Montesquieu The Spirit of the Laws

Montesquieu The Spirit of the Laws. In retrospect, we had identified three different ways of life in France before the revolution: that of the orders of the feudal monarchy, that of the absolute king and his servants, the bureaucrats and their equal subjects, and that of those corners of society which supported the new thought and freedom. But in Montesquieu’s time, the distinction was not so clear.

An examination of Montesquieu’s life provides a view of the eighteenth century as it impinged upon Montesquieu. He was a feudal proprietor, wine merchant, parliamentarian, academician, man Of letters. Although he took his place briefly in the Parliament of Bordeaux and toyed with the notion of serving the king in foreign relations, he principally worked to maintain his family and took part in the academies and other less formal gatherings Of like-minded men and women. Here we shall first consider Montesquieu’s life as a noble landowner, then as an eighteenth-century man of letters, and finally as the author of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Then we shall proceed to the book itself and its reception.

The noble landowner

Montesquieu The Spirit of the LawsMontesquieu’s family first appears among Bordeaux’s provincial nobility, when Jean de Secondat, whose wife was related to the Plantagenets, was ennobled in 1562. The title was raised to a barony in ‘606 by Henry IV. Two generations later, Montesquieu’s grandfather, whose wife was the first president of the parliament, became President a Monier in the Parliament of Bordeaux. (The office of president was bought, sold, and inherited; there were, in the parliament, several Presidents, a Mortier, who served on various panels as judges and administrators, and one First President.)

This family offered its members the choice of either the parliamentary nobility of the robe or the military nobility of the sword; at the same time, it saw to it that the family lands and goods all stayed within the family, that the children beyond those needed to continue the family joined religious orders, and that those who took up either robe or sword married well. This was a noble family, carefully built and maintained, education, but upon the moral education embedded in the practices of everyday life of a school which forced a young man “to betray his comrades every day in a hundred petty ways” and ruined “the hearts of all those within” (Oeuvres, Vol. 2, Pensies 218 (1758)). After graduating, Montesquieu was sent to study law at the University of Bordeaux, taking a licentiate after three years. He then returned to Paris, continuing his study of law in Paris’s courts, keeping notes as always.

Little is known about this period of his life (1708-13), but he maintained an acquaintance with Pere Desmolets and Nicholas Freret, who was probably known to him from College (Oeuvres, vol. 0 3, p. 729). He spoke extensively about China with a Chinese visitor, writing a summary in his notebooks that points toward both the Persian Letters and The Spirit of the Laws (Oeuvres, VOL 2, pp. 924-63). In 1713, after his father’s death, Montesquieu returned to Bordeaux to take up his inheritance. He bought himself a place in the parliament as a counselor and married a woman who brought considerable lands and wealth with her. Little is known of her except that she was a practicing Protestant and the trusted steward of his lands during his absences. In 1716 his uncle died, leaving Montesquieu the family estates and the presidency a Mortimer. Montesquieu, now twenty-seven years old, had become a provincial nobleman of some consequence in three years.

These were tranquil years in the Parliament of Bordeaux; the ordinary judicial and administrative activities were primary. There were few moves made to revive and exercise the right of remonstrance,  that is, the right to judge the legality of new laws, and no claim to be the representatives of the nation, unlike some of the parliaments in the later period closer to the revolution. Montesquieu began in the court at its lowest rank, as a counselor in the criminal court, and moved up as far as the senior president in that court.

He served as the commissioner of prisons, was one of the counselors charged with overseeing the assignment of those condemned to the galleys, and could not have avoided participating in interrogations that relied upon torture. His activities were always as a member of a panel of judges. The chief issues in the parliament in those years had to do with the complicated rules of precedence, both as they applied to relations between counselors and presidents, and in respect to the disregard of those same rules by the governor of the region, the Marechal Berwick, who was to become a life long friend of Montesquieu’s.

Montesquieu’s attendance in the sessions, never among the best, became so infrequent after the Persian Letters’ publication in 1721 that there appear even to have been murmurs of discontent in the parliament. When Montesquieu sold the life interest in his presidency in 1728, his friend the President Barbot tried to persuade him to remain by arguing that, although the work was not pleasant, it was routine and easy, that it “scarcely distracts you from your other occupations or amusements” (Oeuvres, vol. 3, p. 819). Montesquieu answered that not the questions but the proceedings were incomprehensible to him and that it was tiresome “to see fools in possession of the very talent that fled me, so to speak” (Oeuvres, vol. 2, Pensies 213(4)). There is no suggestion on either man’s part that the parliament could be anything more than a law court and a job.

As a great landowner, Montesquieu took care to maintain his customary rights and to increase his land-holding. He was constantly involved in complicated legal actions and in buying land near his own. He advised his daughter to invest her money inland and that legal actions were a part of being a great lady with much land (Oeuvres, vol. 3, pp. 1271, 1344). But Montesquieu was a modern farmer concerned with the market for his goods and a nobleman collecting his feudal goods.

He was concerned with his vines, his wine, and the course of international trade in wine. In 1727 he found himself in conflict with the Intendant, writing a memorandum arguing that he knew best what 41 to do with his land and wine and objecting to the controls on production and export. The Intendant responded in a note to his superior with scorn for the enlightened landowner’s excessive cleverness (Oeuvres, vol. 3, p. 264). Here, the nobleman’s presumption of independence, even while defending economic freedoms, runs against the planning and even the king’s servant’s egalitarianism.

When the market for his wine collapsed, largely because wars made it impossible to ship it to England, he stayed in La Brede and did not spend his customary time in Paris. Thus, he wrote in 1742, “But I am afraid that if the war continues, I shall be forced to go and plant cabbages at La Brede. In Guyenne, our commerce will soon be on its last legs; our wine will be left on our hands, and you know that it is our entire wealth” (Oeuvres, vol. 3, p. 1017). In sum, in a letter to a woman friend in Paris from La Brede, he wrote, “I hear people talk of nothing but grapevines, hard times, and lawsuits, and fortunately, I am fool enough to enjoy all that, that is, to be interested in it” (Oeuvres, vol. 3, p. 1383). He did not conduct his life as a man of letters at the expense of his life as a landowner.

Montesquieu followed the family tradition in his arrangements for his children and estates. He educated his son to take over the prurient when it returned to his family upon the man’s death to whom he had sold his life-interest. Although his son briefly became a counselor, he wanted to be a naturalist and refused to take up the prep/knee, which Montesquieu subsequently sold altogether. When it became clear to Montesquieu that his son was not likely to have any children, he married his daughter Denise to a distant cousin, Godefroy de Secondat. He arranged for the estate’s hulk to go to her children so that it would stay in the family.

The man of letters

In 1715, soon after returning to Bordeaux to take up the life of a provincial nobleman. Montesquieu was elected to the Academy of Bordeaux and remained active in it for the rest of his life, becoming its mainstay and connecting to Paris. The provincial academies offered a protected institutional environment in which the urban, educated nobles, the clergy, and the third estate members met to conduct secular discussions of scientific, moral, and literary questions altogether. Papers were presented and discussed by the members of the Academy. Montesquieu reported primarily on scientific observations, but his discontent with this science is illustrated by his remarks that “these systems” are “no sooner set up than they are overthrown” (Oeuvres, vol. 3, p. 52).

He also offered several papers on social practices in other countries and times and on duties and natural law, contrasting the performance of duties following natural law to a totally disordered pursuit of the moment’s desire. In one of the sections that remain from the Traite des devoirs, Montesquieu never finished for publication, he again follows the traditional formula, saying that the monarchy is based on the spirit of obedience (Oeuvres, vol. 3, p. I 69). This last comment indicates the distance his thought was to travel before he wrote The Spirit of the Laws, where honor is said to be the principle of action in a monarchy.

In 1721 Montesquieu published the Persian Letters anonymously and began to move increasingly in Parisian and European literary society. As a real loss for intellectuals (Oeuvres, vol. 3, pp. 1343-1344). He seems to have taken advantage of social environs in which the rules and hierarchy of the absolute monarchy were not enforced. In 1728, he arranged to become a member of the French Academy with his friends’ help and what must have been a political interview with Cardinal Fleury, the First Minister of Louis XV. He did not become an active member of that academy until he resumed his regular visits to Paris after his European tour.

Those of Montesquieu’s writings that seem to have been directed to this Parisian audience portray exotic settings, pretty women, harmless adventure, and Roman virtue. Only Rousseau took offense, saying of one such piece, “If, for example, there is any moral purpose in the Temple de Guide, it is thoroughly obfuscated and spoiled by the voluptuous details and lascivious images. What has the author done to cover it with a gloss of modesty? He has pretended that this work was the translation of a Greek manuscript and has fashioned the story about the discovery of this manuscript in the manner most likely to persuade his readers of the truth of his tale… But who has thought to accuse the author of a crime of this lie or to call him a deceiver for it?” (Rousseau, Reveries (New York, 1982), p. 49). The only paper of Montesquieu’s found in the files of the Club de l’EntresoI is the Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate. Still, its only imaginable connection with the club’s interests is the criticism Montesquieu implies by joining Sulla’s noble-sounding talk of social reform with his great violence and self-delusion.


Principal events in Montesquieu’s life
Bibliographical note
Translators’ preface
List of abbreviations
Author’s foreword

Part 1

Book 01. On laws in general
Book 02.On laws deriving directly from the nature of the government
Book 03.On the principles of the three governments
Book 04.That the laws of education should be relative to the principles of the government
Book 05.That the laws given by the legislator should be relative to the principle of the government
Book 06.Consequences of the principles of the various governments about the simplicity of civil and criminal laws, the form of judgments, and the establishment of penalties
Book 07.Consequences of the different principles of the three governments about sumptuary laws, luxury, and the condition of women Copyrighted Material Contents
Book 08.On the corruption of the principles of the three governments

Part 2

Book 9. On the laws in their relation with defensive force
Book 10. On laws in their relation with the offensive force
Book 11. On the laws that form political liberty in its relation with the constitution
Book 12. On the laws that form political liberty about the citizen
Book 13. On the relations that the levy of taxes and the size of public revenues have with liberty

 Part 3

Book 14. On the laws in their relation to the nature of the climate
Book 15.How the laws of civil slavery are related to the nature of the climate
Book 16.How the laws of domestic slavery are related to the nature of the climate
Book 17.How the laws of political servitude are related to the nature of the climate
Book 18.On the laws in their relation with the nature of the terrain
Book 19.On the laws in their relation with the principles forming the general spirit, the mores, and the manners of a nation

Part 4

Book 20. On the laws in their relation to commerce, considered in its nature and its distinctions
Book 21. On laws in their relation to commerce, considered in the revolutions it has had in the world
Book 22.On laws in their relation to the use of money
Book 23.On laws in their relation to the number of inhabitants

Part 5

Book 24. On the laws in their relation to the religion established in each country, examined in respect to its practices and within itself
Book 25. On the laws in their relation with the establishment of the religion of each country, and Of its external police
Book 26. On the laws in the relation, they should have with the order of things upon which they are to enact

Part 6

Book 27.On the origin and revolutions of the Roman laws on inheritance
Book 28.On the origin and revolutions of the civil laws among the French
Book 29.On the way to compose the laws
Book 30.The theory of the feudal laws among the Franks in their relation with the establishment of the monarchy
Book 31.The theory of the feudal laws among the Franks in their relation to the revolutions of their monarchy

Index of names and places
Index of works cited

The author of The Spirit of the Laws

Montesquieu set forth on an extended trip in 1728, traveling primarily to Italy and England. He did not return to La Brede until 1731, when he began the work that led directly to writing The Spirit of the Laws. What precisely, if anything, Montesquieu originally expected from this tour is not clear.

He might already have had the writing of The Spirit of the Laws in mind. In 1747 he wrote in his Preface that he had discovered his principles twenty years previously, that is, before setting out. There is no direct evidence for this, but parts of Book 3 on governments’ principles have been identified as among the first written in the only existing manuscript (Oeuvres, vol. 3, pp. 567—576). Also, there is some evidence that at the beginning of his trip, Montesquieu harbored the idea of employment in foreign affairs.

Montesquieu’s first lengthy stop on his trip was in Vienna. He began to keep a diary of his journey; he kept notes on and recorded his impressions of the art objects, personalities, and governments he encountered, and he kept reminders of books to be bought or people to see. The journal still exists for Italy and Germany’s trip, but not for the trip to England. In Vienna, he met Prince Eugene of Savoy and spent time with his circle, which was notorious for its so-called libertines and free-thinkers.

In Venice, his next major stop, he sought out Antonio Conti, a churchman and one of the most effective popularizers of Newton’s theories in Italy. Conti was in close contact with the circle of Prince Eugene and with the leading scientists and scholars of Italy. Conti gave Montesquieu letters of introduction to northern Italy’s leading biologists and the scholars Ludovico Muratori, a literary critic and historian of the Italian Middle Ages, and Scipione Maffei, a dramatist and classicist. In Naples, Montesquieu was led to converse with Costantino Grimaldi, an aged jurist known for his defenses of Cartesian philosophy and his advocacy of the priority of civil over ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Montesquieu’s interests in Italy seem to have been in modern thought rather than ancient history.

Montesquieu spent two years in England. This was the England of George II, whom Montesquieu first met in Hanover; of Swift, Defoe, Pope, and of bitter, violent public discussion and satire; were the Whig, Walpole, was the king’s minister and the Tory, Bolingbroke, defended Parliament against what was called corruption, that is the influence of the king and his minister. British political freedom attracted visiting Frenchmen, whereas the disorder of its public debate was upsetting to them. Montesquieu’s interests in England seem to have been primarily political. He was acquainted with figures on all sides of the issues and with the court, and he observed Parliament in action. In England, he found what was scarcely imaginable in France a politics where the question was the proper understanding of the relation, or balance, between the representative Parliament and the king, or the king’s minister, and the reigning issue was the constitutional propriety of the actions of the king and Parliament.

Montesquieu’s famous description of English politics and the possibility of a government based on separated and balanced powers has its source in his observation of this government. His assessment in The Spirit of the Laws of the way the balance operated is carefully neutral between Walpole, who controlled Parliament through his patronage, and Bolingbroke, who disapproved of the minister’s invasion of the independence of Parliament: “And, as the executive power, which has all the posts at its disposal, could furnish great expectations but not fears, all those who would obtain something from it would be inclined to move to that side, and it could be attacked by all those who could expect nothing from it” (Spirit of the Laws, 19.27). For the English balance of power to work, people must move between allegiance to the executive and the legislature. The posts available to the executive make that possible.

The years between 1731, when he returned to France, and 1748, when The Spirit of the Laws was finished, were occupied with the serious and extensive reading and writing required to produce first his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline and then The Spirit of the Laws. The quality of Montesquieu’s scholarship has been a perennial question. Shackleton has traced evidence of Montesquieu’s extensive reading in his Penises, notebooks, and journals. The search for sources of his thought is handicapped, however, by an excess of evidence. He seems to have read everything. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu cites some 300 works in over 3,000 references. Muriel Dodds had located many of Montesquieu’s references to the travel literature. Iris Cox has investigated the works cited in his French law analysis, concluding that Montesquieu used the best sources available to him, critically and with judgment. In our experience, if one is attentive to the point, Montesquieu is trying to make, and to the possibility of irony, his use of his sources is plausible and responsible.

Montesquieu’s life showed little external change during the seven years he lived after his great work was completed; he continued to travel between La Brede and Paris, care for his family and estates, and visit with his friends in the “republic of letters. He wrote the Defense de I’esprit des, Lois, tried to keep his work from being censored by the Sorbonne and put on the Index, and wrote an article, “Du goüt,” for the Encyclopedia. In 1755, he died of a fever in Paris, confessing and taking communion, but without surrendering his papers to the priest.

The Spirit of the Laws and its reception

The Spirit of the Laws, despite Montesquieu’s request to the contrary, has been read piecemeal. As in his life, Montesquieu did not seem to require any clear, overt, organizing device. The best analogy for the book is the complex mosaic and embroidery of the eighteenth century or even rococo painting. Although there is no over-arching, organizing image, there are similarities and contrasts that send the viewer, or reader, across the painting or through the book.

The elements that have attracted the attention of those who have read and thought about Montesquieu are the law and the spirit of the law, the division of governments into republics, monarchies, and despotism, the notion of a free government of divided and balanced powers, and the examination of the conditions of the existence of such a government; and the distinction between moderate and despotic government. Here, I can give only a brief notion of each notion’s standing and ramifications and point out the thinkers who have responded to each.

Montesquieu begins the book with the distinction between the law and the spirit of the law. He refuses to use the great organizing principle of his predecessors, the natural law; however, it was understood. As a legal principle, the spirit points away from assessing individual laws in terms of some universal principle and toward some particular, unifying principle. In Book 28, Montesquieu considers the development of civil law in France from the time of the conquest by the Germanic tribes through the reign of Saint Louis and then forward to Charles VII. This is the kind of material that seems to validate the claim of the Enlightenment that the “Middle Ages” were a period of senseless barbarism. But Montesquieu finds a kind of order in them. One will perhaps be curious to see the monstrous judicial combat usage reduced to principles and to find the body of so singular a jurisprudence.

Men who are fundamentally reasonable place even their prejudices under rules. Nothing was more contrary to common sense than judicial combat, but once this point was granted, it was executed with a certain prudence” (28.23). Later, he speaks of a warrior nation’s spirit governed solely by the point of honor (28.27). The problem in approaching Montesquieu from this point of view has always been in ascertaining the kind of thing the spirit of a government, or country, is natural, political, or even divine?

Montesquieu does offer a typology of government, presenting the reader with the distinction between monarchies, despotism, and republics. He distinguishes between the nature of a government, its source of rule, and its principle, the passions that keep it going. This permits him to distinguish between monarchy and despotism; one person rules both, but in the first, political men’s honor ensures the rule of law. In the second, the fear of the prince is virtually the only passion. There is a complicated, even confusing, the hierarchy of institutions; in despotism, there is only the prince, agent, and everyone else.

Everyone is a slave and, in effect, the slave Of the prince, who is the slave Of his passions. Thus, Montesquieu claims that, because of the complex of institutions that do or do not support it, the same source of the rule can be exercised in such different ways that the governments must be said to be different. This notion that the kinds of governments are a consequence of the way rule is exercised, which in turn is due to the entire complex of political and social groupings and institutions, marks a new way of viewing government, which is identified by Durkheim and Raymond Aron as the beginning of sociology. However, they express their distress at Montesquieu’s continued use of political categories.

However, his first readers in France did not follow him. Dupin explicitly objected to this distinction between despotism and monarchy, claiming, as is traditional, that the form of a government determines its end and the way its people act. He was further horrified that it was not the spirit of submission but a monstrous, odious, and false notion of a monarchy based on the honor put forward. Voltaire objected that Montesquieu’s distinctions among governments, particularly the one between monarchy and despotism, were not accurately drawn. They were, he claimed, based on inaccurate information, on mere stories. His that Montesquieu used his sources uncritically became a commonplace.

In the first eight books, Montesquieu presents a moderate, or regular and law-abiding, monarchy. However, the intermediate powers that make it a monarchy resemble those of the French, a military nobility of the sword, a parliamentary nobility of the robe, and a clergy. The suggestion, then, is that the French monarchy’s moderation was a consequence of its intermediate powers. During both the religious wars of the sixteenth century and the wars of the Fronde of the seventeenth, the institutions independent of the king defended their place in the monarchy. The parliaments pushed their claim to assess been no constitution for the monarchy. He makes both the king and the nobility usurpers at different times, and in so doing, he takes Montesquieu’s intermediate position one step further. He makes an altogether new start more plausible.

Marat, in 1785, offered a formal loge of Montesquieu, which praises his “delicate satire” while attributing to him the outrage that was to fuel the revolution. He wrote, ‘ ‘he was the first among us to carry the torch of philosophy into legislation, to avenge outraged humanity, to defend its rights, and in a way, to become the legislator for the whole world.” Montesquieu’s own willingness to offer thoughts about legislation to the public, rather than to the king, as was proper in the absolute monarchy, is taken by Marat as a model not only for politicians but for everyone.

Republics, in addition to monarchies and despotism, are the topic for the first eight books. These governments, small, pagan, and based on slavery, seemed to offer little to eighteenth-century France. Still, the image of political virtue had great charm despite Montesquieu’s characterization of the environment that a republic required. He claimed that republics were based on virtue as a principle, understood as love of country. They were maintained by a whole way of life that established equality among the citizens and left them little or nothing other than that country to love or identify with. Put this way, Montesquieu’s republican government’s virtue and the virtue celebrated by Rousseau bear a remarkable resemblance. (Rousseau was the secretary to Mme. Dupin when she and her husband, the Fermi er General, wrote, published, and withdrew from publication the first critical assessment of The Spirit of the Laws.) In each case, the passions that could be invested in an individual’s well-being are directed toward society as a whole: virtue is that simple-minded devotion to country.

In the United States, Jefferson and the Anti Federalists took seriously Montesquieu’s account of the social conditions that make republican government possible. In arguing that Americans ought not to take up manufacturing, Jefferson wrote, “If corruption is the mark set on those, who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition” (Jefferson, Notes on Virginia (New York, 1964), p. 157). The Anti-Federalists constantly worried that the proposed new U.S. Constitution did not encourage civic virtue. It both ignored the question of virtue and set up conditions, such as large size, complex representation, and encouragement of commerce positively discouraged the development of such virtue.

In addition to the paradigms of republics, monarchies, and despotisms, Montesquieu offered the model of a government whose end was political liberty, the English government of his time (11.6; 19.27). His analysis of that liberty and that government affected the way both Englishmen and Americans came to think of their political institutions and the social and economic underpinnings of those institutions. According to Montesquieu, political liberty is the result of the separation of powers. In England, the old regime, commons, lords, and king orders each take up a function in the new division of rule into legislative and executive functions, with the judicial function set aside injuries. The functions Of government are not entirely separated, as each branch participates to some extent in the others’ task, making the balance a result of an interaction between the branches. However, the question remains of the separation of the three orders. That is, does the king properly have some part in the choice of members of Parliament? Is the king, or his minister in Parliament, the executive, and what is that term’s meaning? Is it proper to dilute the old nobility by creating new nobles? Montesquieu is quoted approvingly by both Blackstone and Burke. Blackstone defends the separation of powers in their sources. At the same time, Burke is quite willing to find reasons for all the ways of electing members of Parliament that made it possible for the executive to have some control over them. Still, for Blackstone and Burke, as for Montesquieu, the government’s structure itself, not some appeal to first principles, is the defense of liberty.

In France, during and after the French Revolution, Montesquieu’s concern to balance power led to whether there remained any independent political body, king or noble, that could be used to moderate the sovereignty of the people. Burke, a careful student of Montesquieu, berated the French in his Reflections on the Revolution in France for not attaching themselves to their old regime’s institutions, as the English had. Tocqueville replied that those institutions were no longer viable in France. Using Montesquieu’s analysis of monarchy, he argues that the loss of intermediate powers made possible the revolutionary move from royal to popular tyranny. England did not offer a plausible model: “The European revolution continues among the English, but it continues thereby assuming forms that are entirely English” (Tocqueville, Oeuvres completes (Paris, 1967), 8.1, p. 157). Only in America could one see that there were democratic intermediate institutions that could moderate democratic sovereignty.

The second half Of The Spirit of the Laws is a consideration of the government’s conditions of climate, temperament, family structure, commerce, religion, and history. Here we come upon the conditions that could support a modern free government, like that of England. It is hard to see how these conditions can be managed to the governments’ benefit, as direct governmental control seems to be precluded by the principle of freedom. In Book 12 on freedom as personal security Montesquieu takes up treason, sexual crimes, and heresy. In each case, he moves the government toward punishment only for the most overt, visible acts. His suggestions for the reform of criminal law appealed to the Milanese intellectual Cesare Beccaria, the author Of the most famous book of the Italian Enlightenment, Of Crimes and Punishments (1764), and came to circulate widely.

The Spirit of the Laws was received with praise by much of the Scottish Enlightenment, including David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith, and was incorporated into their thought and work. Hume wrote Montesquieu a letter upon reading the book that praises by commenting carefully on some English republicanism and commercial policy (Oeuvres, vol. 3, pp. 1217—1222). Ferguson wrote in An Essay on Civil Society (Philadelphia, A. Finley, 1819), pp. 119—120, “When I recollect what President Montesquieu has written I am at a loss to tell, why I should treat of human affairs;  In his writings will be found, not only the original of what I am now, for the sake of order, to copy from him but likewise probably the source of many observations, which, in different places, I may, under the belief of invention, have repeated, without quoting their author.” Montesquieu’s parts of most interests to these writers were those rectifying on such conditions as temperament, family structure, commerce, religion, and legal history, which made possible free governments such as England’s. These writers amplified and restructured the second half of The Spirit of the Laws to illustrate the development of the Conditions of a modern free government.

Unlike Montesquieu, they were not interested in the complex of passions, beliefs, and practices that supported other kinds of governments or in a comparative politics based on the possibility of fundamentally different governments.

James Madison, one of the U.S. Constitution architects at the Convention where it was written, and one of its great defenders in The Federalist, was an inheritor of this intellectual tradition. Madison attended Princeton, where John Wither spoon, a Scotsman who followed the tradition of thought exemplified by Ferguson and Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, was president and gave the lectures on moral philosophy. Wither spoon, however, added the quality of moral earnestness and anti-aristocratic self-reliance that can lead to political action as well as to the ministry. In Federalist, Madison argues that a large republic could halt the republican tendency to develop majority and minority factions that dominate political life. The effort to disperse large divisions and the confidence in large, modern governments follows in the Scottish tradition.

But Madison’s analysis of how a government of balanced powers could be expected to work reflects a contemplation of Montesquieu’s book itself. In Montesquieu’s England and the U.S. Constitution, as Madison defended it in The Federalist, the balance of power resulted from both the division of power and its sharing. The positions within the government are shaped by a notion of the character of good government. As in Montesquieu’s monarchy, those who hold the positions are shaped by them. They identify themselves with the importance of the place they hold and the task it gives them. These habits of mind defend the division of powers and form the character of the rule.

The distinction between moderate and despotic governments permeates Montesquieu’s book. In despotic governments, people are isolated from each other; their only rule is the will or whim of the ruler; they relate to each other only through fear. In moderate governments, people can count on regularity in the rule; they can relate to each other without fear insofar as they rely on the things they hold in common; they share something other than just fear of the ruler. Moderation and despotism are characteristics that can be found in virtually any government in differing proportions. From this perspective, the egalitarian, bureaucratizing impulse of the absolute king was despotic, however well-intentioned. Tocqueville made this notion the cornerstone of his analysis of the Old Regime and the French Revolution, and the severity.

Principal events in Montesquieu’s life

1685. Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the end of French toleration for Protestantism.

1688. The glorious revolution in England.

1689. Montesquieu was born, January 18, at the Chateau of La Brede.

1700. Montesquieu went to College de Juilly.

1708. Montesquieu studied law in Bordeaux and Paris.

1713. The Papal Bull Unigenitus was promulgated condemning some propositions from P. Quesnel’s Reflexions morales, and thus supporting the Jesuits at the expense of the Jansenists.

1714. Montesquieu became a Counselor in the Parliament of Bordeaux.

1715. Montesquieu married Jeanne Lartigue, a Protestant; they had three children. Louis XIV died.

1716. Montesquieu became a member of the Academy of Bordeaux and, when his uncle died, inherited the barony of Montesquieu and became President a Mortier in the Parliament of Bordeaux.

1721. The Persian Letters was published anonymously.

1725. Montesquieu published Le Temple de Guide, anonymously, and sold a life interest in his president.

1728. Montesquieu was elected to the French Academy and set out on a trip to Germany, Italy, and England.

1729. Montesquieu traveled to England.

1731. Montesquieu returned to France.


On laws in general


On laws in their relation with the various beings

Laws, taken in the broadest meaning, are the necessary relations deriving from the nature of things; and in this sense, all beings have their laws: the divinity) has its laws, the material world has its laws, the intelligence superior to man have their laws, the beasts have their laws, man has his laws.

Those who have said that a blind fate has produced all the effects that we see in the world have said a great absurdity; for what greater absurdity is there than a blind fate that could have produced intelligent beings? There is, then, a primitive reason, and laws are both the relations that exist between it and the different beings and the relations of these various beings to each other.

God is related to the universe, as creator and preserver; the laws according to which he created are those according to which he 41 preserves; he acts according to these rules because he knows them; he knows them because he made them; he made them because they are related to his wisdom and his power.

As we see that the world, formed by the motion of matter and devoid of intelligence, continues to exist, its motions must have invariable laws. If one could imagine another world than this, it would have consistent’ rules or destroyed.

Thus, the creation, which appears to be an arbitrary act, presupposes rules as invariable as atheists’ fate. It would be absurd to say that the creator, without these rules, could govern the world since the world would not continue to exist without them.

These rules are a consistently established relation. Between one moving body and another moving body, it is in accord with relations of mass and velocity that all motions are received, increased, diminished, or lost; every diversity is uniformity. Every change is consistent.

Particular intelligent beings can have laws that they have made, but they also have some that they have not made. Before there were intelligent beings, they were possible; therefore, they had possible relations and consequently possible laws. Before laws were made, there were possible relations of justice! There is nothing just or unjust but what positive laws ordain or prohibit is to say that before a circle was drawn, all its radii were not equal.

Therefore, one must admit that there are relations of the fairness of before the positive law that establishes them, so that, for example, assuming that there were societies of men, it would be just to conform to their laws; so that, if there were intelligent beings that had received some kindness from another being, they ought to be grateful for it;g so that, if one intelligent being had created another intelligent being, the created one ought to remain in its original dependency; so that one intelligent being who has harmed another intelligent being deserves the I same harm in return, and so forth.

But the intelligent world is far from being as well governed as the physical world. For, though the intelligent world also has laws that are invariable by their nature, unlike the physical world, it does not follow its laws consistently. This is because particular intelligent beings are limited by their nature and are consequently subject to error; furthermore, it is in their nature to act by themselves.

Therefore, they do not consistently follow their primitive laws or even always follow the laws they give themselves. It is unknown whether beasts are governed by the general laws of motion or by a movement particular to themselves. Be that as it may, they do not have a more intimate relation with good than the rest of the material world has. The feeling is useful to them only about one another, either with other particular beings or themselves. By the attraction of pleasure, they preserve their particular being by the same attraction they preserve their species. They have natural laws. They are united by feeling they have no positive laws because they are not united by knowledge. Still, they do not invariably follow their natural laws; plants, in which we observe neither knowledge nor feeling, better follow their natural laws. Beasts do not have the supreme advantages that we have; they have some that we do not have. They do not have our expectations but they Part.


On the laws of nature

Before all these laws are the laws of nature, so named because they derive uniquely from our being’s constitution. To know them well, one must consider a man before the establishment of societies. The laws he would receive in such a state will be the laws of nature.

The law that impresses on us the idea of a creator and thereby leads us toward him is the first of the natural laws in importance, though not first in these laws’ order. A man in the state of nature would have the faculty of knowing rather than knowledge. His first ideas would not be speculative ones. He would think of the preservation of his being before seeking the origin of his being. Such a man would first feel only his weakness; his timidity would be extreme, and as for evidence, if it is needed on this point, savages have been found in forests everything makes them tremble, everything makes them flee.

In this state, each feels inferior; he scarcely feels himself an equal. Such men would not seek to attack one another, and peace would be the first natural law.

Hobbes gives men first the desire to subjugate one another, but this is not reasonable. The idea of empire and domination is so complex and depends on so many other ideas that it would not be the one they would first have.

Hobbes asks, If men are not naturally in a state of war, why do they always carry arms, and why do they have keys to lock their doors? But one feels that what can happen to men only after establishing societies, which induced them to find motives for attacking others and defending themselves, is attributed to them before that establishment.

Man would add the feeling of his needs to the feeling of his weakness. Thus another natural law would be the one inspiring him to seek nourishment.

I have said that fear would lead men to flee one another, but the marks of mutual fear would soon persuade them to approach one  Buy Now and Read More

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