Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu

Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu

Infobox Philosopher
region = Western Philosophy
era = 18th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption = Montesquieu in 1728
name = Charles Montesquieu
birth = before January 18, 1689
(Chateau de la Brede, Labrede, Bordeaux, France)
death = February 10, 1755 (Paris, France)
school_tradition = Enlightenment
main_interests = Political Philosophy
influences = Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, John Locke, 18th century English constitution
influenced = David Hume, Edmund Burke, Georg Hegel, Alexis de Tocqueville, Émile Durkheim, U.S.A. political system and constitution, Hannah Arendt, Thomas Paine, Rousseau
notable_ideas = Separation of state powers: executive; legislative; judicial, Classification of systems of government based on their principles

Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (Eng. IPA|/ˈmɒntəˌskyu/; January 18, 1689 in BordeauxFebruary 10, 1755), was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Era of the Enlightenment. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He was largely responsible for the popularization of the terms feudalism and Byzantine Empire.


After having studied at the Catholic College of Juilly, he married. His wife, Jeanne de Latrigue, a Protestant, brought him a substantial dowry when he was 26. The next year, he inherited a fortune upon the death of his uncle, as well as the title Baron de Montesquieu and Président à Mortier in the Parlement of Bordeaux. By that time, England had declared itself a constitutional monarchy in the wake of its Glorious Revolution (1688–89), and had joined with Scotland in the Union of 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1715 the long-reigning King Louis XIV died and was succeeded by the weaker and more feeble Louis XV. These national transformations impacted Montesquieu greatly; he would later refer to them repeatedly in his work.

Soon afterwards he achieved literary success with the publication of his "Lettres persanes" ("Persian Letters", 1721), a satire based on the imaginary correspondence of a Persian visitor to Paris, pointing out the absurdities of contemporary society. He next published "Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence" ("Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans", 1734), considered by some scholars a transition from "The Persian Letters" to his master work. "De l'Esprit des Lois" ("The Spirit of the Laws") was originally published anonymously in 1748 and quickly rose to a position of enormous influence. In France, it met with an unfriendly reception from both supporters and opponents of the regime. The Roman Catholic Church banned "l'Esprit" – along with many of Montesquieu's other works – in 1751 and included it on the papacy's notorious Index. It received the highest praise from the rest of Europe, especially Britain.

Montesquieu was also highly regarded in the British colonies in America as a champion of British liberty (though not of American independence). Political scientist Donald Lutz found that Montesquieu was the most frequently quoted authority on government and politics in colonial pre-revolutionary British America. ["The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought," "American Political Science Review" 78,1(March, 1984), 189-197.] Following the American secession, Montesquieu's work remained a powerful influence on many of the American Founders, most notably James Madison of Virginia, the "Father of the Constitution." Montesquieu's philosophy that "government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another" reminded Madison and others that a free and stable foundation for their new national government required a clearly defined and balanced separation of powers. Besides composing additional works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755. He was buried in the Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris.

Political views

Montesquieu's most influential work divided French society into three classes (or "trias politica", a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. This was radical because it completely eliminated the three Estates structure of the French Monarchy: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people at large represented by the Estates-General, thereby erasing the last vestige of a feudalistic structure.

Likewise, there were three main forms of government, each supported by a social "principle": monarchies (free governments headed by a hereditary figure, e.g. king, queen, emperor), which rely on the principle of honor; republics (free governments headed by popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (enslaved governments headed by dictators), which rely on fear. The free governments are dependent on fragile constitutional arrangements. Montesquieu devotes four chapters of "The Spirit of the Laws" to a discussion of England, a contemporary free government, where liberty was sustained by a balance of powers. Montesquieu worried that in France the intermediate powers (i.e., the nobility) which moderated the power of the prince were being eroded.

Like many of his generation, Montesquieu held a number of views that might today be judged controversial. While he endorsed the idea that a woman could head a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture. His views have also been abused by modern revisionists; for instance, even though Montesquieu was ahead of his time as an ardent opponent of slavery, he has been quoted out of context in attempts to show he supported it.Fact|date=February 2007

One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in "The Spirit of the Laws" and hinted at in "Persian Letters", is the meteorological climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of man and his society. He goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being ideal. His view is that people living in very warm countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate of middle Europe is therefore optimal. On this point, Montesquieu may well have been influenced by a similar pronouncement in The Histories of Herodotus, where he makes a distinction between the 'ideal' temperate climate of Greece as opposed to the overly cold climate of Scythia and the overly warm climate of Egypt. This was a common belief at the time, and can also be found within the medical writings of Herodotus' times, including the 'On Airs, Waters, Places' of the Hippocratic corpus. One can find a similar statement in "Germania" by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu's favorite authors. In a different perspective Louis Althusser, in his analysis of Montesquieu's work [L. Althusser, "Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx", NLB, 1972. ] , has pointed out the seminal character of the inclusion of material factors, such as climate, in the explanation of social dynamics and political forms.


Further reading

* Pangle, Thomas, "Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism" (Chicago: 1989 rpt.; 1973).
* Person, James Jr., ed. “Montesquieu” (excerpts from chap. 8) in "Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800", (Gale Publishing: 1988), vol. 7, pp. 350-52.
* Shackleton, Robert. "Montesquieu; a Critical Biography". (Oxford: 1961).
* Schaub, Diana J. "Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu's" 'Persian Letters'. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).
* Spurlin, Paul M. "Montesquieu in America, 1760-1801" (New York: Octagon Books, 1961).

List of works

* "Les causes de l'écho" ("The Causes of an Echo")
* "Les glandes rénales" ("The Renal Glands")
* "La cause de la pesanteur des corps" ("The Cause of Gravity of Bodies")
* "La damnation éternelle des païens" ("The Eternal Damnation of the Pagans", 1711)
* "Système des Idées" ("System of Ideas", 1716)
* "Lettres persanes" ("Persian Letters", 1721)
* "Le Temple de Gnide" ("The Temple of Gnide", a novel; 1724)
* "Arsace et Isménie" ("(The True History of) Arsace and Isménie", a novel; 1730)
* "Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence" ("Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans", 1734)
* "De l'esprit des lois" ("(On) The Spirit of the Laws", 1748)
* "La défense de «L'Esprit des lois»" ("In Defence of "The Spirit of the Laws", 1748)
* "Pensées suivies de Spicilège" ("Thoughts after Spicilège")

See also

* Liberalism
* Contributions to liberal theory
* French Government
* Napoleon

External links

* [ Free full-text works online]
* [ Montesquieu] in The Catholic Encyclopedia.
* [ Montesquieu] in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
* [ Timeline of Montesquieu's Life]

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