On the Influence of Montesquieu

Montesquieu Essay
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Montesquieu. After Jacques-Antoine Dassier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Few thinkers have had as much impact on the legal and political fields as the famous French political philosopher Montesquieu. Montesquieu’s writings have influenced constitutions and political philosophies across the world, including the U.K. and the American colonies.

This essay is dedicated to the life, legacy, and philosophy of Montesquieu.

So who was Montesquieu? you might wonder. Well, Montesquieu was a French political philosopher, historian, and intellectual who engaged in research, critical thinking, and reflection on the reality of society, in order to come up with and propose solutions to the issues faced by society.

Although his full name is Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, history has remembered him simply as Montesquieu for obvious reasons.

Montesquieu was born on 18th January 1689 at the Château de la Brède, a feudal castle in the commune of La Brède in southwest France, to Marie Françoise de Pesnel and Jacques de Secondat.

His mother, Marie, was an heiress who brought the title of Barony of La Brède to the Secondat family. And his father, Jacques, was a soldier with a long noble ancestry that included Richard de la Pole, nicknamed White Rose, who was the last Yorkist claimant to openly and actively seek the English Crown.

Montesquieu’s family were Huguenots, a religious group of French Protestants who adhered to the Calvinist or Reformed tradition of Protestantism.

Sadly, when Montesquieu was only 7 years old, his mother died. Following the death of his mother, Montesquieu was sent to the Catholic College of Juilly, which was a prominent private school for children that belonged to the French nobility. He was enrolled at the school in 1700 and would go on to spend the next 11 years there.

In 1713, when Montesquieu was 24 years old, his father died, making him a ward of his uncle, Baron de Montesquieu.

The following year, Montesquieu became a counselor of the Bordeaux Parlement, a provincial appellate court. In 1715, he married a Protestant woman named Jeanne de Lartigue. The couple would go on to have three children together.

Also, in 1715, king Louis XIV died and was succeeded by the 5-year-old Louis XV. Eight years earlier, England, which had declared itself a Constitutional Monarchy after the Glorious Revolution, had joined up with Scotland after agreeing to a treaty of union in 1706, following negotiations between members representing the parliaments of England and Scotland.

This union between England and Scotland led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Montesquieu grew up witnessing and learning about these major changes in the political scene of the time, and these changes would have a massive impact on him, influencing a lot of his writings later in life.

Montesquieu was still not certain in which direction he wished to go in life. And although he was interested in politics and law, he had not yet discovered his true passion.

After his uncle died in 1716, Montesquieu inherited his uncle’s fortune and title as well as the post of président à mortier in the Bordeaux Parlement, which was one of the most important legal posts in the Parlement. He would serve in this capacity for the next 12 years.

Montesquieu then entered the legal field and began practicing law. However, he soon discovered that practicing law was not the path he desired to dedicate his life toward. This realization helped him to figure out his life’s purpose, which was studying and writing, and he decided to devote himself to these pursuits.

Although Montesquieu wrote on a number of different topics, his first popular literary work was his 1721 epistolary novel, Persian Letters. The novel, written as a series of letters, recounts the experiences of two Persian noblemen, Rica and Usbek, who spend several years living in France under the rule of Louis XIV. This satirical work cleverly criticizes the absurdities of French society at the time.

The work was an immediate success upon its publication and became an instant classic of French literature. Montesquieu was 32 years old when the literary success of Persian Letters made him a notable figure in the French literary scene.

His newly-found fame and reputation as a writer brought him in touch with some popular political figures of the time. During this period, he became acquainted with English politician Viscount Bolingbroke, whose political philosophy was later incorporated by Montesquieu in his analysis of the English constitution.

Montesquieu also tried but failed to become a member of the French Academy, which is the principal French council for matters relating to the French language. The reason for denying his membership in the Academy was that he was not a resident of Paris, which was then a requirement. Montesquieu compromised and took up residence in Paris, which led to his acceptance into the Academy in 1728.

Although his first work, Persian Letters, was well-received in French literary circles, and his reputation as a writer was somewhat established, Montesquieu began to struggle financially as his assets dwindled.

However, after growing frustrated with the fact that his intellectual inferiors rose higher than him in Parlement, he sold his post for a large fortune, thereby securing himself financially.

In 1728, Montesquieu embarked on a long tour of Europe, along with British diplomat Lord Waldegrave. By the end of October 1729, he visited England, where he would stay until the spring of 1731. In England, he met British statesman and diplomat Lord Chesterfield. He also became a Freemason and was admitted into the Horn Tavern Lodge in Westminster.

His time in England had a great influence on him, so much so that he even fashioned his park in the English style. He also made inquiries into his own genealogy and asserted his seignorial rights.

As he traveled across Europe, Montesquieu continued to observe, study, and write about the customs, laws, politics, and geography of the places he visited during the tour. These reflections during his travels became the principal sources for his most important works on political philosophy.

In 1734, Montesquieu’s work, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, was published. This work, initially published anonymously, covers the beginnings of the Roman Republic until the decline and fall of the late Roman Empire. The book begins with the year 753 BC, generally considered the date for the founding of Rome, and ends in the year AD 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to an invading Ottoman army. This book is now considered one of his best works.

Although his reputation as a writer further increased with the publication of this book, it was not until the year 1748 that Montesquieu published his most popular and acclaimed work, The Spirit of Law. The Spirit of Law, also published anonymously, is a treatise on political theory and a pioneering work in comparative law.

The treatise deals with political liberty, the means of preserving it, and how climate and geography affect different cultures by influencing the spirit of the people living in a particular region. The work is credited with having invented the field of political sociology.

Montesquieu argues that the spirit of a people determined by climate and geography influences them to adopt certain kinds of social and political institutions. He believed that certain types of climates are more favorable or better than others. According to him, people living in cold countries tend to be icy or stiff, while people living in warm or hot countries are too hot-tempered in nature.

This led him to postulate that the climate of middle Europe, especially that of France, was ideal and optimal for people. Although Montesquieu was not the first or last scholar to propose this theory, several subsequent scholars would dismiss this theory as proposed by Montesquieu on the grounds that Montesquieu was trying to justify and explain legal variations in different communities simply by the distance of a community from the equator.

In The Spirit of Law, Montesquieu, most importantly, advocates the separation of the powers of government. arguing that the executive, judicial, and legislative functions of government should be separated and assigned to different bodies so that the other branches of government can restrict and restrain another branch of government from infringing on political liberty.

Montesquieu believed that liberty could not be secured without the separation of powers, even in a republic.

In The Spirit of Law, he also advocates the framing of criminal and civil laws to ensure personal security and uphold political liberty. He argues against slavery, calling it inherently wrong as he believed all men were equal. And he advocated freedom of thought, speech, and assembly, and the preservation of civil liberties and legality.

According to Montesquieu, these criminal and civil laws would help to ensure the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and proportionality in the severity of punishment.

Montesquieu also argues that for any political institution or system to succeed, it is necessary to reflect the geographical and social aspects of a particular community.

The Spirit of Law covers a wide range of topics from social life and law to the study of anthropology, and it took Montesquieu a good 20 years to research and write the treatise. However, as it turned out, the treatise was well worth the time and effort. It was quickly translated into several other European languages. And after it was translated into English in 1750, it quickly began influencing political thought in Europe and North America, thereby spreading Montesquieu’s fame as a writer, philosopher, and champion of liberty and freedom far and wide, especially in the British colonies in North America.

The treatise greatly influenced the founding fathers of the United States as well, so much so that Montesquieu became the most frequently quoted authority on politics and government in pre-revolutionary British America. Even post the American Revolution, Montesquieu’s work remained influential among the American founding fathers.

However, although the treatise was well-received and highly acclaimed in North America and in the rest of Europe, particularly Britain, it was poorly received in France. The Catholic Church even went as far as to ban the work, along with Montesquieu’s other works, in 1751, and included it in the Index of Prohibited Books, which was a list of publications deemed heretical or contrary to morality by the Sacred Congregation of the Index. In short, Catholics were prohibited from reading these publications.

Over the years since Montesquieu’s death, The Spirit of Law would begin to be looked at more favorably in France. The Spirit of Law was his last major work and would go on to become his most influential work as well, influencing the likes of British historian Thomas Macaulay, Russian Empress Catherine the Great, French political philosopher Tocqueville, and American Statesman James Madison.

Toward the end of his life, Montesquieu was widely regarded in Europe and North America as an influential and great writer and political philosopher. His reputation as a man of letters had been established and he was admired and revered by intellectuals in these two continents.

Although Montesquieu continued to write in his final years, he did not produce another major work, most probably because he was suffering from cataracts and feared losing his eyesight. By the end of 1754, he decided to retire to La Brède to spend the rest of his years.

Barely a year later, on 10th February 1755, Montesquieu died from a high fever at the age of 66.

Montesquieu’s philosophy on various subjects continues to live on to this very day through his writings. His philosophy has left a deep impact on the political and historical thought of subsequent generations.

Let us now take a brief look at his philosophy on some vital matters.

As regards his political philosophy, Montesquieu divided French society into three different classes, that is the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the common people. And he divided governmental powers into two categories, that is the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative is in turn divided by him into three categories, that is the legislative authority, the executive authority, and the judicial authority.

And these three powers, according to Montesquieu, must be separate from each other but dependent upon each other, so that the influence of any one authority cannot exceed that of the other two authorities, either singly or in combination. He also makes it clear that each authority must only exercise its own functions, without impeding on or interfering with the functions of the other two authorities.

This view of Montesquieu, considered obvious and common today, was actually quite radical for its time and drew widespread condemnation in France, as France then followed the Estates structure of the French Monarchy, that is the aristocracy, the clergy, and the common people represented by the Estates-General.

Another significant contribution of Montesquieu is his pioneering role in the field of anthropology. He was one of the first to extend comparative methods of classification to the political forms in human societies. He was one of the first scholars in the field of social and cultural anthropology, although back then such a field did not exist.

He is also considered the first to survey the variety of human society, to classify and compare them, and to study the inter-functioning of institutions within society. It was his political anthropology that gave rise to his theories on government.

Today, constitutions and governments across the world implement and adhere to Montesquieu’s theory of separation of powers. His ideas and views would also go on to influence the ideas of the French Enlightenment, which would thereby inspire the French Revolution.

Montesquieu’s views and legacy continue to survive to this very day in political, social, and legal thought, and his invaluable contributions to these fields are acknowledged and respected in all parts of the world.