689 to a French noble family. “His family tree could be traced 350 years, which in his view made its name neither good nor bad.” (The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, p. 68) Montesquieu’s views started to be shaped at a very early age. A beggar was chosen to be his godfather to remind him of his obligations to the poor.
Montesquieu’s education started at the age of 11 when he was sent to Juilly, a school maintained by the Congregation of the Oratory. From 1705 to 1709 he studied law in Bordeaux. “From 1705 to 1709 he was a legal apprentice in Paris. There he came to know some of the most advanced thinkers of his time: Fredet, the Abbe Lama, and Boulainvilliers.(Ibid.). In 1716 Montesquieu got a seat of president a mortier in the parlement of Guyenne from his deceased uncle. Even though he did not like his job he believed parliaments were necessary to control the monarchs.
In 1721 Montesquieu published the Persian Letters, which he began working on while studying in Bordeaux. The book was a success. In the Persian Letters Montesquieu showed how relative all of the French values were. Even though the technique used in this witty book was previously used by other writers, Montesquieu did a great job making fun of the European values. At that time he already believed in the immorality of European practices such as religious prosecution. The book gave roots for Montesquieu’s later arguments and ideas.
When in 1728 Montesquieu, with the help of his Parisian connections he got elected to the French Academy, he was happy to sell his office of president a mortier. In the course of the next three years he traveled all over Europe, visiting Germany, Hungary, England, Holland, Austria, and Italy. It is not surprising that out of his European tour the country which had the greatest impact on his later work (just like it did on Voltaire’s) was England. During his stay there he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
After he returned to France the second portion of his carrier had began. He became a full time writer, traveling between his La Brede estate and Paris. It is during this period that the Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline and the Spirit of Laws were written.
In the Considerations Montesquieu used Roman history to prove some of his ideas about reasons for the rise and the fall of civilizations. His most important point was that history is made by causes and effects, by events influenced by man, and not by luck. His ideas are summarized in this passage:
I is not fortune that rules the world . . .The Romans had a series of consecutive successes when their government followed one policy, and an unbroken set of reverses when it adopted another. There are general causes, whether moral or physical, which act upon every monarchy, which create, maintain, or ruin it. All accidents are subject to these causes, and if the chance loss of a battle, that is to say, a particular cause, ruins a state, there is a general cause that created the situation whereby this state could perish by the loss of a single battle. (1734, chapter 18)
Montesquieu disliked democracy. In the Considerations he argued that in a democratic society conflicts were essential because various groups would argue for their own interest. He believed that the division of the Roman empire was caused by two many freedoms. On the other hand he also opposed a system where social classes oppress other classes without resistance.
After 20 years of work Montesquieu published his most complete book, The Spirit of Laws. In this comparison of different government types, Montesquieu used his views on human nature to explain human actions and passions and predict the most effective government. According to his ideas human passions such as hunger for power, jealousy, and hate made men seek absolute rule, and passions like want of freedom, and hate of oppression lead the suppressed classes to over though the government. In the Spirit of Laws Montesquieu tries to develop an effective government that will keep the country united. It is impossible to describe this book in this report by I will state a few main points.
Montesquieu believed that the most effective and modern type of government is a monarchy. By monarchy he meant a ruler governing the nation, with the nobility, the clergy and parliament controlling his actions. He believed the weak should be protected from the powerful by laws and a separation of powers. He felt that the nobility and an monarch had to both be present and could not succeed one without the other.
Montesquieu stated that it was important to understand that even members of one class are not exactly alike, but are somewhat alike. In the Spirit of Laws he reefers to the importance of teaching citizens why laws are a certain way and why they are necessary. Montesquieu believed religion was aslo helpfull to control a country. He made it a tool used by the rulers to keep the citizens loyal.
In general, in the Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu’s model governments did not exactly duplicate any existing ones. On the other hand they were the guidelines for the governments of his day, as well as ones of our time. His ideas help us to understand the Enlightenment, as well as the Middle Ages. It is safe to say that his ideas will never die and his gift to the world will always be remembered.
Montesquieu can easily be considered a model Enlightment figure. His ideas produce a mild paradox. He wanted change for the better without crushing the current government. He wanted to educate the people of a country, but was not a radical, and therefore didn’t include the peasants. He respected reason, and used it to help the mankind by creating an idle society. He critisised religion, and yet had faith in God. As a whole he tried to improve things without turning the world upside down. He was the model figure for the steady advancement of the human civilization.
1. Hollier, Denis , A New History of French Literature, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1989.
2. The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, p. 467-476.
3. Loy, John Robert, Montesquieu, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1968.
4. A History of World Societies volume II, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, p. 669-679.
5. Robert Shedlock, Lessons on World History, 1980, p. 38a-38c.