Baron de Montesquieu

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Montesquieu, Baron de


(Charles-Louis de Secondat; Baron de la Brede). Born Jan. 18, 1689, at the Chateau of La Bèpde, near Bordeaux; died Feb. 10, 1755, in Paris. French Enlightenment thinker, lawyer, philosopher, and writer. Member of the Institut de France (1727).

Montesquieu was born into an old noble family. After graduating from a Catholic collège in 1705, he studied law in Bordeaux and Paris. In 1714 he became a counselor of the Bordeaux parlement (high court in prerevolutionary France) and in 1716 a deputy president. In 1726 he moved to Paris.

Montesquieu traveled through Europe in 1728, visiting Italy, Prussia, and the Netherlands. From 1729 to 1731 he lived in Great Britain. British constitutional practice and the views of British lawyers and philosophers greatly influenced the development of his political and legal ideals, which are most vividly expressed in The Spirit of Laws (1748; Russian translation, 1900), an encyclopedic work based on extensive use of comparative and comparative historical methods. He attributed great importance to geographic factors, especially climate, in explaining the development of positive law and forms of government. In his opinion, for example, a hot climate gives rise to both laziness and passion, destroys civic honor, and is the breeding ground of despotic governments. Because of this emphasis Montesquieu is considered one of the founders of the geographic school of sociology. Nonetheless, he attributed the greatest importance to political factors, particularly the form of government.

The fundamental theme of The Spirit of Laws is the problem of a rational political system and its organization. Drawing on classical political theories, Montesquieu asserted that there are three proper forms of government (democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy) and one improper form (despotism). He considered monarchy the best form of government. To prevent its transformation into despotism and to secure political freedom, he proposed the principle of the separation of powers, as well as a federal form of government. As a critic of royal despotism and exponent of constitutional monarchy, he played a significant role in French history and in the development of international social thought. In general, his political program called for compromise between the bourgeoisie and the nobility on the conditions of joint participation in exercising political authority. Montesquieu was incapable of providing a genuine scientific differentiation of the various forms of government. Noting the inaccuracies in his distinction between monarchy and despotism, K. Marx wrote that “those are names for one and the same concept, and at most they denote differences in customs though the principle remains the same “(K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, pp. 374–75).

In law Montesquieu advanced a number of progressive principles: equality of all citizens before the law, broad suffrage, freedom of speech, press, and worship, separation of church and state, elimination of torture and harsh punishment, and the need for international agreements to humanize war.

His ideas were used extensively by C. Beccaria, who advanced new principles of criminal law. The theory of the separation of powers exerted a great influence on the American Constitution (1787) and the French Constitution of 1791.

Montesquieu’s historical views were expressed in Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur of the Romans and of Their Decadence (1734). Rejecting the theological interpretation of history, he advanced the thesis of the objective regularity of the historical process.

Although The Spirit of Laws was included in the Index of Forbidden Books, 22 editions of it were published between 1748 and 1750 alone, and it was translated into almost every European language. In Russia the first translations, neither of which is extant, were done by A. D. Kantemir and A. N. Radishchev.

The novel The Persian Letters (1721; Russian translation 1789), one of the best works in the philosophical genre characteristic of the 18th century, won Montesquieu fame as a writer. The novel takes the form of a correspondence between two friends, the Persians Usbek and Rica, who are at once “naive “and wise critics of French secular society, which they criticize for the arrogance bred by the empty trumpery of French “civilization. “Essential aspects of this civilization, as perceived by the novel’s protagonists, are superstition, oppression by the church and authorities, learning that is out of touch with reality, and art that consists of rhetorical glorifications, conventionalities, and extreme affectation. Pervaded by irony and subtle wit, Montesquieu’s satire completely unmasked France’s absolute monarchy, as well as French political life, culture, customs and manners.

The Temple of Gnide (1725) and A Journey to Paphos (1727), narrative poems in prose, are written in the spirit of the hedonistic Epicureanism of the aristocratic salon and boudoir, whose favorite mythological characters and erotic subjects they borrow.

Montesquieu’s “Essay on Taste, “written 1753 and published in the fourth volume of Diderot’s Encyclopedia (1757), is confined to the traditions of classicism. However, although he emerged as an advocate of order, symmetry, rationality, and clarity in art, Montesquieu also understood the delightful effects of ingenuous charm and of the unexpected and the carefree.


Oeuvres complètes, 3 vols. Paris, 1950–55.
Correspondance, 2 vols. Paris, 1914.
In Russian translation: Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1955.
Dukh zakonov. St. Petersburg, 1900.
Persidskie pis’ma. Moscow, 1956.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 374.
Ibid., vol. 5, p. 203.
Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow, 1946.
Baskin, M. P. Montesk’e. Moscow, 1965.
Shackleton, R. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. Oxford, 1961. Starobinsky, J. Montesquieu par lui-même. Paris, 1963.
Loy, J. Robert. Montesquieu. New York, 1968.
Etudes sur Montesquieu. [Paris, 1970.]
Cabeen, D. C. Montesquieu: A Bibliography. New York, 1947.
Cabeen, D. C. “A Supplementary Montesquieu Bibliography. “Revue Internationale de philosophic, 1955, nos. 33–34.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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