In a time where freedom and democracy are debated in different ways, from health issues to ethnical ones, from historical perspectives to philosophical ones, Montesquieu’s reflections on the spirit of equality being very different from the spirit of extreme equality could contribute significantly to the current debates.
Montesquieu was a french political philosopher who lived in the XVIIth century and wrote a world famous book called The Spirit of the Laws published in 1750 where he states the following:
“As far as the sky is from the earth, so far is the true spirit of equality from the spirit of extreme equality. The former consist neither in making everyone command nor in making no one command, but in obeying and commanding one’s equals. It seeks not to have no master but to have only one’s equal for masters.
In the state of nature, men are born in equality, but they cannot remain so. Society makes them lose their equality, and they become equal again only through the laws.
The difference between the democracy that is regulated and the one that is not is that, in the former, one is equal only as a citizen and, in, the latter, one is also equal as a magistrate, senator, judge, father, husband or master.
The natural place of virtue is with liberty, but virtue can no more be found with extreme liberty than with servitude”.
To put simply what the philosopher points at in this reading is showing that it is not a specific common job that enables people to call themselves equals but the simple fact that they are citizens of the same nation.
Thus, Montesquieu points out interestingly that an excess of democracy – or possibly a demand of an excess of it – can lead to the same results than a system that keeps everyone deprived of rights.
So it is in acceptance of a common system, of a rule of law, that equality can be found, albeit letting other categories unruled by egalitarian systems in order to let people recognise their common nature from simply form their human experience.
In this view, only in acceptance and good management of diversity, lies the possibility of a properly functioning democracy.
Charles Louis Secondat de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (edited by A. Cohler, B. Miller, H. Stone), Book VIII, Chapter Three, Cambridge University Press, 1989.