Key thinker: Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689–1755)
Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689–1755)
Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu was born in Château La Brède, near Bordeaux, France, into a noble and wealthy family. When Montesquieu’s mother died in 1696, he inherited the barony of La Brède (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Montesquieu). Following his mother’s death, Montesquieu was sent to the Collège de Jully near Paris, where he received a classical education. In 1705, he enrolled at the University of Bordeaux to study law. Montesquieu briefly lived and worked in Paris, but he returned to Bordeaux when his father died in 1713. In 1715, he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a wealthy Protestant woman. When his uncle died in 1716, Montesquieu inherited the position of Deputy President in the Parliament of Bordeaux. He devoted the following years to the study of Roman law, biology, history, geography, and physics (https://www.biography.com/scholar/charles-louis-de-secondat).
In 1721, Montesquieu published the Persian Letters, a satirical novel which follows two fictional Persian noblemen in France under the rule of Louis XIV. Although the book was published anonymously, it brought Montesquieu instant literary fame (his authorship was an open secret) (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montesquieu/). In 1722, Montesquieu returned to Paris, where he sold his political office in the Bordeaux Parliament to focus on entering the Académie Française. With the help of some influential supporters, Montesquieu was elected to the Académie in 1728. But Montesquieu didn’t remain in Paris for long. Later that year, he left the management of his estates in the hands of his wife and set off for Vienna. His travels took him across Europe, from Venice, Florence, and Rome to Germany, Holland, and finally to England (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Montesquieu). In England, Montesquieu was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and participated in the intellectual and political debates of his time.
Montesquieu returned to Paris in 1731 to further pursue his literary interests. But his worsening eyesight soon forced him to return to La Brède, where he dedicated himself to writing (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montesquieu/). In 1748, Montesquieu published his magnum opus, The Spirit of the Laws, which outlined his theory of the separation of powers in government. The book was hugely influential: its constitutional ideas inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American constitution (https://www.biography.com/scholar/charles-louis-de-secondat). Moreover, it was read by many important Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (see Chapter 9 on Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Edmund Burke (see Chapter 17 on Edmund Burke), and David Hume (see Key thinker: David Hume). When Montesquieu died of a fever in 1755, he was considered one of the foremost legal and political thinkers in Europe. He was 66 years old.
Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws is considered a founding text of early liberalism (see 11.1. Introduction). Like Hume, Montesquieu believed that the power of hereditary monarchies had to be constrained to prevent the monarchs from becoming despots or constraining their subject’s liberties. Montesquieu models his ideal constitution on the English constitution, which he considered a moderate government that allowed for certain liberties (see 11.3. Theory of the separation and balance of powers and individual freedom). For Montesquieu, sovereignty must be divided between legislative power and two kinds of executive power. While legislative power has the authority to make, correct, or repeal laws, executive power is responsible for applying it (see 11.3. Divided Sovereignty). The first kind of executive power Montesquieu discusses is the power to enforce laws to maintain internal or external security. The second is the ‘power of judging’ or, put simply, the power to resolve disputes between individuals and punish crimes based on the principles of the laws created by legislative power. Montesquieu argues that these three powers must be separated to avoid despotic rule and guarantee individual liberty (see Key concept: Liberty).
Montesquieu wrote his major works during a period of European colonial expansion, which coincided with the emergence of industrial capitalism. While this period of history was marked by colonial domination and the flourishing of the transatlantic slave trade, such concerns are largely absent in Montesquieu’s account of peaceful commerce (see 11.2.1. Transatlantic commerce, economic and political change). In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu suggests that the transatlantic slave trade was ‘necessary’ for the development of Europe and therefore justified. Commerce had generated a certain amount of wealth and facilitated the emergence of a new class of people, whom Montesquieu hoped to give more political power vis-à-vis the monarchy. Because this new political subject made its money through colonial expansion and the slave trade (see 11.5. Commerce and Slavery), these enterprises should be encouraged. Montesquieu argued that the laws of European nations should be designed to facilitate a trade monopoly over their colonies to ensure that they become economically dependent. If necessary, European nations were justified in using military means to achieve these ends. For Montesquieu, as for many liberals of his time, the ideals of liberty and equality only applied to certain peoples and nations (Losurdo, 2005).
Montesquieu developed a theory of ‘climatology’, which argued that human beings’ behaviour, as well as their conditions of production, are shaped by the environment they inhabit (see 11.2.2. Climatology). For Montesquieu, Europeans, who inhabit the colder, northern climates, are uniquely courageous and hard-working, because they have had to cultivate barren lands to feed themselves and survive. Those who live in the hotter, southern parts of the globe are weak, lethargic, lazy, and servile, since they can feed themselves off their abundant lands. Montesquieu’s theory of climatology provides an argument for European colonization (see 11.6 Conclusion) which, he argues, applies the industrious spirit of Europeans to fertile lands in the global south. These claims are founded on Montesquieu’s understanding of property. For him, anyone who does not cultivate the land or acquire property cannot experience autonomy and freedom, and is therefore dependent on others. Despite his persistent Eurocentrism and rationalizations of colonialism, however, Montesquieu’s constitutional ideas about the separation of powers have been taken up by postcolonial states across the world, including India and Turkey (see 11.1. Introduction).
Although Montesquieu claims that everyone should be free and governed by themselves, he doesn’t apply these principles to women and children, who are excluded from his conception of universal suffrage (see 11.3.2. The Separation of powers, checks and balances). Like colonial subjects, they do not own property or cultivate land and are therefore dependent on others. According to this logic, the working classes and peasantry, too, are excluded from the political sphere. In his discussion of ‘domestic slavery’ (see 11.5.2), his argument contrasts the freedom that women in Europe enjoy with the supposedly brutal and despotic treatment of women in the global south. For Montesquieu, only under republican governments, which ensure public liberty, can women be truly free. But he entirely ignores that women were not as free or equal as he claims. As Montesquieu’s contemporary Mary Astell (see Chapter 8 on Mary Astell) pointed out, women were still treated unequally in the public sphere, and were subject to the despotic rule of their husbands in the home. Such passages show Montesquieu as a resolutely Eurocentric thinker who contrasted ‘Oriental despotism’ with the liberal values of modernity and reason (see 11.1. Introduction).
Losurdo, Domenico. Liberalism: A Counter-History. London/New York: Verso, 2005.
Ramgotra, Manjeet (2022). ‘Time, modernity and space: Montesquieu’s and Constant’s ancient/modern binaries’, History of European Ideas. 48:3, 263-279.
Sullivan, Vickie (2017) Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe: An Interpretation of ‘The Spirit of the Laws’. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Pres