Montesquieu, Charles-Louis De Secondat De (1689–1755)

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MONTESQUIEU, CHARLES-LOUIS DE SECONDAT DE (16891755), parlementary judge, historian, and political philosopher. Montesquieu was born on 18 January 1689 at La Brède, near Bordeaux. His earliest education was with a local schoolmaster; in 1700 he was sent to an Oratorian institution near Paris emphasizing the classics. Between 1705 and 1708 he studied law at the University of Bordeaux, receiving a license in law and becoming an advocate at the Parlement of Bordeaux. From 1709 until 1713 he resided in Paris, attending meetings of the Academy of Science and the Academy of Inscriptions, compiling notebooks on Roman law, and becoming acquainted with such luminaries as Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Nicolas Fréret.

Following the death of his father in 1713, he returned to La Brède to take charge of the family estates. In 1715 he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a wealthy Huguenot from a nearby village who bore him a son and two daughters and ably managed his estates during his many trips to Paris. In 1716 he inherited from his uncle the office of président à mortier (deputy president) in the Parlement of Bordeaux. For ten years he served in the Chambre de la Tournelle, the criminal section of this regional court, prior to selling his office in 1726 to procure more time for his literary and philosophical pursuits.


From an early age Montesquieu displayed the interests of a polymath. In addition to numerous youthful scientific papers, his early writings included essays on Cicero's politics and philosophy, on the problem of the French national debt, on political uses of religion in ancient Rome, on the obligations of citizenship and morality, on the decline of Spanish wealth, and on the respective roles of chance and determinism in the unfolding of history. His first published work, Lettres persanes (1721; Persian letters), was a brilliant excursion into comparative politics, juxtaposing the laws and customs of Islamic and Christian societies. Considered by many the point of origin of the French Enlightenment, this early work presented satirical portraits of French and Persian manners, customs, and religion amidst significant philosophical observations on such diverse subjects as justice, divorce, slavery, despotism, punishment, demography, English liberty, religious liberty, and principles of government.

In 1728 Montesquieu embarked on a lengthy tour of Europe and England. Prior to his departure, he had been favorably disposed toward republics. After reacting negatively to the aristocratic republics of Italy and Holland, however, and after observing English politics for eighteen months, he returned to France in 1731 with renewed appreciation for the potential for achieving liberty in properly structured monarchies, whether based on a combination of monarchical and republican elements, as in the English system, or, as in France, constructed on feudal components and with intermediary and corporate bodies whose presence moderates absolutism.


In 1734 Montesquieu published a philosophical account of the causes of Roman greatness and decline, replacing Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet's (16271704) providential explanation of an ordered concatenation of events with a secular philosophy of history stressing underlying general causes that produced predictable patterns. Montesquieu was critical of the Romans for employing a combination of force and fraud to achieve their goals, and his account of Rome can be read as an attack on Machiavellian tactics in both domestic and international contextsthus setting the scene for his later pronouncement in Book XXI, chapter 20 of De l'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of the laws) that Machiavellianism was waning, since bold strokes of political authority interfere with the economic interests on which power is based. Although he did not find Roman history on the whole an edifying spectacle, Montesquieu drew many lessons from it, including the importance of a balance of powers, the contributions of party conflict to political liberty, the benefits of strengthening patriotism with religious sentiment, and the connection between democracy and small republics that avoid imperial conquest.


Montesquieu's reputation hinges most substantially on The Spirit of the Laws. As Émile Durkheim and Raymond Aron have emphasized, Montesquieu's viewpoint contributed to an emerging social science perspective exploring the interconnection between all of the complex variables that shape laws, customs, religion, manners, and mentalities. While he by no means discarded the natural law perspective, which stressed an ordered universe, subject to laws embodying transcendent standards of justice, Montesquieu nonetheless introduced sociological perspectives into the study of positive laws. His stress on the influence on human development of laws, customs, religion, education, maxims of government, and modes of subsistence, combined with his interest in such physical influences as climate and topography, inaugurated a new epoch in the study of society from anthropological and climatological perspectives and influenced numerous later theorists.

The Spirit of the Laws also contributed to recurring disputes regarding France's ancient constitution. For centuries theorists had debated the historical lineage of the respective components of the French constitution, with the legitimacy of absolutism hanging in the balance. The key question was whether the early Frankish monarchy had been absolutehaving peacefully inherited the Roman Empireor whether, following an early Frankish conquest of Gaul, the Frankish kings beginning with Clovis had been elected by noblemen, who kept a close watch on the exercise of monarchical powers. François Hotman contended in his Franco-gallia (1573) that the French monarchy had always been elective and restrained by a powerful aristocracy. Numerous absolutist theorists of the same century, however, including Jean Ferrault, Charles Du Moulin, and Charles de Grassaille, contended that both the parlements and the Estates-General of France represented illegitimate constraints on an originally absolutist monarchy.

Montesquieu supported the Germanic nobiliary thesis rather than the Roman royalist thesis concerning the origins of the French monarchy. Unlike Hotman and other proponents of a revived Estates-General, however, he believed that the Parlement of Paris functioned as the key bridle on absolutism through its right to register the king's edicts before they became law. His arguments in The Spirit of the Laws provided support for the parlementaires during their numerous clashes with Louis XV (ruled 17151774) and Louis XVI (ruled 17741793) in the decades leading up to the French Revolutionuntil both the parlements and the crown were extinguished during a period of intense republican fervor.


The Spirit of the Laws was the most authoritative political treatise of its day. Montesquieu altered the language of politics by replacing the ancient political classification distinguishing between governments of the one, the few, and the many with a new typology contrasting moderate and despotic forms of government and identifying republics, monarchies, and despotisms as the main types. Moreover, his selection of political virtue (defined as self-sacrificing, patriotic attachment to the needs of one's country) as the principle of republican government reverberated through both American and French political developments of the late eighteenth century. In America "virtue" was extolled by nearly all the patriots opposing a monarchy they considered corrupt, whereas in France Maximilien Robespierre adopted Montesquieu's language of virtue only to debase it by linking patriotic self-sacrifice with terror, claiming that both are necessary when forging a republic during revolutionary times.

Montesquieu bestowed lavish attention on republics within his governmental typology, but he was no republican by convictionand certainly no democrat. He had a low opinion of the political abilities of the masses. Moreover, he considered democracy suited only to the extremely small city-states of classical antiquity. Like James Madison in America, he formed a negative opinion of the unstable democratic states of Greek antiquity, whose tendency to produce unmanageable factional strife had often led to the rise of dictators who could quell disturbances. Only monarchical constitutions, Montesquieu concluded, were well suited for governance of the large states of the modern world.

The Spirit of the Laws contributed significantly to the humanitarian legacy of the Enlightenment since Montesquieu employed devastating satire to ridicule such evils as slavery, disproportionate punishments, religious intolerance, and despotism. Above all, Montesquieu is remembered as a defender of political and civil liberty. Central to that goal, he concluded, is the division of governmental powers between executive, legislative, and judicial authorities to ensure that no one individual or group monopolizes power. Also central to the achievement of liberty is the presence of an independent judiciary enforcing a criminal code that punishes only offenses that threaten actual harm to others.

Montesquieu remained a hero to advocates of constitutional monarchy during the early phases of the French Revolution, but he lost favor as radical elements turned to Jean-Jacques Rousseau for inspiration. The depiction of the English government in Book XI, chapter 6 of The Spirit of the Laws as a mixed constitution combining monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements became the classic view taken over by William Blackstone in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (17651769). In America the framers of the constitution were so enamored of Montesquieu's depiction of the need to separate executive, legislative, and judicial powers that they made him the most quoted author during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and divided the American government into three separate branches, each one empowered to check the others. Following the collapse of Communism in the late twentieth century and the French reassessment of the terror phase of their Revolution during the bicentennial of 1989, Europeans have shown a renewed interest in the liberal constitutionalism of Montesquieu, whose work stands as a timeless contribution to our understanding of political and civil liberty.

See also Enlightenment ; Historiography ; Parlements ; Political Philosophy ; Revolutions, Age of .


Primary Sources

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de. Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Translated by David Lowenthal. New York, 1965. Translation of Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734).

. The Persian Letters. Translated and edited by George R. Healy. Indianapolis, 1964. Translation of Lettres persanes (1721).

. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. New York, 1989. Translation of De l'esprit des lois (1748).

Secondary Sources

Aron, Raymond. Main Currents in Sociological Thought. Translated by Richard Howard and Helen Weaver. 2 vols. New York, 1965.

Carrithers, David W., Michael A. Mosher, and Paul A. Rahe, eds. Montesquieu's Science of Politics: Essays on The Spirit of Laws. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Carrithers, David W., and Patrick Coleman, eds. Montesquieu and the Spirit of Modernity. Oxford, 2002.

Courtney, C. P. Montesquieu and Burke. Oxford, 1963.

Durkheim, Émile. Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1965.

Ford, Franklin L. Robe and Sword: The Regrouping of the French Aristocracy after Louis XIV. Cambridge, Mass., 1953.

Krause, Sharon R. Liberalism with Honor. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Pangle, Thomas L. Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on The Spirit of the Laws. Chicago, 1973.

Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. Oxford, 1961.

Shklar, Judith N. Montesquieu. Oxford and New York, 1987.

Waddicor, Mark H. Montesquieu and the Philosophy of Natural Law. The Hague, 1970.

David W. Carrithers

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Montesquieu, Charles-Louis De Secondat De (1689–1755)

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