the objects of human attachment few, fear would find an inhospitable terrain.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu conceived an altogether different relationship between terror, self, and world. Terror preyed upon a person stripped of selfhood—of reason, moral aspiration, the capacity for agency, and a fondness for things in the world. The more self a person possessed, the more capable he was of resisting terror. The more connected he was to the world and its objects, the more resources he would have to challenge the despot. Deprived of self and world, he was the perfect victim of despotic terror. The ideal environment for terror was a society in which social classes and complicating hierarchies had been eviscerated and the individual was forced to stand alone—not unlike the world, Montesquieu believed, of Louis XIV. Liberated from the thick constitution of medieval ranks and orders, the despot would be free to wield his sword with unequivocal force. The most fertile climate for despotic terror, then, was not a dense atmosphere of desiring selves, collaborating elites, and robust institutions, but a vast expanse of nothingness, from which liberalism derived its somethingness.

Hobbes thought that a person’s fear of death was an expression of that person’s most intimate desires and wishes. All fearless people were alike— brash, foolish, enthralled by death—but a fearful person was fearful in his own distinctive way. For Montesquieu, it was the reverse. Because the terrified were incapable of reason, agency, and formulating their own ends, they possessed none of the irregularities distinguishing one person from the next. Terror fed on the dull sameness of animals motivated by nothing but the biological imperative of staying alive. The victim’s “portion, like beasts,’” was “instinct, obedience, and chastisement.” The fear of death could not be linked to the goods of a particular life, for it flourished only in the absence of those goods: “In despotic countries one is so unhappy that one fears death more than one cherishes life.” In free societies, obedience was “naturally subject to eccentricities.” Free subjects thought too highly of themselves to slavishly obey; they forced their rulers to accommodate their demands. Not so in despotism. A de-individualizing experience, despotic terror made no room for pluralism, difference, and individuality.

In recent years, intellectuals of varying stripes have taken the liberal tradition to task for its celebration of the independent, autonomous self. A figure of titanic but chilly remoteness, the liberal self is supposed to be Kant’s bleak gift to modern morals. According to Michael Sandel, the liberal a self is “an active, willing agent,” who chooses her beliefs rather than embrace or discover those she has inherited from parents, teachers, and friends. She is not bound by her “interests and ends.” She “possesses” such ends but is not “possessed” by them. She lurks, like a spider, behind all the strands connecting her to the objects of the world—content in her remove, autonomous at the center of her austere web.

Immanuel Kant

The original vision of a self detached from its ends and the world, however, was born not in triumph but in grief. Long before Kant, long before the liberal subject of communitarian complaint, there was Montesquieu’s victim, a fragile being severed from its basic goods and the world’s objects. Dispossessed of contingent aims, ends, and desires, the victim was divested of every unique relationship and circumstance that made him who he was. For only after shaving off these distinctive layers of self could the despot act upon a creature of pure physicality.

Despite these differences between the proverbial liberal self, and Montesquieu’s brittle victim of terror, the two figures did share an elusive affinity. Kant’s self may not have been the victim Montesquieu envisioned, but Kant could only think of the self as he did because Montesquieu had redefined terror to be an entirely physical phenomenon. By stripping terror of the emblems of selfhood and by conceiving those emblems as checks against terror, Montesquieu made it possible for subsequent theorists to think of fear, redefined as terror, as an experience unhinged from the life of the mind. If a person were rational or moral, Montesquieu suggested, he was not likely to be found among the terrorized.

Kant picked up on this contrast between terror, on the one hand, and selfhood, on the other, only he turned it in an entirely different direction. Like the despot, Kant sought to strip the self of its contingent features—its particular ends, its attachment to immediate circumstances, its objects of desire. But where the despot uncovered a creature ripe for terror, Kant discovered an agent of moral freedom, a pure good will, attuned solely to the dictates of reason, who could act upon the requirements of duty without the “admixture of sensuous things.” Such a person, Kant believed, would be incapable of fear, precisely because he had been liberated from the things of this world, including his physical self. But where Montesquieu’s stripped-down self was prepared for a descent into hell, Kant’s rose gloriously to the kingdom of ends. Thus was the liberal self conceived in the shadow of terror.

While Sigmund Freud is associated with the twentieth century’s assault on the sunny rationalism that Montesquieu and the Enlightenment supposedly inaugurated, we see here how closely Freud’s worldview paralleled Montesquieu’s, how much Montesquieu anticipated the sensibilities of our own time. (“There is hardly an event of any importance in our recent history,” Hannah Arendt would later write, “that would not fit into the scheme of Montesquieu’s apprehensions.”) Writing after World War I, Freud claimed that the fundamental conflict within men and women was between the instincts of life and death. The life instinct propelled the self out into the world for the sake of sexual and emotional congress, political and social union. The death instinct sought to return the self to a condition of utter stillness and separation, before birth, where the tensions and conflicts associated with life had ceased. What made the death instinct so powerful was the dim memory of the inorganic state that preceded all life. “It must be an old state of things,” Freud wrote, “an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return,” an idea that explained why “the goal of all life is death.” That memory of a prior inorganic state lay behind the human drive toward self-destruction, as evidenced by the World War I: it was why men and women not only traveled toward death, but also sought to advance the pace of the journey.

Sigmund Freud

Montesquieu’s despotic terror was like the death instinct, an adjutant of decomposition, restoring self and society to a primal stillness. Liberal politics, by contrast, was like the life instinct: It sought to put things together, to build up rather than break down. It worked against the coercive impulse to ease oneself back into a lifeless past, and for that reason, was difficult and counterintuitive. Taking something apart is always easier than putting it together, for disassembly returns things to their simplest forms. A liberal polity demanded that its leaders “combine powers, regulate them, temper them, make them act.” It required “a masterpiece of legislation that chance rarely produces.” Despotism, by contrast, “leaps to view.” Where moderate polities required “enlightened” leaders and officials “infinitely more skillful and experienced in public affairs than they are in the despotic state,” despotism settled for the “most brutal passions.”

Hobbes is often considered a more pessimistic theorist of politics than Montesquieu, but it was the Frenchman who truly possessed the more terrifying vision. No matter how absolutist or repressive his Leviathan, Hobbes believed in the indissoluble presence of men and women, of discrete agents whose participation was necessary for the creation of any political world, no matter how frightening. They were confused, vain, and obnoxious, but their recklessness spoke to a more capacious truth—that dissolution was not the way of the world. Montesquieu spoke on behalf of a darker dispensation. For all the evil the despot was supposed to unleash, he was in the end a mere catalyst, setting in motion forces of nature that were far beyond his control and that would ultimately engulf him as well. If there was any genuine actor in Montesquieu’s story of this descent into hell, it was not human beings but the impersonal drive toward nothingness, which forced its way through the most civilized facades and corresponded to the elemental processes of life itself.

Montesquieu’s politics thus bore a peculiar relationship to terror. On the one hand, terror had to be fought, consuming, if necessary, Europe’s entire fund of political energy. On the other hand, terror seemed more real, more in sync with the deep movements of nature, than liberal ideals of moderation and freedom.

But if ought entails can, how could liberalism take up a struggle against such an indefatigable foe? The solution was, first, to localize terror, and, second, to externalize it. Even though terror threatened all polities, particularly monarchies, Montesquieu thought it could be enclosed within one type of regime, despotism, and that a liberal or moderate regime could keep it at bay. For someone who believed that terror was the universal tendency of all political movement, this was an ironic conclusion, overturning centuries of teaching about how fear ought to be managed. Fear had previously been as a problem for all moral beings. Its challenges were universal, its boundaries ethical. Even Montaigne, usually invoked as Montesquieu’s predecessor, believed that though fear was a great “fit,” it could be overcome by recalling one’s “sense of duty and honor.” Montesquieu envisioned the domain of fear along radically different lines. He suggested that terror was a passion with a specific locale, that it could be contained by the concrete borders of a moderate regime. Thus, when Hegel later ended his discussion of African despotism by writing, “We shall therefore leave Africa at this point, and it need not be mentioned again,” he was invoking more than a literary turn of phrase. He was voicing Europe’s new conviction that fear tracked the lines of territorial rather than moral geography.

Hegel’s comment pointed to a second element of Montesquieu’s strategy: his externalization of terror. Though Montesquieu believed much of Europe was heading toward despotism, he depicted terror as lying primarily outside of Europe, particularly in Asia. Montesquieu may not have invented the concept of Oriental despotism, but he gave it a new lease on life, portraying an entire region and people languishing in primitivism and barbarism. Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, one of Montesquieu’s early critics, decried his use of dehumanizing stereotypes, claiming that Montesquieu had so distorted the East, he inadvertently offered a justification for colonialism from the West. A theory designed to denounce despotic terror at home unintentionally provided an excuse for practicing it abroad.

But there was more than crypto-colonialism going on here, for Montesquieu seemed to believe that by situating terror abroad, Europe could escape its effects at home. This may not have been the first time that a writer turned upon the rest of the world for relief from his own, projecting crude stereotypes he secretly feared were true of his native land; it certainly would not be the last.


  1. mordechaigaertner September 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm | #

    What you say here is tremendously important. I have bought your book.

    Thank you!



  2. Wendell Belew September 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm | #

    This is quite good! As my undergraduate degree was in European Cultural and Intellectual History with a focus on political philosophy I know whereof I speak. I also have bought the book.

  3. howard September 28, 2013 at 5:10 pm | #

    How can the postures of Hobbes and Montesquieu be applied to institutions like states and corporations? By treating each like aggregates of people? As Newton applied gravity to heavenly bodies as well (an inexact analogy)? Can we liken institutions to individuals for our purposes of analysis? I imagine Thucydides in his history of the Peleponesian (sorry I don’t have a way of checking the spelling) war, which influenced Hobbes, may have handled that problem.

  4. Jonny Butter September 29, 2013 at 11:32 am | #

    Political fear was no longer to be thought of as a passion bearing an elective affinity to reason; from now on, political fear was to be understood as despotic terror.

    But this can’t be a correct description, since it had already been established that ‘elective affinity’ is ‘hopelessly vague’ (at least when you object to the affinity being proposed). If there’s shadow of a doubt – or even just a shadow of any kind – forget it.

  5. Alto Berto (@AltoBerto) November 21, 2013 at 11:47 pm | #

    It always irks me, as someone who’s worked a fair share of sales jobs including door to door, when people throw in shameless plugs (however cute) even it be on their own damn webpage. after reading this post I was about to ask you for your thoughts on a beautiful, thought provoking article on Monty’s Persian Letters written way back but I couldn’t remember the author. I looked it up and lo and behold look who it was! Seriously no lie. As much as I enjoy your blog it was that publication got you a sale. Keep up the good work.

    • Corey Robin November 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm | #

      Wait, who was the author? I’m confused! Anyway, many thanks for buying the book.

      • Alto Berto (@AltoBerto) November 22, 2013 at 4:02 pm | #

        You are you goof!

        Reflections on Fear: Montesquieu in Retrieval in the APSA <3'd it. At the time I read your post, which reminded me of it but I couldn't recall the writer, and I was going to ask if you'd read it and it turns out you wrote it, lol.

        I'm not a scholar (obviously) but sometimes I peck through the old PoliSci journals they throw out at the local college to see if there's anything interesting. I often find the literary quality to be abnormally high in comparison to other fields, especially so when it's a ramble on the theory of something old-school. PoliSci pubs actually have some real gems for those willing to look and your article was among them.

      • Alto Berto (@AltoBerto) November 22, 2013 at 4:04 pm | #

        Also, I just stumbled onto this whole blogging network of academia that’s popped up on the interwebs these past few years. It’s pretty neat to see scholars stepping out of the cobwebs of campuses and lecture circuits, it’s going to be interesting to see where it all goes. If you guys manage to take over the blogosphere take aim at Jimbo’s Wiki, the SEP proves it’s effective. What information people receive and where they get it matters (especially in a democracy), wikipedia essentially services the Earth and it’s run strictly according to objectivism. Live and let live yadda yadda yadda… but in my book anybody who asks themselves “What Would Roark Do?” and names their kids after Ayn Rand’s characters has no business being in any business of importance.

      • Alto Berto (@AltoBerto) November 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm | #

        Edit: “and **Wales** run it strictly according to objectivism.”

        “writer, I was going”

        -Sorry for the wording poorly, no disrespect meant. On the internets I usually have to edit several times. Comes with the ADHD, aka clinical laziness.

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