Montesquieu’s Teaching on the Dangers of Extreme Corrections: Japan, the Catholic Inquisition, and Moderation in The Spirit of the Laws
by Nathaniel Gilmore, University of Toronto, Vickie B. Sullivan, Tufts University
Explicitly and implicitly in The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu binds together the Japanese who persecute Christians and the Inquisitors of Catholicism who persecute heretics. In seeking purity, both sets of vehement reformers impose atrocious punishments. In so binding the abuses of the East and West together, the work is an expression neither of Orientalism nor of Eurocentrism conventionally understood. Although Montesquieu thus offers a critical approach to Europe’s vulnerability to reformers who go to extremes, whether pious zealots who seek to perpetuate Christianity or zealous Enlightenment philosophes who would seek to eradicate it, many commentators have focused on the work’s apparent neutrality with regard to the various cultural phenomena it examines. The key to understanding Montesquieu’s reserved tone lies in his commitment to moderation. Given the West’s continuing vulnerability to extremism of various types, Montesquieu’s moderate teaching on the need for moderation in corrections remains pressingly relevant.