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Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
French writer and publicist, b. in the Château de la Brède near Bordeaux, 18 January, 1689; d. at Paris, 10 February, 1755. His family was of noble rank; his grandfather, President of the Bordeaux Parliament, his father, a member of the royal bodyguard, and his mother, Marie de Penel, who died when he was eleven, traced her ancestry to an old English family. Young Charles de la Brède, as he was then known, was sent to the Oratorian College at Juilly (1700-11), where he received a wholly literary and classical education in which religion held but a minor place. When, at twenty-five years of age he returned home, after having been called to the bar, he received from his paternal uncle the style and title of Baron de Montesquieu, by which he was afterwards known, and became councillor of the Bordeaux Parliament. He married a Protestant, Jeanne Lartigue, and they had three children; but neither his profession nor his family seem to have claimed much of his attention. At the end of nine years he sold his office, and gave himself up entirely to study which henceforth became his life's one and only passion. "Study", he wrote afterwards, "has been my sovereign remedy against the worries of life. I have never had a care that an hour's reading could not dispel". As a matter of fact the story of his life is but the chronicle of the preparation and composition of his books. His earliest productions were read before the Academy of Bordeaux, of which he became a member (1716). They deal with a variety of subjects, but mainly with scientific topics, history, and politics. For a time he thought of writing a "physical history of the Earth" for which he began collecting material (1719), but two years later was busy in a very different direction, publishing the "Lettres persanes" (Amsterdam, 1721), so named because it pretended to be a correspondence between two Persian gentlemen travelling in Europe, and their friends in Asia, who sent them the gossip of the seraglio.
Under this fictitious guise the writer goes on to describe or rather satirize French, and especially Parisian manners between 1710 and 1720. The king, the absolute monarchy, the Parliament, the Academy, the University, are all very transparently ridiculed; but it was the Catholic religion, its dogmas, its practices, its ministers from pope to monks that came in for his bitterest raillery. Because of its ideal of celibacy, the Catholic Church is accused of being a cause of depopulation, and because of its teaching concerning this world's goods, it is charged with weakening the prosperity of the nation, while its intolerant proselytism is a source of disturbance to the state. On the other hand Protestantism is held up as more favourable to material progress. Coming ostensibly from Mohammedans these criticisms may have seemed less shocking to thoughtless minds, but they were none the less one of the first and rudest attacks directed against the Church during the eighteenth century. In them, he showed himself as incapable of understanding the Church's dogmas as he was of appreciating her services to society. Though in later years he was to find a juster point of view, his witty criticisms in their lively setting of romance and sensualism, quite to the taste of that age, assured a great success for the "Lettres persanes". Eight editions were published within a year. Montesquieu had not signed his name to them, but the author was quickly discovered, and the public nominated him for the French Academy. He was elected in 1726, but owing to the scandal the "Lettres persanes" had caused, the king did not approve and an excuse was given that the author did not live in Paris, as the rules of the Academy required. Whereupon Montesquieu took up his residence in Paris, and was elected once more, and admitted in 1728.
Side by side with their frivolous levity the "Lettres persanes" contain some profound observations on history and politics. They show even then Montesquieu's meditation on the laws and customs of mankind, from which was to result his later work, "L'Esprit des lois". As a preparation for this work, he set out (1728) on a long series of travels through Europe, and visited Vienna, and Hungary, spent some time in Venice, Florence, Naples, Genoa, and Rome, where he was received by Cardinal de Polignac and Benedict XIII. In the suite of Lord Chesterfield he went to England where he remained eighteen months, and was the guest of Prime Minister Walpole, of Swift, and Pope. Wherever he went he made the acquaintance of statesmen, took copious notes of what he saw and heard, and read with avidity. After an absence of three years he returned to his family, his business, his vineyards and the farming of his estates at Château de la Brède. As a relaxation he paid occasional visits to Paris, and mixed with literary men and their friends in the salons of Madame de Tencin, Madame Geoffrin, and Madame du Deffand. Yet he studiously avoided over familiarity with what was known as the philosophical set. Though his religious convictions were not deep, his serious and moderate turn of mind had nothing in common with the noisy and aggressive impiety of Voltaire and his friends.
Henceforth, his great aim in life was to write the "Esprit des lois", and all his spare time in the studious seclusion at La Brède was devoted to it. To begin with, ancient Rome gave him ample material for thought, but took up so much space in his work that in order not to mar the proportions of his book he published all that concerned it as a distinct work, "Les Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur et de la décadence des Romains" (Amsterdam, 1734). In this book he shows successively the glorious progress and slow decay which the Empire experienced from the foundation of Rome to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. He does not narrate events, but supposing that they are already known, he seeks to discover the links in the chain of events, and to point out the sources from which they sprang, choosing preferably political causes, that is, institutions. By exhibiting them in their natural relationships he throws unexpected light on certain events of ancient history and those of more recent date. Bossuet had already devoted two chapters of his "Histoire Universelle" to explaining "the sequence of changes at Rome". Montesquieu treats the same subject in a larger way and with closer correlation of facts. His point of view is that of the statesman rather than of the moralist, and every religious preoccupation is left aside. Such indeed is his indifference that he has not a word about religion. This concession to the prejudices of his age was a mistake, as modern criticism has shown, especially in the works of Fustel de Coulanges, that religion played a greater part in the political conduct of the Romans than Montesquieu credited it with.
"Les Considérations" was but an advance chapter of "L'Esprit des lois" which Montesquieu published after twenty years of labour (2 vols., Geneva, 1748). In this second work the author studies human laws in their relationships with the government, climate, and general character of the country, its customs, and its religion. He undertakes, not to examine various laws and discover their meaning, but to point out their underlying principles and to lay down the conditions which must be verified if such laws are to work for the happiness of man in society. In his judgments and conclusions Montesquieu is careful to take into account experience and tradition. He believes that laws can be enacted only for men in definitely known conditions of time and place. In so far he differs from the theorizers and utopians of his day and of a later age, who had no hesitation in drafting laws for man in the abstract or for a humanity freed from all spatial and temporal determinations, and who took as the basis of their deductions either the idea of a social contract in primitive times, or of a state of nature which had to be developed or restored. He thus avoids the errors of Hobbes, Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
His personal sympathies went rather with the liberal ideas which have triumphed almost everywhere in the civilized world of today, but which were novelties then. He declared himself in favour of separating the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers (XI, vi), condemned slavery and torture, and advocated gentler treatment of criminals, toleration in religious belief, and freedom of worship. But in this work he treats the religious issue with more gravity than he had done in the "Lettres persanes". True, he passes over the truth of its teaching and the sanctity of its moral precepts, and treats of it "only as regards its advantages for civic life". But far from thinking that there can be a conflict between religion and society, he insists that the one is useful to the other. "Something", he says, "must be fixed and permanent, and religion is that something." He says again, more clearly: "What a wonderful thing is the Christian religion! it seems to aim only at happiness in a future life, and yet it secures our happiness in this life also." He does not dream of separating Church and State, nor of subjecting the former to the latter: "I have never claimed that the interests of religion should give way to those of the State, but that they should go hand in hand." Nevertheless on various points he seriously misunderstood Catholic teaching: "Les Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques" (Oct., 1749) called attention to several statements of this sort, and the Sorbonne drew up a list of passages from his writings that seemed to call for censure (August, 1752). Before this (March, 1752), "L'Esprit des lois" had been placed on the Roman Index. But these measures created no great stir. The success of the book was enormous, its political influence world-wide. The early American statesmen were very familiar with "L'Esprit des lois" and from it (XI, vi) derived much of their idea of federal government. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, who wrote in the "Federalist" in defence of the new Constitution, were all enthusiastic readers of Montesquieu. Montesquieu's reputation became universal, and he was able to enjoy peacefully the homage it brought him until his death, for which he prepared himself by receiving the sacraments of the Church, and showing every outward mark of perfect obedience to her laws. The influence of his ideas was to be felt long afterwards both in France and elsewhere.
Besides the works which we have mentioned, and which are the most important, Montesquieu left a few papers which he read before the Academy of Bordeaux, and a few incomplete writings. "Le temple de Gnide", a short novel of a sensuous turn written for the licentious society of the Regency epoch, does him little credit. He wrote an "Essai sur le goût", a "Dialogue de Sylla et d'Eucrate", "Arsace et Isménie", an uninteresting novel, and over one hundred letters. These have all been collected in: the "Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu", edited by Edward Laboulaye (7 vols., Paris, 1875-79); "Mélanges inédits de Montesquieu" published by Baron de Montesquieu (Bordeaux, 1892); "Voyages de Montesquieu", published by the same (Bordeaux, 1894-96); "Penseés et fragments inédits de Montesquieu", published by the same (Bordeaux, 1899-1901): two volumes have appeared; others are in course of preparation.
D'Alembert, Eloge de Montesquieu in l'Encyclopédie, V (Paris, 1755); Vian, Histoire de Montesquieu (2nd ed., Paris, 1879); Belin, Etude sur Montesquieu (Paris, 1874); Sorel, Montesquieu (Paris, 1887); Zévort, Montesquieu (Paris, 1887); Lefèvre-Pontales, Eloge de Montesquieu (Châteaudun, 1891); Fauguet, La politique comparée de Montesquieu, Rousseau et Voltaire (Paris, 1902); Barckhausen, Montesquieu ses idées et ses oeuvres (Paris, 1907); Churton Collins, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau in England (London, 1908); Dedieu, Montesquieu et la tradition politique anglaise en France (Paris, 1909); Eng. tr. of his chief work, The Spirit of Laws, by Nugent, revised ed. with introd. by F.R. Coudert (London and New York, 1900). For his influence upon the founders of the United States, see The Federalist, xxxxvi, xxxxvii, 1788, ed. Gideon (Washington, 1818).