Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (January 18, 1689 in Bordeaux – February 10, 1755), more commonly known as 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, 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.
After having studied at the Catholic College of Juilly, he married Jeanne de Latrigue, a Calvinist who 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 Parlement 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. And in 1715 the long-reigning Sun King, Louis XIV died and was succeeded by a series of mostly weak and feeble monarchs. 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 an Oriental 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 Roman Catholic Church banned l'Esprit – along with many of Montesquieu's other works – in 1751 and included it on the papacy's notorious Index. But from the rest of Europe, especially Britain, it received the highest praise.
Montesquieu was also highly regarded in 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 America. And following the American secession, Montesquieu 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 the inclusion of 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 eighteen 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 L'église Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France.
Montesquieu's most radical 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 legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. 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 radical 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, i.e. 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. He believed that the best form of government was a monarchy, and he strongly upheld the British constitution as ideal.
Like many of his generation, Montesquieu held a number of views that might today be judged controversial. While he endorsed the idea that a woman could head a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture. His views have also been abused by modern revisionists; for instance, even though Montesquieu was ahead of his time as an ardent opponent of slavery, he has been quoted out of context in attempts to show he supported it.
One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, is the [meteorological] climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of man and his society. 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 similar statements in Germania by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu's favourite authors.
|French literary history