Montesquieu Essay - Critical Essays

Montesquieu

Introduction

Montesquieu 1689-1755

(Full name Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu) French philosopher, historian, essayist, and fiction writer.

The following entry provides recent criticism on Montesquieu.

Although he was an aristocratic philosophe of the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu will likely be best remembered for his tremendous impact on the development of constitutional government, particularly that of the United States—a country that did not exist at the time of his death. His doctrine of the separation of powers was a cornerstone of the American Constitution and a significant contribution to political philosophy. His research into the effects of geography and culture on the structure of government provided one of the earliest models of sociology, and his use of empirical data was an important innovation in the development of political science. Montesquieu also was capable of humor, satire, and romance in his writings, and his libertine wit made him welcome in the elite salons of eighteenth-century Paris, but even in his fiction he demonstrated the serious and broad-minded intellect evident in his highly influential masterpiece, De l’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws).

Biographical Information

Montesquieu was born Charles-Louis de Secondat on January 18, 1689, at Château La Brède, near Bordeaux, the son of Jacques III de Secondat and Marie-François de Pesnel.. According to legend, when Montesquieu was baptized, a beggar acted as godfather, a reminder that, despite his social status, the poor were his brothers. In 1700, at the age of eleven, Montesquieu went to Juilly, near Paris, to attend a school run by the Congregation of the Oratory, one of the few alternatives to Jesuit education in France. The school was reputed to be very progressive and attracted students from across France. After completing his studies there in 1705, he began studying law at the University of Bordeaux, and received a law degree in 1708. For some years Montesquieu worked in Paris, but he returned to La Brède in 1713 when his father died, making him the Baron of La Brède. While there, he married Jeanne Lartigue and took on the responsibility of serving in the regional Bordeaux parlement as a councilor. When his uncle died in 1716, he became the Baron of Montesquieu and took over his uncle's position as président à mortier (deputy president) of the parlement. He also became a member of the Academy of Bordeaux. Founded in 1713, the Academy was the center of intellectual and social life in Bordeaux, and it allowed Montesquieu to further develop his interest in science and philosophy. He wrote several papers for the Academy, but much of his free time was spent writing an epistolary novel—also a critique of political systems—set in an oriental seraglio. Montesquieu published Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters) anonymously in 1721, although the authorship of the work was widely known. The tremendous success of that work advanced Montesquieu's reputation considerably, and he soon became a favorite in the literary and social circles of Paris society. He attended meetings of the Club de l'Entresol—an influential group of diplomats, magistrates, and other distinguished gentlemen who met at the home of Président Hénault to discuss economics and politics—and the literary salon of Madame de Lambert—which attracted writers including Fontenelle, Marivaux, and Crébillon. He also attended the parties of aristocrats known as libertines, which may have influenced the publication of an erotic novel entitled Le Temple de Gnide (1724; Temple of Gnidus), allegedly a description of the affairs of Mademoiselle de Clermont with the Duc de Melun—and possibly with Montesquieu himself. In 1726, eager to spend more time in Paris, he sold his office in parlement—a common practice at the time—though he stipulated that the office could be resold to his son. He left his wife and children to manage the family's affairs in Bordeaux and returned to Paris, campaigning to become a member of the Académie Française. After successfully battling the prime minister, Cardinal Fleury, who raised objections to The Persian Letters, Montesquieu was elected to the prestigious group and was installed in 1728. Shortly afterwards, he embarked on a lengthy European tour, which gave him the opportunity to record his observations of the cultures and political systems of several countries, including Austria, Italy, Germany, and Holland. The most significant part of his journey, however, was his time in England, accompanied by the Earl of Chesterfield, where he met with several members of the aristocracy and was invited to join the venerable Royal Society. The parliamentary system, the religious freedom, and the booming mercantilism of England would later provide significant material for Montesquieu's landmark work, De l'Esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws). When he returned from his trip in May 1731, he went back to La Brède, where he organized the notes from his travels and worked at creating an English-style landscape garden. In 1733 he completed the manuscript for Les Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734; Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans). The work reflected his extensive reading and research in Latin sources and revealed a new seriousness in his writings. He spent the next fifteen years working on his masterwork, The Spirit of the Laws, the culmination not only of his observations while traveling but also of a lifetime of research into law, culture, and philosophy. He also continued his frequent visits to Paris, now attending the salons of Mmes. du Tencin, du Deffand, and Geoffrin, where he met with Diderot—to whose Encyclopédie he offered an essay—d'Alembert, and Duclos. He published The Spirit of the Laws in 1748 to immediate acclaim and virulent criticism. By 1749 the work had been translated into several other European languages, although by 1751, due to allegations of heresy, the work was placed on the Papal Index of Prohibited Books. Despite public outcry, however, Montesquieu was elected director of the Académie Française in 1753. By 1754 Montesquieu was seriously ill, and his vision, which he seemed to have exhausted while working on The Spirit of the Laws, was failing. He died in La Bréde on February 10, 1755, and was buried there in the parish church of Saint-Sulpice.

Major Works

Although Montesquieu is best known for only a handful of works, his output was prolific and diverse. Before the publication of The Persian Letters he wrote scientific treatises addressing such subjects as the function of the kidneys, the physical history of the earth, and gravity. He also published, in 1721, Observations on Natural History, which reflects his abiding interest in cause and effect and in empirical science. Eventually he would focus these interests in studying mankind and the reasons behind the behaviors of individuals and society, in the Spirit of the Laws as well as in treatises such as Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères (1736; An Essay on Causes Affecting Minds and Characters). Montesquieu attributed many human behaviors and feelings to physical causes, ranging from climate to the nervous system, which he imagined as analogous to the strings of a musical instrument. The human body was also important to Montesquieu as a metaphor for political systems, particularly in his critique of despotism. Thus in The Persian Letters the body is the seat of power: the despotic Usbek dominates his seraglio by controlling all the bodies in it, both wives and eunuchs, and all relationships revolve around the physical tyranny of the master. In The Spirit of the Laws, the body provides a rich analogy for political organization and the importance of the separation of powers. Montesquieu's study of history was also central to the development of his political theories. His most significant historical work is the Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, in which he demonstrates his method of interpreting historical causes and effects, focusing on the underlying sociological and moral reasons for Rome's decline as well as the political causes. This method was also important to the development of The Spirit of the Laws: rather than writing political theory based on the ideal, Montesquieu innovated by constructing his philosophy based on the real, on what he had observed in his readings and travels. Thus Montesquieu is often called the first sociologist, because he was the first to study the effects of social and environmental phenomena on human behavior. In his greatest work, The Spirit of the Laws, he combined his careful sociological observations with more theoretical philosophy to produce true political science. A crucial focus of the book is the definition of the three forms of government—the democratic republic, the monarchy, and the despotic state—taken in large part from the observations he made during his travels. In particular, his time in England strongly influenced his satisfaction with their parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy, which provided an important model for his descriptions of government and for his doctrine of the separation of powers, one of the best-known portions of the work.

Critical Reception

Montesquieu wrote in the spirit of his age—a time of libertinism and Enlightenment. His good social connections, his lively and energetic style, his rationalism, and his advocacy of political liberty made him a popular writer both in France and other European countries, particularly England. Among his early critics, however, was another major figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, who found Montesquieu too conservative. Early American political leaders embraced Montesquieu's work, citing The Spirit of the Laws frequently. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were very familiar with the work, and many critics suggest that it was powerful influence on the American Constitution. This is perhaps ironic given Montesquieu's aristocratic preference for the monarchy rather than the republic, and may explain why Jefferson considered the work “a book of paradoxes.” Later critics also suggested that Montesquieu's method was not always sound, that his logic was obscured by his cleverness, and that he was shortsighted in not anticipating the French Revolution. Emile Durkheim, a leader in the establishment of the modern discipline of sociology, acknowledged Montesquieu as one of the field's foremost predecessors, but nonetheless took him to task for his terminology. Twentieth-century scholarship on Montesquieu continued to focus on his idea of the republic and his contributions to American politics; but as Anne M. Cohler noted, the fit is awkward, given Montesquieu's aristocratic leanings: he believed in liberty but did not feel that all people could bear liberty equally well. Montesquieu's idea of the despotic state has also received recent critical attention, in particular his depiction of a despot in The Persian Letters. Robert Shakleton, a leading Montesquieu scholar of the twentieth-century, maintained that his ideas about despotism were strongly influenced by Machiavelli, and, as Durkheim suggested, his models were largely Oriental. Montesquieu's fears about despotism were rooted in a distrust of both an overly strong monarch and an overly strong merchant class, according to Roger Boesche; thus, Boesche argued, Montesquieu presented two conflicting definitions of despotism to meet each need. Because the satire and criticism found within The Persian Letters is largely symbolic, many critics have suggested that Montesquieu intended additional targets. In particular, some critics have found in The Persian Letters a strong pro-feminist sentiment. Following the scholarly tradition of Pauline Kra, who called the work a “feminist manifesto,” Diana J. Schaub offered a book-length treatment of this subject, observing Montesquieu's sympathy towards the women of the seraglio as well as his positive view of feminine sexuality. Christopher Betts suggested that certain portions of the work are also anti-Christian. Finally, critics of the later twentieth-century emphasized the importance of commerce to Montesquieu's theory of politics. Stephen J. Rosow, Judith Shklar, and Pierre Manent each argued that economic relations are very closely tied to the principles of virtue and honor that Montesquieu saw as the foundation of both republican and monarchical government.

Principal Works

Lettres persanes [The Persian Letters] (novel) 1721

Observations on Natural History (prose) 1721

Le Temple de Gnide [The Temple of Gnidus] (prose poem) 1724

Traité des devoirs [Treatise on Duty] (essay) 1725

De la politique [On Politics] (essay) 1725

Réflexions sur le caractère de quelques princes et sur quelques événements de leur vie (essays) 1731-33

Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains, et de leur décadence [Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and the Decadence of the Romans] (essay) 1734...

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Criticism

Robert Shakleton (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Shakleton, Robert. “Montesquieu and Machiavelli: A Reappraisal.” In Essays on Montesquieu and the Enlightenment, edited by David Gilson and Martin Smith, pp. 117-31. Oxford: Alden Press, 1988.

[In this essay, first published in 1964, Shakleton details Machiavelli's influence on Montesquieu, noting the similarities in several passages from many of Montesquieu's earlier works. Shakleton suggests that while Montesquieu took much from Machiavelli on religion and the republic, many of the borrowed ideas were merely a stimulus for Montesquieu to develop a broader philosophy.]

The names of the President of the Parlement of Bordeaux and of the Florentine Secretary...

(The entire section is 6718 words.)

Mark H. Waddicor (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Waddicor, Mark H. “The Originality of Montesquieu's Method.” In Montesquieu and the Philosophy of Natural Law, pp. 22-45. The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1970.

[In this excerpt from his study of Montesquieu's application of the idea of natural law, Waddicor examines Montesquieu's relationship to other philosophers of natural law, and to other advocates of the scientific method. In particular, Waddicor analyzes Montesquieu's methodological debt to Descartes, as well as the influence of both classical and early modern authors.]

1. THE PROBLEM OF MONTESQUIEU'S METHOD

It is often thought that the président's method of studying...

(The entire section is 11779 words.)

Stephen J. Rosow (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Rosow, Stephen J. “Commerce, Power and Justice: Montesquieu on International Politics,” Review of Politics 46, 3 (1984): 346-66.

[In this essay, Rosow explores the relationship between Montesquieu's study of history and his ideas about international politics, with a focus on the development of commerce.]

What we remember most today as the liberal tradition of international relations theory are the free trade theories of the nineteenth century and the idealist theories of organization and world order of the early twentieth. That pre-nineteenth century formulations should have used liberal theories of commerce and international law explicitly as a realistic...

(The entire section is 8117 words.)

Judith Shklar (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Shklar, Judith. “The Spirit of the Laws: necessity and freedom.” In Montesquieu, pp. 93-110. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

[In this excerpt from her study of Montesquieu's works, Shklar begins by examining the development of Montesquieu's theory of culture, or the cumulative reasons that different regions and peoples adopt different systems of government; she also critiques his theory, suggesting that he overemphasized psychology. Shklar also discusses the importance of commerce to Montesquieu's notions of government and the function of laws.]

The second part of The Spirit of the Laws deals with the ways in which the physical...

(The entire section is 6345 words.)

Anne M. Cohler (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Cohler, Anne M. “Liberty.” In Montesquieu's Comparative Politics and the Spirit of American Constitutionalism, pp. 98-119. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.

[In this excerpt from her study of Montesquieu's influence on American politics, Cohler relates Montesquieu's idea of liberty to the structure of the American federal government and the doctrine of the separation of powers. Cohler also emphasizes Montesquieu's belief that not all citizens were equally able to possess liberty, noting his aristocratic sympathies.]

We have been taught that political liberty, as the end of political life, is a result of the view that men are by nature equal and...

(The entire section is 9145 words.)

E. J. Hundert and Paul Nelles (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hundert, E. J., and Paul Nelles. “Liberty and Theatrical Space in Montesquieu's Political Theory: The Poetics of Public Life in the Persian Letters,Political Theory 17, 2 (1989): 223-46.

[In this essay, Hundert and Nelles support the argument advanced by Judith Shklar that Montesquieu describes liberty as requiring a theatrical public sphere, adding that the Persian Letters reflect Montesquieu's earlier explorations of this idea. The authors focus on the structure and genre of the novel to demonstrate how Montesquieu uses the unusual form of the epistolary novel to advance his political philosophy.]

“The crowns and...

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Roger Boesche (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Boesche, Roger. “Fearing Monarchs and Merchants: Montesquieu's Two Theories of Despotism,” Western Political Quarterly 43, 4 (1990): 741-61.

[In this essay, Boesche looks at the theories of despotism present in Montesquieu's De l'Esprit de lois and The Persian Letters. Caught between fear of a too-powerful sovereign and a too-selfish merchant class, Boesche argues, Montesquieu contradicts himself in presenting two significantly different portraits of a despotic society.]

Although he did not invent the word despotism, Montesquieu more than any other author established it in that lexicon of political and politicized words—words such as...

(The entire section is 8971 words.)

Alan Gilbert (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Alan. “‘Internal Restlessness’: Individuality, and Community in Montesquieu,” Political Theory 22, 1 (1994): 45-70.

[In this essay, Gilbert draws out the ethical bases of Montesquieu's philosophy, linking his sense of moral justice to his vision of a liberal, interdependent society. Gilbert focuses on Montesquieu's use of the English model to flesh out his interpretation of Montesquieu's ideal commercial state.]

1. TWO INTERPRETATIONS OF MONTESQUIEU

In Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu began his argument with a striking contrast of the virtue-based politics of ancient small warrior republics and the honor-based...

(The entire section is 10146 words.)

Diana J. Schaub (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Schaub, Diana J. “Montesquieu's Untraditional Despotism.” In Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu's Persian Letters, pp. 19-39. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.

[In this excerpt from her study of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Schaub discusses Montesquieu's concept of despotism, comparing it to the political philosophy of Tocqueville, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. Schaub links Montesquieu's own philosophy to his positive view of pleasure and sexuality, embodied in the Persian Letters in his treatment of the women of the seraglio.]

Because the Persian Letters is concerned with the articulation of despotic...

(The entire section is 10473 words.)

Christopher Betts (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Betts, Christopher. “Constructing Utilitarianism: Montesquieu on Suttee in the Letters Persanes,French Studies 51, 1 (January, 1997): 19-29.

[In this essay, Betts casts a critical eye on Letter 125 of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, in which Montesquieu condemns the Hindu custom of sati, to demonstrate that the principles underlying his argument anticipate the Utilitarianism of a later era. Betts also raises the possibility that the coded message of the letter is not anti-Hindu but anti-Christian.]

The one hundred and twenty-fifth letter of the Lettres persanes, the text of which will be found at the end of this article,...

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Sharon Krause (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Krause, Sharon. “The Politics of Distinction and Disobedience: Honor and the Defense of Liberty in Montesquieu,” Polity 31, 3 (1999): 469-99.

[In this essay, Kraus applies the philosophy of Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois to modern American politics, arguing that his concept of honor is necessary to contain the growth of sovereign power and to protect individual liberties. Acknowledging that honor is not wholly virtuous, Krause suggests that honor nonetheless works to channel personal ambition for the public good instead of attempting to suppress self-interest altogether.]

Why do men and women sometimes risk their necks to defend their liberties?...

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