People, nation

Georges Benrekassa


1Can one consider “people” and “nation” as simply two modes of existence of what Hobbes called the body politic, which, definitively surpassing the state of multitude, is to become a civil society, in the classical sense, a politically organized society, the only admissible form of a group of men? Obviously not. It occurs that civitas or commonwealth are translated by “nation”, whereas Hobbes gives them as equivalents of res publica. But it is a debatable definition, and finally makes little sense. The body politic can be a person that represents a sovereignty, and as such can put this juridical existence in continuity with the people, a broad term, that can be only a less precise denomination of civil society, and can refer to other types of opposition: there is populus, and there is plebs. The duality which we envisage raises other problems. In the long run, it should all the same presuppose another type of double manifestation of the same reality, from which one cannot really separate either of these two terms. This double and single reality would be at once the directly political and supposedly collective expression of a project that presupposes a citizenry, but a non-abstract citizenry, anchored in history, and a community that comes from a common culture, taking the word culture in its two senses, anthropological and historical, which would imply moreover in turn, finally if not to begin with, reference to a determinate political identity.

2Montesquieu is perhaps the first to have undertaken a consideration of the two terms in their full context, to have suspected the unavoidable tensions that unite and separate them, and to have made clear their respective characters. He is, in any case, certainly the first to have envisaged the term nation as an historico-political notion to which reflection on the body politic must necessarily refer.

3The word people had by itself, before the Revolution, no immediate value as a political concept; but it invested the philosophical and political culture with a weight of meanings, and meanings such that it fulfilled this function in a non-negligible way. Here we must return to the analysis of its reality and its role in Romans. Between the sovereign which is formally instituted in the sacramental SPQR (Senatus populusque Romanus), the real people confronting the magistrates, and the one that ends up really participating, in the long run, as a whole, in the sovereign thanks to the institution of tribunate power, between the republican people, decisive actor in a certain number of crucial episodes and its return to the state of “plebe” under the princedom (Romans, XV: “[…] the people of Rome, which was called plebs”), there must be found, and this is not easy, a sort of common denominator. That is an enterprise which L’Esprit des lois manages to carry out, beyond the vicissitudes of Roman history, in a fairly coherent way, first through the analysis of the ancient governments, despotic or republican. The people of despotism is not far from the unpredictable and dangerous “populace”, both passive, living outside the laws in a sphere of customs and religion, capable only of violent reactions, and not real actions. The problem of the common denominator, capable of transforming the people, lies there: outside despotism it needs to be transformed, on the basis of social givens, into a political actor with delegated activity. The model was then found in ancient democracy, Athens or Rome, with modalities of tax-based vote by centuries, assemblies, tribes, grouping or confining the rogues into an ensemble with very limited political weight. Books II and XI of L’Esprit des lois give this model very precisely as essential reference. But that can function ideally only through a moral police – censorship – and an autoregulation which preserves the order and force of the patria: if there is no common “nation” evoked here, there is a decisive importance of that lived unity. Thus “the people could not make up its mind to elect the plebeians whom it had given itself the right to elevate to functions” (“le peuple ne pouvait se résoudre à élire les plébéiens qu’il s’était donné le droit d’élever aux charges”). Under the republic, even the knights (the future disgraced publicans) were a middle order that united the people with the senate (XI, 8). For it was the senate that was the principal and legitimate actor, which indeed had to allow the people to exist, by making it play an optimal role in a coherence of the whole.

4From there, Montesquieu clearly raises the problem of modern times, which must find an equivalent to the senate’s strength: the great vice of the ancient republics was “the right for the people to take active resolutions” (“le droit pour le peuple d’y prendre des résolutions actives”, XI, 6); and if the English government succeeds, that is because it is a government in which the people does not have “immediate power” (XIX, 27). The representative regime is well characterized in its function; it already was, moreover, in book II. The people is admirable for designating its representatives, for entrusting its virtual political power to those who exercise a real political power, without an imperative mandate. It would take great stupidity to imagine that one can chide the lord of La Brède for these views, by arguing moreover that it is unimaginable that a political place be made for the lowest ranks, “that sort of folk who have been abandoned in all eras” (“cette sorte de gens qu’on a abandonnés dans tous les âges”): “[…] in the government, even a popular one, the power must not fall into the hands of the lowest classes” (“[…] dans le gouvernement, même populaire, la puissance ne doit point tomber entre les mains du bas peuple”, XV, 18). What we owe to Montesquieu is to have been the first really to recognize bluntly the real problems of the interminable transformation over two centuries of the term people into a political concept and value.

5The status and value of the term nation, the object of so much attention and reflection, pose quite different problems, once weak and passing uses to designate various collectives are put aside. We shall see that they assume all their interest not only in themselves, but if we confront them with those raised by the term people. Montesquieu’s commentators, until the importance of book XIX of L’Esprit des lois was finally evaluated in the 20th century, rather neglected this question, which is capital from several viewpoints: within the work, and to understand it in its political context.

6It is in book XIX, after the books devoted to climate – in truth, to the conditions of servitude – that the historical and theoretical perspectives find a common terminus. The analysis of the notion of general spirit of a nation, lengthily honed especially since the Essai sur les causes, present since the Persian Letters (61 [63] and 88 [90]), formulated several times in the Pensées, allows us to answer a problem relative to the overall systematics of L’Esprit des lois. It was assuredly to cut short reductive interpretations that Montesquieu in the Défense de L’Esprit des lois, under the article “Climate”, reduces his argument to a banality: “The whole question comes down to whether in widely separated countries, under different climates, there are characters of national spirit” (“Toute la question se réduit à savoir si dans des pays éloignés entre eux, si sous des climats différents, il y a des caractères d’esprit nationaux”, OC, t. VII, p. 94). The matter is far more important than that. Governments have a principle that keeps them alive, but they also have historical realities – and up to a point, “natural” ones – in which that principle can develop. We cannot understand them exclusive of the manner in which, each time differently, physical, moral, historical, and cultural conditions enter into the composition of “general spirit”: “Several things govern men: the climate, religion, laws, maxims of government, the examples of things past, the mores, manners; whence is formed a general spirit, which results from them” (“Plusieurs choses gouvernent les homes : le climat, la religion, les lois, les maximes du gouvernement, les exemples des choses passées, les mœurs, les manières; d’où il se forme un eprit général, qui en résulte”, XIX, 4).

7It is indeed here that we can fully understand how capital formulas of the preface also take on a sense different from that of a prudent political wisdom (“Each nation will find here the reasons for its maxims” [“Chaque nation trouvera ici les raisons de ses maximes”]; “The prejudices of the magistrates began by being the prejudices of the nation” [“Les préjugés des magistrats ont commencé par être les préjugés de la nation”]). But the nations are not a “given”, an attribute of nature, the privileged locus for the study of the meeting of all sorts of factors, conjugated in various forms of mutual causality. And the question of the legislator must be posed in other terms. They are a space in which a political existence is possible and is realized in specific conditions. But their concrete existence no longer has a character as absolutely determinant as the climate. The model of relation government/nation is obviously in the relations closely studied between chapters 6 of book XI (the constitution) and 27 of book XIX (the general spirit of the English nation). Theoretically, the detail of book XIX places essential limits on any determinant fatality by privileging the political, and book XXIX will confirm them. A nation falsely unified, fixed, in all the aspects of its social existence – laws, mœurs and manners – is condemned to a sort of historical mummification: such is the case of China (XIX, 14). Whence two rules between which one must decide. “It is up to the legislator to follow the spirit of the nation when it is not contrary to the principles of the government” (XIX, 5). And, correlatively or even reciprocally, book XXIX (ch. 13) will give for maxim to the legislator not to have the ambition of changing through political laws, moreover closely tied to the civil laws, the social life of a “nation”. The capital role of the idea of nation in the search for limits as well as effective paths of political action clearly appears.

8There is another aspect of the valorization of entities, and no longer national identities, which depends at once on the development of the problematics of the law of peoples renewed by the philosophers of natural law, and on capital considerations for Montesquieu of the conditions of the modern world – after the new discoveries and colonial expansions – and those of a harmonious and pacified existence of Europe. Montesquieu refuses what was then called “Hobbism between nations”. Letter 91 [94] of the Persian Letters positioned itself in the line of Grotius. Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle posited as the basis of a pacific European balance a relation based on law and the equity of exchanges: “The nations which are with respect to the whole world what individuals are in a state, govern themselves as they do by natural law and by the laws which they have made for themselves” (“Les nations, qui sont à l’égard de tout l’univers ce que les particuliers sont dans un État, se gouvernent comme eux par le droit naturel et par les lois qu’elles se sont faites”, EL, XXI, 21). Chapter 1 of book XXVI will pick up the same formulas: there is a “civil law” of the world, each people being a citizen. Books IX and X on the use and legitimacy of defensive force and offensive force concern not only this question, but the formation of new entities, confederations and colonies, the importance of which in a new dynamics of nationalities beginning in the 18th century does not escape him (“I believe that is some nation is abandoned by its colonies, it will start with the English nation” [“Je crois que si quelque nation est abandonnée de ses colonies, cela commencera par la nation anglaise”], Notes sur l’Angleterre, OC, t. X, p. 504). Finally, books XX and XXI (and in particular XXI, 21) on trade are ordered in function of a reconsideration of the world space after the expansion of the European discoveries (“the discovery of two new worlds”), to analyze the upsetting of the European national balances, and, in a sense, the extension of national ensembles by the commercial colonial monopolies.

9It remains to characterize the political implications of this considerable place granted to nations. Nation is a term which is at the core of major political conflicts, determining in the crisis of monarchical absolutism. D’Argenson in his Mémoires et journal had noted that “never have the names nation and state been repeated like today” [“jamais l’on n’avait répété les noms de nation et d’État comme aujourd’hui”]; and he adds: “These two names were never uttered under Louis XIV, and no one even had a notion of them. We have never been so instructed as today in the rights of the nation and freedom” (“Ces deux noms ne se prononçaient jamais sous Louis XIV, et l’on n’en avait pas seulement l’idée. On n’a jamais été si instruit qu’aujourd’hui des droits de la nation et de la liberté”, D’Argenson, Mémoires et journal, Paris: Renouard, 1859-1867, t. VIII, p. 315). His judgment is clearly linked to the major institutional and, in a certain way, constitutional conflict which troubled the France of Louis XV through the peripeteia of the parlementary and Jansenist opposition. When the monarch proclaims in 1766 that he has “vowed not to the nation as [the parlementaries of Rouen] dare say, but to God alone” (“fait serment non pas à la nation comme [les parlementaires de Rouen] osent le dire, mais à Dieu seul”), he repeats a traditional position of monarchical absolutism already expressed in peremptory fashion by Louis XIV, in a formula that goes well beyond the reigning-in of the parlements and concerns the foundation of sovereignty: “The rights and interests of the Nation, of which they dare to make a body separate from the monarch, are necessarily joined with mine, and rest solely in my hands” (“Les droits et les intérêts de la Nation, dont on ose faire un corps séparé du monarque, sont nécessairement unis avec les miens, et ne reposent qu’en mes mains”; see Jean Egret, Louis XV et l’opposition parlementaire, Paris: Armand Colin, 1970, p. 172, and Daniel Roche, La France des Lumières, Paris: Fayard, 1993, p. 229). One cannot emphasize enough how Montesquieu, as a theoretician of intermediary bodies, distances himself from the parlementary rhetoric of the represented nation freely developed against monarchical pretensions. What the parlementary defenders of the “nation” were trying to bring back to life in the heart of absolutism by the bias of recalling fundamental laws has its place in the framework of a very different political theorization.

10We can thus return for a moment, and by reference to this precise political and social position, to the growing fortune of the term people, concurrently with that of nation, and to what for a while cast Montesquieu’s analysis into the background. The people, tied to the patria and not to the pagus, was to become an original matrix for a new idea of the nation, and this completely outside of Montesquieu’s perspective – and that in rather contemporary fashion. In the article “Patrie” of the Encyclopédie, Jaucourt was to cite at length the already old dissertation of abbé Coyer on the nature of the people, doubly characterized by its carnal proximity with the patrie, thanks to a community of belonging that comes from its historical evolution which gave birth to its other modern characteristic: the priority link with the world of labor of workers and “laborers”. It is as if the formation of a “judicial nobility” linked to the venality of offices, the privileges of financiers, and even the constitution of a nobility descended from rich merchants had dissociated an original people, where royalty, military aristocracy and working mass – workers and “laborers”– lived in a natural and regular exchange. Today, only the latter make up the “peuple”. And so it is that people and nation become pregnant with a new conflictual relation, which incorporates Montesquieu’s thought in a certain way, and also helps see it in perspective.


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