Book Review: Montesquieu’s Liberalism & the Problem of Universal Politics, by Keegan Callanan

Date01 February 2021
Published date01 February 2021
Subject MatterBook Reviews
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Political Theory 49(1)
5. Ibid., 304.
6. Sayyid Quṭb, al-Salām al-ʿālamī wa’l-Islām (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 1995), 23.
7. Ibid., 25 (italics added).
8. Sayyid Quṭb, ilāl al-Qurʾān (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 1973–74), vol. 3, 1582;
English edition: In the Shade of the Qur’an, trans. Adil Salahi and A. Shamis
(Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, 2002–9), vol. VIII, 28.
9. Idris, War for Peace, xiv.
10. Ibid., xix.
11. Ibid., xiv.
12. Idris refers to “the paradoxical idea that ‘war is for the sake of peace’” (xiii);
avers that “the idea of peace occupies the paradoxical position of both opposing
war and authorizing war” (xvii); and tells us that “peace in political theory [is]
an ideal that paradoxically authorizes war” (1).
Montesquieu’s Liberalism & the Problem of Universal Politics, by Keegan Callanan.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, 312 pp.
Reviewed by: Andrew Bibby, History and Political Science, Utah Valley University,
Orem, UT, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720901607
A new book on Montesquieu raises the stakes on an old question: does a liberal
culture require a liberal constitution? Montesquieu’s Liberalism & the Problem of
Universal Politics
offers a provocative answer, one that will interest Montesquieu
scholars and theorists of liberalism equally. The book is both a challenge to the
“universalization” of liberal democracy and also a rebuke to academics and poli-
ticians who have ignored the preconditions of liberal politics around the globe.
Callanan’s chosen set of guiding questions is familiar. What are the pre-
conditions of liberal politics? Is liberalism best understood as a set of institu-
tions that can be applied “almost anywhere”? Does liberalism consist in a
particular way of thinking or being—or does it require a peculiar or even
unusual “state of mind” (3)?
According to Callanan, these questions can be addressed profitably by
returning to the thought of the influential, perplexing genius of Montesquieu.
Modern or contemporary liberal theory, he argues, “has impoverished itself
by losing sight of questions of this kind.” Montesquieu’s political philosophy
and political science can “enrich our reflections concerning this family of
questions and teach us to ask them more often and probingly” (3).
Having raised those questions, Callanan aims to show that Montesquieu’s
political philosophy offers a unique resolution. This unique contribution

Book Reviews
consists in putting together two opposing forces, two “principal elements,”
that appear contradictory—that is, Montesquieu’s strong affirmation of lib-
eral culture with a deep rejection of political universalism (4). This “union
[of] anti-universalism and liberalism” (234) gives readers a Montesquieu that
is committed to liberal values but that is, if not...

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