Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, like most philosophes of the Enlightenment, had a relatively affluent upbringing. Originally trained to be a lawyer, he inherited a seat in the Parliament of Bordeaux, and was very well educated and traveled. A prolific writer and philosopher, Montesquieu studied the role of government in different countries, proving very influential in the war against the absolutism of the French Monarchy. His most well-known work, Spirit of The Laws (1748), explained his reasoning for the appropriateness of government in a given context. In this work, he expressed the need for "intermediate bodies" that would help to more equitably distribute spheres of power. This philosophy, along with his emphasis on "checks and balances," would provide future inspiration to both his fellow Frenchmen, and that one democracy that would base its constitution -and soon flourish-on his ideals, the United States.
Around the time Montesquieu was born, France was under the control of a fairly tight monarchical fist. Louis XIV had just died, the nobility was wealthy-- yet held little intrinsic power--and the working class was beginning to stir with resentment. In accordance with Enlightenment thinking, Montesquieu held a firm belief that politics and governmental systems, like science and so much else during this era, could be reduced to a set of given laws outlining their enforcement. Through his study of the nature of other governments, particularly that of England, he provided a logistical basis for different brands of government -republican, despotic, and monarchical--under specific circumstances. Although Montesquieu did not believe that all humans were equal, his general push for more egalitarian government was certainly contagious. Within time, such buzzwords as "democracy" and "equality" gained great popularity at an opportune time, spurring the onset of revolutions in both France and the U.S.
Charles Louis de Secondat was born in 1689 in Bordeaux, France, to a wealthy, politically connected family. Although he had affluent roots, early in life he was placed in the care of a poor family. Later on, Charles de la Brède, as he was called, attended the Oratorian College, where he received an education heavy in classical influence, no doubt contributing to his very scientific view of the universe. Afterwards, he took up an avid interest in science and history that led him to pursue the field of law later on in life. In 1713, Charles' biological father died and his uncle, Baron de Montesquieu, took him under his care. Three years later, his uncle also passed away, leaving young Charles much wealth, his coveted position as president of the Bordeaux Parliament, and the title of Baron de Montesquieu, by which he was accordingly known.
Shortly thereafter, he married a Protestant woman, Jeanne Lartigue, who bore his three children. Even as such, little could captivate him away from his studies for very long, for as he said, "[they are my] sovereign remedy against the worries of life." In his early days of scholarship, his writings mostly consisted of short treatises regarding government, history and politics. Montesquieu was an extremely rational thinker; he wished to prove, like many other men in this era had done with science and mathematics, that distinct laws governed these social areas as well. His first advance towards this goal came in 1721, when he began attacking on a different front, with the publication of The Persian Letters. This satire consisted of a hypothetical correspondence written by Persian travelers to their friends in Asia, who poked fun at the prim social customs of the upper class, particularly in France. Its eight -anonymous, at first-yearly installments provided a thinly veiled attack on the king of France, the Parliament, the Catholic Church, and France's notable social hierarchy.
Still dismayed at the rift between classes than he saw as remnants from Louis XIV's reign, Montesquieu performed a great deal of research investigating the origins of power, its distribution, when a monarchy is needed, and in which cases a more equal system is viable. In so doing, in 1728, he set out to travel throughout Europe, visiting Hungary, Vienna, and spent extensive time in the more capitalistic trading regions of Venice, Florence, Naples, and Rome, where he visited Cardinal de Polignac and Benedict XIII. Also of great fascination to the philosopher was England, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Walpole. Throughout these travels, he wrote detailed accounts of what he observed, furthering his investigation of the motives and drives of government. After gathering material for what would be an even greater literary and social success, he returned home to Château de la Brède. As a final comparison before settling down to begin his next work, he made several visits to Paris, and mingled in salon literary circles to broach the subject matter of his conclusions. Confident of his research, and convinced he could shed light on the growing dissent among France's lower classes, he embarked upon writing his most influential work yet, The Spirit of the Laws (1848). In this treatise, he dissects exactly how governmental system comes about, and what conditions foster-or discourage-one of its three basic classifications: despotic, republican, and monarchical states.
Basing a good deal of his thinking on the origins of the Roman empire and the egalitarian ideals it promoted, he makes no question that ideally, all citizens should have a voice in government. To this end, when at all logistically feasible, Montequieu is in favor of democracy, a sub-category of the republican state. Within this model, people are both subjects and inadvertent rulers. There is suffrage, fixed public assemblies, local ministers who collect taxes and perform other civic duties, and ultimately, people are responsible for enacting laws. However, he makes a careful warning that there are historical, geographical and traditional factors that often impede this system from ever taking form.
Although Baron de Montesquieu focused on the circumstances under which liberty would flourish, oftentimes despotism was more practical because of sheer size in a state. The Spirit of the Laws emphasizes that, in a monarchy-a combination of democratic utopia and despotism-there are intermediate, subordinate, and dependent powers. In this framework, the prince is the source of all power, political and civil. But great emphasis is still put on the nobility, on whom Montesquieu insists every monarch is dependent. Nevertheless, his overall tone is underhandedly democratic, for his suggestions all lean towards reforming this system, with two reservations about the movement to democracy-assumable applicable to France, his homeland-the "spirit of equality" and the "spirit of command." The former refers to democracy at its purest, with all citizens receiving equal opportunity, duty, property, and voice in government. Yet as Montesquieu cautions, if there is no disparity in power among citizens, then no one is in control, resulting in anarchy. In the opposite case scenario, wherein one ruler overtakes everything, a comparably detrimental effect occurs. Thus, Montesquieu introduced the concept of a balance of power, which would divide the ideal government into three equitably empowered branches, the executive to create policy, the legislative to temper and modify it, and the judicial to enforce it. He also expresses favor for increased human rights, believed torture should be banned, and suggested lighter sentences be imposed upon criminals.
On the whole, Montesquieu was impervious to religious concerns; still, he was a moderate on almost all elements of politics except, oddly, the influence of Christianity in policy. Although he specifically disliked its hierarchical arrangement in France, strictly speaking of faith, he was proponent of its integration into public life: "What a wonderful thing is the Christian religion! It seems only to aim at happiness in a future life." Many critics argue however, that was largely tactical, as a people unified in faith tend to be more peaceable.
Even though his death in Paris in 1755 was a quiet passing, Baron de Montesquieu's work and the immensely successful The Spirit of the Laws still had wide-reaching reverberations, not only in Europe with peasants, but oversees as well. The cries of peasants during the upcoming French Revolution would reflect many demands similar to those that he put on the French government. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) would incorporate almost directly many facets of his writings on personal freedom, social mobility, and the freedom of speech. Moreover, his opinions and democratic rhetoric was a large catalyst in the American Revolution. Almost all of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison were avid readers of his writing, which was pivotal not so much in deciphering whether to secede from Britain, but how to build a sturdy, well-balanced government that would last until this day.
The story of Baron de Montesquieu is not one characterized by treaties, battle scenes, or heroicism; nevertheless, his philosophical influence has poured forth just as much as all of these. Although admittedly arising at an opportune time in the history of Europe-as the constitutional republic began to replace the absolute monarchy-this was not a coincidence; his writing brought people back to the origins of government, forcing upon monarchs and peasants alike a re-evaluation of their rule. With Montesquieu came the examination of the cause of government, that is, why certain societies, through tradition, geography, and history, were predisposed to certain types of rule. By vouching for the revolution in his own country, through both satire, and the careful, calculated reason he valued so much, in a way, he bid France free of its aristocratic rule. The inception of every new era in history needs a thinker bold enough to refute the system, even if, as with Montesquieu, they are beneficiaries of the upper class that dominates it. Through his writing, logic, and scientific analysis of government, he revolutionized public sentiment towards those who rule, successfully helping to catalyze a pivotal advance towards increased democratic rule in European and American history.
Lasky, Victor. Montesquieu and Social Theory. 1st ed. Oxford, New York. Pergamon Press, 1980.
Dargan, Edwin Preston. The Aesthetic Doctrine of Montesquieu, its application in his writings New York, New York. B. Franklin, 1968.
Degert, Antoine. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Robert Appleton Company, 1999.
Loy, John Robert. Montesquieu. New York. Twayne Publishers, 1968.
Pangle, Thomas L. Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism; A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Shackleton, R. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. Oxford: University Press. 1961
Sorel, Albert. (Trans. by Melville B. Anderson and Edward Playfair Anderson) Montesquieu.Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1969.
A general overview of the basic tenets of Montesquieu's view on the structure of government
A brief biographical description of Montesquieu
Discusses some of Montesquieu's works including "Persian Letters" and "Spirit of the Laws"
A site listing of Monesquieu resources and other philosophes
Fordham University's Monesquieu page
A timeline of major events in the life of Montesquieu
Summary of Monesquieu's philosophy on liberalism and human freedom
A text based summary of the influences on Montesquieu's thought