Working Papers

Not Quite Secular: Montesquieu on the Political Utility of Faith

Is religion a useful or dangerous feature of political life? This paper analyzes an argument made by Montesquieu, a liberal philosopher whose writings were highly influential in the American founding. Montesquieu contends, in Book 24 and 25 of The Spirit of the Laws, that the moral and political effects of a religion depends on its doctrines. Such a claim links faith closely to mores. In other words, doctrine as doctrine cannot simply be expelled from the political realm – each article of faith must be weighed in the balance of political utility. Montesquieu therefore seems to reject Pierre Bayle’s famous defense of a society of moral atheists. At the same time Montesquieu quietly argues that these doctrines are often matters of indifference, and suggests that some key Christian doctrines – in particular – are less than salutary. This paper brings out this tension in Montesquieu’s thought, a tension that reveals why Montesquieu fails to go along with Pierre Bayle’s more radical enlightenment secularism.

On the Original Goodness of Work

The moral status of work is a central concern of political theory. From Aristotle to Marx, philosophers have expressed unique interest in the goodness and potential limitations of work, on both the levels of theory and practice. In addition, much discontent with the liberal-democratic way of life can be traced to a loss of faith in work.
This paper discusses the origins and nature of work in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Against the idea that Scripture and the ecumenical Christian traditions view work as a particular curse on humankind, this paper argues that the Genesis account, as well as influential interpreters of that account, depict work as good in its original condition – both in its focal meaning (God’s work) and for human beings. Yet as with every human institution, work is subject to the fall. To wit, work is not a curse, but has indeed been cursed. This paper begins with a textual analysis of Genesis, proceeds to arguments given by St. Augustine on the original goodness of work and its subsequent corruption in the fall, and concludes with reflections on the political significance of vocation.