Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de

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Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de (1689-1755): French, Political and Social Theorist.

A political thinker of the top rank, Montesquieu authored the best-selling Persian Letters, which satirized French customs and beliefs, and The Spirit of the Laws, a masterpiece of comparative politics and sociology. He was one of the earliest philosophes and one of the few proponents of the these nobiliere, which defended the hereditary privileges of aristocrats as a bulwark of liberty.

The scion of a respected noblesse de robe family, Montesquieu studied law at the University of Bordeaux, developing the passion for classical history and philosophy that would remain with him all his life. After serving as magistrate in the Bordeaux Parlement, he inherited the presidency of that body, as well as his estate at La Brede and title as baron, from a maternal uncle. He held the sinecure for over a decade until boredom led him to sell it in 1725. During this period he was elected to the Bordeaux Academie, for which he served as director and to which he presented papers on topics from law to physics and anatomy. He frequented the salon of Madame de Tencin in Paris, leaving it to his Calvinist wife to manage the business interests of her Deist husband.

In 1721, Montesquieu anonymously published his witty, iconoclastic Persian Letters, which produced great ferment in intellectual circles. Elected to the Academie francaise in 1728, he proceeded to travel extensively throughout Europe. He even resided for two years in England, where he became a Freemason and a member of the Royal Society. Montesquieu’s admiration for the English “constitution” and the ordered liberty that it made possible is apparent in The Spirit of the Laws, anonymously published in 1748. Because of its materialism and unorthodox view of religion, the work came under fire from both Jesuits and Jansenists, and was placed on the Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Montesquieu suffered from blindness for the last two decades of his life, yet in addition to The Spirit of the Laws he also wrote Considerations on the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans (1738), the mildly erotic Le Temple de Cnide, and an essay on “Taste.” Although it was unfinished when he succumbed to influenza in 1755, the essay (arguing that taste, though subjective, can be elevated through education) was posthumously published in the Encyclopedia. Diderot, Denis, alone of all the philosophes, attended the Baron’s funeral.

Montesquieu’s travels did not extend to Asia, but in his brilliant epistolary novel, The Persian Letters, he researched Oriental customs and tried to portray European society as foreign visitors might see it. The book is framed by a preface in which the author pretends that two Persian gentlemen shared with him the contents of their correspondence, which he has subsequently translated for the reader. Letters written by Usbek and Rica during their ten-year absence from home reveal the unnaturalness and sometimes the absurdity of French manners, morals, and beliefs. In this Regency work, no practice or institution escapes critical scrutiny; the monarchy, legal system, Church, and even the nobility itself are targets of ridicule. A Frenchman’s ingenuous query, “How can anyone be a Persian?” subtly transmutes into the subversive, “How can anyone be Parisian?” Yet the Persians themselves hardly escape unscathed; the letters Usbek receives from domineering eunuchs and rebellious wives in his harem underscore his blindness to the oppression he sanctions, and the strength of the yearning for freedom. Montesquieu’s friends, incidentally, sometimes called him Usbek, apparently discerning parallels between his own situation and that of his protagonist.

In the less famous Considerations, Montesquieu attempted to explain the decline of the Roman Empire. The book’s ironic conclusion is that the very success of the empire precipitated its downfall. To conquer and control far-flung alien peoples, the Romans had to alter their institutions fundamentally. Yet in doing so they lost the political virtues that had made such hegemony possible.

Many of the themes introduced in these earlier works also pervade The Spirit of the Laws. In this treatise Montesquieu uses a comparative, historical method to show that each nation’s values and institutions are “necessary relations” conditioned by the physical environment. Climate and topography, mediated through economic activity, converge to shape a country’s “spirit,” the distinctive ethos manifested in all aspects of national life. Laws themselves simply codify customs that developed over time as humans interacted with nature. Accordingly, no single set of values and institutions could possibly be applicable to all cases. Nevertheless, Montesquieu is not a thoroughgoing relativist, for he champions political liberty and deplores despotism, regardless of how well adapted it may be to its setting. He identifies three forms of government: republics (including both democracies and aristocracies), monarchies (in which royal authority is checked), and despotism (in which authority is unchecked and the population enslaved). Respectively, they are animated by the “principles” of virtue, honor, and fear. Mixed government, separation of powers, and civil rights characterize the best political orders, such as Montesquieu supposed England to be.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent of Montesquieu’s influence in Europe and the American colonies, or on the subsequent development of sociology. Thinkers of nearly all political persuasions, including Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Burke, Edmund, and Hume, David borrowed ideas from his corpus. In the 18th century, later generations of philosophes were inspired by his eloquent pleas for toleration and liberty, his devastating attacks on slavery and torture, and--perhaps above all--his aspiration to develop a science of man.

Further Reading:

Judith Shklar, Montesquieu, 1987.

Peter V. Conroy, Jr., Montesquieu Revisited, 1992.

Sandra Hinchman

St. Laurence University