Charles de Montesquieu Biography

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Author Profile

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Montesquieu was born and educated during the repressive monarchy of King Louis XIV. After the monarch’s death in 1715, France became increasingly burdened with governmental and ecclesiastical abuses. Disputes between the monarch, the legislature, and the Church broke down the efficiency of the machinery of suppression. In this atmosphere, Montesquieu began his criticism of French politics, society, and religion. In 1721 he anonymously published the Persian Letters, easily avoiding French restrictions by publishing the volume in Amsterdam. During the 1720’s, he attended the Club de L’Entresol, a salon famous for open discussions on political reforms, until it was closed by the government. In 1748, after twenty years of work, he published The Spirit of the Laws in Geneva. This popular volume attacked the monarchy, promoting the separation of powers into equally powerful branches to ensure the defense of liberty. It undermined the Church by arguing that morality was dependent on geography and climate and was not fixed by God. The Sorbonne retaliated by twice drafting detailed censures of the work, but it failed to publish either condemnation. Both Jesuits and Jansenists censured numerous passages; despite Montesquieu’s efforts in 1751 the work was placed on the Vatican’s index of prohibited books. However, it continued to sell throughout Europe and would eventually become regarded as a classic work in political theory.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (mohn-tehs-kyew), often more simply referred to as Charles de Montesquieu, was born at Château La Brède, the French country seat of his wealthy and noble family. The title of Montesquieu came to him from a paternal uncle, while the title la Brède came from his mother’s family. His mother died when Montesquieu was seven years old, and soon afterward he began his education at the Oratorian School at Juilly, France. In 1716 Montesquieu succeeded to his uncle’s title and position as president of the Bordeaux parliament. The previous year he had married a wealthy heiress, Jeanne Lartigue, with whom he led a happy, if uneventful, married life.

During the period between 1716 and 1728, Montesquieu held his position as president of the Bordeaux parliament and began a career as scholar and author by contributing articles to the Bordeaux Academy on philosophical, scientific, and political subjects. His earliest work of note was his Persian Letters, supposedly written by two Persian gentlemen traveling in Europe, in which he satirized European society, literature, politics, and religious institutions. Proposed as a candidate for the French Academy in 1725, he was elected but not seated because of a rule that members must be residents of Paris. He finally became a member in 1728, after he had given up his presidency of the Bordeaux parliament and moved to the capital. Shortly after his election to the Academy he began a four-year tour of Europe.

Upon his return to France, Montesquieu took up residence at La Brède, rather than at Paris, and resumed his literary career. He became one of the “philosophes,” a group of French authors who sought peaceful political reform by giving the people the knowledge needed to produce that reform. Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans was published anonymously in 1734, but there was little secrecy about the author’s identity. The work ascribed the decadence and eventual fall of Rome to the loss of political virtue and liberty.

Montesquieu took fourteen years to produce his next and greatest book, The Spirit of the Laws. This thirty-one-volume work, which friends advised the author not to publish, was put on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church and almost received a public censure from the Sorbonne. Both moves indicated the liberal quality of the book and the fact that it foreshadowed many later clerical and political reforms. The Spirit of the Laws discusses...

(The entire section is 1,287 words.)