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The “Persian Letters.”

Travel and later works

Personal religion

Ideas about historical causation

The “Spirit of the Laws”

Types of government

Determinants of a society’s spirit

Implications of social theory






Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), made original contributions to social and political theory. He was viewed by Comte and Durkheim as the most important precursor of sociology; by Ernst Cassirer and Franz Neumann as the inventor of ideal-type analysis; by Sir Frederick Pollock as the “father of modern historical research” and of a “comparative theory of politics and law based on wide observation of ... actual systems”; by Friedrich Meinecke as one of the founders of Historismus (historicism or historism) with its relativism, holism, and emphasis on the positive value of the irrational and the customary; and by Hegel, who did not find it easy to praise his predecessors, as the first to explain law and political institutions by reference to characteristics of the social system in which they function (Comte [1830-1842] 1877; Durkheim [1892-1918] 1960, p. 26; Cassirer [1932] 1951, p. 212; Neumann 1949, pp. xl-xli; Pollock [1890] 1960, pp. 86-87; Meinecke 1936, pp. 118-170; Hegel [1821] 1942, p. 16). Now that political sociology has become a recognized discipline, Montesquieu has also been given pride of place as its first modern practitioner (Aron [I960] 1965, pp. 55-56; Runciman 1963, pp. 24 ff.). Nor is there much question that Montesquieu’s concept of the general spirit of a society anticipated modern cultural anthropology.

Thus, Montesquieu’s position as social theorist would seem to be secure. Yet few other theorists of his order of achievement have combined such contributions with such defects: imprecise definition, lack of internal consistency, the tendency to generalize on the basis of inadequate evidence, and, in the Spirit of the Laws, a deplorable lack of organization. To discriminate what remains permanently valuable in Montesquieu from what is unacceptable—this is the difficulty complicating any critical exposition of his thought.

Other problems may perplex the modern reader. Montesquieu claimed to be breaking altogether new ground. He prefaced the Spirit of the Laws with the epigraph “prolem sine matrem” (a child born of no mother), yet it has been shown that his work in many ways carries on that of his predecessors and shares the concepts, attitudes, and political positions of his contemporaries (Dedieu 1909; Meinecke 1936; Ford 1953; Mauzi I960; Shackleton 1961; Ehrard 1963; Rothkrug 1965). The genuine novelty of Montesquieu’s work is to be found in its terms of analysis and its theoretical focus— the relations of a society’s laws to its type of government, climate, religion, mores (moeurs,) customs (maniéres,) and economy. Such an approach is inconsistent with the older notion that there exists an eternal, natural law superior to positive law. Yet Montesquieu refused to abandon the theory of natural law, despite its patent incompatibility with his own.

Another difficulty arises from Montesquieu’s insistence that his writings did not censure any established institution, that he took his principles not from his prejudices, but from the nature of things. Yet he condemned despotism, slavery, and religious persecution as contrary to natural law or human nature. Thus he wavered between a positivist, relativist concept of law on the one hand and a conventional acceptance of natural law on the other.

Montesquieu opposed intellectual systems, for he thought they falsify experience; he emphasized the irreducible diversity of human institutions and history. Yet he also asserted that he had laid down first principles from which all particular cases follow—the histories of all nations are only consequences of these first principles, and every particular law is connected with or depends on another law of a more general extent (1748, preface).

Montesquieu’s family stemmed from both the nobility of the sword and the nobility of the robe; it could be traced back 350 years, which, in his view, made its name neither good nor bad. His childhood was a curious combination of aristocracy and rusticity. He was born in the castle at La Brede, but his godfather was a beggar, chosen to remind Montesquieu of his obligation to the poor. He was sent out to nurse with a peasant family for his first three years. His mother died when he was seven; her early death contributed to his detachment and to his distaste for enthusiasm; both qualities were equally prominent in his writing and in his character.

At the age of 11 he was sent away to Juilly, a school maintained by the Congregation of the Oratory. At Juilly Montesquieu acquired an education stronger in Latin than in Greek; it was relatively liberal for its day. The philosopher Malebranche was a member of the Congregation, and his influence made itself felt. Montesquieu’s Latin studies impressed him with the value of civic virtue and stoicism. In 1705 Montesquieu returned to Bordeaux to study law. Between 1709 and 1713 he was a legal apprentice in Paris. There he came to know some of the most advanced thinkers of his time: Fréret, the Abbé Lama, and Boulainvilliers (Shackleton 1961, pp. 8-13).

On the death of an uncle in 1716, Montesquieu succeeded to considerable wealth, land, and the office of président à mortier in the Parlement of Guyenne. Montesquieu’s office was not a sinecure. He worked seriously at his legal duties, but later confessed that he had not understood all the ancient procedures of his court. The truth was that he did not much enjoy his life as a magistrate. Nevertheless, in the Spirit of the Laws he supported the position of the parlementaires against the monarchy, defended venality of office, and condemned as despotism any attempt to divest the parlements of their political functions (1748, book 8, chapter 6).

During his residence in Bordeaux, Montesquieu participated in the work of its academy. At that time the provincial academies provided a setting within which the nobility of the robe could develop an intelligentsia of its own; their members included learned noblemen of the sword as well as educated commoners. Montesquieu did experiments in natural history and physiology. The academy gave him a distaste for prejudice, a priori reasoning, and teleological arguments; from it he acquired a pre-disposition to materialism.

The “Persian Letters.”

In his Bordeaux period Montesquieu began the Persian Letters, which was published anonymously in Amsterdam in 1721. An immediate and lasting success, it alone would have assured his reputation. The book is witty and delightful, but Montesquieu’s irony and irreverence did more than amuse his readers. By depicting France as seen through the eyes of two Persians, he provided a double perspective, a revealing device used earlier by La Bruyère and Bayle. As Caillois has written, the positive construction later undertaken by Montesquieu in the Spirit of the Laws presupposed a prior sociological revolution— that of “daring to consider as extraordinary and difficult to understand those institutions, those habits, those moeurs, to which one has been accustomed since birth, ... [which] are so powerfully, so spontaneously respected that in most situations, no alternative to them can be imagined” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. v in the Gallimard edition). Relativism about values is among the most significant contributions of the Persian Letters to the early Enlightenment.

Certain points made in the Persian Letters anticipate what Montesquieu later argued more extensively—that men are always born into a society and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the origin of society and government; that self-interest is not a sufficient basis for human institutions, as Hobbes had asserted; and that, instead, the possibility of good government depends on education and example, in short, on civic virtue.

Montesquieu did not believe that the absurdity and corruption in French society could be remedied by governmental action. His view of human nature put great stress on the passions, and he believed that jealousy and the desire for domination are among the mainsprings of despotism. He was already concerned with the structure and psychological basis of absolute rule. His models were taken from Louis xiv, as well as from what he read about the Near East and Far East.

Travel and later works

With the success of the Persian Letters, Montesquieu was accepted by the society of regency Paris and lived the life of an aristocratic rake. His Paris friends secured his election to the French Academy in 1728. He sold his office of président à mortier, partly because of financial need and partly because he wanted to live in Paris. As a further result he was at last free to travel.

From 1728 to 1731 Montesquieu was away from France, visiting Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Holland, and England. He came to think of himself as a man first and a Frenchman second, and claimed to regard “all the peoples of Europe with the same impartiality as I do the peoples of Madagascar” (ibid., p. 997). The two years he spent in England had the greatest effect on his later work. There he made distinguished friends who taught him to view the English constitution through the eyes of the Whigs, although he was aware also of the Tories’ point of view. During his stay he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and became a Freemason as well. After his return to France he divided his time between his estate at La Brède and Paris; he became an independent scholar dedicated to producing his two great books, the Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (1734) and the Spirit of the Laws (1748). Much of his time was spent in Paris, where he shone among the luminaries of the intellectual salons, now more open to merit than before. Montesquieu encouraged the young philosophes he met there.

Personal religion

In 1775 Montesquieu fell victim to an epidemic sweeping Paris. As he lay dying, he asked to be given the last rites of the church. When he chose as confessor a Jesuit who had helped him publish the Considerations, the Society of Jesus insisted that he first accept certain conditions. Although Montesquieu denied ever having been in a state of disbelief, he was made to consent to having his final confession made public. It is reported that after receiving the last rites, he said, “I have always respected religion; the ethic of the evangelists is an excellent thing, and the most beautiful gift God could have made to man” (Shackleton 1961, p. 396). Certainly Montesquieu believed in the social and political utility of religion, nor is there any doubt that he held some form of belief compatible with natural religion. But it remains unknown to what degree he believed in the dogmas of his church. He never capitulated to the Jesuits’ demands for control of his manuscripts.

Ideas about historical causation

The Considerations, perhaps the least known of Montesquieu’s three major books, is notable for its style, clarity, and remarkable analysis of historical causation and of the nature of politics. Montesquieu was attracted to Roman history because it was the most complete record of a political society available to him. His study of Rome led him to concepts he later developed more fully in the Spirit of the Laws: although chance plays some part in human events, these may always be rationally analyzed; the orientation of political actors is in large part to be explained by religion, ideas, maxims, and public opinion (in the Considerations Montesquieu did not emphasize milieu); politics in a free society requires a degree of disunion and conflict; and every society has a “general spirit.”

Perhaps the single most telling passage in the Considerations states Montesquieu’s theory of causation:

It is not fortune that rules the world ... The Romans had a series of consecutive successes when their government followed one policy, and an unbroken set of reverses when it adopted another. There are general causes, whether moral or physical, which act upon every monarchy, which create, maintain, or ruin it. All accidents are subject to these causes, and if the chance loss of a battle, that is to say, a particular cause, ruins a state, there is a general cause that created the situation whereby this state could perish by the loss of a single battle. (1734, chapter 18)

This statement, which received much attention after the fall of France in 1940, referred in its original context to the place held by war and conquest in Roman policy. Montesquieu reasoned, in what would later be called a dialectical manner, that Rome was first made and then ruined: “Here, in a word, is the history of the Romans. By following their original maxims, they conquered all other peoples. But after such success their republic could no longer be maintained. It became necessary to change the form of government. The new principles caused the Romans to fall from their former grandeur” ((ibid., chapter 18).

Montesquieu here combined judgments of fact and of value in a way dear to him. On the one hand he generalized about the effects of scale on governmental structure and functions; on the other he concluded that the Romans had fought too much and conquered too much. Violence, first used as a weapon against other nations, was in turn employed at home. Roman decadence was inherent in the means used to attain greatness. Montesquieu was recasting themes that had originated with opponents of Louis xiv’s foreign policy and of mercantilism.

The Considerations contains a striking first formulation of Montesquieu’s treatment of politics in a free society. The texture of relations among persons and groups is much looser in a free society than in a despotism. Under freedom, divergencies and even conflicts are essential, for such a society is based on the conciliation of recognized groups, each with its own interest. The virtues of consensus and unanimity are overrated:

Authors who write about the history of Rome never tire of asserting that its ruin was caused by internal division, by contending groups. But these writers fail to see that these divisions were necessary.... As a general rule, it may be assumed that whenever everyone is tranquil in a republic, that state is no longer free.

What constitutes a union in a political body is difficult to determine. True union is a harmony, in which all the parts, however opposed they may appear, concur in attaining the general good of the society, just as dissonances in music are necessary so that they may be resolved in an ultimate harmony. Union may exist in a state, where apparently only trouble is to be found....

But underlying the unanimity of Asiatic despotism, that is to say every government that is not moderate, there is a division of another kind. The peasant, the soldier, the merchant, the noble are related only in the sense that some of them oppress others without meeting any resistance. If this is considered to be union, it can be so only in that sense in which corpses are united when buried in a mass grave, (ibid., chapter 9)

The “Spirit of the Laws”

The Spirit of the Laws, the product of twenty years’ work, is so sweeping in its scope that there can be no question of dealing here with all that it covers. Ostensibly a treatise on law, it spills over into a consideration of every domain affecting human behavior and into questions of philosophical judgment about the merit of various kinds of legislation. Its absence of organization is notorious, and many commentators have tried to rearrange the order of the separate books to produce a more coherent argument. Such schemes can be divided into those which pretend to have divined the true intent of the author and those with the more modest aim of reducing confusion. Behind these different approaches lie two different conceptions of Montesquieu as a thinker. Some argue that he based the Spirit of the Laws on general principles and a discernible over-all design; others that, whatever his intention, he fell far short of such an achievement because he composed the 31 books over so long a period. The supporters of the view that Montesquieu did formulate a distinctive and systematic theory tend to argue that for two reasons Montesquieu deliberately concealed his design: he feared the censure of the authorities, lay and ecclesiastical; and he believed that much of his public should be kept in ignorance of certain truths (about religion, for example).

Whatever Montesquieu’s intent, the present value of the Spirit of the Laws depends upon two central topics: Montesquieu’s classification of political structures and his comparative and historical political sociology.

Types of government

Montesquieu classified governments in terms of three types, each of which is characterized by a nature and a principle. By the “nature” of a government he meant the person or group holding sovereign power; by “principle,” that passion which must animate those involved in a form of government if it is to function at its strongest and best. When a government is functioning properly, a legislator who violates the principle of government will provoke revolution. On the other hand, when a government is debilitated by the weakening of its essential principle, it can be saved only by a good legislator capable of strengthening it. The persona of the legislator is used by Montesquieu in the classical sense of an exceptional person called in by a society to give it basic laws. But the retention of this fiction produced an ambiguity when joined to what is novel in Montesquieu’s thought, the limits placed upon legislation by the physical and moral causes that combine to form the general spirit of a society. Montesquieu was inconsistent in his recommendations to legislators: sometimes he suggested that the legislator adapt laws to the general spirit of the society, sometimes that he use laws and even religion to combat that spirit. Much depended on whether Montesquieu liked or disliked a particular institution or practice.

When classified by their nature, governments fall into three categories. A republic is that form in which the people as a whole, or certain families, hold sovereign power. A monarchy is that in which a prince rules according to established laws that create channels through which the royal power flows. (Montesquieu’s examples of such channels include an aristocracy administering local justice, parlements with political functions, a clergy with recognized rights, and cities with historical privileges.) Despotism is the rule of a single person, who is directed only by his own will and caprice.

The principles of these governments differ: virtue is the principle of republics; honor, of monarchies; and fear, of despotism. Montesquieu subdivided republics into democracies and aristocracies. His image of the first was taken from classical Greece and Rome. When he assigned virtue to them as their distinctive principle, he meant those political qualities requisite to their maintenance: in the case of democracies, love of country, belief in equality, and the frugality and asceticism that lead men to sacrifice their personal pleasures to the general interest. Montesquieu found his model for aristocracy in contemporary republics such as Venice. Although aristocracies also require virtue, it takes the form of moderation in behavior and aspirations by members of the ruling class (the principal weakness of aristocracy being immoderate internal rivalry). Montesquieu thought that monarchy, as found in France and other European states of his time, was the characteristically modern way of ruling territories of intermediate size. The principle of monarchy is honor, that esprit de corps found only in a society based on preferment and distinctions for the few. Such privileges, when demanded and granted, sustain partially autonomous, intermediate groups between the crown and the people. In a famous phrase Montesquieu wrote, “Without a monarch, no nobility; without a nobility, no monarchy. For then there is only a despot” (1748, book 2, chapter 4). Despotism, in Montesquieu’s view, has no offsetting virtues. Based on fear, it tolerates no intermediary powers and is moderated, if at all, only by religion.

Throughout this analysis Montesquieu used what Max Weber later called ideal types. As Montesquieu phrased it:

I have had new ideas; I have had to find new terms, or else to give new meaning to old ones.... It should be noted that there is a great difference between saying that a certain quality ... or virtue is not the spring that moves a government, and saying that it is nowhere to be found in that government. If I say that this wheel, this cog are not the spring that makes this watch go, does it follow that they are not in this watch? ... In a word, honor exists in a republic, although political virtue is its mainspring; political virtue, in a monarchy, although honor is its principle. (1748, “Avertissement de 1’auteur”)

Montesquieu’s treatment of despotism is the most flagrant of his departures from his claim to have derived his principles not from prejudice but from the nature of things. Thus, he asserted that “it is impossible to speak of such monstrous governments without becoming infuriated” (ibid., book 3, chapter 9). Yet he said much that was incisive about the patterns of authority in despotisms. Under this form of government unquestioning obedience is regarded as the only proper response to authority. Education is designed to produce the requisite type of character. The ruled must be ignorant, timid, broken in spirit, requiring little in the way of legislation. Family life is also regulated, and the members of one family are isolated from all others. Men, instead of being trained to live on the basis of mutual respect, are made to respond only to fear of violence. Furthermore, Montesquieu posed the question: Since men love liberty and hate violence, and will therefore presumably rise in rebellion against despotism, why in fact do most of the world’s peoples live under despotisms? In part this is because large empires must be governed despotically if their administration is to be effective (ibid., book 8, chapter 19); more important, it is because despotism has but one necessary condition, the human passions, and these exist everywhere.

The alternatives to despotism are more difficult to achieve (ibid., book 5, chapter 15). The legislator who wishes to form a government that is free must have unusual skills. He must know how to combine political powers, subject them to rules, moderate them, and yet make them act together. In what are probably the best known and most influential sections of the Spirit of the Laws, those describing, or idealizing, the government of England (ibid., book 11, chapter 6; book 19, chapter 27), Montesquieu went beyond Locke to distinguish clearly between the executive power (extended to foreign affairs), the legislative, and the judicial. He made their rigid separation the condition of liberty. “When the legislative power is united to the executive, there is no more liberty” (ibid., book 11, chapter 6). Nor is there liberty if the judicial power is not separated from the legislative. “Power must check power” (ibid., book 11, chapter 6). But can a government so constituted act effectively? Montesquieu simply asserted that it will because it has to.

Taken purely as constitutional doctrine, this theory does not appear to have had much factual basis, even when Montesquieu wrote. Taken as a guide to present-day practice, it is useless and even dangerous. Yet the theory of the division of powers is more plausible if understood in either a sociological or a psychological sense. Madison, for example, in the 51st Federalist paper, interpreted Montesquieu’s doctrine in a psychological sense as involving not rigid separation, but the blending of powers. The means of resisting an attack on the powers given to an office by a constitution should be tied to the ambitions of the person holding office. Thus, Madison combined the formula “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” with Montesquieu’s formula “Power must check power.”

The possibility of a sociological interpretation emerges clearly from the question, first asked by Bentham: What possible guarantee of liberty can there be in the separation of powers, if all three powers are controlled by the same group or class? Obviously there can be no guarantee unless each of the three powers is in the hands of a different group or class. In that case, liberty is the outcome of a struggle among groups. This is a struggle of a particular and limited kind that varies with the type of government. Intrigue is essential in a democracy, for when there is no intrigue, the people, whose nature it is to act by passion, become subject to bribery and corruption; in short, they calculate their own interest when they should be directed by patriotic passion (ibid., book 2, chapter 2). In a monarchy, liberty exists when semiautonomous intermediate groups have the power to resist the will of the ruler, or at least to engage in negotiation with him when they feel their interests are threatened. Only in despotism is there no conflict among groups. Thus, even the most political part of Montesquieu’s theory has a sociological dimension: conflict has positive functions—the prerequisite of liberty is the existence of groups that are at least partially independent groups set between the state and the individual.

Determinants of a society’s spirit

The scope of Montesquieu’s concern is global: “This work has for its object the laws, customs, and various usages of all peoples” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 2, p. 1137 in the Gallimard edition). Such a subject can be treated adequately only by a method at once comparative and historical. Comparison, the single most valuable capacity of the human mind, is particularly useful when applied to human collectivities (ibid., vol. 2, pp. 54, 57). For if we wish to explain why they have the characteristics they do, it is better to apply hypotheses to general effects known by comparison than to particular effects known from a single case. In making comparisons it should be remembered that in nature even members of the same class are not exactly alike, but only more or less so. Furthermore, such social phenomena as laws must be regarded as forming part of a system, within which they function in some relation to the other parts of the system. In order to understand a system properly, it is also essential to know how it developed over time: to explain why laws exist, it is necessary to follow the historical process by which they have acquired a function within the context of a system, even though the original system may have ceased to operate (ibid., vol. 2, p. 1103).

What constitutes an adequate explanation of why a nation has a given set of laws, a given social and political structure? Montesquieu answered that a satisfactory explanation must include the two major types of causes, physical and moral, which together form a society’s general spirit. Principal among physical causes is climate, which produces a number of physiological and mental consequences. Also to be taken into account are the quality of the terrain, the density of population, and the territorial extent of a society. Montesquieu, who made much of physical causes, nevertheless rejected the notion that they alone directly determine a society’s mode of life. On the contrary, moral causes are more important than physical ones—a good legislator can, for example, minimize and overcome even the effects of climate (ibid., vol. 2, pp. 61-62).

Many moral causes affect a society’s general spirit: religion, laws, maxims, precedents, mores, customs, economy and trade, style of thought, and the atmosphere that is created in a nation’s capital or court and then spreads to its outermost limits (1748, book 19, chapter 4). The general character of a society can also be seen in the style of education it gives to its members. There is nothing mystical, no notion of a Volksgeist for example, nothing transcending reason and experience, in Montesquieu’s concept of the general spirit of a society. The general spirit results from a number of causes whose effects can be rationally assessed after empirical investigation.

Law. Montesquieu considered law to be among the most crucial determinants of human behavior. However, because his legal definitions in the first six books of the Spirit of the Laws are ambiguous and because he did not build on them in other parts of the book, it is best to seek to understand his use of the term “law” from its use in the work as a whole. For the most part he used “law” to mean any rule of conduct that is supported by governmental sanctions against those who disobey the rule. Montesquieu also used “law” to refer to rights and obligations protected or enforced by courts and to basic rules that must be followed by those who exercise power. Despite the confusion, Plamenatz was correct to conclude that Montesquieu, more than Hobbes or Locke, understood the social function of law—it is made up of rules that control the governors as well as the governed (1963, p. 263).

What is significant is Montesquieu’s treatment of law as but one way of affecting human conduct. It is the method peculiar to the government. The society as a whole uses other means: religion, mores, and customs. Montesquieu did not under-rate what can be done by laws that have behind them the coercive power of the state. But he wished to call attention to those forces outside the government that may limit the effectiveness of state action and thus serve a function equivalent to law by using essentially social constraints to restrain human passions, wills, and imagination. Montesquieu did not attempt to reduce government to a derivative function of society, or vice versa; rather, he wished to specify the numerous and complex ways in which the political and social systems interact.

Religion. Among the essentially social forces that may affect government, religion ranks high. Montesquieu’s treatment of religion wavers between the rationalist theory, which he found in Machiavelli, that elites manipulate the credulous, and a more sophisticated sociological theory, which he was one of the first to develop. When following Machiavelli’s lead, Montesquieu treated religion as something used by rulers much as they use laws. Both religion and law, for example, can be employed to overcome the worst effects of climate, such as reluctance to work the land (1748, book 14, chapter 6). Montesquieu also agreed with Machiavelli that it is easier to enforce laws in a religious country than elsewhere. But Montesquieu developed this instrumental theory into the theory that to the extent that religion is an effective force in a society, there is less need for control by the state. Religion, Montesquieu argued, can even save a state that would be overturned if its survival depended upon the capacity of its police to coerce the population. He emphasized the political and social effects of religion, seen always as operating within a given type of social organization: thus, the most sacred and true dogmas may produce the worst consequences, if these dogmas should turn out to be incongruent with the general spirit of a society. In a despotism, religion is the only restraint upon the ruler. In a republic, it is dangerous to allow the clergy to gain strength, but in a monarchy, a strong clergy helps maintain liberty. Religion also can determine men’s orientations toward politics, economic activity, population, and liberty. In a sentence that later engaged Max Weber’s interest, Montesquieu called attention to the fact that the English had been the people who had most effectively combined religion, commerce, and liberty (ibid., book 20, chapter 7).

Mores and customs. Two other causes affecting the general spirit are mores and customs, both of which closely resemble religion in their operation. They may be used as surrogates for laws of the state. “When a people has bonnes moeurs, its laws need not be complex” (ibid., book 19, chapter 22). Mores (moeurs) apply internalized restraints on conduct not specifically prohibited by law; customs (manières) apply external restraints on such conduct, but the sanctions are social rather than legal. The distinctions among laws, mores, and customs are analytical. In practice they may be confused, as in China or Sparta. Yet even there one predominated: in Sparta it was mores, in China customs.

Implications of social theory

Montesquieu’s social theory is especially significant because it emphasizes social determinants of behavior rather than legal sanctions. Hitherto, political theorists who had attempted empirical generalizations had concentrated almost exclusively on explanations based on the behavioral consequences of legal sanctions. Montesquieu offered instead a pluralist view of causation; he did not attempt to establish a hierarchy of causes, with priority assigned to non-governmental as against governmental action. Montesquieu believed that the general spirit might be determined by any one, or a combination, of the causes he had identified. (Tocqueville was very much in Montesquieu’s style when he concluded the first part of Democracy in America with the argument that the success of the United States had been caused more by the constitution than the climate and terrain, but that most important of all had been the mores of the inhabitants.)

Montesquieu’s emphasis on the general spirit also led him to discuss theories of national character. Every society has its own particular character, a mixture of good and bad qualities. Legislators ought not to fly in the face of this character, unless it violates principles necessary to the government’s existence. Otherwise, apparently desirable innovations may produce disastrous consequences. Peoples have their own ways of reaching conclusions, their own style of thought, leur manière de penser totale (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 2, p. 1102 in the Gallimard edition).

There can be little doubt about the conservative implications of this theory. Some of them Montesquieu developed; others he did not. Inherent in his position is an appeal to the past or a vision of the past from a particular place in the society and politics of his time. Yet to the extent that he was a spokesman for the parliamentary nobility, “Montesquieu was not a true conservative, because he was not satisfied with the way the Bourbon monarchy had developed and was developing in his time” (Palmer 1959, p. 60). Although Montesquieu’s work as a theorist should not be assessed simply in terms of his class position, it would be a mistake to ignore its influence on his political values, his theory of politics, and his scheme of analysis taken as a whole.


The single most important doctrine in the Spirit of the Laws is Montesquieu’s theory that intermediate bodies like the nobility, the parlements, the local courts of seigneurial justice, and the church are all indispensable to political liberty. These and other constituted bodies, such as provinces, towns, guilds, and professional associations, all have their rights, legal powers, and privileges, none of which can be removed, since they all derive from the original institutions of the realm. Their present function is to balance one another and to serve as barriers to despotism. Such constituted bodies are not to be treated as equal in value. To do so would violate the essential principle of monarchy, which rests upon honor derived from inequality. The great—those most distinguished by birth, wealth, or honor—should have a share in legislation equal to their advantages. This, Montesquieu specified, is the power necessary to check the enterprises of the people, and it is as important to the state as the people’s power to check the enterprises of the great (1748, book 11, chapter 6). Montesquieu’s analysis of the British constitution demonstrates that he did not believe in rule by one class (Palmer 1959, pp. 57-58). In addition to a body of nobles, there should also be a body representing the people, that is, those who are not noble. Classes should be distinct, with the nobility a vital element in the balance. A hierarchical form of society and a noble class jealous of its privileges are essential to the preservation of liberty.


There is an ambivalence in Montesquieu’s attitude toward political change. On the one hand he opposed large-scale innovations, especially if they were proposed as the implementation of a program deduced from abstract principles; on the other he himself suggested far-reaching reforms. In part his ambivalence derived from the fact that the legitimacy of his own class depended on historical rather than abstract arguments; in part from his belief that the reasons for the continued existence of a state are complex and probably unknowable. If the entire system were changed, unanticipated difficulties might arise. Piecemeal change is therefore best—precedents should guide policy (1734, chapter 18). Institutions of long standing tend to improve a people’s mores, while new institutions tend to corrupt them (1748, book 5, chapter 7). Politics is an instrument that accomplishes its work by slowly wearing away resistance (ibid., book 14, chapter 13). A prudent administration seldom proceeds to its ends by direct means. It changes by law only what has been established by law; it attempts to change the mores not by legislation, but by introducing new mores. The uniformity invariably sought by a centralized administration leads to despotism. Political wisdom consists in being able to discriminate those cases in which uniformity is preferable from those other instances in which diversity presents greater advantages (ibid., book 29, chapter 18).

Montesquieu neither opposed all that was new nor defended all that existed. In addition to attacking slavery and religious persecution, he argued that the state owes its inhabitants an assured subsistence, nourishment, clothing, and good health. It is also the state’s duty to provide for orphans, the sick, and the old; it should feed the people in the event of famine (ibid., book 23, chapter 19). Much of this was based on a general aristocratic paternalism, but Montesquieu’s values emerge clearly from his discussion of slavery. He took the position that slavery is incompatible with the general spirit of both republics and monarchies. Yet he added that emancipated slaves should be given only civil, not political, liberty. Even in popular governments, power should never be allowed to fall into the hands of the lowest classes (le bas peuple). Yet Montesquieu stressed the worth of education and denounced prejudice: knowledge makes men less cruel, prejudice leads them away from humanitarianism (ibid., book 15, chapter 4).


Nothing is easier than to criticize Montesquieu, even in the most valuable parts of his writings. The concepts he used as ideal types are defective, and his typology is both abstract and incomplete. It is abstract in the sense that no existing government fitted his specifications, despite the great number of monarchies in his time. England, whose laws he claimed came closest to achieving liberty, was not a monarchy as he defined it, for intermediate bodies no longer existed there. Montesquieu’s types are incomplete even on his own showing: Books 19, 26, and 29 of the Spirit of the Laws either modify or greatly amplify his initial types. Thus, in Book 19, while discussing the English constitution, he pointed out the advantages of representative over direct democracy. Yet he never included representation in his ideal type of democracy. Also in Book 19, he added political parties to his discussion of the politics of a free society, but again failed to explain how his types should be modified. And he virtually added a fourth type of government, the federative republic, formed by the confederation of a number of republics. It represented his solution to the puzzle of how republics could maintain their intimate scale and at the same time resist aggression by larger neighbors. Forgetfulness, inability or lack of willingness to revise, and absence of organization are everywhere evident in Montesquieu. To his intellectual faults may be added the fact that Montesquieu failed to emancipate his scheme of analysis from the perspective of his class. Yet in large part he triumphed over these defects. Montesquieu was extraordinarily imaginative in formulating general hypotheses designed to relate those variables that must be taken into account when explaining social and political behavior.

Montesquieu advanced a theory of politics and a conception of the relation between the political and social systems whose full usefulness made itself felt only later. He upheld the value of conflict in politics—the importance of pluralism in systems characterized by conciliation, compromise, and bargaining between intermediate groups and the central authority. He formulated the theoretical concepts that authority can be of diverse kinds and that order can be maintained by a variety of devices functionally equivalent to commands enforced by political and legal sanctions. He made comparison the central problem of political sociology and thus directed the focus of inquiry away from Europe to all the societies known, however imperfectly, to man.

Melvin Richter

[For the historical context of Montesquieu’s work, seeConstitutions and constitutionalism; Legal systems; Political theory; Public law, article oncomparative study; and the biographies of Bodin; Machiavelli; for discussion of the subsequent development of Montesquieu’s ideas, seethe biographies of Comte; Durkheim; Hegel; Meinecke; Tocqueville.]


(1721) 1964 The Persian Letters. Translated by George R. Healy. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. → First published as Lettres persanes.

(1734) 1965 Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Translated, with notes and an introduction by David Lowenthal. New York: Free Press. → First published in French. Translations of extracts in the text were provided by Melvin Richter.

(1748) 1950-1961 De l’esprit des loix. Vols. 1-4. Edited by Jean Brethe de la Gressaye. Paris: Société Les Belles Lettres. -→ The best critical edition. Translations of extracts in the text were provided by Melvin Richter. An English translation was published by Hafner in 1962.

Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Roger Caillois. 2 vols. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Vols. 81, 86. Paris: Gallimard, 1949-1951. → The most generally available edition. It does not contain Montesquieu’s correspondence. Translations of extracts in the text were provided by Melvin Richter.

Oeuvres complètes. Vols. 1-3. Paris: Nagel, 1950-1955. → The best edition of Montesquieu; includes his correspondence.


Althusser, Louis 1959 Montesquieu: La politique et I’histoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → A provocative Marxist treatment.

Aron, Raymond (1960) 1965 Main Currents in Sociological Thought. Volume 1: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville: The Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848. New York: Basic Books. → First published in French. Perhaps the best brief treatment of Montesquieu as a political sociologist.

Barckhausen, Henri A. 1907 Montesquieu: Ses idées et ses oeuvres d’après les papiers de La Brède. Paris: Hachette.

Bordeaux (France) 1948 Montesquieu et L’esprit des lois: Exposition organisée dans les salons de I’Hôtel de Ville de Bordeaux pour célébrer le deuxième centenaire de la publication de L’esprit des lois. Bordeaux: Delmas.

Bordeaux (France) 1956 Actes du Congrès Montesquieu, réuni à Bordeaux du 23 au 26 mat 1955 pour commémorer le deuxième centenaire de la mort de Montesquieu. Bordeaux: Delmas. → Contains 31 critical essays.

Cabeen, David C. 1947 Montesquieu: A Critical Bibliography. New York Public Library. → An annoted bibliography. Restricted to works by Montesquieu examined by the author at the Columbia University Library and the New York Public Library.

Cabeen, David C. 1955 A Supplementary Montesquieu Bibliography. Revue Internationale de philosophic 9: 409-434.

Carcassonne, E. 1927 Montesquieu et le problème de la constitution francaise au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Cassirer, Ernst (1932) 1951 The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton Univ. Press. → First published as Die Philosophic der Aufklärung.

Comte, Auguste (1830-1842) 1877 Cours de philosophic positive. 4th ed. 6 vols. Paris: Baillière.

Dedieu, Joseph 1909 Montesquieu et la tradition politique anglaise en France: Les sources anglaises de L’esprit des lois. Paris: Gabalda. → An important study of English influences on Montesquieu.

Dedieu, Joseph 1913 Montesquieu. Paris: Alcan.

Dedieu, Joseph 1943 Montesquieu, Vhomme et I’oeuvre. Paris: Boivin.

Durkheim, Emile (1892-1918) 1960 Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → Part 1 is a translation of Durkheim’s thesis Quid Secundatus politicae scientiae instituendae contulerit (1892); Part 2 was first published in Volume 25 of the Revue de métaphysique et de morale.

Ehrard, Jean 1963 L’idée de nature en France dans la première moitie du XVIIIe siècle. 2 vols. Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N.

Fletcher, Frank T. H. 1939 Montesquieu and English Politics (1750-1800). London: Arnold.

Ford, Franklin L. 1953 Robe and Sword: The Regrouping of the French Aristocracy After Louis XIV. Harvard Historical Studies, Vol. 64. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1821) 1942 The Philosophy of Right. Translated with notes by T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon.

Levin, Lawrence M. 1936 The Political Doctrine of Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois: Its Classical Background. New York: Columbia Univ., Institute of French Studies.

Mauzi, Robert 1960 L’idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée francaises du XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Colin.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1936) 1959 Werke. Volume 3: Die Entstehung des Historismus. Munich: Oldenbourg.

Neumann, Franz (1949) 1962 Editor’s Introduction. In Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws. New York: Hafner.

Palmer, Robert R. 1959-1964 The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. 2 vols. Princeton Univ. Press.

Paris, UniversitÉ de, Institut de Droit Compare 1952 La pensée politique et constitutionnelle de Montesquieu: Bicentenaire de L’esprit des lois 1748-1948. Paris: Sirey.

Plamenatz, John P. 1963 Man and Society: Political and Social Theory. Volume 2: Bentham Through Marx. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pollock, Frederick (1890) 1960 An Introduction to the History of the Science of Politics. Boston: Beacon.

Richter, Melvin 1963 [A Book Review of] Montesquieu: A Critical Biography, by Robert Shackleton. History and Theory 3:266-274.

Rothkrug, Lionel 1965 Opposition to Louis XIV: The Political and Social Origins of the French Enlightenment. Princeton Univ. Press.

Runciman, W. G. 1963 Social Science and Political Theory. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Shackleton, Robert 1961 Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. Oxford Univ. Press. → The best biography in any language.

Sorel, Albert (1887) 1888 Montesquieu. Translated by Melville B. Anderson and Edward Playfair Anderson. Chicago: McClurg. → First published in French by Hachette. A German translation was published in Berlin in 1896 by Hofmann.

Spurlin, Paul M. 1940 Montesquieu in America, 1760-1801. Louisiana State Univ., Romance Language Series, No. 4. University: Louisiana State Univ. Press.

Touchard, Jean 1959 Histoire des idees politiques. 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


views updated May 14 2018


The French jurist, satirist, and political and social philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), was the first of the great French men of letters associated with the Enlightenment.

In order to understand the Baron de Montesquieu, one must look back to the age of Louis XIV. During his long reign, Louis XIV had attempted to assert the absolute authority of the Crown over all aspects of French life and to make France supreme in Europe. Although the Grand Monarch achieved success in many of his endeavors, both his attempt to impose cultural and religious unity and his unsuccessful wars provoked sharp reactions that continued throughout the 18th century. It is within this milieu that Montesquieu must be understood.

Charles Louis de Secondat was born on Jan. 18, 1689, at the castle of La Brède near Bordeaux. His father, Jacques de Secondat, was a soldier with a long noble ancestry, and his mother, Marie Françoise de Pesnel, who died when Charles Louis was 7, was an heiress who eventually brought the barony of La Brède to the Secondat family. As was customary, the young Montesquieu spent the early years of his life among the peasants in the village of La Brède. The influence of this period remained with Charles Louis, showing itself in his deep attachment to the soil and in his rustic Gascon accent.

In 1700 Charles Louis was sent to the Oratorian Collège de Juilly, at Meaux, where he received a progressive education. Returning to Bordeaux in 1705 to study law, he was admitted to practice before the Bordeaux Parlement in 1708. The next 5 years were spent in Paris, continuing his studies. During this period he developed an intense dislike for the style of life of the capital, which he later expressed in his Persian Letters. In 1715 he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a Protestant, who brought him a large dowry. He was also elected to the Academy of Bordeaux. The following year, on the death of his uncle, Jean Baptiste, he inherited the barony of Montesquieu and the presidency of the Bordeaux Parlement.

Scholarly and Literary Career

Montesquieu had no great enthusiasm for law as a profession. He was much more interested in the spirit that lay behind law, that is, the meaning, development, and variations of established laws and their relationship to customs and history. It is from this interest that his greatest work, The Spirit of the Laws, developed. To free himself in order to continue his scholarly interests, Montesquieu took little concern in the routine of the Bordeaux Parlement and eventually sold his office as president in 1721.

Montesquieu's early works were concerned with what would now be termed biological investigations. From these studies emerged Montesquieu's interest in the effect of environment on men. During this same period Montesquieu devoted a good deal of time to reading highly popular travel literature, including the newly translated Arabian Nights and Morana's Spy of the Great Mogul in the Courts of the Christian Prince. The combination of this reading and Montesquieu's own critical attitude toward contemporary manners led him to write the first of his great works, The Persian Letters.

The Persian Letters (1721) sparkled with wit and satirical irony, but hidden beneath its deft irreverence was a fierce and bitingly critical view of European civilization and manners. The work takes the form of letters to families and friends at home from three Persians traveling in Europe. Their letters are commentaries on what they see in the West. Montesquieu endowed his travelers with the foreign, commonsense understanding necessary to effectively criticize European (French) customs and institutions, yet he also gave to his Persians the foibles and weaknesses necessary to make his readers recognize in them their own weaknesses. All facets of European life were criticized. Louis XIV was "a great magician"; the Pope "an old idol worshiped out of habit"; great nobles achieved their status by sitting on chairs and possessing ancestors, debts, and pensions. Beneath the wit was the message that society endures only on the basis of virtue and justice, which is rooted in the necessity of human cooperation and tolerance.

Although the Letters was published anonymously, it was quickly recognized as the work of Montesquieu and won for him the acclaim of the public and the displeasure of the regent, Cardinal André Fleury, who held up Montesquieu's induction into the French Academy until 1728. In the same year Montesquieu began the first of his extensive tours of Europe, which brought him from Italy to Holland to England (in the last country he was elected to the Royal Society). After his return to Bordeaux in 1731, Montesquieu began his study of the history of Rome. By 1734 he had finished his Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur of Rome and Its Decline. Though less well received than The Persian Letters—Voltaire referred to it as less a book than an ingenious table of contents—the work was less a history than an attempt to get behind history to the general secular causes of events.

According to Montesquieu, Rome achieved greatness because of the martial virtues of its citizens and the flexibility of its institutions, which could be modified to correct political and social abuses. Rome's failure to maintain these characteristics once it acquired an empire marked the beginning of its decline. The development of imperial despotism, epicurean tastes, and the rejection of commerce only hastened the decline of Roman grandeur. Montesquieu's history may not have been scientific in the modern sense, but despite the criticism leveled against it, it was his search for general causal factors that helped to lay the basis for the secularization of historical studies.

The Spirit of the Laws

Fourteen years after his study of Rome, Montesquieu brought his search for the general laws active in society and history to its completion in his greatest work. Published in 1748, The Spirit of the Laws was not an analysis of law but an investigation of the environmental and social relationships that lie behind the laws of civilized society. Combining the traditions of customary law with those of the modern theories of natural law, Montesquieu redefined law as "the necessary relationships which derive from the nature of things." Laws, and their most basic political expression, government, thus became a relative relationship between a people's physical environment and their social needs and traditions. Although the basic substance of laws—"reason in action"—remained generally the same under all circumstances, their concrete expression varies according to time and place. Laws "must be adapted to each peoples."

Montesquieu's work was an attempt to study the process of adaptation. Thus, the diversity of laws was viewed as natural and desirable. The best legislator was one who pragmatically adjusted law to the physical and social conditions confronting him. Within this framework Montesquieu defined the basic types of government, identified the dominant virtues associated with each, and stated his most widely known concept of the balance of powers as the best means of establishing and preserving liberty.

An aspect of The Spirit of the Laws that has often been overlooked by its commentators is its role in the controversy over the legal rights of the autonomous groups in France following the death of Louis XIV. The last five books are an analysis of medieval French history, designed to prove that, to protect the liberties of the nation and the inviolability of the law, autonomous judicial bodies—the parlements of France—possessed independent or "intermediary" powers to thwart the natural despotic tendencies of an absolute monarchy. This aspect of the work helped to lay the basis of the 18th-century movement for constitutionalism, which culminated in the Revolution of 1789. In this sense, Montesquieu's most fundamental thesis may be viewed as an attempt to indicate the necessity of judicial review. The Spirit of the Laws was immediately acclaimed as one of the great works of French literature.

Following the completion of his work, Montesquieu, who was going blind, went into semiretirement at La Brède. He died on Feb. 10, 1755, during a trip to Paris.

Further Reading

The best biography is Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography (1961). Montesquieu's thought is discussed in Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1951); John P. Plamenatz, Man and Society: Political and Social Theory, vol. 2 (1963); and W. G. Runciman, Social Science and Political Theory (1963). □


views updated May 11 2018


Born: January 18, 1689
Bordeaux, France
Died: February 10, 1755
Paris, France

French philosopher and satirist

The French satirist (writer using sarcasm to communicate his message) and political and social philosopher Montesquieu was the first of the great French scholars associated with the Enlightenment (a philosophical movement in the eighteenth century that rejected traditional social and religious ideas by placing reason as the most important ideal).

Early life

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu was born on January 18, 1689, at the castle of La Brède near Bordeaux. His father, Jacques de Secondat, was a soldier with a long noble ancestry, and his mother, Marie Françoise de Pesnel, who died when Charles Louis was seven, was an heiress (a woman with a large monetary inheritance) who eventually brought the barony (title of baron) of La Brède to the Secondat family. As was customary the young Montesquieu spent the early years of his life among the peasants (poor working class) in the village of La Brède. The influence of this period remained with Charles Louis, showing itself in his deep attachment to the soil. Montesquieu was also born into a climate of discontent in France. King Louis XIV's (16381715) long reign was uncomfortable for the citizens of France. His unsuccessful wars and attempts to dictate religion and culture had a bad effect on France. Knowledge of this situation helps to explain some of Montesquieu's curiosity and his interest in societal rules and laws.

In 1700 Montesquieu was sent to the Oratorian Collège de Juilly, at Meaux, where he received a modern education. Returning to Bordeaux in 1705 to study law, he was admitted to practice before the Bordeaux Parlement (parliament) in 1708. The next five years were spent in Paris, France, continuing his studies. During this period he developed an intense dislike for the style of life in the capital, which he later expressed in his Persian Letters.

In 1715 Montesquieu married Jeanne de Lartigue, a Protestant (a member of the church that had left the rule of Roman Catholicism), who brought him a large dowry (sum of money given in marriage). He was also elected to the Academy of Bordeaux. The following year, on the death of his uncle Jean Baptiste, he inherited the barony of Montesquieu and the presidency of the Bordeaux Parlement.

Scholarly and literary career

Montesquieu had no great enthusiasm for law as a profession. He was much more interested in the spirit that lay behind law. It is from this interest that his greatest work, The Spirit of the Laws, developed. To free himself in order to continue his scholarly interests, he sold his office as president of the Bordeaux Parlement in 1721. With his newly freed time he wrote the Persian Letters.

The Persian Letters was a fierce and bitingly critical view of European civilization and manners. The work takes the form of letters that three Persians (people from what is now Iran) traveling in Europe send to families and friends at home. Their letters are notes on what they see in the West. Montesquieu gave his travelers the foreign, commonsense understanding necessary to effectively criticize European (French) customs and institutions. Yet he also gave his Persians the weaknesses necessary to make his readers recognize in them their own weaknesses. All sides of European life were criticized. The message is that society lasts only on the basis of virtue and justice, which is rooted in the need of human cooperation and acceptance.

Although the Letters was published without his name, it was quickly recognized as the work of Montesquieu and won him the approval of the public and the displeasure of the governor, Cardinal André Fleury, who held up Montesquieu's introduction into the French Academy until 1728.

The Spirit of the Laws

Montesquieu brought his search for the general laws active in society and history to its completion in his greatest work. Published in 1748, The Spirit of the Laws was an investigation of the environmental and social relationships that lie behind the laws of civilized society. Combining the traditions of customary law with those of the modern theories of natural law, Montesquieu redefined law as "the necessary relationships that derive [come] from the nature of things." Laws "must be adapted to each peoples."

The Spirit of the Laws helped to lay the basis of the eighteenth-century movement for constitutionalism (government run by established law), which ended in the Revolution of 1789 (178993; rise and revolt of the middle class against the failures of King Louis XVI and his royals, many of whom were killed by the guillotine, or chopping block). In this sense Montesquieu's most basic belief may be viewed as an attempt to state the necessity of law review. The Spirit of the Laws was immediately celebrated as one of the great works of French literature.

Following the completion of his work, Montesquieu, who was going blind, went into semiretirement at La Brède. He died on February 10, 1755, during a trip to Paris.

For More Information

Joly, Maurice. The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. Edited by John S. Waggoner. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Riddle of the Modern World: Of Liberty, Wealth, and Equality. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

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

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