Montesquieu on Education in Republics and Despotisms

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While Charles de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws was an oft-cited source during the federal convention of 1787, his observations weren’t limited to the balance of powers in government. He also touched on the nature of educational systems in republics and despotisms.

Parents and educators form our first impressions. They prepare people for civil life in republics and for servitude in despotisms. From previous chapters, Montesquieu had explained the springs, the forces which propel nations. Public Virtue is the propellant in republics, while the bayonet of fear prods despotisms.

Education in despotic countries debases the mind. The mind of the despot and his slaves are made servile, for both fear and are enslaved to each other. Excessive obedience presupposes ignorance in the person that obeys. The tyrant is also beset by ignorance because he has little need to deliberate, to doubt or to reason. All he has is will.

Every home in despotic states is its own little government; its education is limited to filling hearts with fear and a little religion. Actual learning is dangerous, for its emulation outside the home is fatal. Montesquieu agrees with Aristotle that slaves are without virtue. Education here is practically pointless, for it cannot work toward forming a good citizen. Actual citizens refuse to share in public misery, and as patriots, they will work to relax the springs of despotic government. If they fail, they are dead. If they succeed, they expose themselves, the prince and the country to ruin.

Republican education lifts the heart as well as mind. Virtue, which Montesquieu defines as “love of country” permits men to promote public prosperity, peace of mind, and independence. Love of country translates into love of laws; such love requires a constant preference of public over private interest. Love of country is the source of all private virtues; for they are nothing more than this very preference itself. Such love is peculiar to republics. In these alone the government is entrusted to private citizens. In this sense, republican government is like any other earthly creation or possession; in order to preserve it, we must love it.

Everything therefore depends on establishing this love in a republic. To inspire it ought to be the principal business of education, and the surest way of instilling it into children is for parents to set the example. Parents have it generally in their power to communicate their ideas to their children; but they are better able to transfuse their passions. If it happens otherwise, it is because the impressions made at home are effaced by those they have received elsewhere.

Young people do not degenerate; if they are corrupted, it done by those of mature years already sunk in corruption.

American taxpayers direct enormous sums toward government schools. To what purpose? Do schools uplift or debase? How many promote love of country? Does government promote or discourage the foundation of republics: two-parent families which form the next generation’s first impressions?

Montesquieu, Charles de. The Spirit of the Laws, Translated by Thomas Nugent., 2010. Book. Pgs 49-51.