Charles de Montesquieu Introduction

Start Your Free Trial

Download Charles de Montesquieu Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Montesquieu 1689-1755

(Full name Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu) French philosopher, historian, essayist, and fiction writer.

The following entry provides recent criticism on Montesquieu.

Although he was an aristocratic philosophe of the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu will likely be best remembered for his tremendous impact on the development of constitutional government, particularly that of the United States—a country that did not exist at the time of his death. His doctrine of the separation of powers was a cornerstone of the American Constitution and a significant contribution to political philosophy. His research into the effects of geography and culture on the structure of government provided one of the earliest models of sociology, and his use of empirical data was an important innovation in the development of political science. Montesquieu also was capable of humor, satire, and romance in his writings, and his libertine wit made him welcome in the elite salons of eighteenth-century Paris, but even in his fiction he demonstrated the serious and broad-minded intellect evident in his highly influential masterpiece, De l’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws).

Biographical Information

Montesquieu was born Charles-Louis de Secondat on January 18, 1689, at Château La Brède, near Bordeaux, the son of Jacques III de Secondat and Marie-François de Pesnel.. According to legend, when Montesquieu was baptized, a beggar acted as godfather, a reminder that, despite his social status, the poor were his brothers. In 1700, at the age of eleven, Montesquieu went to Juilly, near Paris, to attend a school run by the Congregation of the Oratory, one of the few alternatives to Jesuit education in France. The school was reputed to be very progressive and attracted students from across France. After completing his studies there in 1705, he began studying law at the University of Bordeaux, and received a law degree in 1708. For some years Montesquieu worked in Paris, but he returned to La Brède in 1713 when his father died, making him the Baron of La Brède. While there, he married Jeanne Lartigue and took on the responsibility of serving in the regional Bordeaux parlement as a councilor. When his uncle died in 1716, he became the Baron of Montesquieu and took over his uncle's position as président à mortier (deputy president) of the parlement. He also became a member of the Academy of Bordeaux. Founded in 1713, the Academy was the center of intellectual and social life in Bordeaux, and it allowed Montesquieu to further develop his interest in science and philosophy. He wrote several papers for the Academy, but much of his free time was spent writing an epistolary novel—also a critique of political systems—set in an oriental seraglio. Montesquieu published Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters) anonymously in 1721, although the authorship of the work was widely known. The tremendous success of that work advanced Montesquieu's reputation considerably, and he soon became a favorite in the literary and social circles of Paris society. He attended meetings of the Club de l'Entresol—an influential group of diplomats, magistrates, and other distinguished gentlemen who met at the home of Président Hénault to discuss economics and politics—and the literary salon of Madame de Lambert—which attracted writers including Fontenelle, Marivaux, and Crébillon. He also attended the parties of aristocrats known as libertines, which may have influenced the publication of an erotic novel entitled Le Temple de Gnide (1724; Temple of Gnidus), allegedly a description of the affairs of Mademoiselle de Clermont with the Duc de Melun—and possibly with Montesquieu himself. In 1726, eager to spend more time in Paris, he sold his office in parlement —a common practice at the time—though he stipulated that the office could be resold to his son. He left his wife and children to manage the family's affairs in Bordeaux and returned...

(The entire section is 1,978 words.)