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...
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