Charles de Montesquieu Critical Essays


(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 to Paris, campaigning to become a member of the Académie Française. After successfully battling the prime minister, Cardinal Fleury, who raised objections to The Persian Letters, Montesquieu was elected to the prestigious group and was installed in 1728. Shortly afterwards, he embarked on a lengthy European tour, which gave him the opportunity to record his observations of the cultures and political systems of several countries, including Austria, Italy, Germany, and Holland. The most significant part of his journey, however, was his time in England, accompanied by the Earl of Chesterfield, where he met with several members of the aristocracy and was invited to join the venerable Royal Society. The parliamentary system, the religious freedom, and the booming mercantilism of England would later provide significant material for Montesquieu's landmark work, De l'Esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws). When he returned from his trip in May 1731, he went back to La Brède, where he organized the notes from his travels and worked at creating an English-style landscape garden. In 1733 he completed the manuscript for Les Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734; Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans). The work reflected his extensive reading and research in Latin sources and revealed a new seriousness in his writings. He spent the next fifteen years working on his masterwork, The Spirit of the Laws, the culmination not only of his observations while traveling but also of a lifetime of research into law, culture, and philosophy. He also continued his frequent visits to Paris, now attending the salons of Mmes. du Tencin, du Deffand, and Geoffrin, where he met with Diderot—to whose Encyclopédie he offered an essay—d'Alembert, and Duclos. He published The Spirit of the Laws in 1748 to immediate acclaim and virulent criticism. By 1749 the work had been translated into several other European languages, although by 1751, due to allegations of heresy, the work was placed on the Papal Index of Prohibited Books. Despite public outcry, however, Montesquieu was elected director of the Académie Française in 1753. By 1754 Montesquieu was seriously ill, and his vision, which he seemed to have exhausted while working on The Spirit of the Laws, was failing. He died in La Bréde on February 10, 1755, and was buried there in the parish church of Saint-Sulpice.

Major Works

Although Montesquieu is best known for only a handful of works, his output was prolific and diverse. Before the publication of The Persian Letters he wrote scientific treatises addressing such subjects as the function of the kidneys, the physical history of the earth, and gravity. He also published, in 1721, Observations on Natural History, which reflects his abiding interest in cause and effect and in empirical science. Eventually he would focus these interests in studying mankind and the reasons behind the behaviors of individuals and society, in the Spirit of the Laws as well as in treatises such as Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères (1736; An Essay on Causes Affecting Minds and Characters). Montesquieu attributed many human behaviors and feelings to physical causes, ranging from climate to the nervous system, which he imagined as analogous to the strings of a musical instrument. The human body was also important to Montesquieu as a metaphor for political systems, particularly in his critique of despotism. Thus in The Persian Letters the body is the seat of power: the despotic Usbek dominates his seraglio by controlling all the bodies in it, both wives and eunuchs, and all relationships revolve around the physical tyranny of the master. In The Spirit of the Laws, the body provides a rich analogy for political organization and the importance of the separation of powers. Montesquieu's study of history was also central to the development of his political theories. His most significant historical work is the Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, in which he demonstrates his method of interpreting historical causes and effects, focusing on the underlying sociological and moral reasons for Rome's decline as well as the political causes. This method was also important to the development of The Spirit of the Laws: rather than writing political theory based on the ideal, Montesquieu innovated by constructing his philosophy based on the real, on what he had observed in his readings and travels. Thus Montesquieu is often called the first sociologist, because he was the first to study the effects of social and environmental phenomena on human behavior. In his greatest work, The Spirit of the Laws, he combined his careful sociological observations with more theoretical philosophy to produce true political science. A crucial focus of the book is the definition of the three forms of government—the democratic republic, the monarchy, and the despotic state—taken in large part from the observations he made during his travels. In particular, his time in England strongly influenced his satisfaction with their parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy, which provided an important model for his descriptions of government and for his doctrine of the separation of powers, one of the best-known portions of the work.

Critical Reception

Montesquieu wrote in the spirit of his age—a time of libertinism and Enlightenment. His good social connections, his lively and energetic style, his rationalism, and his advocacy of political liberty made him a popular writer both in France and other European countries, particularly England. Among his early critics, however, was another major figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, who found Montesquieu too conservative. Early American political leaders embraced Montesquieu's work, citing The Spirit of the Laws frequently. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were very familiar with the work, and many critics suggest that it was powerful influence on the American Constitution. This is perhaps ironic given Montesquieu's aristocratic preference for the monarchy rather than the republic, and may explain why Jefferson considered the work “a book of paradoxes.” Later critics also suggested that Montesquieu's method was not always sound, that his logic was obscured by his cleverness, and that he was shortsighted in not anticipating the French Revolution. Emile Durkheim, a leader in the establishment of the modern discipline of sociology, acknowledged Montesquieu as one of the field's foremost predecessors, but nonetheless took him to task for his terminology. Twentieth-century scholarship on Montesquieu continued to focus on his idea of the republic and his contributions to American politics; but as Anne M. Cohler noted, the fit is awkward, given Montesquieu's aristocratic leanings: he believed in liberty but did not feel that all people could bear liberty equally well. Montesquieu's idea of the despotic state has also received recent critical attention, in particular his depiction of a despot in The Persian Letters. Robert Shakleton, a leading Montesquieu scholar of the twentieth-century, maintained that his ideas about despotism were strongly influenced by Machiavelli, and, as Durkheim suggested, his models were largely Oriental. Montesquieu's fears about despotism were rooted in a distrust of both an overly strong monarch and an overly strong merchant class, according to Roger Boesche; thus, Boesche argued, Montesquieu presented two conflicting definitions of despotism to meet each need. Because the satire and criticism found within The Persian Letters is largely symbolic, many critics have suggested that Montesquieu intended additional targets. In particular, some critics have found in The Persian Letters a strong pro-feminist sentiment. Following the scholarly tradition of Pauline Kra, who called the work a “feminist manifesto,” Diana J. Schaub offered a book-length treatment of this subject, observing Montesquieu's sympathy towards the women of the seraglio as well as his positive view of feminine sexuality. Christopher Betts suggested that certain portions of the work are also anti-Christian. Finally, critics of the later twentieth-century emphasized the importance of commerce to Montesquieu's theory of politics. Stephen J. Rosow, Judith Shklar, and Pierre Manent each argued that economic relations are very closely tied to the principles of virtue and honor that Montesquieu saw as the foundation of both republican and monarchical government.