News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Shklar on Fear/Cruelty

Friday, March 17, 2006

Shklar on Fear/Cruelty

In this early essay on the French philosopher Montaigne, Judith Shklar presents the bare outline for what she'd later call a Liberalism "of fear." That phrase is a bit deceptive since it seems to say that Liberals should be fearful. Yes, they should--fearful of instilling fear in others, about others and themselves.

In the essay on Montaigne, she makes clear that the Liberalism of Fear is really about understanding how many ways humans have of being cruel to others. Either through religion, politics, or other means, humans have a bevy of mechanisms by which they can deceive themselves into believing that cruelty is the best policy. ...

Concluding her essay on Montaigne and cruelty, Shklar summarizes both Montaigne and his later disciple Montesqieu:

When one begins with cruelty, an enormous gap between private and public life seems to open up. It begins with the exposure of the feebleness and pettiness of the reasons offered for public enormities, and goes on to a sense that governments are unreal and remote from the actualities about which they appear to talk. It is not that private life is better than public: both are equally cruel. It is rather that one has a sense of the incoherence and discontinuity of private and public experience. Montesquieu thought that it was impossible that the good man and the good citizen should ever be the same. The two were inherently incompatible. The demands of social life and those of personal morality are simply different. This may cause us much unhappiness, but it cannot be altered. "It is one of the misfortunes of the human condition," he wrote, using Montaigne's celebrated phrase, that "legislators must act more upon society than upon the citizens, and more upon the citizens than upon men."[xxi] He did not despair, because he believed that, on the whole, we can control our public life more effectively than our personal characters. The climate works directly upon us, and while its effects can be modified by forcing us into specific social directions, we do not as individuals really change. The English have an excellent constitution, are solid citizens, but perfectly awful people. They also suffer from incurable melancholia and suicidal tendencies. Laws can make collective life better or worse, but each of us is fundamentally unalterable, and morality is, at some point, a personal matter. He was in fact moved to optimism by believing politics and morality were wholly dissimilar, because laws made social reform possible without demanding a moral revolution that would be both impossible and tyrannical in the extreme.

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