Montesquieu and the Separation of Powers

Montesquieu (1689 - 1755)

Montesquieu
(1689 – 1755)

On January 18, 1698, French philosopher and political thinker Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, generally only referred to as Montesquieu, was baptized. He is best known for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions throughout the world.

“If I knew of something that could serve my nation but would ruin another, I would not propose it to my prince, for I am first a man and only then a Frenchman…because I am necessarily a man, and only accidentally am I French.”
— Pensées et Fragments Inédits de Montesquieu (1899)

Even though, Montesquieu’s real date of birth is unknown, the offspring of the wealthy noble family was baptized on January 18, 1698 which is now referred to as his birthday. He received a classical education in Latin, mathematics, history and began writing his first literature pieces during his time at a renowned boarding school near Paris. In the early 1700’s, the young Montesquieu studied law and quickly began his promising career in Bordeaux. But law was not the only scientific field he was interested in. He also worked on theories concerning national debt and joined the Academy of Bordeaux, a community of academics, writers and other intellectuals, where he composed several writings and gave a few lectures on religion and its power to moralize a country’s masses. Montesquieu became internationally famous for the first time in 1721 for his novel ‘Lettres persanes‘, which reflected the major ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. Another successful novel by Montesquieu was ‘Le Temple de Gnide‘, published four years later and translated into numerous languages. Both works suffered from censorship.

Montesquieu began turning his back to his judicial office and began dedicating his life to the ‘Académie française‘, one of the institutes with the most prestige in France, a place for intellectuals in various fields. He also began travelling through Europe until 1731. When Montesquieu finally settled in is home town La Brède, he began writing an publishing his most influential works, like the ‘De l’esprit des lois‘ from 1748 which took about 20 years of writing and thinking.

“Not to be loved is a misfortune, but it is an insult to be loved no longer.”, Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters, 1721)

De l’esprit des lois‘ became Montesquieu’s most important work. In it, he mentions the decisive aspects determining the governmental and legal system of certain states, meaning that through these aspects a general spirit can be detected which was supposed to indicate a state’s spirit of laws. Also he takes a clear position against absolutism leading him to his famous theories on the ‘Separation of Powers‘. The mastermind, philosopher of the early Enlightenment, and the father of liberalism, John Locke, once set the first milestone for the theory. Montesquieu described in his work the separation of the legislature, the executive, and judiciary [4]. Right after being published, it was set on the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum‘. (the list of prohibited books) Montesquieu’s masterpiece contained liberal as well as conservative aspects, pledging for a parliament with at least two parties instead of a monarchy preventing tyranni and anarchy. His first success earned Montesquieu through his work in the year of his passing, 1755. The Republic of Corsica solidified his ideas as part of their constitution in this year and the second and major breakthrough depicted the constitution of the United States of America, followed by every democratic state understanding the separation of power as the foundation of their constitutions.

Montesquieu is credited as being among the progenitors, which include Herodotus and Tacitus, of anthropology, as being among the first to extend comparative methods of classification to the political forms in human societies. Another example of Montesquieu’s anthropological thinking, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, is his meteorological climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of man and his society. By placing an emphasis on environmental influences as a material condition of life, Montesquieu prefigured modern anthropology’s concern with the impact of material conditions, such as available energy sources, organized production systems, and technologies, on the growth of complex socio-cultural systems.

Besides composing additional works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England where he became a freemason, admitted to the Horn Tavern Lodge in Westminster, before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755.

References and Further Reading:

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