Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In terms of its practical effect, The Spirit of the Laws is one of the most important political science books. It was one of the primary sources of the United States Constitution and, through that document, one of the major influences on the development of democratic institutions in Europe during and after the French Revolution. All this is out of proportion to Montesquieu’s objectives in writing the book, which were to analyze the various types of political institutions known throughout the world throughout history. Montesquieu also aims, in his book, to denounce the abuses of the French monarchical system and to encourage a liberal and more equitable monarchical government for France.
In setting out to write his book, Montesquieu’s major inspirations were the works of René Descartes, Nicholas de Malebranche, and Niccolò Machiavelli, all of which he viewed with the kind of healthy skepticism typical of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. This inspiration did not give him his conclusions, but it gave him his method: a rational, descriptive, and analytic approach to the problem of the nature of the good constitution of society. Montesquieu, like most early political thinkers after Machiavelli, was essentially concerned with the problem of the relationship of right and might, of law and power. Many of these thinkers, however, especially those opposed to what they considered the evil in Machiavelli’s realistic approach to politics, tried to theorize on a moral base. They sought to find the basis for the right constitution of society in a consideration of right and wrong and in a natural law of right and wrong. Such an approach was alien to Montesquieu. Political society, for him, had to be based on civil law. Law should reflect what individuals consider right or wrong, but subjective morals and objective law are two different things. Morals, like law, are relative; what one society might consider both right and legal, another might well consider both wrong and illegal.
In considering the problem of adjusting right and might, law and power, Montesquieu did not attempt to solve the problem. He was convinced the problem could not be solved but only understood and dealt with in more rational and equitable ways than societies had used in the past. Thus, he was no more a political moralist than he was a political utopian. Montesquieu’s political theory rested on the following assumptions: First, there is no universal solution to the problems of politically structuring a society, because there are only kinds of solutions; second, different cultures require different solutions; third, whatever the solution in a given society, it cannot be arbitrary and will not be accidental—it will depend on the cultural tradition and factors of history and geography; fourth, there is no ideal solution for any culture, only better and worse solutions; fifth, no solution is permanent but is subject to change by conscious or unconscious action and corruption; and, sixth, any workable solution must be the result of rational analysis of objective factors.
The book itself is vast in terms of both the ground it covers and the ideas it generates. Nevertheless, it does not, and could not, achieve the objectives set for it. The scope is too large for the author’s abilities and resources. The evidence is often incorrect because techniques for gathering information were still undeveloped. Often Montesquieu’s interpretation of valid evidence is not...
(The entire section is 1413 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Carrithers, David W., Michael A. Mosher, and Paul A. Rahe, eds. Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on “The Spirit of the Laws.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Collection of essays providing various interpretations of the book’s philosophy and influence, including an introductory appreciation by Carrithers and discussions of Montesquieu and natural law, despotism in The Spirit of the Laws, and Montesquieu and English liberty.
Cohler, Anne M. Montesquieu’s Comparative Politics and the Spirit of American Constitutionalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. Scholarly but accessible work for advanced students. Discusses the narrative content of The Spirit of the Laws and explores Montesquieu’s conceptualization of liberty, legislation, democracy, and other themes.
Dijn, Annelien de. French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society? New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Describes Montesquieu’s concept of “aristocratic liberalism,” which held that a corps of aristocrats was needed to preserve freedom in a monarchy. Demonstrates how this idea had a continued impact on France’s politics and society after the French Revolution.
Durkheim, Émile. Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960. Durkheim, a major contributor to the theoretical foundations of sociology, argues that The Spirit of the Laws lays down the principles of the then-emerging science of sociology. Outlines and critiques Montesquieu’s methodological logic from a classic social scientific standpoint.
Kingston, Rebecca E., ed. Montesquieu and His Legacy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Collection of essays analyzing the significance of Montesquieu’s ideas in the development of Western political theory and institutions. Includes discussions of The Spirit of the Laws and the Chinese empire, free speech and The Spirit of the Laws in Canada and the United States, and a comparison of the political philosophies of Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Levin, Lawrence Meyer. The Political Doctrine of Montesquieu’s “Esprit des lois”: Its Classical Background. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. A voluminous but straightforward examination of Montesquieu’s reliance on Greek, Roman, and other ancient texts as intellectual sources. Includes a large bibliography of studies, predominantly in French, on Montesquieu.
Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Devotes eight lucid chapters to the writing of and concepts in The Spirit of the Laws. A useful introductory survey of the work.