If we say the name of Charles Louis de Secondat he cannot say anything to many, although his view of the division of political powers has been the key to many modern liberal constitutions.
Much better known under the name of Montesquieu, this great French thinker lived during the Enlightenment, at a time when the English monarchy had to evolve towards a constitutional regime in order to survive and France, after the absolutist reign of Louis XIV, ceded the not to what was to be the germ of the French Revolution.
These events have not gone unnoticed in the works of this philosopher who, in fact, could not help but explain in detail how the events of his time influenced his political thinking and vision. Find out through this biography of Montesquieu.
Brief biography of Montesquieu
Charles Louis de Secondat, Lord of Brède and Baron de Montesquieu, better known under the name of simply Montesquieu, was a French philosopher and jurist the work was written in the midst of the Enlightenment, a context of intense intellectual, cultural and political activity, Being one of the most important philosophers and essayists of the movement. His theory of the separation of state powers had a lot of repercussions, exerting a notorious influence on the Constitution of the United States.
His thinking is part of the critical spirit of the French Enlightenment, characterized by religious tolerance, the aspiration and promotion of freedom and his conception of happiness in the civic sense. Needless to say, he didn’t follow through in absolutely everything else in the Enlightened one, because was detached from the mainstream of abstraction and the deductive method shared by many scientists of the time, Being a supporter of the most concrete and empirical knowledge.
He was regarded as a broadcaster of the English Constitution and his proposal on the separation of powers is very close to the thought of John Locke. However, it must be said that the thought of Charles Louis de Secondat is complex and has such a personality of its own that it makes him one of the most influential thinkers in the history of political doctrines.
Charles Louis de Secondat was born on January 18, 1689 at the Château de la Brède, Very close to Bordeaux, France. He was the son of Jacques de Secondat and Marie-Françoise de Pesnel, his family belonging to the so-called toga nobility. His mother, who died when Charles de Secondat was only seven years old, was the heir to a large fortune which brought Baronazgo des Brède to the family of Secondat.
Montesquieu he studied at the Catholic school in Juilly and would later follow the family tradition of studying law. He will do so first at the University of Bordeaux then at the University of Paris, coming into contact with intellectuals from the French capital. After his father died in 1714, he returned to La Brède where he entered the Parliament of Bordeaux as adviser.
There, he would go to live under the protection of his uncle, then Baron de Montesquieu. A year later, Charles Louis de Secondat married Jeanne Lartigue, a Protestant who gave him a large dowry when he was only 26 years old. In 1716, his uncle died, inheriting a fortune as well as the title of Baron de Montesquieu and President of Mortier at the Parliament of Bordeaux, a title he held between 1716 and 1727.
A philosopher of the Old and New World
By this time England had already established itself as a strong constitutional monarchy following the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) and had joined Scotland in the Union of 1707, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain. Meanwhile, Louis XIV died in France in 1715, who had reigned for a long time and was succeeded by Louis XV, who was only 5 years old. These national transformations had a great impact on Montesquieu, who would refer to them in several of his writings.
Montesquieu receives literary recognition for the publication of his work “Lettres Persanes” (“Persian Letters”, 1721), a satire based on the imaginary correspondence between a Persian visitor walking through Paris, which highlights the absurdities of contemporary European society. He later published “Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and their decadence” (“Considerations on the causes of the greatness and decadence dels romans”, 1734).
In 1748, he anonymously published “De l’Esprit des Oix”, a text which quickly raised him to a position of great influence. If in France it was rather badly received, both on the part of those who supported it and those who were against the regime, it had more repercussions in the rest of Europe, especially in Great Britain. In fact, it caused a sensation in the Catholic world, being banned by the Catholic Church which included this book in the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum”.
Montesquieu was also popular in the New World. He was highly regarded by enlightened British settlers, being seen as an example of freedom, but not yet a benchmark for the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. In fact, Montesquieu was the most cited person on government and politics in pre-revolutionary British colonial America, also being cited by American founders more than any other source except the Bible itself.
After the American Revolution, Montesquieu’s works continued to strongly influence many thinkers and founders in the United States.Among them, James Madison of Virginia, one of the fathers of the American Constitution in the philosophy of Montesquieu promotes the idea that a government should be formed in which no man is afraid of the other, an aspect that would be justified and retained by Madison when drafting the Constitution.
Montesquieu was admitted to the Bordeaux Academy of Sciences, where he presented several studies on the adrenal glands, gravity and echo. He worked as a magistrate, but this profession bored him, so in the end he ended up selling the job and decided to travel to Europe, observing the customs and institutions of different countries.
During his later years, he devoted himself to traveling and completing many of his works. He had the opportunity to visit all kinds of countries, mainly Austria, Hungary, Italy and England. As he learned more about other cultures, more and more ideas came to him for explaining and understanding society and politics, as well as ways to make people freer.
But despite being a very lucid man, enlightened by the Age of Enlightenment, there was a time when the light could only be imagined, as he gradually lost his sight until he became completely blind. He died on February 10, 1755 in Paris, at the age of 66. His body is buried in the Saint-Sulpice church in the French capital.
Philosophy of history
His particular philosophy of history minimizes the role of individuals and events. Montesquieu presents his point of view in “Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decadence”, in which he states that each historical event was inspired by a particular event rather than by the action of a set of people in particular.
Montesquieu illustrated this principle with situations that occurred during the time of classical Rome. In analyzing the transition from the Republic to the Empire, Montesquieu suggested that if Julius Caesar and Pompey had not worked to usurp the government of the Republic, other men would have done so. The cause of the beginning and the end of the main historical events was not the ambition of specific characters, in this case Caesar and Pompey, but the ambition of human beings in general.
His vision of politics and the division of powers
Montesquieu develop the ideas that John Locke had already cultivated on the division of power. In his work “The Spirit of Law”, he expresses his deep admiration for English political institutions, declaring that the law is the most important thing in a state. By publishing his “Persian Letters” in 1721 he acquired a fulminating success and a reputation in society. Frenchwoman of the time, worried about the regency of the young Louis XV of France, a king who had yet to learn how to be.
“The spirit of the laws” is considered as his major work, initially published in Geneva in 1748 after fourteen years of work. This work was severely criticized, especially by the Jansenists and the Jesuits. Montesquieu did not stand idly by and he responded to these attacks, publishing in 1750 a defense of this work which, later, would end up being censored by Rome in 1751.
On the basis of this work, Montesquieu’s great contributions to Western thought and to the scientific study of human societies are considered two points. The first is the undertaking of the scientific task of describing social reality on the basis of an analytical and positive method, which does not stop at the simple empiricist description of the facts, but he tries to organize the diversity of the data of social reality by reducing them to a concrete number of types or variables.
In addition to this, he seeks to give a sociological answer to the diversity of social facts under the idea that there is an order or a causality of these facts capable of being interpreted rationally. That is to say that a social phenomenon must have some cause, and that the latter can approach it without resorting to mystical or supernatural explanations.
However, his most important legacy is his theory of the separation of powers, which led him to be considered by many as one of the forerunners of liberalism, with figures such as John Locke. While he was not the first to speak of the separation of powers, it should be noted that it was his theory that ended up exerting more force on this idea, being considered the greatest exponent of this issue. His theses will serve as a starting point for the leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries when drafting constitutions..
The structure presented by Montesquieu is clearly influenced by the British constitutional system, which in its time was relatively new. The political system was divided into three powers, Which exerted a check, a counterweight and a control of those who wielded such powers. The idea was to prevent the same person from hosting all the functions of the state, as that would mean an absolutist regime in which it is difficult to stop the feet of a bad leader.
Montesquieu attributes legislative power to Parliament, that is to say, to create laws; in government, executive power, that is to say, exercising political power; and in the courts, the magistracy, it is a matter of applying the laws and dictating whether they have been respected or not. It is thanks to these three distinct powers that the Parliament, the Government and the courts are prevented from committing abuses, which would make people less free in the country which, precisely, would have granted freedoms, protection, rights and obligations.
- Althusser, Louis (1979). Montesquieu. Politics and History. Barcelona: Ariel.
- Spurlin, Paul M (1941) Montesquieu in America, 1760-1801. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.