Charles de Montesquieu

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Montesquieu’s most lasting contribution was his defense and development of the theory behind separation of powers in government. His work in this area significantly influenced the framers of the United States Constitution. Philosophically, he is best known for positing history as the basis for normative judgment. Before Montesquieu, normative judgment had always been based on nature.

Early Life

Montesquieu’s youth was a strange mixture of luxury and scarcity. His family was of noble heritage, yet his parents wanted him to be sensitive to the needs of the poor. His godfather was a beggar, and his first three years were spent nursing with a peasant family. His mother died when he was seven, which contributed to his shy and withdrawn manner.

At age eleven, Montesquieu was sent to school at Tuilly, where he spent the next five years. The school, which was maintained by the Congregation of the Oratory, provided him with a solid classical education. He was a good student who took a special interest in language. Drawn especially to Latin, Montesquieu acquired a special interest in Stoic philosophy. In 1705, Montesquieu, fulfilling the wish of his uncle, began to study law. Three years later, he received his license and became a legal apprentice in Paris. In 1713, he returned to Bordeaux, in the same year his father died, which forced him to settle down and assume the responsibilities of head of the family.

In 1716, when his uncle died, Montesquieu inherited wealth, land, and office. The office was the presidency of the Parliament of Bordeaux, a chief judgeship in the local court. He worked hard at his legal duties but did not enjoy them. After ten years, he sold his position to pursue his true interests in science, literature, and the more theoretical aspects of law.

Life’s Work

Once he was freed from his judicial responsibilities, Montesquieu moved back to Paris to enjoy the literary fame acquired by publication of his Lettres Persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722). The Persian Letters were initially published anonymously and were a fictitious account of two Persians touring Europe. The book focused on the corruption of humanity. The accounts cited in the letters were critical of both French and Parisian society. For this reason, they proved to be a mixed blessing when Montesquieu was identified as the author. The instant fame he received was accompanied by the French court’s displeasure. While Montesquieu considered his comments a reflection on European society at large, the court blocked his initial proposal to the French Academy.

Montesquieu spent the years from 1728 to 1731 traveling in Europe. The last two years of his travels were spent in England; this period greatly influenced his later works. His admiration for the English government made him a favorite at the court of Queen Caroline, which led to his election to the Royal Society. It is believed that this is where he first recognized the virtues of separation of powers. Many commentators on his work note the curiosity of his basing so much on a misreading of the British system of government.

When Montesquieu returned to France, he spent considerably more time at his family estate in La Brède. At this point in his life, he settled into more scholarly pursuits. His next major work was his Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, 1734). Published in 1734, this work developed his notion of historical causation. This book also set the groundwork for his more famous political writing, De l’éspirit des loix: Ou, Du rapport que les loix doivent avoir avec la constitution de chaque gouvernement, les mouers, le climat, la religion, le commerce, . . . (1748; The Spirit of the Laws, 1750). Montesquieu’s examination of the history of Rome led him to conclude that the strength of the Roman republic could not be sustained by the larger and more authoritarian Roman Empire. At the heart of his argument was his commitment to a free society. Much like Niccolò Machiavelli and William Shakespeare, Montesquieu believed that the tensions and conflicts that characterize free societies are the key to their political stability and strength. According to Montesquieu, tranquil republics are not as free as turbulent and divided ones.

The Spirit of the Laws is Montesquieu’s best-known work. Montesquieu had spent some twenty years on this book. In his preface to The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu indicates that this is at least his most and possibly his only mature work. This book is often criticized for its lack of organization. Yet Montesquieu claimed that there was a method to...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)