The Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) has been among the most influential modern political treatises, not least in the United States. Montesquieu’s discussion of the “separation of powers” proved crucial for James Madison’s own constructive thinking about the American Constitution. The Spirit of the Laws, however, also contains an extended and detailed investigation of the critical role of climate in influencing a nation’s moral character, social life, and political culture. For Montesquieu, cultures order their lives by certain virtues because of the demands of place.
Some of Montesquieu’s speculations have long been viewed at best as fantastical and at worst as racist: for instance, his contention that equatorial peoples are more “indolent” than their northern counterparts, and hence more prone to quiescence before tyrannical subjugation. More recently, however, there has been a new interest in Montesquieu’s socio-climatic theories, fueled in part by an appreciation for his pioneering concern with the “material conditions” of social order. Geographic influences on political character are being studied anew. (The work of Lisa Jené, née Piergallini, offers a good example.) And in a world preoccupied by climate change, Montesquieu’s work on the macro-economic consequences of geography can look distinctly prescient. But there has been little scrutiny of the ethical and religious aspects of Montesquieu’s theory.
Take the British: Montesquieu considered them to be afflicted, through their colder, wetter, and frequently shifting climate, with an unstable personality. Though Montesquieu calls it literally a “sickness” (maladie), the frequent English translation of “distemper” is rather nice. The British, he says, are never satisfied, are disgusted by everything, and are always in some kind of “pain.” They are, he notes, apt to commit suicide “for no reason at all,” unlike those in calmer cultures of self-murder such as the Romans. In chapter 13 of Book 14, his conclusion is clear:
Politics are a smooth file, which cuts gradually, and attains its end by a slow progression. Now, the people of whom we have been speaking are incapable of bearing the delays, the details, and the coolness, of negotiations: in these they are more unlikely to succeed than any other nation.
What the British need, then, are “laws” that do not change, that somehow persist in their weighty demand above the flightiness of individual caprice, and that can thereby steer this otherwise agitated and fragmented nation along courses of steady prudence and reason.
The British climate, in this case, breeds by reactive necessity a kind of political patience, through the invention of, as it were, transcendent laws. Certainly cultures can form their members differently with respect to what the English Bible has called “long-suffering.” Montesquieu, for instance, thought satire could be a sort of pressure-valve for popular discontent, encouraging subjects to suffer patiently under monarchs. And northern cultures tend, naturally, toward impatience for lack of creative controls, like a superordinate rule of law. In any case, our American setting certainly provides a “climate” of impatience. Whether or not temperature is the main factor, taken as a whole, there is a network of influences that have conspired to make us deeply impatient with anything important. One might well note Montesquieu’s description of the British propensity to “always be in pain.” Whether or not caused by climate, cultures certainly manifest this condition.
There exist, furthermore, whole religions—not just polities or cultures—of impatience. “Where is the promise of his coming?” This demand would set the tone for numerous Christian cries for ecclesial upheaval, from Montanism to Thomas Müntzer and beyond. Norman Cohn’s studies, such as the influential The Pursuit of the Millennium, have traced some of the ways in which messianic impatience has shaped our cultural climate well beyond specifically theological spheres.
Montesquieu’s insight regarding the impatience-taming of transcendent law is worth considering. Impatience itself is linked to certain experiences and evaluations of time. In a culture, like America’s, where “time is money,” and production is tabulated according to temporally calibrated outputs—lawyers are but the symbol for a more widespread paradigm of “billable hours”—we tend to measure our lives according to a calculus of scarcity. This is, according to Montesquieu, the British burden. But they find relief, for they have a “law” that transcends their agitated travails.
There is, of course, a law that is even more rest-giving: the law of God, which by definition must rise above our weights and measures of meaning. An ethical climatologist will discover hope just here. Only God puts value on our time, assesses it, and finally declares it. Because one day is a thousand years for him, and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet. 3:8), the transcendent calculus of our lives and efforts is decoupled from the limited contingencies and transitory extent that drive our restless anxieties. As St. Peter writes, where human beings see only “slowness” or “slackness” in the fulfillment of his promises, God enacts “long-suffering to us-ward” (2 Pet. 3:9), not aimlessly, but for the sake of our “repentance.” The Divine Law revalues our lives, using what we experience as delay to order us toward a humble asking for forgiveness. Such penitence becomes the stuff of human patience itself.
Whether the British of Montesquieu’s era were more penitent than others is doubtful, though the great framer of British culture, The Book of Common Prayer, was suffused with a penitential spirit. It is no longer so. The modern religious climate change, with its rising tides of psycho-social confusion, its furious storms of economic resentment, its droughts of adoration and famines for the Word of God, has pressured Anglicans to rid their prayer books of the language of penitence. We are told that the revisions, with their acclamations of new worlds and possibilities, encourage greater hope and an affirmative rather than dour spirit, and this will help us make the earth a better place. But what we see instead is impatience unbound, a widespread maladie of the spirit.
Montesquieu rejected any universal politics, including liberalism. The diversity of human culture and history and the variety of particular conditions, including climate, resist any single form of government. So long as the fundamental character of human nature is respected, any number of political structures might properly serve a people. As Keegan Callanan has described Montesquieu’s thinking, “When a political form makes of a man something less than a man, it places itself outside the circle of decent regimes.” And imposed liberal polities, like any despotism, can degrade and finally destroy the human spirit in its natural depth. Better to seek a regime “moderately” constructed to reflect and engage the particularities of a people and place. Regime change may be desirable, but only within the limits of particular forms of popular life.
In our age, as in others, changing whole climates is not possible without despotism or catastrophe, natural or cultural. How then might we change our great culture of impatience, which is hurtling down the ravine of suicidal confusion? We can take our cues from those environmentalists who speak of local changes, aimed at transforming “micro-climates,” and so mitigating the grip of larger factors bearing down on us: nurturing wetlands, encouraging and protecting urban tree canopies, carving out and maintaining greenbelts, and managing urban sprawl. Taken together, some believe, such small efforts refashion the larger climate over time.
“Over time” is precisely the category in doubt these days. There is never enough time, it seems, because time is our enemy; and time seems to be our enemy because we suspect it is not ours in the first place. The Christian churches should know better. Time belongs to God. And churches are the micro-climates of today’s cultures. There is today no other group of people among whom the transcendent Law of God can be recognized, articulated, taught, cherished, and, of course, taken to heart and followed. The patience of the churches under God’s dominion is the seed of human conversion, and hence of change, whatever change God will grant us.
For this reason, I believe that catechesis is today the main task of our Christian communities—priests, pastors, bishops, laity. We need the steady, focused labor of teaching the Scriptures in their entirety and particularity, demonstrating and enacting the commands—the Transcendent Law—of God, clarifying and indicating the life of God in Christ in its particular forms and words. Just that. Theological reflection, upgraded worship, programs of self-improvement, and social campaigns must remain secondary, clearly subordinated to the catechetical imperative. Catechesis is the micro-climate of patience, and patience is what opens us to God’s own time and timing, to what God gives. “You have set all the boundaries of the earth. You have made summer and winter” (Ps. 74:17). Whatever our spiritual climate—hot, cold, distempered, indolent, passionate, asleep—what God gives is just what we need.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.