Charles de Montesquieu Biography

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...

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Author Profile

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Born Charles-Louis de Secondat, Montesquieu grew up in and around Bordeaux, where he studied law and sat in the parlement. He disliked the tyrannical and warlike tendencies of the governments of Louis XIV and the Regency. Montesquieu became the most popular critic of the French government, Church, and social customs with his satirical Persian Letters. After being admitted to the French Academy, he traveled throughout Europe. He idealized England as a model of liberty, independent judiciary, and commerce. His Spirit of the Laws, which influenced both the French and American revolutions, considers various types of constitutions and laws. He examined societies in terms of their customs and history, not as abstract types. The work’s critical tone marks it as the foundation of modern political science. In addition to providing a detached analysis, the Spirit argues for personal freedom, toleration of opposing views, separation of church and state, intermediate bodies (particularly a hereditary aristocracy) to prevent royal despotism, sensible and equitable laws, a more rational and just criminal law system, and the separation of powers.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Conroy, Peter V. Montesquieu Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. An updated study that extends Loy’s work (below), covering changes in critical views of Montesquieu since the late 1960’s.

Kingston, Rebecca. Montesquieu and the Parlement of Bordeaux. Geneva, Switzerland: Libr. Droz, 1996. A political study.

Lowenthal, David. “Montesquieu.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963. A concise but thorough topical breakdown of Montesquieu’s political teachings covering topics such as nature, commerce, religion, and political liberty.

Loy, John R. Montesquieu. New York: Twayne, 1968. An introductory survey that provides biography, analyses of major works, a chronology, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

McDonald, Lee Cameron. “Montesquieu.” In Western Political Theory: The Modern Age. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. A standard short essay that mixes biographical information with some analysis. The analysis is presented in a topical format with an especially long section on separation of powers. Not as probing or complete as the Lowenthal essay.

Montesquieu, Baron de. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated by Thomas Nugent. New York: Hafner Press, 1949. A complete volume of Montesquieu’s most important work. This edition includes a useful introductory essay by Franz Neumann.

Pangle, Thomas L. Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. A book- long commentary on The Spirit of the Laws, this work examines Montesquieu’s thought in a complete and objective manner. Pangle is especially strong on Montesquieu’s understanding of nature and normative reasoning.

Schaub, Diana J. Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. A feminist study.

Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961. The most complete biography on Montesquieu available in English. Presented in chronological order, this book is a mix of biographical data and analysis. A wonderful resource work on every aspect of Montesquieu’s life and writings. Includes a complete bibliography of Montesquieu’s works.

Shklar, Judith N. Montesquieu. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A thorough biography.

Werner, Stephen. The Comic Philosophes: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Sade. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 2002. Traces the chain of literary and philosophical influence among these four writers.