Edited by David Deese
Chapter 2: Commerce as communication: Montesquieu’s view
The history of commerce is that of the communication of peoples. (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, 1689–1755) Here is Montesquieu, defining commerce not first as trade, but as communication. Others’ manners and morals are communicated in the act of trade, and Montesquieu means to proclaim the good results. He means, along the way, to excuse and encourage the acquisitive drive natural to individuals, a drive traditionally repressed by the forces of politics, religion, and morality. And so it is against these forces that Montesquieu makes the case that commerce tends to improve morals and incline to peace. It morally shrinks the world, so to speak, averaging behavior across the globe and rendering nations not enemies but reciprocally dependent. Commerce is humanity’s best hope for a “cure” of its “destructive prejudices.” So much and more is for Montesquieu the work of commercial communication. The Spirit of Laws (1748), Montesquieu’s labor of 20 years, appears at a moment when commerce is hardly considered a theme of political science. It comes as something of a surprise, then, that a political philosopher should be so concerned with the subject. It is remarkable, indeed, to find just how many matters reduce for Montesquieu to the commercial.
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