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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the enlightenment of strategy vs. the enlightenment of the Absolute


In 1822, Stendhal’s master, Destutt de Tracy, published Condorcet’s notes on the 29th book of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. Condorcet’s objections to Montesquieu voice the protest emitted by the revolutionaries at the end of the Enlightenment period against the first Enlightenment generation. Within intellectual history, the French revolution was mounted not simply against what the revolutionaries called ‘feudalism’, but also against the first Enlightenment generation, those who were celebrated, later, in Michelet’s history of the Regency. The revolutionary generation was already thinking in terms of the universalism for which the codex was The Phenomenology of the Spirit. The force of Condorcet’s objections are summed up in the comment on Chapter IV, The laws which shock the views of the legislator: “How is it that in The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu never speaks of the justice or injustice of the laws that he cites, but only of the motives that he attributes to these laws? Whiy doesn’t he establish any principle for distinguishing, among the laws emitted by a legitimate power, those which are unjust and those which are in conformity to justice? Why, in the spirit of the laws, is there never any question of the nature of the right to property, of its consequences, its extension, its limits?” (281 – my translation)

What Condorcet is complaining about is what I would call the Enlightenment of strategy – for the relativism of the Enlightenment thinkers (Condorcet goes on to blast the conclusions Montesquieu draws from the history of a ‘few Greek villages”) is a strategist’s relativism. In one sense, one can draw a line (unexpectedly enough) from Montesquieu to Foucault, and gather the same type of criticism of the latter as the former – where are the absolutes? Where are the universals?

Where does this strategic thought come from? In Montesquieu’s case, one wants to say, obviously Machiavelli. But I have an idea that, more broadly, the analysis of law as strategy is connected to the Leibnizian idea of the best of all possible worlds.

The image in the Theodicee is striking. In a letter to Sophie Volland in which Diderot describes an evening he spent with Grimm and the Abbe Galiani (the repartee of which he describes in the letter – “dear friend, I think that our babbling besides the fireplace is something that always amuses you, and so I followed it”), the three began to speak of original sin and whether man merits the pain he suffers in the world.

“On these occasions, what is the party of good sense? This, my friend, which we took. Whatever the optimists say, if the world could not exist without sensible beings, nor the sensible beings without pain, it had only to remain at rest. It could have gone on an eternity without committing that stupidity.

The world, a stupidity? Oh, my friend, a beautiful stupidity nonetheless! It is, according to the inhabitants of Malabar, one of the seventy four comedies that the Eternal amuses itself with.

Leibniz, the founder of optimism, also as great as a poet as he was deep as a philosopher, recounts somewhere that there was in a temple in Memphis a high pyramid made of globes stacked one on the other; and that a preacher, questioned by a traveler about this pyramid and the globes, responded that this was all the worlds possible, and that the most perfect was at the summit. And that the traveler, curious to see up close the most perfect of worlds, mounted to the height of the pyramid, and that the first thing that struck his eyes, glued to the top globe, was Tarquin raping Lucretia.” (my translation, 271)

In the perfect world of the strategic Enlightenment, there was, cosmically, no Pareto optimum outcome. Perfection was entirely a principle of construction. The wedding of optimism and horror – repulsive to the romantics – was, for the Enlightenment strategists, the principle that Condorcet failed to see in Montesquieu – with the latter’s penchant for anthropological anecdotes.

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