Montesquieu, Baron de (1689–1755)

views updated


The philosopher and political theorist Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, afterward Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, was born at Labrède, near Bordeaux, in the year of the English revolutionary settlement that established the preeminence of Parliament. He was a follower of John Locke and the outstanding champion in France of the supposedly "English" notions of freedom, toleration, moderation, and constitutional government. He was also a pioneer in the philosophy of history and in the sociological approach to problems of politics and law. Honored in his own country, Montesquieu was even more revered in the English-speaking world. He described the constitution of England as "the mirror of liberty," and although his analysis of the English principles of government was generally considered defective by later historians, it was hailed as marvelously penetrating by English readers of his own time. Charles Yorke, the future lord chancellor, told Montesquieu, "You have understood us better than we understand ourselves." Moreover, the founders of several new political societies, notably that of the United States, were profoundly affected by Montesquieu's teaching. Especially influential was his theory that the freedom of the individual could best be guaranteed by the division of the powers of the state between three distinct organs that could balance and check one anothera separation of powers Montesquieu, rightly or wrongly, believed to be characteristic of the English system.

Montesquieu belonged to the noblesse de robe. Part of his design in recommending the separation of powers in France was to elevate the French aristocracy to a position comparable to that of the English, for whereas Rousseau believed that political liberty could be achieved only in a democracy and Voltaire believed it could best be achieved by a philosopher-king, Montesquieu held that liberty was most secure where there was a potent aristocracy to limit the despotic tendency of both the monarch and the common people. He believed that the way to preserve freedom was to set "power against power."

No one wrote with greater eloquence against despotism than did Montesquieu, yet he was far from sharing the conventional liberal outlook of the eighteenth-century philosophes. He had all the conservatism characteristic of the landowner and the lawyer. In many respects he was positively reactionary; for instance, he wished to strengthen rather than diminish hereditary privileges. But like Edmund Burke, whom he influenced considerably, Montesquieu was able to reconcile his reforming and reactionary sentiments by insisting that he sought to restore old freedoms, not promote new ones. He argued that the centralizing monarchistic policy of Louis XIV had robbed Frenchmen of their ancient liberties and privileges. The only kind of revolution Montesquieu advocated was one that would give back to the French Estatesand to the nobility and the parlements in particularthe rights they had enjoyed before the seventeenth century. The actual French Revolution, which sought to enfranchise the bourgeoisie and the common people and to bring about a variety of other innovations, was far from the sort of change that Montesquieu had favored, although he inadvertently did help to inspire the events of 1789 and after.

Montesquieu's parents were not well off. He inherited his title and much of his wealth from an uncle who at the same time bequeathed him the office of président à mortier of the parlement at Bordeaux. About the same time his worldly position was further secured by a prudent marriage to a Protestant named Jeanne de Lartigue, who, although exceedingly plain in appearance, was heiress to a considerable fortune. Even so, Montesquieu remained an ambitious man, and, after twelve years as président in Bordeaux, he forsook his chateau and vineyards, to which he was deeply attached, and his wife, whom he loved perhaps rather less, to seek fame in Paris and to travel to other countries collecting material for his books. He was a success in the Paris salons, and although there seem to be no recorded examples of his wit in talking, he was celebrated as a conversationalist. He made friends with influential people and became the lover of the Marquise de Grave, among others. She inspired one of his early anonymous works, Le temple de Gnide, a mildly indecent erotic fantasy that was also a satire on the court of the infant Louis XV. After some difficulties Montesquieu was admitted to the French Academy in 1728.

He was on the whole a popular, but certainly not a generous, man. As a landowner he was most rigorous in the collection of even the smallest debts; at the same time he was slow to pay money he owed to others. In Paris he had a reputation for parsimony; more than one contemporary remarked that he "never ate at his own table." At his chateau, La Brède, English guests were struck by what they politely called the "plainness" of the fare, and Montesquieu even economized on the arrangements for the wedding of his daughter Denise. He once warned his grandson, "La fortune est un état et non pas un bien."

Les Lettres Persanes

Montesquieu made his name as a writer at the age of thirty-two with the publication of Les lettres persanes (1721). Presented in the guise of a series of letters sent from France by two Persian visitors, Usbek and Rica, and translated into French by Montesquieu, this book is a satirical attack on French values and institutions. It is written with great wit and skill. The Persian visitors begin by remarking on the strange customs of the French in such matters as cutting their hair and wearing wigs and reversing the Persian rule of giving trousers to women and skirts to men. They then proceed by degrees to express delicate amazement at the things the French choose to respect or hold sacred. They comment on the mixture of grossness and extravagance in the manners of Parisian society. Their sly digs at French politics are even more telling. They describe Louis XIV as a "magician" who "makes people kill one another even when they have no quarrel." The Persians also speak of "another conjuror who is called the Pope who makes people believe that three are only one, and that the bread one eats is not bread or that the wine one drinks is not wine, and a thousand other things of the same sort." The Spanish Inquisitors are described as a "cheerful species of dervishes who burnt to death people who disagreed with them on points of the utmost triviality." The revocation of the Edict of Nantes is likewise mocked, Louis XIV being said to have contrived "to increase the numbers of the faithful by diminishing the numbers of his subjects."

In the same book Montesquieu sought to establish two important principles of political theoryfirst, that all societies rest on the solidarity of interests and, second, that a free society can exist only on the basis of the general diffusion of civic virtue, as in the republics of antiquity.

Although Montesquieu attacked the manners of polite society in France, he did not fail to give Les lettres persanes a fashionable appeal. The two Persian travelers offer piquant descriptions of the pleasures of the harem and the sufferings of the women they have left behind them. Satire is nicely spiced with wit and the wit with impropriety, although this book is not quite so risqué as Le temple de Gnide. Montesquieu was said by Rutledge, one of his many admirers, to have "conquered his public like a lover; amusing it, flattering its taste, and proceeding thus step by step to the innermost sanctuary of its intelligence."

De L'esprit Des Lois

Montesquieu's Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734), is a brilliantly written attempt to apply a scientific method to "historical understanding," to set forthadmittedly in a distinctly literary stylea sociological explanation of one phase of historical experience as a model for a new kind of positivistic history. This book is perhaps best read as a prolegomenon to Montesquieu's masterpiece, De l'esprit des lois, on which he worked for seventeen years.

De l'esprit des lois was first published in Geneva in 1748 against the advice of all the friends to whom Montesquieu had shown the manuscript. It was promptly placed on the Index, but it sold twenty-two editions in less than two years. It was a resounding success. Even so, it is a long, rambling, ill-arranged book that reflects the developments and changes in the author's point of view in the seventeen years he took to write it. But like Les lettres persanes and the Considérations, it is the work of an unmistakable master of French prose and of a man who knows how to entertain his readers as well as to instruct them.

By the esprit des lois, Montesquieu meant the raison d'être for laws, or the rational basis for their existence. Like Locke, he believed in natural law, but he was a much more thoroughgoing empiricist in his method than was Locke. Montesquieu believed that the way to learn about law was to look at the actual legal systems in operation in various states. Formal recognition of natural rights did not mean that men had positive rights. Mere a priori principles have little real value; it is important, he argued, to have the actual verifiable facts of the situations in which men find themselves.

Similarly, in his approach to the question of freedom, Montesquieu was less interested in abstract assertions of a general concept than in the concrete circumstances in which freedom had been or was being enjoyed. "Liberty," he wrote, "has its roots in the soil." He noted that freedom is more easily maintained in mountainous countries, such as Switzerland, than in fertile plains, and on islands, such as England, than on continents. Island and mountainous states find it easier to defend themselves from foreign invasion; in mountainous countries the very poverty of the soil encourages industry, frugality, and independence and so promotes individualism among the people. Another condition of freedom, he suggested, is that tranquility which comes from security. This can be enjoyed only where the constitution sets inviolable limits to the action of the state and where the law itself guarantees the rights of the individual.

Montesquieu always insisted that political liberty could never be absolute. "Freedom," he wrote, "is the right of doing whatever the laws permit." For example, he maintained that free trade did not mean that traders should do what they liked, for that would be to enslave the nation. Restrictions on traders were not necessarily restrictions on trade but might well be measures conducive to the liberty of all. Good laws were those that protected the common interest, and it was the mark of a free society that all the people be allowed to follow their own inclinations as long as they did not disobey the laws.

The Concept of Law

Montesquieu gives a rather bewildering definition of laws as "necessary relations," or "the relations which necessarily follow from the nature of things." Like most philosophers before David Hume, he failed to distinguish clearly between the normative laws of morals and the descriptive laws of science, but he was nevertheless conscious of having two tasks in seeking the raison d'être of laws. On the one hand, he was embarking on a sociological study of existing legal and political institutions, including the institutions of positive law. Here Montesquieu the empiricist came to the front. On the other hand, Montesquieu the rationalist and the votary of natural law was seeking beyond his inductive generalizations for some general principles of justice and conduct, which he believed to be founded on reason.

I first of all examined men, and I came to the conclusion that in the infinite diversity of their laws and customs they were not guided solely by their whims. I formulated principles, and I saw particular cases naturally fitting these principles: and thus I saw the histories of all nations as the consequence of these principles, with every particular law bound to another law and dependent on a further more general law.

At the highest level of abstraction, Montesquieu saw a uniform law"Men have always been subject to the same passions"but in various societies this higher natural law is expressed in differing systems of positive law. The systems differ because the external conditions differ. Montesquieu made much of the differences of climate and attempted to describe how different climates promote different customs, habits, economic arrangements, and religions. Much of political wisdom consists in adapting general principles to local circumstances. Solon was right to give people "the best laws they could bear."

The measure of relativism in Montesquieu affronted his friends among the philosophes, who believed in a kind of abstract universal individualism, but Montesquieu's method proved the more acceptable to social theorists of later generations. Émile Durkheim said it was Montesquieu who gave modern sociology both its method and its field of study. Montesquieu was ahead of his time in regarding social facts as valid objects of science, subject to laws like the rest of nature; he was also ahead of his time in seeing social facts as related parts of a whole, always to be judged in their specific contexts.

Views on Religion

Montesquieu resisted the notion that a "scientific" approach to problems of human conduct entailed determinism. He believed that God existed and that God had given men free will. "Could anything be more absurd," he asked, "than to pretend that a blind fatality could ever produce intelligent beings?" Assuredly, God had laid down the laws that govern the physical world, and "man, as a physical being, is, like all other bodies, governed by immutable laws." On the other hand, precisely because he is a rational, intelligent being, man is capable of transgressing certain laws to which he is subject. Some of the laws he transgresses are his own laws, namely positive laws, but governing the conduct of men are other laws antecedent to positive laws, and these are the general "relations of justice" or, in a more conventional term, natural law.

Montesquieu's attitude toward religion was very like that of Locke. He did not believe in more than a few simple dogmas about the existence of God and God's benevolence, but to that minimal creed he clung with the utmost assurance. On the other hand, Montesquieu grew to be much more cautious than Locke in his criticisms of religious institutions. In Les lettres persanes, Montesquieu did not hesitate to mock the Roman Catholic Church and clergy, but in later years he took care to avoid provocative utterances on the subject. In his biography of Montesquieu, Robert Shackleton gives an example of the philosopher's increasing wariness as revealed in successive drafts of the Esprit des lois. In the first draft of the chapter on religion, Montesquieu wrote, "Under moderate governments, men are more attached to morals and less to religion; in despotic countries, they are more attached to religion and less to morals." In the second draft Montesquieu introduced at the beginning of that sentence, "One might perhaps say that ." In the published version he cut out the remark altogether.

Much has been made of the fact that Montesquieu was reconciled to the Church of Rome on his deathbed. An Irish Jesuit named Bernard Routh got into the chateau at La Brède during Montesquieu's last illness, and in spite of the efforts of the Duchess d'Aiguillon to prevent him from "tormenting a dying man," the priest succeeded (or, at any rate, claimed to have succeeded) in leading the philosopher back to the path of devotion and repentance. The pope himself read Father Routh's account of Montesquieu's death "with the deepest reverence and ordered it to be circulated." Madame d'Aiguillon was able to rescue from the clutches of the Jesuits only one manuscript, that of the Lettres persanes. "I will sacrifice everything for the sake of reason and religion," Montesquieu had told the duchess, "but nothing to the Society of Jesus."

These dramatic scenes are perhaps less important to an understanding of Montesquieu's religious sentiments than is his behavior in less emotional times. He never asked his wife to give up her Protestantism, and he was always a fervent champion of religious toleration. At the same time, he remained on the best of terms with his several relations who were in holy orders in the Catholic Church. Besides, according to his "sociological" principle that every country had the religion its geographical and climatic conditions demanded, Montesquieu held that Catholicism was the "right" religion for France, just as Anglicanism was the "right" religion for England. This is not to say that Montesquieu inwardly believed in more than a fraction of the teachings of the Catholic Church or thatuntil his deathbed repentancethe church regarded him as a true son. But he always detested atheism. To him the idea of a universe without God was effroyable. The concept of a loving creator played as prominent a part in his political theory as it did in that of Locke; indeed, whereas Locke had been content to see the church apart from the state, Montesquieu favored an alliance of organized religion with the government. In Esprit des lois he suggested that Christian principles, well engraved in the minds of the people, would be far more conducive to a good political order than either the monarchist notion of honor or the republican notion of civic virtue. Montesquieu was thus a deist in his heart and an Erastian in his politics.

See also Burke, Edmund; Durkheim, Émile; Locke, John; Philosophy of History; Political Philosophy, History of; Political Philosophy, Nature of; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


works by montesquieu

Oeuvres de Montesquieu, 7 vols. Edited by E. Laboulaye. Paris, 18751879.

De l'esprit des lois, 2 vols. Edited by G. Truc. Paris, 1945.

Spirit of the Laws. Translated by Thomas Nugent. New York, 1949.

Oeuvres complètes, 3 vols. Edited by A. Masson. Paris, 19501955.

Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline. Translated by David Lowenthal. New York: Free Press, 1965.

works on montesquieu

Actes du congrès Montesquieu. Paris, 1956. Introduction by L. Desgraves.

André, Desiré. Les écrits scientifiques de Montesquieu. Paris, 1880.

Aron, Raymond. "Montesquieu." In Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. I, translated by Richard Howard and Helen Weaver. New York: Basic, 1965.

Barrière, P. Un grand provincial. Bordeaux, 1946.

Berlin, Isaiah. "Montesquieu." In his Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Cabeen, D. C. Montesquieu: A Bibliography. New York: New York Public Library, 1947.

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

Cotta, S. Montesquieu e la scienza della societa. Turin, 1953.

Dedieu, J. Montesquieu, l'homme et l'oeuvre. Paris, 1913.

Destutt de Tracy, Comte Antoine-Louise-Claude. Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws. Translated by Thomas Jefferson. Philadelphia: Burt Franklin, 1969.

Dodds, Muriel. Les récits de voyages: Sources de l'Esprit des lois de Montesquieu. Paris, 1929.

Durkheim, Émile. Montesquieu et Rousseau. Paris, 1953. Translated by Ralph Manheim as Montesquieu and Rousseau. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.

Fletcher, F. T. H. Montesquieu and English Politics. London: Arnold, 1939.

Hulliung, Mark. Montesquieu and the Old Regime. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Manent, Pierre. The City of Man. Translated by Marc A. LePain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

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

Richter, Melvin. The Political Theory of Montesquieu. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Shackleton, Robert. Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment. Edited by David Gilson and Martin Smith. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institution, 1988.

Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. The outstanding work on Montesquieu.

Shklar, Judith N. Montesquieu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Sorel, A. Montesquieu. Paris, 1887.

Maurice Cranston (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

About this article

Montesquieu, Baron de (1689–1755)

Updated About content Print Article