Montesquieu, Baron de
Baron de Montesquieu
Charles-Louis de Secondant, more familiarly known to history as the Baron de Montesquieu, was from an old military family in France that had been granted a noble title in the sixteenth century for its loyalty to the crown. Montesquieu's father had a relatively small fortune, although his mother's dowry brought great wealth to the family. Like many noble children, the young boy received much of his initial education in the home before going off to attend school at age eleven. When he was fourteen he enrolled in the University of Bordeaux, and he became a lawyer in 1708. In hopes of attaining more experience in his profession he soon moved to Paris, although when his father died five years later, he returned again to Bordeaux to manage the family's estates. Soon he married Jeanne de Lartigue, the daughter of a wealthy local Protestant, and her dowry brought Montesquieu the wealth that he needed to sustain his private studies. Although he continued to practice his profession as a lawyer, he turned over the management of his financial concerns to his wife, who appears to have been an astute businesswoman. She also gave Montesquieu two daughters and a son. In 1716, his fortunes were increased even further when he inherited the estates of his uncle, who died without a direct heir. He also secured an important position in the local Parlement of Bordeaux, a regional administrative court. Montesquieu now resolved to undertake major studies of Roman law, as well as to increase his understanding of science. He enrolled in the Academy of Bordeaux, the local body of scientific thinkers, in order to enhance his understanding of physics, geology, and biology, an influence that became evident in his later works of political philosophy.
Louis XIV, the chief designer of France's late seventeenth-century absolutist state system, had died in 1715, and his successor, Louis XV, had been at this time only five years old. In the intervening period of his regency, his uncle Philippe, the duke of Orléans, assumed chief power over the government of France. The period of Philippe's exercise of power was noted for a rather quick and dramatic change in fashions in Paris and throughout France. In architecture and art, a new Rococo style, lighter and less ponderous, began to replace the affection for the dark and somber tones of the Baroque. And in the theater and letters, the period began to see increasing ferment, and the emergence of many political salons in and around Paris. Montesquieu's first great work, The Persian Letters (1722), came as a surprise to the early Enlightenment culture that was just beginning to emerge in France as a result of these changes. In the vehicle of letters allegedly written by Persian travelers to Europe, Montesquieu undertook to criticize European institutions. The work poked fun at France's obsession with social class, its religious fanaticism and superstition, and its decadent sexual mores. It proved to be Montesquieu's entrée in the years that followed into the highest circles of intellectual discussion in the country. He now abandoned Bordeaux for the capital, and in the next few years, circulated in court circles. Eventually, life in Paris drained his financial resources, and Montesquieu, increasingly bored with his position in the Parlement of Bordeaux, sold his office. In the capital he was also making the acquaintance of prominent English aristocrats who lived in the city at the time, including the Viscount Bolingbroke, once a leading Tory politician in England and the duke of Berwick. By 1728, though, Montesquieu had apparently grown tired of the high life in Paris, and he resolved to embark on a major continental tour, something that he had not done in his youth. He set off first to Vienna, then to Hungary, and somewhat later to Italy. In each place he indulged his vast interests, making the acquaintance of the Austrian general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, in Vienna; visiting mines and examining their use of technology in Hungary; and in Italy, developing his love of art. Eventually, he returned to Northern Europe, journeying through Germany, to Holland, and finally to England. In this his last stop, he was presented at court and circulated in the highest aristocratic circles, in part because of his friendships previously forged in Paris.
Although he had continued to indulge his taste for society along the route of his Grand Tour, the Baron de Montesquieu took a more serious tone following his return to France in 1731. He decided to pursue his writing as a career, and in 1734 he published Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, a work that was his first foray into political philosophy. His taste for this kind of theory soon deepened, and Montesquieu embarked on a detailed program of study, intending to unearth the reasons for the greatness of some states and the relative weakness of others. He read voraciously, but also kept as many as six private secretaries busy on this endeavor, dictating to them his notes and using them to conduct his preliminary research. Much of the work for this project Montesquieu completed at his country home in Bordeaux, yet he continued to visit Paris in the 1730s and 1740s, circulating in its world of salons, reading in the king's library, and attending the meetings of the French Academy, to which he had been elected a member in 1728. By 1740, the outlines of his massive work of political philosophy had grown clearer, and Montesquieu set down to write his Spirit of the Laws, a work that eventually totaled almost 1,100 printed pages. The Spirit demonstrated a thorough comprehension of all the political philosophy that had been written to Montesquieu's time throughout Europe, yet it did not identify with any one particular set of assumptions. Some of his ideas have clearly not withstood the test of time. The Spirit argued, for instance, that climate was a major determinant of political systems. Yet he also subjected political systems to a searching eye, and his summaries of the differences in spirit that produce despotic, monarchical, and democratic political systems displays a wide reading and knowledge of history. Perhaps one of the most important influences that the work had was in its theory of the separation of powers. Montesquieu argued that not only should the administrative, legislative, and judicial functions of a government be kept isolated from each other, but that these duties should be divided up between different groups that exercise their authority autonomously. In this regard, this part of his theory came to be widely discussed and applied in the French and American Revolutions.
Although Montesquieu continued to write in his later years, these works did not capture the imagination of his times the way that the Spirit of the Laws did. In the last years of his life, he continued to circulate in Parisian intellectual society, and he now found the circle of the Enlightenment much enlarged throughout the country and Europe. He corresponded with philosophers and political thinkers in England and throughout Continental Europe, and was widely admired for his kind and friendly manner.
P. V. Conroy, Montesquieu Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1992).
T. L. Pangle, Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).
D. J. Schaub, Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu's Persian Letters (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).
R. Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).