Ming CHONG: Politics, religion and modernity in French liberalism from Montesquieu to Tocqueville. First presentation: Nature and history in Montesquieu’s political thought

On The December 9, 2019

10h00 to 12h00
26, Place Bellecour - 69002 Lyon
Salle de réunion - Allée A - 1er étage

This presentation, based on the first chapter of Ming Chong's project, is an analysis of nature and history in Montesquieu's thought. History is the main tool in the knowledge of modernity for Montesquieu. He is not, however, an historian or a positivist because he measures the history by the nature or the universal principles. Yet, the nature of the human being shows three aspects in Montesquieu. The interactions and tensions between the physical nature, the moral nature and the social nature illustrated by history are the key to understanding both the diversity and the universality of humanity. They also shed light on the legitimacy and ambiguity of modernity presented by Montesquieu.

In my research project on modern French liberalism, I study how thinkers such as Montesquieu, Madame de Stael, Benjamin Constant, Francois Guizot and Alexis de Tocqueville developed thoughts on politics and religion in order to build a free and moral modern society. Anxious to defend justice and the legitimacy of modernity, they were no less vigilant to the fact that a society composed of individuals could be hedonistic, fragmented, conflictual and weak, and thus facilitate the rise of an authoritarian and even despotic state. As they developed constitutionalism to protect individuals and oversee sovereignty, they relied on political freedom to cultivate civic virtue and turn the individual into a citizen attached to the common good. They also sought to build a balanced relationship between religion and politics to overcome the theological-political conflict that was tearing apart modern Europe. Considered by them as an element of human nature, religion, which should be reformed to accept tolerance and separation from political power, could contribute to the overcoming of individualism and materialism and become a supporter of light, democracy and freedom.

Ming CHONG is associate professor in the History Department at the University of Pékin. His research focuses on intellectual and political history of modern France.