Guide Montesquieu and the Making of the Modern World

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Rousseau believed that religion divided and weakened the state. Of the four philosophers discussed in this article, which two do you think differed the most? Which of the democratic forms government proposed by Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau do you think is the best? How do you think his words relate to American democracy today?

Divide the class into four groups, each taking on the role of Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau. The members of each of the role group will need to research why their philosopher would agree or disagree with the debate topics listed below. The groups should then debate the topic from the point of view of the philosopher they are role playing. Follow the same procedure for the rest of the topics. After all the debates are finished, class members should discuss which one of the four philosophers they agree with the most and why.

The best form of government is a representative democracy. Only the president should have the power to declare war. A good way to make laws is for all the people to directly vote on them. Religion should be a part of the government. Wikipedia: Thomas Hobbes. Wikipedia: Leviathan. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Thomas Hobbes.

Malaspina Great Books: Thomas Hobbes. SparkNotes: Leviathan A study guide to the book. Yahoo Directory: Thomas Hobbes. Google Directory: Thomas Hobbes. Open Directory Project: Thomas Hobbes. Wikipedia: John Locke. Bluplete Biography: John Locke. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Locke. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Locke. Wikipedia: Two Treatises of Government. Second Treatise of Civil Government Text of the book. Malaspina Great Books: John Locke.

Yahoo Directory: John Locke. Google Directory: John Locke. Open Directory Project: John Locke. Wikipedia: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract The text of the book. Yahoo Directory: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Google Directory: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wikipedia: Montesquieu.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Montesquieu. Catholic Encyclopedia: Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws The text of the book. Malaspina Great Books: Montesquieu. Yahoo Directory: Baron de Montesquieu. Google Directory: Montesquieu. Open Directory Project: Montesquieu. Diversity Pipeline More. Follow The New Atlantis. However, as a young man in his late twenties, decades before the publication of his masterwork, The Spirit of the Laws , Montesquieu seems to have been interested in a variety of scientific questions.

The young nobleman was elected to the Academy of Bordeaux in Surviving papers include:. He reverted to the human sciences in dramatic fashion with the publication of his epistolary novel, The Persian Letters , in That work of sociological and psychological brilliance catapulted him into the limelight and lifted him from Bordeaux to Paris and beyond. Montesquieu attributes the lack of political wherewithal among savage peoples to their neglect of the arts and sciences.

One assumes that Montesquieu is alluding to the technological and military benefits of scientific advancement. He instances the Iroquois and their brutally successful campaign to conquer neighboring tribes. The example is odd, since the victory of the Iroquois is not attributed to their superior application to the arts and sciences. They are as savage as those they devour. It seems rather that savage mores leave savage peoples with only two foreign policy choices: eat or be eaten.

Somehow, the knowledge provided by the arts and sciences makes possible more stable or self-sufficient forms of political life. The exact nature of the link between national sovereignty, civilized mores, and science remains sketchy, however. Still elaborating on moral and political effects, Montesquieu shifts his example from the warring northern tribes of the New World to the vast Aztec and Incan empires further south. Montesquieu makes the striking claim that. Montesquieu is emphatic that the native empires actually had significant military advantages in weapons, tactics, warrior ethos, and terrain.

They were destroyed by faulty metaphysics. Had the Aztecs and Incans understood that the world, including man, is nothing but matter in motion, they would not have been overawed by the sight of a bearded, light-skinned man Cortez manipulated ancient myths predicting such a supernatural visitation or panicked by the use of horses and cannon in battle.

An enlightened people of Mexico could have preserved themselves against the European conquest, but Montezuma would have been gone under either scenario. Throughout his writings, Montesquieu is critical of the conduct of conquerors, whether they be soldiers of fortune or soldiers of Christ. However, Spain and Portugal are not exactly exemplars of Enlightenment. The Persian Letters contains a scathing satire on the regressive imperialism of the Iberians:.

Never in the seraglio of the greatest prince has there been a sultana so proud of her beauty as the oldest and ugliest rascal among them is proud of his pale olive complexion, as he sits, arms crossed, in his doorway in a Mexican town. A man of such consequence, a creature so perfect, would not work for all the wealth in the world, or persuade himself to compromise the honor and dignity of his skin by vile mechanical industry.

His honor consists in the repose of his limbs. He who sits down ten hours a day receives exactly twice the consideration given to another who rests only five, for nobility is acquired in chairs They say that the sun rises and sets within their lands, but it must also be said that, in making its course, the sun encounters only a wasted and deserted countryside. The indigenous peoples of Mexico and Peru, lacking Cartesian principles, have haplessly exchanged home-grown despotism for foreign despotism.

For Montesquieu, neither form of despotism is defensible. Only by becoming at least as enlightened as the conquerors could they preserve themselves — that is to say, their lives, though not, of course, their way of life. Modernity relentlessly remakes the world in its own image. Nonetheless, there are clearly better and worse ways of being remade — better to be an Old Cartesian than one forcibly converted.

At the Hague he met Lord Chesterfield, who was then British Ambassador, and was on the point of taking leave for England, where he hoped to be made Secretary of State. Montesquieu sailed with him in his yacht on the last day of October , and remained in England until some time in A distinguished German historian [13] , who takes a rather depreciatory view of Montesquieu, says that he travelled rather as a tourist than as a student.

The journals of travels and copious notes which have been recently given to the world by the Montesquieu family do not bear out this statement. Montesquieu had already travelled in imagination through the countries which he was to visit in the flesh.


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I am instructing myself about the secrets of commerce, the interests of princes, the forms of government. I do not neglect even European superstitions. I apply myself to medicine, physics, astronomy. I am studying the arts. In fact, I am emerging from the clouds that covered my eyes in the country of my birth. That was the programme sketched out in advance, and he had excellent opportunities for carrying it out. At Vienna he spent 'delightful moments [14] ' with that great captain, Prince Eugene of Savoy. At Venice he had long conversations with two famous adventurers, the Comte de Bonneval, and the Scotchman, Law.

At Rome he made the acquaintance of Cardinal Alberoni and the exiled Stuarts. At Modena he conversed with the great antiquarian, Muratori.

Baron de Montesquieu : A Short Biography

In England Lord Chesterfield's introduction brought him at once into the best political and social circles. But we know that he attended some exciting debates in Parliament, and we know also how profoundly his study of English institutions influenced the Spirit of Laws. On the preparation for that great work Montesquieu was engaged for the next seventeen years of his life. In appeared the Considerations on the Greatness and Decay of the Romans , which might be treated as a first instalment of its contents. Machiavelli had treated Roman history from the point of view of a practical statesman, and had used it as a storehouse of warnings and examples for the guidance of an Italian prince.

There are general causes, moral or physical, on which the rise, the stability, the fall of governments depend. If a state is ruined by the chance of a single battle, that is to say by a particular event, the possibility of its being so ruined arises from some general cause, and it is for these causes that the historian should seek. He is not distracted by a multiplicity of topics; the greatness, dignity and unity of his subject give force, character, and continuity to his style.

His sentences march like a Roman legion. And he describes also how the scheme of the book originated, and how it was developed. I laid down general principles, and I saw particular cases yield to them naturally. I saw the histories of all nations appear as the consequence of these principles, and each particular law bound with another law, or proceed from one more general I often began and often dropped the work: I followed my object without forming a plan. I was conscious of neither rule nor exceptions: but when I had discovered my principles, everything that I sought came to me.

In the course of twenty years I saw my work begin, grow, advance, and finish. What, then, are the principles which after so long and painful a search, Montesquieu ultimately found? In brief, they are these. The world is governed, not by chance, nor by blind fate, but by reason. Of this reason, the laws and institutions of different countries are the particular expressions.

Each law, each institution, is conditioned by the form of government under which it exists, and which it helps to constitute, and by its relations to such facts as the physical peculiarities of the country, its climate, its soil, its situation, its size; the occupations and mode of life of the inhabitants, and the degree of liberty which the constitution can endure; the religion of the people, their inclinations, number, wealth, trade, manners and customs; and finally by its relations to other laws and institutions, to the object of the legislator, to the order of things in which it is established, It is the sum total of these relations that constitutes the spirit of a law.

There is no one best form of state or constitution: no law is good or bad in the abstract. Every law, civil and political, must be considered in its relations to the environment, and by the adaptation to that environment its excellence must be judged. If you wish to know and understand the spirit of a law, its essence, its true and inner meaning, that on which its vitality and efficiency depend, you must examine it in its relations to all its antecedents and to all its surroundings.

This is the theme which Montesquieu tries to develop and illustrate in the course of his book. He begins with the relations of laws to different forms of government. There are three kinds of government—republics, with their two varieties of democracy and aristocracy, monarchies, and despotisms. The threefold division is, of course, as old as Plato and Aristotle, but the mode of distribution is new, and is not easily to be defended on scientific grounds. But the historical explanation of the distribution is quite simple.

Montesquieu, Charles‐Louis de Secondat, Baron de (1689–1757)

Montesquieu was thinking of the three main types of government with which he was familiar through study or observation. By a republic he meant the city states of the Greek and Roman world, and also such modern city states as Venice and Genoa.

Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat

Monarchy was the limited monarchy of the West, which still preserved traditions of constitutional checks, but which was, in most countries, tending to become absolute. Despotism was the unbridled, capricious rule of the eastern world. Each form of government has its peculiar principle or mainspring.

These are the principles which must be borne in mind in framing laws for each state. Having exhausted this branch of the subject, he goes on to consider laws in their relation to the military force, political liberty, taxation, church, soil, manners and customs, commerce, finance, religion.


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It is under the heading of political liberty that are to be found the first of the two famous chapters on the English constitution, and the famous arguments on the necessity for separating the three powers, legislative, executive and judicial. Nothing is further from my purpose than to enter on a detailed analysis of the Spirit of Laws. Indeed, there are few books which it is less profitable to analyse.

The spirit evaporates in the process. The value of the book consists, not in the general scheme of arrangement and argument, which is open to much criticism, but in the subtle observations and suggestions, the profound and brilliant reflections, with which it abounds.

And the questions which are of most interest to us are, first, What was the cause of the rapid and enormous influence which the book exercised on political thought in all parts of the civilized world? But before passing to these questions I should like to touch on one or two points which must be borne in mind by all who read Montesquieu. In the first place he was an aristocrat, a member of a privileged, exclusive, and fastidious class. He was no upstart of genius like Voltaire, who could be insulted with impunity by a sprig of nobility. His milieu and his point of view were different from those of typical bourgeois, such as Marais and Barbier.

He was a country gentleman, and was fond of strolling about his vineyards, and talking to his tenants and labourers. Of their feelings and points of view he could know nothing. The third estate, which was nothing and was to be everything, was to him, for most purposes, an unknown world [15].

But, though he was not wholly free from the faults of his class and his time, he was a great gentleman, with a genuine public spirit, a genuine love of liberty, a genuine hatred of oppression, cruelty, intolerance, and injustice. Among the three great political thinkers of the day, Montesquieu stands for liberty, as Voltaire stands for efficiency, and Rousseau for equality [15]. If Lord Acton's projected History of Liberty had ever seen the light, Montesquieu would doubtless have been among its greatest heroes.

Not that he wrote as a lawyer. For some fourteen years he was a member of the judicial bench known as the Parlement of Guienne, and in that capacity administered Roman law, such of the Royal Ordinances as extended to his province, and no less than ten different local customs. But he did not take much interest in the technical side of his professional work, and it may be doubted whether his judgements, if reported, would have carried more weight with his professional brethren than those of his distinguished predecessor on the same bench—Montaigne. Nor did he take any active part in the scientific work in which the great French lawyers of the eighteenth century were engaged.

That work was digesting, expressing, and systematically arranging the principles of the customary law and the modernized Roman law, and thus collecting the materials and preparing the framework for the codes of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. The leaders in this work were the great Chancellor d'Aguesseau and Pothier. But Montesquieu does not, so far as I am aware, make any reference to Pothier or his school at Orleans, and his relations to d'Aguesseau were scanty and formal.

Indeed, between the lively President and the grave Chancellor [16] there was little in common. If Montesquieu had lived in the latter half of the nineteenth century, he would not, we may feel sure, have got on with Lord Cairns. It was Voltaire, and not Montesquieu, that preached the duty of unifying French law, and Montesquieu's personal preference would probably have been for diversity rather than for uniformity.

And lastly Montesquieu wrote with the Censor and the Index always before his eyes. Hence the allusive and hypothetical style, which in some of his imitators became a mannerism. This characteristic is nowhere better illustrated than in the chapter on the English constitution. It is headed 'Of the constitution of England,' but the text of the chapter consists of a number of 'ifs' and 'oughts.

If such an arrangement were made it would lead to political liberty. It is not until the concluding paragraphs that the English are specifically mentioned, and then only in a guarded manner. It is sufficient to say that it is established by their laws, and I seek no more. And now to come back to the main problem. How was it that a book with such obvious and glaring defects exercised an influence so enormous?

And yet it changed the thought of the world. What is the explanation of this paradox?

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Much, no doubt, was due to charm of style. If you want to be read, still more if you want to be widely read, you must be readable. In Montesquieu's time, books on political and legal science were, as a rule, unreadable. But the Spirit of Laws was, and still is, an eminently readable book. No one before Montesquieu had dealt in so lively and brilliant a manner with the dry subject of laws and political institutions.

The book reflects the personality of the writer. His personality is not obtruded in the foreground, like that of Montaigne, but it is always present in the background, and its presence gives a human interest to an abstract topic. You see the two sides of the author; the favourite guest of Parisian salons , and the solitary student, the desultory and omnivorous reader.

He lived, we must remember, in an age when conversation was cultivated as a fine art. That untranslatable word 'esprit,' which was in the mouth of every eighteenth-century Frenchman, meant, in its narrowest and most special sense, the essence of good conversation [17]. It rambles pleasantly and unmethodically from point to point, welcomes digressions, and often goes off at a tangent. You feel yourself in the presence of a learned, witty, and urbane talker, who does not wish to monopolize the talk, but desires to elicit that free, responsive play of thought which is essential to good conversation.

And he is too often unable to resist the temptation of utilizing the contents of his notebooks without considering sufficiently whether they are relevant to or assist the progress of his argument. Indeed, he is essentially a 'fragmentary' thinker, sententious rather than continuous, and constitutionally reluctant, perhaps unable, to follow out persistently long trains of thought. But these peculiarities, though they detract from the scientific merit of his book, make it more readable. Charm of style, then, counts for much in explaining Montesquieu's influence.

But freshness and originality count for much more.

3. Adam Smith (1723-1790)

The orthodox way of dealing with a subject of political or legal science was to start from general propositions laid down authoritatively, and derived either from Aristotle, or, more often, from the Roman jurists, and to deduce from them certain general conclusions. Bodin's great treatise on the Republic, to which Montesquieu was much indebted, especially for his theory on the influence of climate, was framed on these lines.


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  5. But Montesquieu broke away from the old lines. His starting-point was different. He began at the other end. He started from the particular institutions, not from the general principles. I have dwelt at length, perhaps at undue length, on the Persian Letters , not because, as has been inaccurately said, the Spirit of Laws is merely a continuation of the earlier work, but because the Montesquieu of the Spirit of Laws is still the Montesquieu of the Persian Letters , matured and ripened by twenty-seven years of study and experience, but in essentials still the same.

    He began his literary career with no preoccupied theory or object, but as a detached and irresponsible critic and observer of man in his infinite diversity, the man ondoyant et divers of Montaigne. It is true that after much search he found, or believed that he found, certain general laws, or principles, to which his observations could be attached, under which they could be grouped. His doctrine of the relativity of laws, which is the foundation of enlightened conservatism, and has been used in defence of much conservatism which is not enlightened, is not a sufficient foundation for a constructive system, but was an admirable starting-point for a man whose primary interest lay in observing and comparing different institutions and drawing inferences from their similarities and diversities.

    And owing to this failure the Spirit of Laws has been not unfairly described as being, not a great book, but the fragments of a great book [22]. He refashioned political science and made it a science of observation, and by so doing he made the same new departure in political and legal science as Bacon had made before him in physical science. He closed the period of the schoolmen. He was not content to mumble the dry bones of Roman law. He turned men away from abstract and barren speculations to the study and comparison of concrete institutions.

    This may seem a little thing. In reality it was a very great thing. The human mind is intensely conservative. For generations men go on working at the old subjects in the old ways. Then comes a man who, by some new thought, it may be by some new phrase, which becomes a catchword, like 'evolution,' takes his fellow men out of the old ruts, and opens up to them new regions of speculation and discovery.

    These are the men that change the world. And Montesquieu was one of these men. He has been claimed on high authority [23] , but with less accuracy, as the founder of the historical method, which is at least as old as Thucydides. That he appreciated the importance of this method is true. To know modern times, one must know antiquity: each law must be followed in the spirit of all the ages. Like his predecessors, he speculated about the state of nature.

    But for any knowledge of savage or uncivilized man, without which all speculations and theories as to the origin of society are idle, he was dependent on books of travel and accounts of missionaries, with no means of checking their accuracy. In his account of early Roman history he follows implicitly Livy and Florus, and of Beaufort's critical investigation he does not seem to have heard. Nor is there any evidence of his having read or having been influenced by Vico, that solitary, mystical, suggestive Neapolitan thinker, who seemed to live out of due time, and whose significance was not appreciated until the following century.