V. MONTESQUIEU: 1689–1755

1. Persian Letters

Voltaire found it harder to like Montesquieu, for The Spirit of Laws (1748) was generally rated the greatest intellectual production of the age. It appeared when its author was fifty-nine; it was the fruit of fifty years of experience, forty years of study, twenty of composition.

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, was born at La Brède, near Bordeaux in the country of Montaigne, on January 18, 1689. He boasted good-humoredly of descent from those Goths who, after conquering the Roman Empire, “established everywhere monarchy and liberty.”53 In any case he belonged to the nobility, both of sword and of robe: his father was chief justice at Guienne, and his mother brought as her dowry the castle and domain of La Brède. At the moment of his birth a beggar presented himself at the castle gate; he was brought in and fed, and was made the godfather of the child, allegedly in the hope that Charles would never forget the poor.54 The boy’s first three years were spent at nurse among the village peasants. At eleven he was sent to the college of the Oratorians at Juilly, twenty miles from Paris. At sixteen he returned to Bordeaux to study law; at nineteen he received his law degree.

The death of his father (1713) left him, at twenty-four, considerable property and moderate wealth; he was to speak frequently of “my domain” and “my vassals,”55 and we shall find him firmly upholding feudalism. A year later he was admitted to the Bordeaux Parlement as a councilor and magistrate. In 1716 his uncle, who had bought the presidency of the Parlement, bequeathed to him his fortune and his office. Later Montesquieu would defend “the sale of employments” as “good in monarchical states, because it makes it the profession of persons of family to undertake tasks which they would not assume from disinterested motives alone.”56 While retaining the presidency of the Parlement, he spent most of his time in study. He made experiments, presented papers on physics and physiology to the Academy of Bordeaux, and planned a “geological history of the earth.” He never wrote it, but the material he gathered for it forced its way into The Spirit of Laws.

He was thirty-two when he caught the mood and ear of Regency Paris with the most brilliant of his books. He did not give his name to the Lettres persanes (1721), for it contained passages hardly becoming a magistrate. Probably he took its scheme fromL’Espion du Grand Seigneur (1684) of Giovanni Marana, in which an imaginary Turkish spy reported to the sultan, with some fetching ribaldry, the absurd beliefs and behavior of the Christians of Europe, and the delightful or murderous contrasts between Christian professions and practices. A similar device of picturing Occidental civilization as seen through Oriental eyes had been used in Addison’s Spectator; Charles Dufresny, in Amusements sérieux et comiques, had conceived the comments of a Siamese in Paris; Nicolas Gueudeville had shown French customs as seen by an American Indian. Antoine Galland’s translation of the Arabian Nights—Mille et une Nuits (1704–17)—had sharpened French interest in Mohammedan life; so had the travelogues of Jean (Sir John) Chardin and Jean Tavernier. From March to July, 1721, the Turkish ambassador treated Paris to the exotic charm of his dress and ways. Paris was ready for the Lettres persanes. Eight editions were sold out within a year.

Montesquieu presented the letters as written by Rica and Usbek, two Persians traveling in France, and by their correspondents in Isfahan. The letters did not merely expose the foibles and prejudices of the French; they revealed also, through the writers themselves, the absurdities of Oriental conduct and creeds; laughing at these faults, the reader was compelled to accept with good grace the ridicule of his own. It was done with so light a touch—who could take offense at these unconscious epigrams, these rapier thrusts with politely buttoned foils? Moreover, certain of the letters contained alluring confidences from Usbek’s seraglio in Isfahan. Zachi, his favorite, writes to tell him how painfully she misses his passion; and Rica describes a Mohammedan lady’s conception of Paradise as a place where every good woman has a harem of handsome and virile men. Here Montesquieu let himself go into details in the reckless style of the Regency.

Only during that interregnum could the political and religious heresies of the Lettres have escaped official rebuke. The old King was dead, the new one was a boy, the Regent was tolerant and gay; now Montesquieu could make his Persians laugh at a “magician” ruler who made people believe that paper was money (Law’s System had just crashed).57 He could expose the corruption of the court, the idleness of spendthrift nobles, the maladministration of state finances. He could praise the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, and the modern republics of Holland and Switzerland. “Monarchy,” says Usbek, “is an abnormal condition which always degenerates into despotism.”58 (See below for a different view.)

In Letters XI-XIV Usbek illustrates the nature of man and the problem of government by telling of the Troglodytes, whom he conceives to be Arabian descendants of the Troglodytai described by Herodotus59 and Aristotle60 as bestial tribes living in Africa.IVUsbek’s Troglodytes, resenting governmental interference, killed thinking magistrates, and lived in a paradise of laissez-faire. Every seller took advantage of the consumer’s need, and raised the price of the product. When a strong man stole the wife of a weak man there was no law or magistrate to appeal to. Murder, rape, and robbery went unpunished except by private violence. When the inhabitants of the highlands suffered from drought, the lowlanders let them starve; when the lowlanders suffered from flood the highlanders let them starve. Soon the tribe died out. Two families survived by emigration; they practiced mutual aid, raised their children in religion and virtue, and “looked upon themselves as one single family; their flocks were almost always intermixed.”61But as they increased in number they found their customs inadequate to govern them; they chose a king, and submitted to laws. Usbek’s conclusion: government is necessary, but fails in its function if it is not based on virtue in ruler and ruled.

The religious heresies in the Persian Letters were more startling than the political. Rica observes that Negroes conceive God as black and the Devil as white; he suggests (like Xenophanes) that if triangles confabulated a theology, God would have three sides and sharp points. Usbek marvels at the power of another magician, called pope, who persuades people to believe that bread is not bread, and wine is not wine, “and a thousand things of a like nature.”62 He laughs at the conflict between Jesuits and Jansenists. He is horrified by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, where “dervishes [Dominican monks] cause men to be burned as they would burn straw.”63 He smiles at rosaries and scapulars. He wonders how long the Catholic countries can survive in competition with Protestant peoples, for he thinks that the prohibition of divorce, and the celibacy of nuns and monks, will retard the growth of population in France, Italy and Spain (cf. twentieth-century Ireland); at this rate, Usbek calculates, Catholicism in Europe cannot last five hundred years more.64 V Moreover, these idle and supposedly continent monks “hold in their hands almost all the wealth of the state. They are a miserly crew, always getting and never giving; they are continually hoarding their income to acquire capital. All this wealth falls as it were into a palsy; it is not circulated; it is not employed in trade, industry, or manufactures.”66 Usbek is troubled by the thought that Europe’s benighted infidels, who worship Christ instead of Allah and Mohammed, seem all destined to hell, but he has some hope that ultimately they will accept Islam and be saved.67

Usbek, in a transparent parable, considers the Revocation (1685) of Henry IV’s tolerant Edict of Nantes:

You know, Mirza, that some ministers of Shah Suleiman [Louis XIV] formed the design of obliging all the Armenians of Persia [the Huguenots] to quit the kingdom or become Mohammedans [Catholics], in the belief that our empire will continue polluted as long as it retains within its bosom these infidels.… The persecution of the Ghebers by our zealous Mohammedans has obliged them to fly in crowds into the Indies, and has deprived Persia of that people which labored so heartily.… Only one thing remained for bigotry to do, and that was to destroy industry, with the result that the Empire [France in 1713] fell of itself, carrying along with it that very religion which they wished to advance.

If unbiased discussion were possible, I am not sure, Mirza, that it would not be a good thing for a state to have several religions.… History is full of religious wars; but … it is not the multiplicity of religions which has produced wars; it is the intolerant spirit animating that one which believed itself in the ascendant.68

The ideas of the Persian Letters seem trite to us now, but when they were expressed they were for the author a matter of life and death, at least of imprisonment or banishment; they are trite now because the fight for freedom to express ideas was won. Because the Lettres persanes opened a way, Voltaire was able, thirteen years later, to issue his Lettres sur les Anglais, putting an English torch to French debris; these two books announced the Enlightenment. Montesquieu and his liberty survived his book because he was a noble and the Regent was tolerant. Even so he did not dare acknowledge his authorship, for there were some disapproving voices amid the general acclaim. D’Argenson, who himself would later criticize the government, thought “these are reflections of a kind which a witty man can easily make, but which a prudent man ought never allow to be printed.” And the cautious Marivaux added: “A man must be sparing of his wit on such subjects.” Montesquieu recalled: “When I had in some degree gained the esteem of the public, that of the official classes was lost, and I met with a thousand slights.”69

Nevertheless he came to Paris to sip his fame in society and the salons. Mme. de Tencin, the Marquise de Lambert and the Marquise du Deffand all opened their hearths. Having left his wife behind at La Brède, he had no difficulty falling in love with the ladies of Paris. He aimed high—at Marie Anne de Bourbon, sister of the Duc de Bourbon who became prime minister in 1723. For her, we are told, he composed a little prose poem, Le Temple de Gnide (1725), ecstatic with love. He anointed its wantonness by pretending that it was a translation from the Greek, and so obtained royal permission to print it. He pulled wires—especially those of Mme. de Prie—to secure admission to the Academy; the King objected that he was not a resident of Paris; he hurried to Bordeaux, resigned his presidency of its Parlement (1726), returned to Paris, and joined the Forty Immortals in 1728.

In April he set out on a tour that took three years and covered parts of Italy, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, the Rhineland, Holland, and England. He remained in England eighteen months (November, 1729, to August, 1731). There he formed a friendship with Chesterfield and other notables, was elected to the Royal Society of London and initiated into Freemasonry, was received by George II and Queen Caroline, attended Parliament, and fell in love with what he thought was the British constitution. Like Voltaire he went back to France strong in the admiration for liberty, yet sobered by contact with the problems of government. He retired to La Brède, transformed his park into an English garden, and, except for occasional trips to Paris, gave himself up to the researches and writings that occupied the rest of his life.

2. Why Rome Fell

In 1734 he issued, unsigned but acknowledged, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. He had submitted the manuscript to a Jesuit scholar, and had consented to eliminate passages that might give umbrage to the Church. The book did not and could not repeat the success of the Lettres persanes; it contained no indecencies, it dealt with a remote and complex subject, it was relatively conservative in politics and theology. Radicals did not relish the emphasis on moral decay as a cause of national decline, and they were not ready to appreciate the terse wisdom of such sentences as: “Those who have ceased to fear power can still respect authority.”70 Today the little treatise is looked upon as a pioneer attempt at a philosophy of history, and as a classic of French prose, recalling Bossuet but adding brilliance to gravity.

The subject invited the historian-philosopher, for it involved the whole gamut of a great civilization from birth to death, and exposed in broad scope and illuminating detail one of the basic processes of history—the dissolution that seems fated to follow any full evolution in individuals, religions, and states. Already there was a suspicion that France, after the collapse of le grand siècle, had entered upon a long period of decay in empire, morals, literature, and art; the profane trinity of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau had not yet appeared to challenge the intellectual supremacy of the seventeenth century. But the rising courage of the new age showed in the fact that Montesquieu, in explaining the course of history, considered only earthly causes, and quietly set aside, except for incidental obeisance, the Providence which, in Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681), had guided all events to divinely determined results. Montesquieu proposed to seek laws in history as Newton had sought them in space:

It is not Fortune who governs the world, as we see from the history of the Romans.… There are general causes, moral or physical, which operate in every monarchy, raise it, maintain it, or overthrow it. All that occurs is subject to these causes; and if a particular cause, like the accidental result of a battle, has ruined a state, there was a general cause which made the downfall of this state ensue from a single battle. In a word, the principal movement [l’allure principale] draws with it all the particular occurrences.71

Consequently Montesquieu reduced the role of the individual in history. The individual, however great his genius, is but an instrument of the “general movement”; his importance is Duc not to his surpassing ability so much as to his falling in with what Hegel was to call the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the time. “If Caesar and Pompey had thought like Cato [had striven to preserve the powers of the Roman Senate], others would have come to the same ideas [to subordinate the Senate] as those of Caesar and Pompey, and the Republic, destined to perish [from internal causes] would have been led to ruin by some other hand.”72

But this “destiny” was no mystical guidance or metaphysical force; it was a complex of factors producing the “principal movement”; and the main function of the philosophical historian, in Montesquieu’s view, is to ferret out each such factor, analyze it, and show its operation and relations. So the decline of Rome (he thought) was Duc first of all to a change from a republic—in which there had been a division and balance of powers—to an empire better fitted to govern dependencies, but so centering all rule in one city and one man as to destroy the liberty and vigor of the citizens and the provinces. To this prime cause were added other factors in the course of time: the spread of supine servility among the masses; the desire of the poor to be supported by the state; the weakening of character by wealth, luxury, and license; the influx of aliens unformed by Roman traditions and ready to sell their votes to the highest bidder; the corruption of central and provincial administrators; the depreciation of currency; the excess of taxation; the abandonment of farms; the sapping of martial virility by new religions and a long peace; the failure of military discipline; the ascendancy of the army over the civilian government; the preference of the army for making or unmaking emperors in Rome rather than for defending the frontiers from barbarian invasion … Perhaps in reaction against the supernatural emphasis in Bossuet, Montesquieu made little account of those changes in religion which Gibbon was to stress as a main cause of the imperial collapse.

But always Montesquieu came back to what he considered the prime factor in Rome’s decadence—the passage from republic to monarchy. By their republican maxims the Romans conquered a hundred peoples; but by the time they had accomplished this the republic could not subsist; and the maxims of the new government, contrary to those of the republic, caused the decline.73 However, when we go back to Chapter vi, and examine the maximes, or methods, by which the Roman Republic conquered “all the peoples,” we find a strange assortment: deceit, broken treaties, force, severe punishments, division of the enemy for piecemeal conquest (divide et impera), forcible reshuffling of populations, subverting resistant governments by subsidizing internal revolts, and other procedures familiar to statesmen. “The Romans used their allies to destroy an enemy, and then soon destroyed the destroyers.”74 Apparently forgetting this description of republican maxims, or swallowing Machiavelli at one gulp, Montesquieu, in ChapterXVIII, held up the Republic as an ideal of greatness, and deplored the Empire as a gay landslide to dissolution. Yet he recognized the corruption of politics in the Republic, and the political splendor of the Empire under “the wisdom of Nerva, the glory of Trajan, the valor of Hadrian, and the virtue of the two Antonines”;75 here Montesquieu gave a lead to Gibbon and Renan in naming that period the noblest and happiest in the history of government. In those philosopher-kings too Montesquieu found the ethics of the Stoics, which he clearly preferred to the Christian. His admiration for the Romans of the Republic passed down to the French enthusiasts of the Revolution, and shared in changing French government, martial methods, and art.

The book had some faults of a scholarship made hasty by the press of time and the call of a larger task. Montesquieu was sometimes uncritical in his use of classical texts; so, for example, he took as history Livy’s chapters on Rome’s beginnings, whereas Valla, Glareanus, Vico, and Pouilly had already rejected that account as legend. He underestimated the economic factors behind the politics of the Gracchi and Caesar. But against these shortcomings a larger view ranges the eloquence, vigor, and concentration of the style, the depth and originality of the thought, the bold attempt to see in one perspective the rise and fall of a complete civilization, and to elevate history from a record of details to the analysis of institutions and the logic of events. Here was a challenge to historians, which Voltaire and Gibbon would seek to meet; and here was that longing for a philosophy of history which Montesquieu himself, after a generation of labor, would try to satisfy with The Spirit of Laws.

3. The Spirit of Laws

Fourteen years passed between the Considérations and L’Esprit des lois. Montesquieu had begun his chef-d’oeuvre about 1729, aged forty; the essay on Rome was a by-product and interruption. In 1747, aged fifty-six, he grew tired of the toil, and was tempted to abandon it: “Often have I begun this work, and often have I laid it aside. I have a thousand times cast to the winds the leaves that I had written.”76 He appealed to the Muses to sustain him: “I am running a long course, I am weighed down with sadness and weariness. Pour into my soul the persuasive charm that once I knew, but which now flies from me. You are never so divine as when you lead us through pleasure to wisdom and truth.”77 They must have responded, for he carried on. When at last the task was done, he confessed his hesitations and his pride:

I have followed my object without forming a plan; I have known neither rule nor exceptions; I have found the truth only to lose it again. But when I once discovered my principles, everything I sought for came to me; and in the course of twenty years I have seen my work begun, growing up, advancing toward completion, and finished.… If this work meets with success I shall owe it chiefly to the grandeur and majesty of the subject. However, I do not think that I have been totally deficient in genius.… When I have seen what so many great men in both France and Germany have written [on this subject] before me, I have been lost in admiration, but I have not lost my courage; I have said with Correggio, “And I too am a painter.”78

He showed the manuscript to Helvétius, Hénault, and Fontenelle. Fontenelle thought the treatise lacked le bon genre of French style;79 Helvétius begged the author not to ruin his reputation as a liberal by publishing a book so lenient to many conservative beliefs.80 Montesquieu judged these cautions irrelevant, and proceeded to print. Fearing the French censorship, he sent the manuscript to Geneva; it was published there in 1748 in two volumes, unsigned. When the French clergy had ferreted out its heresies they condemned it, and a government order forbade its distribution in France. In 1750 Malesherbes—future savior of the Encyclopédie—became censor, removed the prohibition, and the book rapidly made its way. Twenty-two editions were printed in two years, and soon the work was translated into all the languages of Christian Europe.

Titles in Montesquieu’s time were honestly, often laboriously, explanatory. So he called his book On the Spirit of Laws, or On the Relations Which Must Exist between the Laws and the Constitution of Each Government, the Manners, Climate, Religion, Commerce, etc. It was an essay on the relations between physical forces and social forms, and on the interrelations among the components of civilization. It tried to lay the foundations for what we should now call “scientific” sociology: to make possible—after the manner of research in the natural sciences—verifiable conclusions illuminating present society and conditionally predicting the future. It was, of course, too much for one man to accomplish in the brevity of life and the existing state of ethnology, jurisprudence, and historiography.

More specifically, Montesquieu’s thesis was that “the spirit of laws”—i.e., their origin, character, and tendency—is determined first by the climate and soil of the habitat, and then by the physiology, economy, government, religion, morals, and manners of the people. He began with a broad definition: “Laws, in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things”; obviously he wished to bring the “natural laws” of the physical world, and the assumed regularities in history, under one general concept. Following Grotius, Pufendorf, and other predecessors, he distinguished several kinds of laws: (1) natural law, which he defined as “human reason so far as it governs all the peoples of the earth”81—i.e., the “natural rights” of all men as beings endowed with reason; (2) the law of nations in their relations with one another; (3) political law, governing the relations between the individual and the state; and (4) civil law—the relations of individuals with one another.

In the early stages of human society, Montesquieu thought, the basic determinant of laws is the physical character of the terrain. Is it jungle, desert, or arable? Is it inland or coastal? Is it mountainous or plain? What is the quality of the soil, and the nature of the food it yields? In a word, climate is the first, and at first the most powerful, factor in determining a people’s economy, its laws, and its “national character.” (Bodin in the sixteenth century anticipated, and Buckle in the nineteenth followed, Montesquieu in this initial emphasis.) For example, consider the climatic, and consequent human, differences between north and south:

People are more vigorous in cold climates.… This superiority of strength must produce various effects: for instance, a greater boldness, i.e., more courage; a greater sense of superiority, i.e., less desire of revenge; a greater sense of security, i.e., more frankness, less suspicion, policy, and cunning.… I have been at the opera in England and in Italy, where I have seen the same pieces and the same performers; and yet the same music produced such different effects on the two nations; one is so cold and phlegmatic, and the other so lively and enraptured.… If we travel toward the north we meet with people who have few vices, many virtues.… If we draw near the south we fancy ourselves entirely removed from the verge of morality; here the strongest passions are productive of all manner of crimes, each man endeavoring, let the means be what they will, to indulge his inordinate desires … .

In warm countries the aqueous part of the blood loses itself greatly by perspiration; it must therefore be supplied by a like liquid. Water is there of admirable uses; strong liquors would congeal the globules of the blood which remains after the transuding of the aqueous humor. In cold countries the aqueous part of the blood is very little evacuated by perspiration. They must therefore make use of spirituous liquors, without which the blood would congeal.… The law of Mohammed, which prohibits the drinking of wine, is therefore fitted to the climate of Arabia.… The law which forbade the Carthaginians to drink wine was a law of the climate. Such a law would be improper for cold countries, where the climate seems to force them to a kind of national intemperance.… Drunkenness predominates.… in proportion to the coldness and humidity of the climate.82

Or consider the relations between climate and marriage:

Women, in hot countries, are marriageable at eight, nine, or ten years of age.… They are old at twenty; their reason, therefore, never accompanies their beauty. When beauty demands the empire, the want of reason forbids the claim; when reason is obtained, beauty is no more. These women ought then to be in a state of dependency, for reason cannot procure in old age that empire which even youth and beauty could not give. It is therefore extremely natural that in these places a man, when no law opposes it, should leave one wife to take another, and that polygamy should be introduced.

In temperate climates, where the charms of women are best preserved, where they arrive later at maturity, and have children at a more advanced stage of life, the old age of their husbands in some degree follows theirs; and as they have more reason and knowledge at the time of marriage [than their semitropical analogues] … it must naturally introduce a kind of equality between the sexes, and in consequence of this, the law of having only one wife.… That is the reason why Mohammedanism [with polygamy] was so easily established in Asia, and with such difficulty extended in Europe; why Christianity is maintained in Europe, and has been destroyed in Asia; and, in fine, why the Mohammedans have made such progress in China, and the Christians so little.83

At this point Montesquieu realizes that he has replaced Bossuet’s Providence with climate, and hastens to add, for God’s sake, a saving caution: “Human reasons, however, are subordinate to that Supreme Cause who does whatever He pleases, and renders everything subordinate to His will.” Some Jesuits thought that they saw Montesquieu’s tongue in his cheek.

He soon resumed his reckless generalizations. In the “East” (Turkey, Persia, India, China, Japan) the climate compels the seclusion of women, for “the hot airs inflame the passions,” and would endanger polygamy as well as monogamy if the sexes were as free to mingle as “in our northern countries, where the manners of women are naturally good, where all the passions are calm, where love rules over the heart with so regular and gentle an empire that the least degree of prudence is sufficient to conduct it.”84 “It is a happiness to live in those climates which permit such freedom of converse, where the sex which has most charms seems to embellish society, and where wives, reserving themselves for the pleasure of one, contribute to the amusement of all.”85

Customs are more directly the result of climate than laws are, for laws must sometimes seek to counter the effects of climate. As civilization advances, climatic factors are and must be more and more controlled by moral or legal restraints, its in the Oriental seclusion of women. And the wisest legislators aim to balance “physical causes.” Customs are a function of place and time; none is in itself right or wrong or best. By and large, custom is the best law, since it is a natural adaptation of character to situation. We must move slowly in trying to change a custom. Usually a custom refuses to be changed by a law.86

Since habitat determines custom, which determines national character, the form of government will vary with the complex of all three. In general it will depend upon the extent of the area ruled: a republic comports with a small territory, whose leading citizens can assemble in one place for deliberation or action; if the area expands it will require more laws and wars, and will submit to monarchical rule. Monarchy passes into despotism when it governs too much terrain; for only despotic power can keep under subjection the local rulers of distant provinces.87 A monarchy must rest on “honor”; i.e., its population must be ranged in ranks, and its citizens must be zealous for distinction and preference. A republic must rest on a wide dissemination of “virtue,” which Montesquieu defines in his own way as “the love of one’s country—i.e., the love of equality.”88

A republic may be either an aristocracy or a democracy, according as it is ruled by only a part of the citizenry or by all. Montesquieu admires Venice as an aristocratic republic, and the ancient city-states as democracies; he knows but ignores the fact that in these the enfranchised citizens were only a minority. He praises the rule established by William Penn in America, and, still more enthusiastically, the theocratic communism organized by the Jesuits in Paraguay.89 To be real, however, an honest democracy must provide economic as well as political equality; it should regulate inheritances and dowries, and progressively tax wealth.90 The best republics are those in which the people, recognizing their incapacity to wisely determine policy, accept the policies adopted by the representatives whom they have chosen.

A democracy should aim at equality, but it can be ruined by a spirit of extreme equality, when each citizen would fain be on a level with those whom he has chosen to command him.… Where this is the case virtue can no longer subsist in the republic. The people are desirous of exercising the functions of the magistrates, who cease to be revered. The deliberations of the senate are slighted; all respect is then laid aside for the senators, and consequently for old age. If there is no more respect for old age, there will be none presently for parents; deference to husbands will be likewise thrown off, and submission to masters. This license will soon become general.… The people fall into this misfortune when those in whom they confided, desirous of concealing their corruption, endeavor to corrupt them.… The people will divide the public money among themselves, and, having added the administration of affairs to their indolence, will be for blending their poverty with the amusement of luxury.91

And so, says the Baron, echoing Plato across two thousand years, democracy falls into chaos, invites dictatorship, and disappears.

There are many passages in Montesquieu that favor an aristocratic republic, but he so feared the despotism that he thought potential in democracy that he was willing to put up with monarchy if it ruled by established laws. The shortest chapter in his book is on despotism, and consists of three lines: “When the savages of Louisiana desire fruit, they cut the tree to the root and gather the fruit. This is a symbol of despotic government”;92 i.e., the despot cuts down the ablest families to safeguard his power. The examples Montesquieu gave were safely Oriental, but he was apparently fearful that the Bourbon monarchy was tending toward despotism, now that Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV had destroyed the political power of the aristocracy. He spoke of the Cardinal as “bewitched with the love of despotic power.”93 As a French noble he strongly resented the reduction of his class to mere courtiers of the king. He believed that “intermediate, subordinate, and dependent powers” were necessary to a healthy monarchy; and by these powers he meant the landed nobility and the hereditary magistracy, to both of which he belonged. So he defended feudalism at great length (173 pages), sacrificing the unity and symmetry of his book. Alone among the philosophers of eighteenth-century France he spoke with respect of the Middle Ages, and made Gothic a term of praise. In the conflict that continued throughout the reign of Louis XV between the monarch and the parlements the embattled magistrates found an arsenal of argument in L’Esprit des lois.

Montesquieu’s resentment of absolute monarchy as the vestibule to despotism led him to favor a “mixed government” of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—king, nobles, and Parlement or States-General. Hence his most famous and influential proposal: the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers in a government.94 The legislature should make the laws but should not administer them; the executive should administer them but not make them; the judiciary should limit itself to interpreting them. The executive should not appoint or control the judges. Ideally, the legislature would consist of two independent chambers, one representing the upper classes, the other the commonalty. Here again the Baron speaks:

In such a state there are always persons distinguished by their birth, riches, or honors. Were they to be confounded with the common people, and to have only the weight of a single vote like the rest, the common liberty would be their slavery, and they would have no interest in supporting it, as most of the popular resolutions would be against them. The share they have, therefore, ought to be proportioned to their other advantages in the state; which happens only where they form a body that has a right to check the licentiousness of the people, as the people have a right to oppose any encroachment upon their liberty. The legislative power is therefore committed to the body of the nobles, and to that which represents the people, each having its assemblies and deliberations apart, each its separate interest and views.95

Each of the three powers in the government, and each of the two chambers in the legislature, should serve as a check and balance against the others. By this complex way the liberties of the citizen will be reconciled with the wisdom, justice, and vigor of the government.

These ideas on mixed government had come down from Aristotle, but the plan for a separation of powers had developed in Montesquieu’s mind from his study of Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Locke, and from his experience in England. He thought he had found there, however imperfect, his ideal of a monarchy checked by democracy in the House of Commons, this checked by aristocracy in the House of Lords; and he supposed that the courts of England were an independent check on Parliament and the king. He idealized what he had seen in England under the chaperonage of Chesterfield and other nobles; but like Voltaire he used this idealization as a spur to France. He must have known that the English courts were not quite independent of Parliament, but he thought it good that France should contemplate the right of the accused in England to an early examination or release on bail, to be tried by a jury of his own class, to challenge his accusers, and to be exempt from torture. But also he thought that “the nobility ought not to be cited before the ordinary court of judicature, but before that part of the legislature which is composed of their own body”; they too should have the right of “being judged by their peers.”96

Montesquieu, like nearly all of us, became increasingly conservative with age. Conservatism is a function and obligation of old age, as radicalism is a useful function of youth, and moderation a gift and service of middle age; so we have a mixed constitution of a nation’s mind, with a division and mutual checking of powers. With all his laud of liberty as the true end of government, Montesquieu defined liberty as “a right of doing whatever the laws permit. If a citizen could do what they forbid he would no longer be possessed of liberty, because all his fellow citizens would have the same power.”97 And he agreed with his fellow Gascon, Montaigne, in deprecating revolutions:

When the form of government has been long established, and affairs have reached a fixed condition, it is almost always prudent to leave them there; because the reasons—often complicated or unknown—which have allowed such a state to subsist will still maintain it.98

He rejected the idea of equality in property or power, but he felt like the Gracchi about the concentration of land ownership.

With land sufficient to nourish a nation … the common people have scarcely enough to nourish a family.… The clergy, the prince, the cities, the great men, and some of the principal citizens insensibly become proprietors of all the land which lies uncultivated. The families who are ruined have left their fields, and the laboring man is destitute. In this situation they [the ruling classes] … should distribute land to all the families that are in want, and procure them materials for clearing and cultivating it. This distribution ought to be continued as long as there is a man to receive it.99

He condemned the farming of tax collecting to private financiers. He denounced slavery with moral fervor and bitter irony.100 He acknowledged the occasional necessity of war, and stretched the concept of defense to sanction preemptive war:

With a state the right of natural defense carries along with it sometimes the necessity of attacking; as, for instance, when one sees that a continuance of peace will enable another to destroy her, and that to attack that nation instantly is the only way to prevent her own destruction.101

But he deprecated the competitive amassing of armament:

A new distemper has spread itself over Europe, infecting our princes, and inducing them to keep up an exorbitant number of troops. It has its redoublings, and of necessity becomes contagious. For as soon as one prince augments his forces, the rest, of course, do the same; so that nothing is gained thereby, but the public ruin.102

Though he esteemed patriotism so highly as to identify it with virtue, he had moments in which he dreamed of a larger ethic:

If I knew of something that was useful to myself but injurious to my family, I would cast it from my mind. If I knew of something which was useful to my family but not to my country, I would try to forget it. If I knew of something that was useful to my country but injurious to Europe and the human race, I should regard it as a crime.103

His ultimate ethic and secret religion were those of the ancient Stoics:

Never were any principles more worthy of human nature, and more proper to form the good man.… If I could for a moment cease to think that I am a Christian, I should … rank the destruction of the sect of Zeno among the misfortunes that have befallen the human race.… It was this sect alone that made citizens, this alone that made great men, this alone great emperors. Laying aside for a moment revealed truths, let us search through all nature, and we shall not find a nobler object than the Antonines, not even Julian himself (a commendation thus wrested from me will not render me an accomplice of his apostasy). No, there has not been a prince, since his reign, more worthy to govern mankind.104

Visibly Montesquieu took care, in L’Esprit des lois, to make his peace with Christianity. He acknowledged God—“for what greater absurdity could there be than a blind fatality which had brought forth intelligent beings?”105 But he conceived this Supreme Intelligence as expressed in the laws of nature, and never interfering with them. “For Montesquieu,” said Faguet, “God is the Spirit of Laws.”106 He accepted supernatural beliefs as a necessary support of a moral code uncongenial to the nature of man. “It is proper there should be some sacred books to serve for a rule, as the Koran among the Arabs, the books of Zoroaster among the Persians, the Veda among the Indians, and the classics among the Chinese. The religious code supplements the civil, and fixes [limits] the extent of arbitrary sway.”107 State and Church should act as checks and balances to each other, but should always remain separate; “this great distinction [is] the basis of the tranquillity of nations.”108 Montesquieu defended religion against Bayle,109 but he subjected it, like everything else, to the influence of climate and national character:

A moderate government is most agreeable to the Christian religion, and a despotic government to the Mohammedan.… When a religion adapted to the climate of one country clashes too much with the climate of another, it cannot be there established, and, if introduced, it will be discarded.110 … The Catholic religion is most agreeable to monarchy, and the Protestant to a republic.… When the Christian religion … became unhappily divided into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the Protestant, and those of the south still adhered to the Catholic. The reason is plain: the people of the north have, and will forever have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have not; and therefore a religion which has no visible head is more agreeable.111

While conceding the benefits of religion in gross, he berated it in detail. He condemned the wealth of the clergy in France,112 and wrote “a most humble remonstrance to the Inquisitors of Spain and Portugal” to stop roasting heretics; he warned them that “if anyone in times to come shall dare to assert that, in the age in which we live, the people of Europe were civilized, you will be cited to prove that they were barbarians.”113 As a patriotic Gallican he laughed at papal infallibility, and insisted that the Church should be subject to the civil power. As to religious toleration he took a middle view: “When the state is at liberty to receive or reject a new religion, it ought to be rejected; when it is received it ought to be tolerated.”114 With all his obeisance to the censor he remained a rationalist. “Reason is the most perfect, the most noble, the most beautiful of all our faculties [la raison est le plus parfait, le plus noble, et le plus exquis de tous les sens],”115 What better motto could the Age of Reason display?

4. Aftermath

The Spirit of Laws was soon recognized as a major event in French literature, but it met with criticism from both right and left. The Jansenists and the Jesuits, normally at odds, united in condemning the book as a subtle repudiation of Christianity. Said the Jansenist Ecclesiastical News: “The parentheses that the author inserts to inform us that he is a Christian give slight assurance of his Catholicism; the author would laugh at our simplicity if we should take him for what he is not”; and the reviewer ended with an appeal to the secular authorities to take action against the book.116 The Jesuits accused Montesquieu of following the philosophy of Spinoza and Hobbes; in assuming laws in history as in natural science, he left no room for freedom of the will. Father Berthier, in the Jesuit Journal de Trévoux, argued that truth and justice are absolute, not relative to place or time, and that laws should be based on God-given universal principles, rather than on diversities of climate, soil, custom, or national character.117 Montesquieu thought it wise to issue (1750) a Défense de l’Esprit des lois, in which he disclaimed atheism, materialism, and determinism, and reaffirmed his Christianity. The clergy remained unconvinced.

Meanwhile the rising philosophes were also displeased. They considered The Spirit of Laws as almost a manual of conservatism; they resented its occasional piety, the moderation of its proposed reforms, and its halfhearted conception of religious toleration.118Helvétius wrote to Montesquieu chiding him with laying too much emphasis on the dangers and difficulties of social change.119 Voltaire, who was preparing his own philosophy of history in the Essai sur les moeurs, was not enthusiastic over Montesquieu’s achievement. He had not forgotten that Monsieur le Président had opposed his admission to the Academy with the words, “It would be a disgrace to the Academy if Voltaire were a member, and it will one day be his disgrace that he was not one.”120 Under the circumstances Voltaire’s criticism was restrained, and was dammed with considerable praise. He argued that Montesquieu had exaggerated the influence of climate; he noted that Christianity had originated in hot Judea and was still flourishing in chilly Norway; and he thought it more likely that England had gone Protestant because Anne Boleyn was beautiful than because Henry VIII was cold.121 If, as Montesquieu had suggested, the spirit of liberty rose chiefly in mountain regions, how explain the sturdy Dutch Republic, or the liberum veto of the Polish lords? In his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) Voltaire filled pages with examples indicating that “climate has some influence, government a hundred times more, religion and government combined more still.”122

We might ask those who maintain that climate does everything [Montesquieu had not claimed this], why the Emperor Julian, in his Misopogon, says that what pleased him in the Parisians was the gravity of their character and the severity of their manners; and why these Parisians, without the slightest change of climate, are now like playful children, whom the government punishes and smiles at at the same moment, and who themselves, the moment after, also smile and sing lampoons upon their masters.123

Voltaire found it

melancholy that in so many citations and so many maxims the contrary of what is asserted should be almost always the truth.… “People of warm climates are timid, like old men; those of cold countries are courageous, like young ones”? We should take great care how general propositions escape us. No one has ever been able to make a Laplander or an Eskimo warlike, while the Arabs in fourscore years conquered a territory which exceeded that of the whole Roman Empire.124

And then the praise:

After thus convincing ourselves that errors abound in The Spirit of Laws, … that this work wants method, and possesses neither plan nor order, it is proper to ask what really forms its merit and has led to its great reputation. In the first place, it is written with great wit, whilst the authors of all the other books on this subject are tedious. It was on this account that a lady [Mme. du Deffand], who possessed as much wit as Montesquieu, observed that his book was l’esprit sur les lois[wit about laws]; it can never be more correctly defined. A still stronger reason is that the book exhibits grand views, attacks tyranny, superstition, and grinding taxation.… Montesquieu was almost always in error with the learned, because he was not learned; but he was almost always right against the fanatics and the promoters of slavery. Europe owes him eternal gratitude.125

And he added, elsewhere: “Humanity had lost its title deeds [to freedom], and Montesquieu recovered them.”126

Later criticism has largely agreed with Voltaire, while checking his own exaggerations.127 It is true that The Spirit of Laws was poorly constructed, with little logic in the arrangement and sequence of the topics, and frequent forgetting of the unifying theme. In his zeal to be a scientist, to accumulate and interpret facts, Montesquieu ceased at times to be an artist; he lost the whole in the parts instead of co-ordinating the parts into a harmonious whole. He had gathered his data over half a lifetime; he wrote his book during twenty years; its sporadic composition injured its unity. He generalized too readily from a few instances, and did not look about him for contrary instances—e.g., Catholic Ireland in the cold and “therefore” Protestant north. He gave away his method when he said: “I have laid down the first principles, and have found that the particular cases follow naturally from them; that the histories of all nations are only consequences of them”; this is the danger of approaching history with a philosophy to be proved by it. In gathering his data Montesquieu accepted too readily the unverified accounts of travelers, and sometimes he took fables and legends for history. Even his direct observation could be faulty; he thought he saw a separation of powers in the English government, when the legislative was visibly absorbing the executive.

Against these faults there must have been great virtues to give the book its acclaim and influence. Voltaire rightly signalized the style. This too, however, suffered from fragmentation. Montesquieu indulged a liking for short chapters, perhaps as a means of emphasis, as in the “chapter” on despotism; the result is unpleasantly staccato, obstructing the flow of thought. Part of this fragmentation may have been Duc to progressive weakening of his eyes, compelling him to dictate instead of writing. When he let himself go and spoke out, he achieved, with crisp and pithy sentences, some of the brilliance that had brightened the Lettres persanes. Voltaire thought there were more epigrams in L’Esprit des lois than befitted a work on law. (“In Venice,” said Montesquieu, “they are so habituated to parsimony that none but courtesans can make them part with their money.”128) It is nevertheless a magistral style, moderate and calm. It is occasionally obscure, but it repays unraveling.

Montesquieu was modest and right in ascribing part of the value of the book to its subject and aim. To find laws in laws, some system in their variation in place and time, to enlighten rulers and reformers by considering the sources and limits of legislation in view of the nature and place of states and men—this was a majestic enterprise, whose scope made faults forgivable. Herbert Spencer failed in the same enterprise129 148 years later, despite a corps of research aides, and because of a similar passion for generalization; but both attempts were increments of wisdom. Montesquieu’s achievement was the greater. He had predecessors;VI he did not inaugurate, but he powerfully advanced the historical method for the comparative study of institutions. He anticipated Voltaire in establishing a philosophy of history independent of supernatural causes; and he achieved a breadth and impartiality of view never reached by Voltaire. Burke called Montesquieu “the greatest genius which has enlightened this age”;130 Taine considered him “the best instructed, the most sagacious, and the best balanced of all the spirits of the time.”131 Horace Walpole thought The Spirit of Laws, “the best book that ever was written.”132 Perhaps not, but it was the greatest book of the generation.

It exhausted its author. He wrote to a friend in 1749: “I confess that this work has nearly killed me. I shall rest; I shall toil no more.”133 He continued to study nevertheless. “Study has been for me,” he said, “the sovereign remedy against all the disappointments of life. I have never known any trouble that an hour’s reading would not dissipate.”134

He visited Paris occasionally, and enjoyed his fame, which at that time (1748) equaled Voltaire’s. “The Spirit of Laws,” said Raynal, “has turned the heads of the whole French people. We find this work in the libraries of our scholars and on the dressing tables of our ladies and our fashionable young men.”135 He was again welcomed in the salons, and he was received at court. But for the most part he stayed at La Brède, content to be a grand seigneur. His book so pleased the English that they sent in large orders for the wine grown on his lands. In his last years he became almost blind. “It seems to me,” he said, “that the little light left to me is but the dawning of the day when my eyes will close forever.”136 In 1754 he went to Paris to end the lease on his house there; but on that visit he developed pneumonia and died, February 10, 1755, aged sixty-six. He had received the last rites of the Catholic Church, but the agnostic Diderot was the only man of letters who attended his funeral.137 His influence spread over centuries. “In the forty years since the publication of The Spirit of Laws,” wrote Gibbon, “no work has been more read and criticized, and the spirit of inquiry which it has excited is not the least of our obligations to the author.”138 Gibbon, Blackstone, and Burke were among the English writers who profited from The Spirit of Laws and The Greatness and Decadence of the Romans. Frederick the Great thumbed L’Esprit des lois only next to The Prince; Catherine the Great thought it should be “the breviary of sovereigns,”139 and made extracts from it for the men whom she appointed to revise Russia’s laws.140 The framers of the American Constitution took from Montesquieu not only the separation of governmental powers but the exclusion of cabinet members from Congress; and their writings were interspersed with quotations from his work. The Spirit of Laws became almost the bible of the moderate leaders in the French Revolution, and from The Greatness and Decadence came, in part, their admiration for the Roman Republic. “All the great modern ideas,” said Faguet, “have their commencement in Montesquieu.”141 For a generation it was Montesquieu, not Voltaire, who was the voice and hero of the mind of France.

I. In 1849 Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé produced in Paris their successful but not quite accurate drama, Adrienne Lecouvreur; and in 1902 Francesco Cilèa composed an opera on the same theme.

II. “All hearts are moved like mine by mortal grief. I hear on every side the distracted arts cry out in tears, ’Melpomene [Muse of tragedy] is no more!’ What will you say, you of tomorrow, when you learn the withering injury done by heartless men to these desolated arts? They deprive of burial her who in Greece would have had altars. I have seen them adoring her, crowding about her; hardly is she dead when she becomes a criminal! She charmed the world, and you punish her! No! those banks will never henceforth be profane; they hold your ashes; and this sad tomb will be for us a new temple, honored in our chants, and consecrated by your shades.”

III. This was followed in 1751 by Mémoires pour servir de suite aux Considérations. Duclos’ Mémoires secrets sur les règnes de Louis XIV et de Louis XV was not published till 1791. Part of this was translated into English as Secret Memoirs of the Regency.

IV. The word originally meant cave dwellers; literally, those who dig holes and live in them, like our political opponents.

V. Montesquieu thought, in 1721, that the population of Europe was hardly a tenth of what it had been under the Roman Empire,65 that it would continue to decrease, and that Negroes would soon die out in America. Caveat vates.

VI. Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, and Places; Aristotle’s Constitutions of Athens; Machiavelli’s Discorsi; Bodin’s Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem; Grotius’ De Jure Belli et Facts; Vico’s Scienza nuova; Pufendorf’s De Jure Naturae et Gentium; etc.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!