Charles Montesquieu Research Paper

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1. Biography And Works

Montesquieu, generally held to be the ‘chief theoretician of the separation of powers in western constitutional thought’ (Stubbe-Da Luz 1998, p. 7), was born in La Brede, south of Bordeaux, on January 18, 1689 as Charles-Louis de Secondat. His family, which owned extensive vineyards, was part of the aristocratic class, whose pride and independence were to have an influence on Montesquieu’s work. His family was also influenced by their experiences of the religious wars which had left particularly traumatic scars in the south of France due to the spread of Protestantism in the area, and to which members of Montesquieu’s family had also fallen victim.

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After attending the Oratoraner College in Juilly near Paris (1700–5), well-known for its critical orientation, and studying law in Bordeaux and Paris (1705–9), the young Montesquieu inherited his father’s post as a councilor of parliament of the province Guyenne in Bordeaux after his father’s early death in 1713. In 1721 he inherited the title of Baron of Montesquieu from his uncle, and along with it the post of cabinet chairman (President a mortier) of the Parlement (Court of Justice) in Bordeaux. Having been introduced into the Parisian salons in 1719, where he established contacts to the circle of enlightened intellectuals and writers of the time (for instance Fontenelle), he was elected as a member of the Academie Francaise in 1728 after his epistolary novel Les Lettres Persanes (1721) was published. His later elections as a member of the Royal Society in London and a corresponding member of the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften were due to the influence of his work across Europe as well as his personal contacts to intellectual circles in England and Germany.

Parallel to his literary and philosophical work, which took on an increasingly broad extent from the 1730s on, Montesquieu was also active as a judge, and from 1721 to 1725 as cabinet president, at the Parliament of Bordeaux as well as a landowner, supervising all aspects of wine production and finances entailed by his vineyards and property in La Brede. From 1728 to 1731 he undertook a three-year tour of Europe, visiting South Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, and England. His stay in England in particular, during the period of heated debate between the Whig prime minister Walpole and the conservative opposition around Lord Bolingbroke, who were in favor of the separation of powers, proved decisive for the further development of his political thought. His main work L’Esprit des Loix took almost 20 years to complete and was published in 1748. In spite of church and state censorship it soon achieved high circulation figures and was translated and circulated throughout Europe. In 1752 Montesquieu published a piece defending his work to the censorship authorities (Reponses et Explications Donnees a la Faculte de Theologie). He died in Paris on February 10, 1755 in the wake of an influenza epidemic.

There are three aspects of his biography and sociocultural background which appear to be of importance for his literary, political, and philosophical work: (a) his origins as a member of the French provincial aristocracy, which had sacrificed a great deal of its political power during the enforcement of absolutist power structures under Louis XIII and Louis XIV and their ministers Mazarin and Richelieu. The provincial parliaments were one of the last traces of the past power of the aristocracy in France, and in their function as high courts could raise a kind of suspense veto against royal laws. The political history of eighteenth century France was marked by a series of conflicts between the Parliaments and the absolutist monarchy, which Montesquieu was able to experience and follow for over 30 years as a member of the Parliament de Bordeaux; (b) as an aristocrat and landowner Montesquieu represented the ‘revolutionary conservatism’ of that fraction of the Enlightenment movement which was a part of the privileged aristocratic class and which attempted to defend and regain its traditional political and social rights, which had been greatly limited since the seventeenth century, against the absolutist state; and (c) Montesquieu’s material view of governmental and social conditions, and especially the importance he attributed to climatic and soil conditions, were without doubt decisively influenced by his lifelong experience as a vineyard owner. His thought resulted in a certain sense from the ‘philosophy of a vintner’ (Stubbe-Da Luz 1998), who knew how important specific climatic and geographical conditions were for the quality and perfect maturity of the fine Bordeaux wines his family had been cultivating for many generations. For example the iceage pebbles which reflect sunlight onto the chalk, clay, and sand ground of the area around La Brede are essential for the quality of the renowned Graves wine grown in this area, which is one of France’s best wines ‘Climate and soil also allowed,’ according to Montesquieu, ‘in a similar way the ‘‘love of freedom’’ and the ‘‘hate of violence’’ to develop in very varied intensities’ (Stubbe-Da Luz 1998, p. 95).

2. Thought And Discourse Structures

Montesquieu’s work is complex and covers varied disciplines and forms of discourse: literature, philosophy, aesthetic theory, political theory, and sociology. His epistolic novel Les Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters 1721) calls attention to the deplorable problems of contemporary French society through the literary medium and from a fictitious perspective, the viewpoint of the Persians Usbek and Rica, traveling through Louis XIV’s France in the years 1711 to 1720. The despotic power structures of the French monarchy, the influence of the Church on the state and Court ceremony in particular appears incompatible with the principles of common sense (‘raison’) to the two Persians. Montesquieu’s novel became a muchimitated form of societal criticism, which confronts western and non-European societal forms and points of view with one another, and simultaneously applies a radical criticism to the governmental and social structures of absolutist France on the basis of enlightened reason (‘raison’). Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes are still of relevance today as a matrix for genre and portrayal which non-European writers in particular have adapted productively. Among these writers are the Chinese immigrant to Canada Yin Chen, with her epistolic novel Lettres Chinoises (1993), Bernard Dadiefrom the Cote d’I oire, who took up Montesquieu’s narrative model in his autobiographical epistolic novel Un Negre a Paris (1959) and made a critical reappraisal of his own experiences of a visit to the French metropolis from a non-European perspective, and the Montreal-based Franco-Canadian writer Lise Gauvin, in whose novel Lettres d’une Autre (1993) a Persian immigrant describes her Quebec experiences using the social-critical and satirical viewpoint of Montesquieu.

His book Le Temple de Gnide (1725) is a rather ephemeral work including erotic fantasies. In contrast, his essay Considerations sur les causes de la grandeur et la decadence des Romains (1734) and his article Esthethique du Gout, which he wrote for the Encyclopedie (1751, published 1756) of Diderot and d’Alembert, bear relation to his historical-philosophical and sociological reflections. The Encyclopedie article is a plea for a modern aesthetic that both orients itself by models from antiquity and attempts to go beyond these models. In the Considerations Roman history serves as illustrative material for his historicalphilosophical reflections on the connection between national greatness and governmental form. The development of despotic regimes since Caesar and Augustus is seen as a fundamental cause of the fall of Roman civilization.

At the center of Montesquieu’s ideas is a systematic political and sociological thought structure, which is best manifested in his main work L’Esprit des Loix (1748), on which he worked almost uninterruptedly from 1731 to 1747, following his European tour. This work can be divided into three main parts: the ‘books’ (Li res) I–XIII present a theory of the three basic forms of government monarchy, republic, and despotism, in topological form and with reference to Aristotle’s Politeia; books XIV–XX examine the influence of material factors, particularly of climate and soil quality, on the structure of human societies and their traditions and institutions; finally in books XX–XXVIII the significance of social and economic factors such as trade and commerce, currency, population development, and religion for the traditions and laws of specific societies and their structures of government is analyzed. The final chapter (Li re XXIX) illustrates the pragmatic consequences of the consideration of material and social factors for the structure and development of two very different societies, using the examples of the laws of ancient Rome and medieval feudal society.

The sketched summary of contents outlines the basic aims and key terms of Montesquieu’s theory of society. In contrast to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who ruled out empirical and historical facts in his main philosophical work Du Contrat Social (1762) (‘Ecartons tous les faits,’ ‘let us ignore all the facts’), Montesquieu’s work is based, as the large collection of notes and material he made when writing L’Esprit des Loix show, on an impressive amount of research and source materials on the various societies, which he critically reviewed and connected with his own observations and reflections. It has been proved that ideas from over 600 works can be found in his most important book. From the critical examination of extremely heterogeneous material on completely different societies, natural laws are derived concerning the interdependence of societal structure, form of government, and material and social factors. The republic, for example, is connected with a mild climate and a small territory, despotism is limited in the main to large territories, but simultaneously represents a form of decline of the monarchy. The three forms of governmental structure correspond to dominant values and mental reaction patterns, which influence both the behavior of the rulers and the thinking of the people: in the republic ‘virtue’ (‘ ertu’), in the monarchy ‘honor’ (‘honneur’) and in despotism ‘fear’ (‘crainte’). Key terms of Montesquieu’s thought are ‘esprit general,’ ‘loix,’ and ‘moderation,’ two of which appear in the subtitle of the work. Here Montesquieu explains that his book is about ‘the connection that the laws must have to the constitution of every government, to the morals, the climate, the religion, the commerce, etc.’ The basic term ‘loix’ therefore refers both to state laws and to natural structural laws which are derived from the analysis of complex empirical sets of facts (such as climate, soil, religion, etc.) and can explain the specific forms of state legal measures. As ‘esprit general’ Montesquieu understands the collective patterns of thought and behavior of a community, which is in it influenced by geographical and historical factors. Montesquieu’s term ‘esprit’ therefore roughly corresponds to the current anthropological definition of the term ‘culture.’ The term ‘moderation’ in turn refers to the normative dimension of Montesquieu’s work. His political philosophy, despite his analytical distance, highly values those societies that seek a balance between the various interests of power and societal groups, and are able to create a structural equilibrium (‘equilibre’). The Roman republic, with its characteristic balance of plebs and privileged classes, the early and high medieval franco-germanic feudal societies, and modern England represent, according to Montesquieu, exemplary models of political and social equilibrium and moderation, despite their differing structures of government and society. The model of the English constitution and the spirit (‘esprit’) behind it is seen to be based in turn essentially on the principle of the separation of powers, the division of executive, legislative, and judiciary, that Montesquieu took over principally from John Locke and developed into a central part of his political theory. Thus Montesquieu presented in L’Esprit des Loix not only an ontological theory of laws and a normative theory of legislation, but also an empirical theory of forms, functioning and development of human societies as well as the political, social, and economical behavior of their members. The relationship of tension between normativity and analysis that is present throughout Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Loix points to fundamental contradictions and ambivalence of his work: (a) first the contradiction between a rational universalism on one hand, which is characteristic of the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and regards liberty, the separation of powers and the bicameral system as ‘fundamental laws’ (‘loix fondamentales’), and a historical sense of the particular and specific on the other hand, which, according to the German historian Friedrich Meinecke, foreshadows the historicism of the nineteenth century; (b) second this calls attention to the contradiction between sociological and moral approaches, which can be seen for example in the analysis and judgment of the phenomenon of slavery. From a historical-sociological point of view Montesquieu explains slavery using a set of economic, demographic, and climatic factors based on the analysis of overseas plantation societies; from a moral viewpoint however, he condemns slavery as a manifestation of a despotic form of government and society. He sees it as diametrically opposed to the fundamental principle of moderation and the aim of every social and political order, to create a basic consensus and balance of interests between the various interests of power and social groups. According to Stubbe-Da Luz, we can here observe a ‘relationship of tension’ between Montesquieu the moralist ‘who elevated certain moral norms to natural laws’ and ‘the sociological comparatist tending towards materialism and relativism’ (1998, p. 91); (c) third, Louis Althusser referred to the fundamental contradiction between the ‘innovative genius’ (‘genie inno ateur’) of Montesquieu and his ‘reactionary opinions’ (‘opinions reactionnaires’) in his book Montesquieu et la Politique (1959), which is also shown in the juxtaposition of analytical determinism and enlightened moral normativity.

The French political scientist and sociologist Raymond Aron interprets the contradictions and ambivalence of L’Esprit des Loix as a result of a profound transition period of European thought, at the center of which is Montesquieu’s work, in his book Les Etapes de la Pensee Sociologique (1967), the first chapter of which is on Montesquieu. He sees Montesquieu both as one of the last ‘classical philosophers’ (‘philosophes classiques,’ p. 66) and ‘the first sociologist’ (‘le premier des sociologues,’ p. 66). His understanding of history, for which the terms rise, greatness, and decadence appear central, is still confined in the pre-enlightenment cyclical theory, while the teleological understanding of progress characteristic of Voltaire’s work for example bears no systematic significance in Montesquieu’s conception of history and society. His understanding of society and his both analytical and interconnective approach to social and political phenomena however, according to Aron, foreshadow the sociological method of Auguste Comte (who explicitly referred to Montesquieu and viewed him as a forerunner of modern sociology) and of Max Weber and stand for the ‘modernity’ of his theoretical approach.

3. Influence And Reception

Montesquieu was one of the writers and philosophers of the French Enlightenment era who were not only canonized and honored in their own lifetimes, but also experienced a broad international reception. A contributing factor was that both the Lettres Persanes and his main work L’Esprit des Loix were banned by the state and Church censorship and captured the attention of the enlightened readership for this very reason. D’Alembert, co-editor along with Diderot of the Encyclopedie, praised Montesquieu in the foreword (Discours preliminaire) of the first volume of the work, writing that his main work was ‘denigrated by a few Frenchmen, greeted by the nation and admired by all Europe.’ As early as the second half of the eighteenth century, Montesquieu gained posthumous praise that proclaimed him as one of the most outstanding intellectuals of the Enlightenment age. In 1755 Maupertuis of the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften held a laudatory speech on the deceased Montesquieu; in 1785 the academy of Bordeaux held a competition in honor of Montesquieu’s work, in which the later revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat took part. In 1796, after the end of the reign of terror, the French national assembly voted to allot Montesquieu a place in the national temple of fame in the Pantheon, an honor otherwise only allowed to Voltaire and Rousseau among the philosophers of the Enlightenment movement during the French Revolution.

Three dimensions of Montesquieu’s work have defined its influence and reception since the eighteenth century: first, the fascination that the narrative model of the Lettres Persanes held for his contemporaries and later generations, which is shown by the abundance of translations into all important languages and in numerous creative imitations; also the central element of his political theory, and finally the comparatistic method of his societal analysis, which makes him one of the forerunners of modern sociological thought.

The principle of the separation of powers and the theory of intermediary powers and intermediate bodies (‘pouvoirs intermediares’) between the ruler and the people, which are the most important elements of a moderate monarchy (in contrast to a despotic rule), represent the most broadly quoted and adapted elements of Montesquieu’s political philosophy. This philosophy played a particularly outstanding role in the context of the American independence movement. He was praised as a ‘compatriot’ during the first continental congress in Philadelphia, and no other modern French book was as widely spread as Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Loix in eighteenth century America. Montesquieu’s reception in North America was however based on an extremely selective reading of the Esprit des Loix, which was also much more widely commentated and criticized in eighteenth century France than it was really read. The Esprit des Loix offered itself in the context of the American Revolution as an ‘authoritative recipe book and as an ‘‘oracle’’’ (Stubbe-Da Luz 1998, p. 130). According to the American sociologist James Bryce, no other political principle had a greater influence on the fathers of the American constitution than the principle of the separation of powers advocated by Montesquieu.

Montesquieu’s success in North America, particularly his influence on the American constitution of 1789, amplified his resonance in France, Germany, and other European countries. Along with Rousseau, Voltaire, Raynal, and Mably, Montesquieu represented one of the ‘fathers of the French Revolution’ in the understanding of the revolutionaries of 1789. Writings such as De l’autorite de Montesquieu dans la Revolution presente (‘Of the authority of Montesquieu in the present revolution’) by Grouvelle (1789) are characteristic of this fact. However Montesquieu’s work quickly lost its aura and its influence on the discussion on the constitution after the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792 and the disempowerment of the Girondists in July 1793. Under Jacobean rule he was labeled an ‘aristocratic writer,’ his grave was plundered, and his remains were scattered into mass graves in the catacombs of Paris in 1794. It was not until the Directoire (1795–9) and the constitutions of the Third and Fourth Republics that explicit reference was made to the principle of the separation of powers represented and propagated by Montesquieu.

The political discussion in modern day France makes reference to Montesquieu particularly with the intention of criticizing the state, criticizing forms of state influence on the judicial system, questioning the traditional double role of some politicians (for example as member of parliament and as mayor), and throwing a critical light on the centralist state and administrative structure of France with its deficitary possibilities of autonomy and participation, with reference to the Theorie des pouvoirs intermediares (‘Theory of intermediate bodies’). In Germany Montesquieu’s constitutional theory, particularly the principle of the separation of powers, had a certain influence on the constitutions of 1849 and 1871, although the writer of L’Esprit des Loix could only be quoted to a limited extent, as a French state theoretician in nineteenth century Germany, as his German translator Adolf Ellissen noted in 1844. Montesquieu’s emphasis on the plurality and relativity of societies and his equally global and interconnective view of social structures make him the most important forerunner of modern sociology in French-speaking culture, from the point of view of nineteenth and twentieth century sociologists. The French sociologist Raymond Aron went one step further than Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim, who saw in Montesquieu a mere forerunner, but not a genuine first representative of modern sociology, in his book Les Etapes de la Pensee Sociologique. In his study on Montesquieu, La Politique et l’Histoire (1959), the French philosopher Louis Althusser emphasized the scientific nature of Montesquieu’s theory and his methodical approach in conceding him a central significance in the history of European social sciences.


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