Montesquieu, Charles de

views updated


Man of letters, political theorist; b. near Bordeaux, Jan. 18, 1689; d. Paris, Feb. 10, 1775. Charles Louis Joseph de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, inherited the former barony from his mother and the latter, together with a provincial office, from an uncle. He studied law and the sciences. Originally he was a rationalist in the Cartesian tradition, inclined to see social life as dominated by unchanging regularities. A grand tour from 1728 to 1731 opened his eyes to the profound differences among cultures, and to the importance of customs and local traditions. His book De l'Esprit des lois (1748) made him one of Europe's foremost social and political philosophers.

As a mature scholar Montesquieu endeavored to uncover the underlying raisons d'être of apparently irrational institutions, such as the medieval ordeal by fire, taking contemporary circumstances as his clues for interpretation. His general conviction was that cultures are determined by two sets of influences, geographical environment and political constitution. A hot climate makes men sluggish and conservative; a cold climate makes them active and progressive. He ascribed to ecological realities both the liberty enjoyed by the British and the lack of liberty endured by Africans and Asiatics.

Montesquieu distinguished three basic forms of political constitution, each needing an appropriate indwelling spirit to function well: republicanism, the spirit of virtue; limited monarchy, honor; and despotism, fear. Rome, the main example of republicanism, flourished while her citizens were frugal, hardworking, disciplined, patriotic, and enjoyed the roughandready equality essential to this kind of society. Limited monarchy

as exemplified in England and France required a general conviction of noblesse oblige to keep social ranks and distinctions from enfeebling the state. Despotism, characteristic of the Oriental empires, was simply structured, with the dictator on the one hand, the subject masses on the other, and with oppression and terror as the only social cement.

By distinguishing two formative forces, geography and politics, Montesquieu created for himself the difficult problem of resolving which, in the last resort, was the more decisive. The assertion that each constitution had its own appropriate territorial configurationthat republics worked best when small, limited monarchies when mediumsized, and despotisms when of vast extentdid not indicate whether territory conditioned political form or political form conditioned territorial frontiers. Montesquieu recognized that geographical and political theories embody contradictory conceptions of man, geographical determinism seeing man as passive and subject to natural forces, political doctrine assuming him to be active and morally responsible. In the unfinished Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, he ascribed primacy to the sociopolitical factor, arguing mainly from observation.

Although Montesquieu abhorred despotism and admired republicanism, he judged that a limited monarchy suited the modern territorial state best. He regarded the English constitution with its division of powers as very successful. His threefold division of governmental power into executive, legislative, and judicial branches was a major contribution to political thought and practice. It has often been asserted that he was a mechanist, finding the secret of a smoothly running society in the counterbalancing of independent societal forces. But his thought exemplifies organismic conceptions as well. Social forces are never really independent of each other. They form a definite total and inclusive system. A contest among them is not to be desired, not even a contest that will lead to equilibration, but rather mutual mitigation, complementation, and cooperation. The existence of intermediate social strata, such as an aristocracy independent of the king, seemed to Montesquieu the best safeguard against the dangers of overcentralization and dictatorship on the one hand, and underorganization and mob rule on the other. Not only England, but also France, with her sturdy provincial estates and parlements, provided the model.

Montesquieu's concept of man was similar to that of Montaigne; his low estimate of human nature was somewhat mitigated, however, by an indulgent and even compassionate attitude. In religion he was a Deist, and although he was basically anticlerical, he respected the traditional Roman Catholicism of his country and died in the church.

Bibliography: c. d. cabeen, Montesquieu: A Bibliography (New York 1947). r. shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography (London 1961). w. stark, Montesquieu: Pioneer of the Sociology of Knowledge (Toronto 1961).

[w. stark]

About this article

Montesquieu, Charles de

Updated About content Print Article