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Baron de Montesquieu: Biography, Theories & Philosophy

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  • 0:01 Montesquieu
  • 0:47 Bio
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and theories of the the French Enlightenment's foremost political theorist, Charles-Louis de Secondat - more commonly known as Montesquieu.

Montesquieu

It probably seems pretty normal to you that there are a myriad of different departments and branches of government. You go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get your driver's license, while you pay your taxes to the IRS. If you have a fishing or hunting license, you likely had to go somewhere else entirely that represents your state's fisheries and resource management department. All these departments are all part of the government; they just perform different, well-defined functions.

It was not always this way. Indeed, different departments and branches of government is mainly a function of today's large, Western governments. However, the man who first proposed such a system lived in 18th-century France: Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu.

Bio

Montesquieu, as he is often referred to, was born outside of Bordeaux, France, in 1689. Born into a prominent and noble family, Montesquieu was sent off to a respected boarding school outside of Paris in 1700. Afterward, Montesquieu continued his studies at the University of Bordeaux where he received a master's degree after studying law. In 1708, he received his license to practice law and moved to Paris the next year.

Once in Paris, Montesquieu could afford to devote most of his time to reading and writing. His wealthy and childless uncle had left Montesquieu a large fortune as well as his title and public office, and in 1715, he married a wealthy Protestant woman who came with a substantial dowry.

Montesquieu's first work, the Persian Letters, caused a small uproar in Paris. The book satirized Parisian culture and French attitudes during the reign of King Louis XIV by following two Persian travelers as they visited the city. The work contained particularly biting criticism of Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Though Montesquieu originally published the work anonymously, his identity as the author was soon discovered and he quickly became famous throughout the city.

A few years later, Montesquieu was elected to the Académie Française and then went on a European tour hoping to round out his education. He particularly enjoyed his stay in England where he was elected to the Royal Society in London. His admiration for the evolving British constitution informed many of his later political writings.

After his return, Montesquieu devoted his entire life to writing and wrote several works, including a history of the decline of the Roman Empire. However, his most important and influential work was published in 1748, The Spirit of Laws. The culmination of nearly 20 years of on and off work, Montesquieu finished it after spending several years cloistered away in his Bordeaux estate. The political tour de force was incredibly popular and went through 22 editions before his death. He died in 1755 at his home in Bordeaux.

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Montesquieu believed that the natural world, especially the actions of men, was made up of laws. These laws were inalienable and never changed. Montesquieu believed that if he studied the various governments and interactions of men with authority, he could discover these laws. In addition, he believed that if the laws of government were just and easily understandable to the population at large, the government could improve the quality of life of its inhabitants and promote greater understanding between individuals and the government alike.

According to Montesquieu, three types of government existed: monarchies, republics and dictatorships. Montesquieu abhorred both monarchies and dictatorships - when all the powers of government were concentrated into the hands of one man, it was far too easy for that man to abuse that power, resulting in a tyrannical government. Instead, Montesquieu believed that the republic, especially democratic republics, where all leaders were elected by their peers, was the best possible form of government. However, the success of these democratic republics depended upon the careful and precarious balance of power between separate branches of government.

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