Authors: Charles de Montesquieu

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French historian and political theorist

January 18, 1689

La Brède, near Bordeaux, France

February 10, 1755

Paris, France

Biography

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (mohn-tehs-kyew), often more simply referred to as Charles de Montesquieu, was born at Château La Brède, the French country seat of his wealthy and noble family. The title of Montesquieu came to him from a paternal uncle, while the title la Brède came from his mother’s family. His mother died when Montesquieu was seven years old, and soon afterward he began his education at the Oratorian School at Juilly, France. In 1716 Montesquieu succeeded to his uncle’s title and position as president of the Bordeaux parliament. The previous year he had married a wealthy heiress, Jeanne Lartigue, with whom he led a happy, if uneventful, life. {$I[AN]9810000466} {$I[A]Montesquieu, Charles de} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Montesquieu, Charles de} {$I[tim]1689;Montesquieu, Charles de}

Portrait of Charles de Montesquieu.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the period between 1716 and 1728, Montesquieu held his position as president of the Bordeaux parliament and began a career as scholar and author by contributing articles to the Bordeaux Academy on philosophical, scientific, and political subjects. His earliest work of note was his Persian Letters, supposedly written by two Persian gentlemen traveling in Europe, in which he satirized European society, literature, politics, and religious institutions. In 1725, Montesquieu published anonymously the licentious prose poem Le temple de Gnide, a purported translation of a Greek myth that met with both scandal and success. Proposed as a candidate for the French Academy in 1725, he was elected but not seated because of a rule that members must be residents of Paris. He finally became a member in 1728, after he had given up his presidency of the Bordeaux parliament and moved to the capital. Shortly after his election to the Academy he began a four-year tour of Europe.

Upon his return to France, Montesquieu took up residence at La Brède, rather than at Paris, and resumed his literary career. He became one of the “philosophes,” a group of French authors who sought peaceful political reform by giving the people the knowledge needed to produce that reform. Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans was published anonymously in 1734, but there was little secrecy about the author’s identity. The work ascribed the decadence and eventual fall of Rome to the loss of political virtue and liberty.

Montesquieu took fourteen years to produce his next and greatest book, The Spirit of the Laws. This thirty-one-volume work, which friends advised the author not to publish, was put on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church and almost received a public censure from the Sorbonne. Both moves indicated the liberal quality of the book and the fact that it foreshadowed many later clerical and political reforms. The Spirit of the Laws discusses governments in the historical past, especially tyrannies in which all power was held by one person, and the evils that resulted. Montesquieu then compared those conditions to the absolute monarchy under Louis XV in the France of his day. His answer to such a government was political freedom based on a separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of government. The book soon found favor in other countries, and eventually it became the authoritative source for moderate reforms in France. This work is probably the best-written and most important early work on comparative government; aristocratic Montesquieu certainly did not realize how he was pointing the way to the French Revolution three decades after his death in Paris in February 1755.

In the decades after his death, several of Montesquieu's writings were published, including a volume of his correspondence. His entire works were reissued as Oeuvres de M. Montesquieu in 1785. Montesquieu's diaries, covering topics as diverse as political succession and women's attire, were included in his complete works and later translated into English as the standalone volume My Thoughts (2012).

Author Works Nonfiction: Lettres persanes, 1721 (satire; Persian Letters, 1722) Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des romains et de leur décadence, 1734 (Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, 1734) Les étrennes de la St Jean, 1742 (with Count Caylus and Count Maurepas) De l’ésprit des loix, 1748, rev. 1757 (The Spirit of the Laws, 1750) Défense de l'Esprit des loix, 1750 Lettres familieres de M. le président de Montesquieu, 1767 Oeuvres posthumes de M. de Montesquieu, 1783 L'Essai sur le goût dans les choses de la nature et de l'art, 1785 (Essay on Taste, 1970) Oeuvres de M. Montesquieu, 1785 Histoire véritable, 1949 My Thoughts, 2012 Poetry: Le temple de Gnide, 1725 (unsigned) Bibliography Conroy, Peter V. Montesquieu Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. An updated study that extends Loy’s work (below), covering changes in critical views of Montesquieu since the late 1960’s. Kingston, Rebecca. Montesquieu and the Parlement of Bordeaux. Geneva, Switzerland: Libr. Droz, 1996. A political study. Lowenthal, David. “Montesquieu.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963. A concise but thorough topical breakdown of Montesquieu’s political teachings covering topics such as nature, commerce, religion, and political liberty. Loy, John R. Montesquieu. New York: Twayne, 1968. An introductory survey that provides biography, analyses of major works, a chronology, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. McDonald, Lee Cameron. “Montesquieu.” In Western Political Theory: The Modern Age. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. A standard short essay that mixes biographical information with some analysis. The analysis is presented in a topical format with an especially long section on separation of powers. Not as probing or complete as the Lowenthal essay. Montesquieu, Baron de. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated by Thomas Nugent. New York: Hafner Press, 1949. A complete volume of Montesquieu’s most important work. This edition includes a useful introductory essay by Franz Neumann. Pangle, Thomas L. Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. A book-long commentary on The Spirit of the Laws, this work examines Montesquieu’s thought in a complete and objective manner. Pangle is especially strong on Montesquieu’s understanding of nature and normative reasoning. Schaub, Diana J. Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. A feminist study. Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961. The most complete biography on Montesquieu available in English. Presented in chronological order, this book is a mix of biographical data and analysis. A wonderful resource work on every aspect of Montesquieu’s life and writings. Includes a complete bibliography of Montesquieu’s works. Shklar, Judith N. Montesquieu. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A thorough biography. Werner, Stephen. The Comic Philosophes: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Sade. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 2002. Traces the chain of literary and philosophical influence among these four writers.

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