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Montesquieu, Charles De Secondat (1689-1755)
"No kingdom has ever had as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ."

Charles de Montesquieu


Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, more commonly known as Montesquieu, was a French political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions all over the world. He was largely responsible for the popularization of the terms "feudalism" and "Byzantine Empire".

Biography
At the age of twenty-seven, upon the death of his uncle, he inherited the title Baron de Montesquieu and Président à Mortier in the Parliament of Bordeaux. By that time, France had declared itself a constitutional monarchy after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, a radical reform by the standards of the time, and the long-reigning Sun King passed away in France, which experienced mostly weak successors in the following years.

These two events affected Montesquieu, who stressed them in his work. Soon afterwards he achieved literary success with the publication of his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), a satire based on the imaginary correspondence of an Oriental visitor to Paris, pointing out the absurdities of contemporary society. After publishing this book, he started on another book, The Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans [1734] which is considered a transition from The Persian Letters to his main work, De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws, 1748), which was originally published anonymously and was enormously influential.

However, in France, this book met with an unfriendly reception from both the supporters and the opponents of the regime. But, for the rest of Europe (and especially in England), it received the highest praise, albeit not without repercussions from the Catholic Church, which banned his book-- along with many of his other works-- in 1751 and included it on the Index.

Montesquieu is believed to have been a powerful influence on many of the American Founders, most notably James Madison, and English translations of his books remain in print to this day (Cambridge University Press edition: ISBN 0521369746).

Besides writing books and debating about politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and then eighteen months in England before settling back in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755. He was buried in L' eglise Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France.

Political views
Montesquieu's most radical work divided French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of powers existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. These powers should be divided up so that each power would have a power over the other.

This was radical because it completely eliminated the three Estates structure of the French Monarchy the aristocracy, clergy, and third estate from the estates and erased any last vestige of a feudalistic structure. Likewise, there were three main forms of government. These were monarchies (governments run by a king or queen), which relied on the principle of honor, republics (governments run by elected leaders), which relied on the principle of virtue, and despotisms (governments run by dictators), which relied on fear. He believed that the best form of government was a monarchy, and he upheld the British constitution as ideal.

Like many of his generation, Montesquieu held a number of views that might today be judged controversial. While he endorsed the idea that a woman could run a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture. His views have also been abused by modern revisionists; for instance, even though Montesquieu was ahead of his time as an ardent opponent of slavery, he has been quoted out of context in attempts to show he supported it.

One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, is the climate theory, which holds that climate should substantially influence the nature of man and his society. He even goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being the best of possible climates. His view is that people living in hot countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate in middle Europe thus breeds the best people. (This view is possibly influenced by similar statements in Germania by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu's favourite authors.)

It was Montesquieu's philosophy that "government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another" that prompted the creators of the Constitution to divide the U.S. government into three separate branches.

 
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