Montesquieu was one of the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Insatiably curious and mordantly funny, he constructed a naturalistic account of the various forms of government, and of the causes that made them what they were and that advanced or constrained their development. He used this account to explain how governments might be preserved from corruption.
He saw despotism, in particular, as a standing danger for any government not already despotic, and argued that it could best be prevented by a system in which different bodies exercised legislative, executive, and judicial power, and in which all those bodies were bound by the rule of law. This theory of the separation of powers had an enormous impact on liberal political theory, and on the framers of the constitution of the United States of America.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, was born on January 19th, 1689 at La Brède, near Bordeaux, to a noble and prosperous family. He was educated at the Oratorian Collège de Juilly, received a law degree from the University of Bordeaux in 1708, and went to Paris to continue his legal studies.
On the death of his father in 1713 he returned to La Brède to manage the estates he inherited, and in 1715 he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a practicing Protestant, with whom he had a son and two daughters. In 1716 he inherited from his uncle the title Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu and the office of President à Mortier in the Parlement of Bordeaux, which was at the time chiefly a judicial and administrative body. For the next eleven years he presided over the Tournelle, the Parlement’s criminal division, in which capacity he heard legal proceedings, supervised prisons, and administered various punishments including torture. During this time he was also active in the Academy of Bordeaux, where he kept abreast of scientific developments, and gave papers on topics ranging from the causes of echoes to the motives that should lead us to pursue the sciences.
In 1721 Montesquieu published the Persian Letters, which was an instant success and made Montesquieu a literary celebrity. (He published the Persian Letters anonymously, but his authorship was an open secret.) He began to spend more time in Paris, where he frequented salons and acted on behalf of the Parlement and the Academy of Bordeaux.
During this period he wrote several minor works: Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate (1724), Reflexions sur la Monarchie Universelle (1724), and Le Temple de Gnide (1725). In 1725 he sold his life interest in his office and resigned from the Parliament.
In 1728 he was elected to the Academie Française, despite some religious opposition, and shortly thereafter left France to travel abroad. After visiting Italy, Germany, Austria, and other countries, he went to England, where he lived for two years. He was greatly impressed with the English political system, and drew on his observations of it in his later work.
On his return to France in 1731, troubled by failing eyesight, Montesquieu returned to La Brède and began work on his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws. During this time he also wrote Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline, which he published anonymously in 1734. In this book he tried to work out the application of his views to the particular case of Rome, and in so doing to discourage the use of Rome as a model for contemporary governments. Parts of Considerations were incorporated into The Spirit of the Laws, which he published in 1748. Like the Persian Letters, The Spirit of the Laws was both controversial and immensely successful. Two years later he published a Defense of the Spirit of the Laws to answer his various critics. Despite this effort, the Roman Catholic Church placed The Spirit of the Laws on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1751.
In 1755, Montesquieu died of a fever in Paris, leaving behind an unfinished essay on taste for the Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert.
Major works of Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu
– Persian Letters
– The Spirit of the Laws