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The Discovery of Society

Margaret Thatcher once famously suggested that there was no such thing as society - in fact, the 17th-19th century developed a line of thinking in which society became recognised and distinguished for the first time. Moreover, the things that Thatcher did admit existed, individuals and families, came increasingly to be seen, not as the building blocks of society, but as its product. This has a long course of development, but we can see the start of this line of thinking in the increasing awareness, in Mandeville, the Tatler and Spectator, and in a range of other early 18th century texts, then in the extremely influential work of Montesquieu, for whom individual. society and government become dramatically interlinked, through to the developing view that society is aan emerging dimension of human interaction which has a logic and rythym of its own, which, by the later part of the century has become a complete stadial theory of social and political development rooted in production and economic relations.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, (1689-1755, was a judicial magistrate and member of the Bourdeaux parlement. In 1721 he published his Persian Letters which was an enormous success.He spent 1721-25 in Paris - and spent 1727-1730 travelling in Europe, staying about 18 months in England where he became a freemason. His most important work L'esprit des lois was published in 1748. His Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence was published in 1734. This, and his reflections on Universal Monarchy in Europe are well worth reading.


For Montesquieu see: opens in a new windowLink opens in a new window

His essay on Universal Monarchy is [mont_univ_mon_eng.pdf]here

For Persian Letters -there are a number of on-line editions - but the ordering of the material does vary between editions, and additional letters were added to later editions - so you need care if you are trying to identify particular letters by their number - eg:

For the class this week please read:

Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws: Bks 1-3, Book 7, Bk 11 and 12; Bk 19

and at least one of the following:

Pages 478-487 (Smith on Stadial Theory), and 488-97 (Millar on Rank) in Alexander Brodie, The Scottish Enlightenment: An anthology (avaliable here and here Link opens in a new window)

Questions to consider

What type of explanation is Montesquieu offering of the basis for the stability of states.

How far does he think that the individual is shaped wholy by the social and political order they inhabit.

What does this mean for his idea of liberty (books 11 and 12) - and corruption (book 8) and designing better institutions (bk 19)

What is 'stadial' theory? What place did it occupy in Scottish Enlightenment thought?

What are the stages of history as charactized by Millar and Smith?

What is the relationship in Millar's theory between economic change and authority? How does Millar link stadial theory to his account of changing conceptions of the position of women?

How systematic is the thinking of these writers - and how far does it seem wholly ad hoc? And what do you think they thought they were doing?

Suggested secondary reading

Judith Shklar, Montesquieu: Past Master (Oxford)

A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton)

Nicholas Miller, John Millar and the Scottish Enlightement (2017)

Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, Wealth and virtue : the shaping of political economy in the Scottish enlightenment (1983) - avail as an ebook

Alexander Brodie, The Scottish Enlightenment (1997)

Christopher Berry, The idea of commercial society in the Scottish Enlightenment (2013) - avail as an ebook