Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu

Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu

The baron de Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu) was an important cultural critic and political theorist of the early French enlightenment. He was a member of the hereditary nobility of French judges and lawyers known as the nobility of the robe.

As was a traditional right of his family, he served actively in the criminal division of the parlement, or high-ranking judiciary, of the French province of Guienne, at its capital, Bordeaux. His first book was Persian Letters (1721).

Because it addressed controversial subjects, the book was published with no indication of its author and a false imprint; it was credited to an imaginary publisher in Cologne when in fact, like many underground French books during the Enlightenment, it was published in the Dutch Republic. Nevertheless, the book was extremely popular. Montesquieu added material to later editions.

Persian Letters employed the literary device, very widely used during the Enlightenment, of having a fictional foreigner describe European society. It is an example of a popular genre in the 18th century, the epistolary novel, consisting of a collection of letters.

The main characters are two Persians, Usbek and Rica, touring Europe, commenting on and sometimes mocking European society as well as discussing history and institutions. (Montesquieu’s knowledge of Persian culture came mostly from contemporary travelers’ accounts.)

Europeans are not the only targets of Montesquieu’s satire, however, as Usbek, perceptive in his denunciations of tyranny in Europe, is shown in his correspondence with his household in Persia as a tyrant over the women and eunuchs of his harem.

It is the resistance of Usbek’s wife, Roxana, that provides the novel’s abrupt tragic climax. Targets of Montesquieu’s satire closer to home included the emptiness of much Parisian conversation, religious intolerance, and royal despotism.

In 1725, Montesquieu retired from the bench, then moved to Paris the following year. In 1728, he was admitted (with some controversy) to the French Academy, which had previously been a target of his satire. He spent some years traveling through Europe observing different social institutions and in 1731 began to work on his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, first published in 1748.

It went through more than 20 editions during Montesquieu’s lifetime. (Some of the themes of The Spirit of the Laws first appeared in Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Grandeur of the Romans and the Causes of their Decline [1731].) The Spirit of the Laws is the first great comparative study of social, political, and legal institutions.

Montesquieu believed that laws and institutions should be judged not against an abstract standard of perfection but in terms of how they were adapted to different peoples. Seemingly irrational laws may well have a rational function in their society.

Given that adaptation of laws to peoples, legal reform should be undertaken very carefully. Strengthening the power of the French monarch against the nobility, for example, as many reformers of the Enlightenment wished to do, would be harmful in that it would remove a check on the monarch’s power.

The king’s increased power could lead France away from monarchy, of which Montesquieu approved, toward despotism, which he despised. Despotism differs from monarchy in that the despot has no responsibility to follow the laws.

Montesquieu’s three basic types of government are monarchy, despotism, and the republic, in which either the people rule democratically or the aristocratic state is ruled by a few. Except for despotism, which is innately corrupt, each of these governments can appear in good and in corrupt forms.

In order to protect individual freedom and guard against corruption, it is necessary that all power not lie in the same place. Montesquieu established the distinction among legislative, executive, and judicial power. He endorsed commerce as preferable to war to enrich a state.

Montesquieu’s analysis of how different types of governments are formed and maintained includes consideration of physical factors such as climate. Harsh countries are less tempting to invaders, and the hard work required to cultivate them is linked to virtue and republican government.

Montesquieu analyzes religion in The Spirit of the Laws principally in relation to its social utility—different religions are adapted to different societies, as Protestantism is to republics, Catholicism to monarchies, and Islam to despotisms.

As did other Enlightenment thinkers, Montesquieu strongly endorsed the principle of religious toleration and admired the Protestant and relatively free societies of the Dutch Republic and Great Britain. The Spirit of the Laws was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Catholic Church in 1751 but had great influence on the Scottish Enlightenment and on the founding fathers of the United States.

His theory of the distribution of powers influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Montesquieu also contributed an article on “taste” to the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert.