Montesquieu

We don't often think of philosophers as people with busy lives like ourselves. You probably have a mental image of the philosopher dressed plainly, sitting on a rock somewhere outdoors, pondering the world around them. 

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Montesquieu Montesquieu

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    Well, the French Englightenment thinker Charles de Montesquieu combined his philosophical pursuits with his busy working life as a judge and with his continental travels. Belonging to the school of classical liberalism, which has influenced subsequent centuries of liberal thought, the shadows cast by Montesquieu's ideas over modern history are long and enduring. Let's dive right in and find out more about this great thinker.

    French Philosopher Montesquieu

    Charles-Louis Montesquieu, otherwise known as Baron de Montesquieu, was a French noble, lawyer, and - most importantly - political philosopher of the enlightenment period. He is recognised as one of the founders of liberalism, particularly for his reflections on government and his influence on the American and French Revolutions.

    To learn more about liberalism, read our explanation!

    Charles de Montesquieu, French philosopher, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of French philosopher, Charles de Montesquieu.

    Life of Charles de Montesquieu

    Montesquieu was born into a noble family in Bordeaux, France, in 1689. His father was from a respectable military household, and his mother was a wealthy heiress, bringing an estate and 'baron' title into the family. He inherited the title at age 7, when his mother died, and pursued an education in law throughout his young life. His father and uncle also died when he was young, leaving him with a large estate and the hereditary role of deputy president (judge) at the Parlement of Bordeaux, which was an important supreme court with jurisdiction over 2 million people.

    Hereditary roles refer to a position or title passed on through family inheritance.

    While his wife looked after his businesses and estate, Montesquieu spent his life acquiring knowledge, often travelling to Paris to study, absorb its social life, and write alongside his legal profession. Starting in 1728, he embarked on a tour of Europe, developing his perspectives on politics and power through visits to Vienna, Hungary, Italy, and Britain. In Britain, he reflected particularly on liberty, government and the division of power.

    He focused the later part of his life on writing political treatises (works which systematically discuss a political argument). This included several reflections on French and English politics until his most crucial work, L'Esprit des Lois, or The Spirit of the Laws.

    Charles de Montesquieu, French Philosopher, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Château de la Brède, the family home of Montesquieu, where he returned to and wrote most of his works after travelling.

    His works are regarded as some of the most influential political writings of the Enlightenment, motivating revolutionary ideas and changing the understanding and structure of politics forever.

    The Enlightenment was a European intellectual movement focusing on the role of reason and science in developing knowledge rather than religion and traditions.

    For more information, read our explanation on enlightenment thinkers.

    Montesquieu Theory

    Montesquieu is regarded as being firmly within the tradition of classical liberalism

    Classical liberalism is the earliest iteration of liberal thought, focusing on the rule of law, limited government, civil liberties, and free-trade economics.

    Separation of Powers

    The theory that Montesquieu is most famous for forwarding is the idea of 'Separation of Powers. This theory argues that the branches and roles of government (legislative, executive, judiciary) should operate independently to prevent any individual or institution from becoming too powerful. This is important in preventing a leader from becoming too powerful or a despot.

    For more information on the Separation of powers, read further on.

    State of Nature

    In common with other liberal thinkers such as Hobbes and Rousseau, Montesquieu is concerned with the idea of the state of nature. State-of-nature theories involve a hypothetical description of the world before politics and institutions. Philosophers use it to explain their view on human nature and the need for power structures.

    Like Hobbes, he considers the futility of life in the state of nature, although he believed that people were mainly motivated by fear rather than self-interest. Following their search for food, shelter, and safety, humans inevitably form societies, leading to war (not the state of nature itself). Montesquieu believed that laws and government would arise from this conflict.

    For more information on the state of nature, read our explanations on Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

    Economics and Commerce

    Montesquieu discussed the benefits of commerce to society and the world in The Spirit of the Laws. He considered commerce as "a cure for the most destructive prejudices" .1 Montesquieu saw the benefits of trade and capitalism in bringing people together through cooperation and that it could lead to peace. This idea of commerce being a civilising force is referred to as doux commerce, or "gentle commerce", and represents enlightenment ambitions for societal progress.

    Although remembered for his contributions and reflections on government, Montesquieu developed liberal reflections on economics, especially through his comparative approach to history. This helped to inform significant economists such as Adam Smith and David Hume.

    Montesquieu's Beliefs in Government

    It is Montesquieu's reflections on government that he is most known.

    The Political Context of the Time of Montesquieu

    France had long been under the feudal Ancien Régime (the 'Old Regime'), where society was strictly hierarchical, with the monarchy at the top, the clergy and aristocracy forming the elite, and the rest being denied any political power. The distribution of political power was uneven and unequal, and its application was often arbitrary, subject to the whims of individual monarchs or aristocrats. Spiritual and temporal power - the divide between the Church and the state - was poorly defined.

    This backdrop undoubtedly informed Montesquieu's views on government and the risk of despotic power.

    His first famous work was The Persian Letters, a fictitious satirical book presenting the reaction of Persian travellers to France and Paris. In it, he mocked the reign of King Louis XIV and discussed a range of political identities and debates in society at the time.

    Categorisations of Power

    Montesquieu focused on studying and explaining forms of governance, reflecting on historical examples (such as ancient Rome), and being informed by the political systems he saw in different countries during his travels.

    He began re-theorising the existing ideas of political governance, which had been: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

    He instead saw governments and power in three new categorisations: republican, monarchical, and despotic. Each of these is guided by its moral systems and interpretation of the rule of law.

    Despotism is the political rule or form of government where a single entity or individual has absolute power. It is often associated with tyrannical rule.

    Republic:

    For Montesquieu, a republican form of government was one where power lies with the people. He argued that a republic could be democratic if power resided with the general population or aristocratic if power belonged to a select few. He believed virtue, or good honest governance is a true republic's guiding idea.

    Monarchy:

    The people are subjects to a ruling monarch, who has ultimate power over laws and government. Nevertheless, the monarch still leads by honour, being held to account as the direct representative of God and by fixed rules and laws.

    Despot:

    Montesquieu was most critical of despotic power, describing a system or society where total power lies with a central leader or despot. Rather than following particular virtues or being held to account by God, a despot rules through fear and tyranny. He believed that despotic rule was a risk to all countries, especially when power was not kept in check.

    Montesquieu's focus on preventing despotic power informed his advocacy for the separation of powers.

    Montesquieu Separation of Powers

    At the base of this theory, Montesquieu stressed that power should never be concentrated under one person or institution. Instead, different branches of government should operate separately to ensure a balance of power and authority.

    He warned that if power was not effectively distributed, liberty would not be possible, and there would be the constant threat of despotic power.

    Montesquieu's Three Forms of Power

    Montesquieu argued that to maintain a balance so that power never lies with one individual, the three branches - legislative, executive, and judiciary - had to operate separately.

    • Legislative - the lawmakers that should be representative of the people.
    • Executive - the decision maker, placed in the hand of the monarch.
    • Judiciary - the court or interpreters of laws and rules.

    Not only should they be separate entities, but Montesquieu stressed that their role and operation are also entirely different. There should be no overlap between members of each branch.

    Through each branch operating separately, it would also generate a system of 'checks and balances', ensuring no branch would gain too much authority.

    Checks and Balances

    The idea of checks and balances is that through each branch operating separately, they compete against one another with different interests and needs. Alongside this, each branch has methods to protect its interests and to keep the others in check.

    This internal conflict within the government ensures a level of balance, enabling each branch to operate as an equal. It also prevents one entity from having too much power, protecting the rights and liberties of the citizens from a too-powerful despot.

    This principle of 'separation of powers' and 'checks and balances' formed a crucial foundation of the US, with the founding fathers strongly influenced by Montesquieu's ideas on government when writing the American Constitution.

    Montesquieu Spirit of the Laws (1748)

    Charles de Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Charles de Montesquieu's L'esprit des Lois, or Spirit of the Laws, Vol. 2.

    Published anonymously in 1748, Montesquieu's principal work is a treatise on political theory, reflecting most importantly on the separation of powers, as well as several other significant liberal principles.

    Like many famous writers of this period, like John Locke, Montesquieu likely wrote anonymously due to his work's critical reflection on the role of the monarchy, state, and church. His work was even placed on a prohibited list by the Roman Catholic Church.

    The book covers a wide variety of reflections, focusing on law, life, and anthropology (the study of people and society).

    The book uses 'law' as its central point of reference - Montesquieu was indeed a judge by trade. However, he utilises this to reflect on a broad variety of political issues. The 'rule of law' is a central element of liberal thought and writings, which Montesquieu helped develop,

    the rule of law is the notion that universal principles and laws exist, and that nobody is above the law.

    Most importantly, he considers and discusses the separation of power within government. But he also explores the role of law and its impact on society, political differences across the world, and commerce.

    This work is most famous for establishing key principles such as the separation of power and checks and balances and engraining the idea of despotism and the rule of law within political discussions.

    Montesquieu - Key takeaways

    • Charles de Montesquieu is a French philosopher best known for his theorisation of the separation of powers in his work The Spirit of the Laws.
    • Charles de Montesquieu was born into a noble family in France, Bordeaux. He studied law and worked as a judge whilst also travelling and writing political reflections and treatises.
    • He categorised governance into three types: republics by the people, monarchies by a law-following leader, and despots by a tyrannical ruler.
    • Montesquieu described the three branches of power within government, executive, legislative, and judiciary. He argued that there must be a separation of powers between each branch to ensure no institution becomes too powerful.
    • Montesquieu's central work was the political treatise The Spirit of the Laws, which explored a variety of political reflections, most central to this was the separation of powers, governance, and commerce.

    References

    1. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, https://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch4s2.html
    2. Fig. 3 - Château de La Brède en Gironde (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_de_La_Br%C3%A8de_en_Gironde.jpg), by Hervé Devred, licenced by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Montesquieu

    Who was Baron de Montesquieu?  

    Baron or Charles-Louis de Montesquieu was a French judge and philosopher of the enlightenment period. He is known as one of the founders of classical liberalism and created the theory of separation of powers.

    What did Montesquieu believe in?

    Montesquieu believed in the separation of powers, arguing that branches of government had to operate separately to prevent despotic governance.
    He also believed in the benefits of commerce, believing it to be a civilising force for peace as trade brings people together.

    What was Montesquieu's idea of the separation of powers?

    Montesquieu believed that power should never be concentrated under one person or institution, and therefore the three branches of government had to operate separately.


    This included the equal operation of the legislative, executive, and judiciary, all acting independently and keeping the others in check.

    What did Baron de Montesquieu argue about government? 

    First of all, he argued that there were three forms of governance: republics (or democracies by the people), monarchies, and despots (tyrannical rule by one individual).


    He also argued for the separation of powers between the three branches of government.

    How did Montesquieu contribute to the enlightenment?  

    Montesquieu is recognised as one of the founders of classical liberalism, reflecting on the rule of law and on separation of power. 
    His works had a significant influence on the American and French revolutions and have informed political structures ever since.

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