Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
In some respects, Montesquieu is far more complex and nuanced than he is often given credit for. When discussing Montesquieu, we tend to focus on the theory of checks and balances, but this theory only serves as one part of a much larger work, and Montesquieu's overall project is actually...
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In some respects, Montesquieu is far more complex and nuanced than he is often given credit for. When discussing Montesquieu, we tend to focus on the theory of checks and balances, but this theory only serves as one part of a much larger work, and Montesquieu's overall project is actually far more ambitious and of a larger scope than even that highly influential theory and analysis of statecraft.
For Montesquieu, the Spirit of the Laws is first and foremost an analysis of political states and the governments and legal systems that have emerged within them, and he examines a wide range of various political contexts. For Montesquieu, law has its foundations in the intersection between general foundational principles and the particulars of the cultures that shaped them. This relationship between the general and the particular is something that is not expressed nearly often enough.
For Montesquieu, there are certain general underlying themes which tend to transcend national boundaries. Montesquieu voices opposition to Hobbes and states that in isolation, human beings would be in a state of vulnerability, and the advantages to be found in mutual association leads people to form societies (book 1, chapter 2). From here, laws will always need to be made: how governments will be organized, who will rule, the institutions of statecraft, and the creation of a constitution (chapter 3). This is a unifying principle: every polity, every state, has these laws and shares these features in common. Additionally, Montesquieu differentiates between three different classifications of government type (which can be further subdivided based on the particularities at hand)—democracy, monarchy, and despotism—and likewise states that every government should be aligned with one of these three types (book 2, chapter 1).
But here things get tricky, because for Montesquieu the particularities are important. For Montesquieu, factors like climate and geography create very different contexts among different people in different parts of the world, and a kind of collective personality emerges. Shaped by these different traditions and geographical contexts, he finds that law codes and traditions are going to change depending on where you are, so that what is appropriate and rational in one location might be quite irrational someplace else. For Montesquieu, the circumstances matter. (See, for example, book 1, chapter 3, or book 14 for a far lengthier discussion on the impact of climate.)
This being said, I do want to focus a little bit on the topic of despotism, because this tends to be a major theme for Montesquieu, and it is notable that Montesquieu understands it as fitting into a category all by itself. For Montesquieu, monarchy exists when a single ruler governs a state according to the legal and civil traditions of that country, whereas despotism has a kind of arbitrary quality, in which the ruler is completely unbound and outside of the scope of law and civil tradition (book 2, chapter 1). Even so, both can be further analyzed and categorized and understood. Enlightenment thinkers (Montesquieu among them) tended to highly value human reason.
This brings me to one last point: Montesquieu's reading of the English Constitution (book 11, chapter 6). Easily the most famous portion of "Spirit of the Laws," it should be noted that this is also tied up with Montesquieu's appreciation for the particularities (and is itself ultimately a small part of a larger and much more wide-ranging project), it is also the piece of Montesquieu's thought with the greatest and most long-lasting importance. However, it should be noted that this theory of checks and balances is itself subject to Montesquieu's project of analysis and categorization. This isn't just a piece of abstract political theory, discussing how states ought to function, but also an analysis of real working political structures. For Montesquieu, this is how he believes the English political structure actually functions and is designed, and he analyzes it accordingly.