Charles et Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu
Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu was born in
1689 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
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
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
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
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.