Overcoming Abuse: Montesquieu and Dostoevsky’s shared thesis

by Meredith Sherman

mentor: Vickie Sullivan, Political Science; funding source: Tufts Summer Scholars Fund


Individuality requires that human institutions be free from the degrading influence of abuse and oppression. The French Enlightenment philosopher, Montesquieu, espouses this thesis in his The Spirit of the Laws. And it is echoed by the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, a hundred years later in both his journal and novels. This project aimed to investigate the impact of Montesquieu’s philosophy on the works of Dostoevsky, uncovering and evaluating sources of indirect and direct influence. Determining Montesquieu’s impact on Dostoevsky both fills a present gap in scholarship and has the potential to shape contemporary interpretations of both authors.

The title of my project is Overcoming Abuse: Montesquieu and Dostoevsky’s shared thesis. In my understanding, the political ideas that Montesquieu originates and Dostoevsky manifests in his work are related to how individuals can overcome systems of oppression, whether ideological, familial, or political. I principally tracked this shared thesis in their works however, there were other potential avenues of ideological overlap between the two writers.

While Montesquieu explores oppression from a systems perspective, Dostoevsky explores the impact of tyranny on the family and individuals within society, taking a more explicitly psychological approach to documenting the same human flaw.

Montesquieu’s method in The Spirit of the Laws is to provide his reader with example after example of governments, laws, and customs from world history to help his reader see the similarities between these examples and their own contemporary practices. Central to his presentation of oppression is the role of prejudice.

For Montesquieu, prejudices are “not what makes one unaware of certain things but what makes one unaware of oneself” (Preface, xliv). Thus, in his perspective, someone who is blind to their prejudices is also blind to themselves. In other words, individuals who hold on to their biases are incapable of living a life of their own. They are possessed and defined by that bias and can have no true individual freedom. The cure comes in the interpretation of the law and the potential for the written law to be led in a more moderate direction. Towards a “more perfect Union” if you will. However, prejudices held by individuals in a position of power can lead society towards an oppressive state.

In his semi-autobiographical novel about his years spent in a Siberian prison camp as a political prisoner, Dostoevsky espouses Montesquieu’s thesis: the spirit of the law, and not its letter, must be followed in order to preserve and protect the humanity of all people. Here and elsewhere, Dostoevsky repeatedly expresses Montesquieu’s philosophy whether he was aware of it or not. But that begs the question, was this influence direct or indirect?

Given this strong ideological overlap, I investigated the potential sources by which Dostoevsky could have encountered Montesquieu’s ideas, both indirectly and directly. I found four major points of connection.

First, Dostoevsky was profoundly influenced by a German thinker and playwright, Friedrich Schiller, who openly claimed that his political ideas were those of Montesquieu. The impact of Schiller on Dostoevsky is well documented and broad. Dostoevsky himself acknowledged this influence and claimed to know Schiller’s works by heart.

Second, Dostoevsky mentions by name another French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville whose seminal work Democracy in America was read and appreciated by the Russian author. De Tocqueville is considered Montesquieu’s disciple in many ways, and espouses several of his ideas in his classical analysis of American politics.

Third, Catherine the Great, the tsarina prior to Dostoevsky’s lifetime wrote a lengthy legislative treatise called the Nakaz. She openly plagiarized the majority of this work from Montesquieu and the Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria. This treatise was never enacted into law, but it was circulated widely throughout Russia, read in public squares, and praised by Russian writers that Dostoevsky idolized as a child and read for the rest of his life. Catherine’s treatise additionally experienced a revival during Dostoevsky’s time.

Finally, Cesare Beccaria, another victim of Catherine’s plagiarism was acknowledged as a source of inspiration by Dostoevsky and was another student of Montesquieu. Beccaria’s major work entitled On Crimes and Punishments is echoed by the title of Dostoevsky’s first major novel, Crime and Punishment.

Montesquieu and Dostoevsky’s writings indicate the mortal danger to lives, rights, and individuality posed by an unchecked drive to dominate within the soul and society. Unless we can counter that drive and establish freedom internally and externally, there is no room for the individual, no development of the self, and no self-knowledge. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Montesquieu’s thought in the characters of his novels extends the psychological depth and the accessibility of those ideas. Given the connection between Dostoevsky’s fiction and Montesquieu’s philosophy, Dostoevsky can be considered to have spread Montesquieu’s spirit of moderation to readers around the world.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Abuse: Montesquieu and Dostoevsky’s shared thesis

  • October 23, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    This project, especially their shared thesis, reminds me a lot of the debate about the interpretation of the American constitution—that one can’t just rely on the language of a law without recognizing that it is a living document.

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Hi Meredith, I was very happy to discuss our projects together. Its’s interesting that Dostoevsky, who had a strictly autocratic view about the role of the Czar, could relate to Montesquieu, who favored limited monarchy if not republicanism. I wonder if Dostoevsky had anything to say about that, considering that Montesquieu influenced many Russian reformers, whom D. would have opposed.

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