Summarize Montesquieu's view of liberty in The Spirit of the Laws, what does he view as the greatest threat to liberty and how is it kept in check?This query is based on the reading of "A summary...

Summarize Montesquieu's view of liberty in The Spirit of the Laws, what does he view as the greatest threat to liberty and how is it kept in check?

This query is based on the reading of "A summary of Montesquieu's, The Spirit of the Laws."

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu understood liberty as what we would today call personal freedom or autonomy, which is the right (within limits) to make our own decisions. He distinguishes between his idea of liberty and two other concepts of liberty that he believes are false. The first false idea is that liberty and democracy are the same thing. Even in a republic based on participatory government, citizens can be cheated of their liberties through corruption and greed, so democracy alone cannot safeguard liberty. He writes the following:

The misfortune of a republic is when intrigues are at an end; which happens when the people are gained by bribery and corruption; in this case they grow indifferent to public affairs, and avarice becomes their predominant passion.

The other false idea of liberty is the individual's freedom to do whatever he wants, which, in fact, takes away liberty. 

A tyranny or despotic government offers no secure liberty, but both monarchies and republics, which are forms of government Montesquieu approves of, can safeguard liberty in two ways. The first is a governmental system, such as we have in the US, the separates power in the state. In the separation of powers, no one branch of government has a monopoly of power: the legislative, executive and judicial branches keep each other in check. The other safeguard to liberty is a system of laws that are devised to protect individual liberties. Just laws bring freedom. 

The greatest threat to liberty, according to Montesquieu, is despotism, in which the power and whims of one person (Montesquieu said "man") would decide what was legal and what was not. Montesquieu greatly feared despotism as that which robs us of our liberty, whether it be the despotism of a corrupt republic or the despotism of a monarchy gone out of control.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say that Montesquieu's primary fear of the loss of liberty resided in the structure of government.  Being true to the Enlightenment, Montesquieu approached the problem of freedom from an institutional point of view.  His argument was the freedom and liberty are in greater danger when government is only one body through which all power flows.  His solution was to create a government where different bodies carried out different functions, with each being indispensable to the other.  This meant that freedom and liberty could be protected because power was divided relatively equally amongst different branches.  In this light, the structure of government is what connects to liberty and freedom.