A painting of Montesquieu
|Full name||Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu|
|Born||18 January 1689|
Château de la Brède, La Brède, Gironde, France
|Died||10 February 1755 (aged 66)|
|Main interests||Political Philosophy|
|Notable ideas||Separation of state powers: executive, legislative, judicial; classification of systems of government based on their principles|
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (English pronunciation: /ˈmɒntɨskjuː/, French pronunciation: [mɔ̃tɛskjø]; 18 January 1689 – 10 February 1755), generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He was largely responsible for the popularization of the terms feudalism and Byzantine Empire.
He was born at the Château de la Brède in the southwest of France. His father, Jacques de Secondat, was a soldier with a long noble ancestry. His mother, Marie Françoise de Pesnel who died when Charles de Secondat was seven, was a female inheritor of a large monetary inheritance who brought the title of barony of La Brède to the Secondat family. After having studied at the Catholic College of Juilly, Charles-Louis de Secondat married. His wife, Jeanne de Lartigue, a Protestant, brought him a substantial dowry when he was 26. The next year, he inherited a fortune upon the death of his uncle, as well as the title Baron de Montesquieu and Président à Mortier in the Parliament of Bordeaux. By that time, England had declared itself a constitutional monarchy in the wake of its Glorious Revolution (1688–89), and had joined with Scotland in the Union of 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1715 the long-reigning Louis XIV died and was succeeded by the five-year-old Louis XV. These national transformations impacted Montesquieu greatly; he would later refer to them repeatedly in his work.
Soon afterwards, he achieved literary success with the publication of his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), a satire based on the imaginary correspondence of a Persian visitor to Paris, pointing out the absurdities of contemporary society. He next published Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, 1734), considered by some scholars a transition from The Persian Letters to his master work. De l'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws) was originally published anonymously in 1748 and quickly rose to a position of enormous influence. In France, it met with an unfriendly reception from both supporters and opponents of the regime. The Catholic Church banned l'Esprit – along with many of Montesquieu's other works – in 1751 and included it on the Index of Prohibited Books. It received the highest praise from the rest of Europe, especially Britain.
Montesquieu was also highly regarded in the British colonies in North America as a champion of British liberty (though not of American independence). Political scientist Donald Lutz found that Montesquieu was the most frequently quoted authority on government and politics in colonial pre-revolutionary British America, cited more by the American founders than any source except for the Bible. Following the American revolution, Montesquieu's work remained a powerful influence on many of the American founders, most notably James Madison of Virginia, the "Father of the Constitution". Montesquieu's philosophy that "government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another" reminded Madison and others that a free and stable foundation for their new national government required a clearly defined and balanced separation of powers.
Besides composing additional works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755. He was buried in the Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris.
Philosophy of history
Montesquieu's philosophy of history minimized the role of individual persons and events. He expounded the view in Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence that each historical event was driven by a principal movement:
It is not chance that rules the world. Ask the Romans, who had a continuous sequence of successes when they were guided by a certain plan, and an uninterrupted sequence of reverses when they followed another. There are general causes, moral and physical, which act in every monarchy, elevating it, maintaining it, or hurling it to the ground. All accidents are controlled by these causes. And if the chance of one battle — that is, a particular cause — has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle. In a word, the main trend draws with it all particular accidents.
In discussing the transition from the Republic to the Empire, he suggested that if Caesar and Pompey had not worked to usurp the government of the Republic, other men would have risen in their place. The cause was not the ambition of Caesar or Pompey, but the ambition of man.
Montesquieu is credited amongst the precursors of anthropology, including Herodotus and Tacitus, to be among the first to extend comparative methods of classification to the political forms in human societies. Indeed, the French political anthropologist Georges Balandier considered Montesquieu to be "the initiator of a scientific enterprise that for a time performed the role of cultural and social anthropology". According to social anthropologist D.F. Pocock, Montesquieu's 'On the Spirit of Laws' "is the first consistent attempt to survey the varieties of human society, to classify and compare them and, within society, to study the inter-functioning of institutions". Montesquieu's political anthropology gave rise to his theories on government.
Montesquieu's most influential work divided French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. This was a radical idea because it completely eliminated the three Estates structure of the French Monarchy: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people at large represented by the Estates-General, thereby erasing the last vestige of a feudalistic structure.
Likewise, there were three main forms of government, each supported by a social "principle": monarchies (free governments headed by a hereditary figure, e.g. king, queen, emperor), which rely on the principle of honor; republics (free governments headed by popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (enslaved governments headed by dictators), which rely on fear. The free governments are dependent on fragile constitutional arrangements. Montesquieu devotes four chapters of The Spirit of the Laws to a discussion of England, a contemporary free government, where liberty was sustained by a balance of powers. Montesquieu worried that in France the intermediate powers (i.e., the nobility) which moderated the power of the prince were being eroded. These ideas of the control of power were often used in the thinking of Maximilien de Robespierre.
Montesquieu was somewhat ahead of his time in advocating major reform of slavery in The Spirit of the Laws. As part of his advocacy he presented a satirical hypothetical list of arguments for slavery, which has been open to contextomy. However, like many of his generation, Montesquieu also held a number of views that might today be judged controversial. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture, and while he endorsed the idea that a woman could head a state, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family.
Meteorological climate theory
Another example of Montesquieu's anthropological thinking, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, is his meteorological climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of man and his society. By placing an emphasis on environmental influences as a material condition of life, Montesquieu prefigured modern anthropology's concern with the impact of material conditions, such as available energy sources, organized production systems, and technologies, on the growth of complex socio-cultural systems.
He goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being ideal. His view is that people living in very warm countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate of middle Europe is therefore optimal. On this point, Montesquieu may well have been influenced by a similar pronouncement in The Histories of Herodotus, where he makes a distinction between the 'ideal' temperate climate of Greece as opposed to the overly cold climate of Scythia and the overly warm climate of Egypt. This was a common belief at the time, and can also be found within the medical writings of Herodotus' times, including the 'On Airs, Waters, Places' of the Hippocratic corpus. One can find a similar statement in Germania by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu's favorite authors. However, the earlier works that most closely resemble Montesquieu's complex climate theory are the Muqaddimah (1377) by the Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, and The Travels of Sir John Chardin in Persia and the Orient (1711) by the French traveller Jean Chardin.
From a sociological perspective Louis Althusser, in his analysis of Montesquieu's revolution in method, alluded to the seminal character of anthropology's inclusion of material factors, such as climate, in the explanation of social dynamics and political forms. Examples of certain climatic and geographical factors giving rise to increasingly complex social systems include those that were conducive to the rise of agriculture and the domestication of wild plants and animals.
List of works
|French literary history|
- Les causes de l'écho (The Causes of an Echo)
- Les glandes rénales (The Renal Glands)
- La cause de la pesanteur des corps (The Cause of Gravity of Bodies)
- La damnation éternelle des païens (The Eternal Damnation of the Pagans, 1711)
- Système des Idées (System of Ideas, 1716)
- Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721)
- Le Temple de Gnide (The Temple of Gnide, a novel; 1724)
- Histoire véritable d'Arsace et Isménie ((The True History of) Arsace and Isménie, a novel; 1730)
- Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, 1734)
- De l'esprit des lois ((On) The Spirit of the Laws, 1748)
- La défense de «L'Esprit des lois» (In Defence of "The Spirit of the Laws", 1750)
- Pensées suivies de Spicilège (Thoughts after Spicilège)
- Essai sur le goût (1757)
- Le flux et le reflux de la mer
- Mémoires sur la fièvre intermittente
- Mémoires sur l'écho
- Les maladies des glandes rénales
- La pesanteur des corps
- Le mouvement relatif
- Le Spicilège
- Government of France
- List of liberal theorists
- Napoleon I of France
- U.S. Constitution, influences
- "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought," American Political Science Review 78,1(March, 1984), 189-197.
- Montesquieu (1734), Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, The Free Press, http://www.constitution.org/cm/ccgrd_l.htm, retrieved 2011-11-30 Ch. XVIII.
- G. Balandier, Political Anthropology, Random House, 1970, p 3.
- D. Pocock, Social Anthropology, Sheed and Ward, 1961, p 9.
- Warren E. Gates (July–September 1967), "The Spread of Ibn Khaldun's Ideas on Climate and Culture", Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press) 28 (3): 415–422
- L. Althusser, Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, NLB, 1972.
- Pangle, Thomas, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism (Chicago: 1989 rpt.; 1973).
- Person, James Jr., ed. “Montesquieu” (excerpts from chap. 8) in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, (Gale Publishing: 1988), vol. 7, pp. 350–52.
- Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu; a Critical Biography. (Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press, 1961).
- Shklar, Judith. Montesquieu (Oxford Past Masters series). (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1989).
- Schaub, Diana J. Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu's 'Persian Letters'. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).
- Spurlin, Paul M. Montesquieu in America, 1760-1801 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941; reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1961).
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- Montesquieu, "Notes on England"
- Montesquieu in The Catholic Encyclopedia.
- Montesquieu in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Timeline of Montesquieu's Life
- Château Saint Ahon - Historic estate once owned by Charles de Montesquieu