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".
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.
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  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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.