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Summary Article: Montesquieu, Charles-Louis from A Glossary of Political Theory

Born in Bordeaux, France. He studied science and history at school and became a lawyer in local government.

In 1721 he published The Persian Letters. In this work politics, morals and love are skilfully woven together, and a critique is presented of religion and Aristotle. He was elected to the French Academy of Science in 1728, and in 1730 was elected to the Royal Society in London.

Two years later, he published his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Here he tackled Machiavelli’s notion of virtu (a concept that attacked Aristotelian and Christian views), and he saw in ancient Rome problems to which all republics are prone.

His greatest work is On the Spirit of Laws (1748). All human activity, he contended, is governed by laws, whether social or natural, and he regarded the natural condition as one from which humans need to escape. Positive laws can only maintain peace and security if they avoid terror, and despotism is seen as an illegitimate form of rule. But whether the state is a republic or monarchy depends upon circumstances – the historical and geographical environment. This creates the ‘spirit’ of the nation. The best government is a balance with a king, a parliament, and a judiciary. Virtue of a Machiavellian kind is desirable but it can be inimical to individuality. The English Constitution is extolled for attaining a ‘balance’ allowing commerce and security, and he presented a somewhat idealised version of the ‘separation of powers’.

Like many of his day, Montesquieu condoned slavery and regarded women as unsuitable either to head households or rule over others.

See also: politics, Aristotle, Machiavelli, natural, government, slavery

Further reading:
  • Richter, M. (ed.) (1977), The Political Theory of Montesquieu, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • © John Hoffman, 2007

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