In Search of the Rational Anti-Racist, part 2: Montesquieu

Montesquieu, unlike Hume and Kant, was a defender of slavery – of so it appears:

Were I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the negroes, these should be my arguments:

The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans, for clearing such vast tracts of land.

Sugar would be too dear if the plants which produce it were cultivated by any other than slaves.

These creatures are all over black, and with such a flat nose that they can scarcely be pitied.

It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body.

It is so natural to look upon colour as the criterion of human nature, that the Asiatics, among whom eunuchs are employed, always deprive the blacks of their resemblance to us by a more opprobrious distinction.

The colour of the skin may be determined by that of the hair, which, among the Egyptians, the best philosophers in the world, was of such importance that they put to death all the red-haired men who fell into their hands.

The negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their wanting common sense?

It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.

Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans. For were the case as they state it, would the European powers, who make so many needless conventions among themselves, have failed to enter into a general one, in behalf of humanity and compassion?

The alert reader will have noticed several clues, beginning with the initial use of the subjunctive mood, that Montesquieu is being satirical here. He is in fact an opponent of slavery, but not an unqualified opponent. He distinguishes two kinds of slavery, that in despotisms, justified by the general lack of freedom of all men in despotisms, and that of the inhabitants of very hot climates, i.e. negros, justified by the laziness of such inhabitants (a laziness also noted by Kant).

There is another origin of the right of slavery, and even of the most cruel slavery which is to be seen among men.

There are countries where the excess of heat enervates the body, and renders men so slothful and dispirited that nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcilable to reason; and the master being as lazy with respect to his sovereign as his slave is with regard to him, this adds a political to a civil slavery.

Aristotle endeavours to prove that there are natural slaves; but what he says is far from proving it. If there be any such, I believe they are those of whom I have been speaking.

But Montesquieu immediately qualifies this with his general disapproval of slavery, which he bases on a natural equality of all men:

But as all men are born equal, slavery must be accounted unnatural, though in some countries it be founded on natural reason; and a wide difference ought to be made between such countries, and those in which even natural reason rejects it, as in Europe, where it has been so happily abolished.

Plutarch, in the Life of Numa, says that in Saturn’s time there was neither slave nor master. Christianity has restored that age in our climates.

Montesquieu’s anti-racist credentials rest on that statement (later picked up by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence) that all men are born equal. He does not, however, clarify in what sense he means they are equal. He certainly never endorses racial egalitarianism.

Montesquieu boasts that in Europe, tasks once thought too degrading for any but a slave (mining is one of his examples) are performed by free labor. It seems an odd way to praise European freedom, to point out that free men now do what only slaves did before, but Montesquieu is quite serious. Since he believes that

The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel.

he hopes that free men might do even the harshest labor throughout the world; however, he wonders if this is merely a sentimental dream:

I know not whether this article be dictated by my understanding or by my heart. Possibly there is not that climate upon earth where the most laborious services might not with proper encouragement be performed by freemen. Bad laws having made lazy men, they have been reduced to slavery because of their laziness.

In sum, Montesquieu believes the Negro’s chief fault to be laziness, the causes of which are hot climate and bad government. His suggestion that the negro lacks intelligence is in a satirical context. On the other hand, he never claims the contrary. I thus award Montesquieu half credit in rational anti-racism. On the other hand, the SPLC would probably describe Montesquieu as a “white supremacist paleo-nazi” and his writings as “despicable racist screeds,” but there you are.

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About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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