Montesquieu Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Spirit of the Laws set a standard for comparative political, cultural, and legal thought in Europe. It laid the foundation for the institution of the social sciences as disciplines more rigorous and distinct from those of the humanities.

Summary of Event

Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws, 1750) was one of the first attempts to provide an interpretive structure to the history of human legislation. A provincial magistrate and Bordeaux aristocrat, Montesquieu also participated in his local provincial scientific academy, had interests in scientific agriculture, and authored the influential epistolary novel Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722). Montesquieu’s professional interest in the law was coupled by his personal interest in the explanatory power of the scientific method. Enlightenment;France [kw]Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws (1748) [kw]Laws, Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the (1748) [kw]Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu Publishes The (1748) [kw]Publishes The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu (1748) Spirit of the Laws, The (Montesquieu) [g]France;1748: Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws[1240] [c]Philosophy;1748: Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws[1240] [c]Literature;1748: Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws[1240] [c]Government and politics;1748: Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws[1240] Montesquieu

Preceded by the natural law Natural law tradition, in which the comparative history of legislation was linked to Cartesian clear and distinct moral ideas, The Spirit of the Laws owed its content to some of the most significant intellectual traditions of the eighteenth century. Balanced against Montesquieu’s philosophical interests was his attempt to explain the English government Political philosophy to his French audience, both as exposition of a free government and as criticism of the French monarchy. Monarchy;Montesquieu Montesquieu joined his voice to those in French society who saw the legacy of Louis XIV’s rule representing the end of French liberty. Liberty;Montesquieu A major theme of the work concerns the threat of despotism, Despotism or the sovereign’s institutionalized capricious will. Montesquieu investigated politics to reveal the principles of order—the spirit—of each government. Policy based on such principles would prevent despotism, for disordered caprice in government could be fought with adherence to the ordering principle that each government naturally exemplifies.

Montesquieu’s goal was to resolve the tension between the universal Universal law-social law[Universal law social law] Social law-universal law[Social law universal law] and immutable laws of nature and the varied, relative laws of human society as they differed from nation to nation. Montesquieu resolved them with an account of the generation of particular positive laws by the peculiar climates and geographical Law;and geography[geography] circumstances of each nation. He was convinced that a nation’s laws could be demonstrated to be consistent with their soil and climate; thus the civil law of Italy, a country situated in a warm climate, would differ dramatically from that of England in the colder north. Further, such laws conformed to the psychology Law;and psychologism[psychologism] Psychology and law of each nation. The southern areas were blessed with comfortable weather year round and good soil; its inhabitants had their needs met more easily. In the harsher north, survival was more painstaking, with less variety for life’s amenities. The people of the north could endure more hardship and worked harder to satisfy their needs. Most important was the northern European development of an intense love of their liberty and independence. Found earliest among the Germanic tribes, this love of liberty developed in Britain, France, and most of the European north as the Germans invaded those areas.

Even this circumscribed relativity of human experience was undergirded, however, by Montesquieu’s dependence upon the principles of natural jurisprudence. He was convinced of the rational status of the basic moral laws Moral law of human life. Morality is necessarily social and rational; he lauded the Stoics for their achievements in moral philosophy. Self-preservation, liberty, equality, sanctity of private property, and the father’s responsibility to his children were among the most important natural laws. Montesquieu discussed these principles throughout the book as the final points of appeal in almost every debate concerning justice in civil, political, and religious legislation. Perhaps more significant for Montesquieu was the republican maxim that political virtue Virtue, political differs from moral virtue. He recognized that what can be condemned according to Christian ethics—the passion for war, love of honor and glory—can in particular circumstances be advantageous to the public good.

An important section of the book concerned the distinctions between types of governments. Government;Montesquieu Like other laws, the peculiar system of government of a people was the product of their climate and geographical context. Although he specifically discussed three types—republicanism, monarchy, and despotism—aristocracy, while technically a republican polity, occurred often in discussions of both republics and monarchy and seemed at times to function as a fourth type. A philosophical principle distinguished each form of government from the other: virtue in republics, honor in monarchies, moderation in aristocracies, and fear in despotisms.

Montesquieu traced the institutions, manners, and laws of each regime back to the condition of each of these principles. A citizen of a republic where virtue was nurtured would seek the glory of the state and the good of the public before luxury and individual honor; this was his motive for action, and the wise legislator would frame laws to guide and influence him. In the monarchy, honor is the “spring” of that government; such envy of each citizen toward another for the nation’s honors and status drove them to be good subjects, although morally less virtuous than members of a republic. At the lowest end of the political scale, the despot ruled by caprice and with no regard for laws; his subjects were little more than slaves.

What republics offered in fulfillment of humanity’s natural liberty and independence they lacked in practicality. They required a community of goods; they were a polity best fitted for small nations; foreign commerce and the subsequent increased wealth of their citizens could destroy their national virtue. Their virtue was supported by military exercises, but their success at war, the result of these republican warrior virtues, could lead to the passion for empire and their eventual decline into despotism as in ancient Rome. Monarchies had achieved the greatest successes in the field of war, and the greatest empires. A government of one man, however, was always in danger of becoming the tool of his passions and whims. The most natural channel for the king to carry out his policies was the nobility; they, however, were often contemptuous of civil government. Needless wars could become the goal of nobles bent on battlefield glory; the common people often suffered greatly in a monarchy. Finally, each government could be corrupted, its principle reversed. Republics declined as they grew successful; aristocracies became hereditary and arbitrary; the long abuse of power or conquest could overcome climate and drive monarchies into despotism.

England was Montesquieu’s example of the freest nation in history, as well as the nation that had used commerce and trade to the best advantage of its people. Just as moderation was the dominant and desired human virtue in society, so was balance the key principle of government. Balance of powers Montesquieu saw England’s three branches of government as executing the perfect balance among equal powers. The ease with which power could be abused by one man or a group of men meant that the executive, legislature, and judiciary must be separated to prevent the decline of political liberty. Citizen armies and the nurture of their martial spirit functioned as another hedge against the executive. Because their climate was so harsh, the English found no satisfaction in anything, and thus Montesquieu decided that tyranny could not be easily foisted on them.

Finally, Montesquieu’s thoughts on government and society were colored by his belief that disorder constantly threatened society, whether by a mob in a republic or by a despot in a monarchy. Only the utmost care and watchfulness could prevent governments from unleashing the destructiveness of human passions. England, the freest government in history, survived on its fear of despotism and its division of governmental power into a balanced polity.


Many of Montesquieu’s contemporaries read The Spirit of the Laws and complimented him on his erudition and his original perspective on political theory. Yet while some saw him as their tutor in political thought, others, such as Voltaire, also commented that The Spirit of the Laws was a confusing, disordered, often aphoristic book. Still, the influence of this work went far beyond Montesquieu’s native France. It had a major impact on the social theories of Scottish philosophers such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson. The debates of American revolutionary theorists and, later, constitutional debates were deeply indebted to Montesquieu’s ideas of the balance of powers. The initial stages of the French Revolution also owed a great deal to Montesquieu’s trenchant critique of monarchic despotism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berlin, Isaiah. “Montesquieu.” In Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited and with a bibliography by Henry Hardy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Collection of essays by the late Berlin, a noted twentieth century philosopher. The essays explore the historical importance of dissenters, such as Montesquieu, whose ideas challenged conventional wisdom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carrithers, David W., Michael A. Mosher, and Paul A. Rahe, eds. Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on “The Spirit of the Laws.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Collection of essays analyzing Montesquieu’s best-known work and his contributions to the field of political science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohler, Anne. Montesquieu’s Comparative Politics and the Spirit of American Constitutionalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. Good introduction to Montesquieu’s influence on eighteenth century American political thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hampson, Norman. The Enlightenment. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. A readable introduction to the writers and debates of the European Enlightenment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Will and Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau, and the French Revolution. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. Traces Montesquieu’s influence on the writers, reformers, and activists of the French Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hulling, Mark. Montesquieu and the Old Regime. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Argues that Montesquieu was a serious and relentless critic of French monarchic culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keohane, Nannerl. Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Montesquieu emerges in the larger context of French political and constitutional debates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. The best translation of the work; also has a fine introductory essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shackleton, Robert. Montesquieu: A Critical Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Good biography and dependable exposition of Montesquieu’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shklar, Judith. Montesquieu. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A short, well-written introduction to Montesquieu and his work.

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Categories: History