Portrait: Montesquieu, a French judge, man of letters, historian, and political philosopher

Wednesday, 22 November 2023 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait
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Statue of Baron de Montesquieu in Bordeaux © Als33120/cc-by-a-4.0

Statue of Baron de Montesquieu in Bordeaux © Als33120/cc-by-a-4.0

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French judge, man of letters, historian, and political philosopher. He is the principal source of the theory of separation of powers, which is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He is also known for doing more than any other author to secure the place of the word despotism in the political lexicon. His anonymously published The Spirit of Law (1748), which was received well in both Great Britain and the American colonies, influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States in drafting the U.S. Constitution.

Montesquieu’s philosophy of history minimized the role of individual persons and events. He expounded the view in Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, that each historical event was driven by a principal movement:

It is not chance that rules the world. Ask the Romans, who had a continuous sequence of successes when they were guided by a certain plan, and an uninterrupted sequence of reverses when they followed another. There are general causes, moral and physical, which act in every monarchy, elevating it, maintaining it, or hurling it to the ground. All accidents are controlled by these causes. And if the chance of one battle—that is, a particular cause—has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle. In a word, the main trend draws with it all particular accidents.

In discussing the transition from the Republic to the Empire, he suggested that if Caesar and Pompey had not worked to usurp the government of the Republic, other men would have risen in their place. The cause was not the ambition of Caesar or Pompey, but the ambition of man.

Château de La Brède © Carole J.../cc-by-sa-3.0 Church of St. Sulpitius in Paris, resting place of Baron de Montesquieu © Zairon/cc-by-sa-4.0 Statue of Baron de Montesquieu in Bordeaux © Als33120/cc-by-a-4.0 Baron de Montesquieu, 1728 © Jacques-Antoine Dassier - Collection Chateau Versailles
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Church of St. Sulpitius in Paris, resting place of Baron de Montesquieu © Zairon/cc-by-sa-4.0
Montesquieu is credited as being among the progenitors, who include Herodotus and Tacitus, of anthropology—as being among the first to extend comparative methods of classification to the political forms in human societies. Indeed, the French political anthropologist Georges Balandier considered Montesquieu to be “the initiator of a scientific enterprise that for a time performed the role of cultural and social anthropology”. According to social anthropologist D. F. Pocock, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Law was “the first consistent attempt to survey the varieties of human society, to classify and compare them and, within society, to study the inter-functioning of institutions.” “Émile Durkheim”, notes David W. Carrithers, “even went so far as to suggest that it was precisely this realization of the interrelatedness of social phenomena that brought social science into being.” Montesquieu’s political anthropology gave rise to his influential view that forms of government are supported by governing principles: virtue for republics, honor for monarchies, and fear for despotisms. American founders studied Montesquieu’s views on how the English achieved liberty by separating executive, legislative, and judicial powers, and when Catherine the Great wrote her Nakaz (Instruction) for the Legislative Assembly she had created to clarify the existing Russian law code, she avowed borrowing heavily from Montesquieu’s Spirit of Law, although she discarded or altered portions that did not support Russia’s absolutist bureaucratic monarchy. Montesquieu’s most influential work divided French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. This was a radical idea because it does not follow the three Estates structure of the French Monarchy: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people at large represented by the Estates-General, thereby erasing the last vestige of a feudalistic structure. The theory of the separation of powers largely derives from The Spirit of Law:

In every state there are three kinds of power: the legislative authority, the executive authority for things that stem from the law of nations, and the executive authority for those that stem from civil law.

By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted. By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies, establishes the public security, and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call the judiciary power, and the other, simply, the executive power of the state.
-The Spirit of Law, XI, 6.

Montesquieu argues that each power should only exercise its own functions; he is quite explicit here:

When in the same person or in the same body of magistracy the legislative authority is combined with the executive authority, there is no freedom, because one can fear lest the same monarch or the same senate make tyrannical laws in order to carry them out tyrannically.

Again there is no freedom if the authority to judge is not separated from the legislative and executive authorities. If it were combined with the legislative authority, power over the life and liberty of the citizens would be arbitrary, for the judge would be the legislator. If it were combined with the executive authority, the judge could have the strength of an oppressor.

All would be lost if the same man or the same body of principals, or of nobles, or of the people, exercised these three powers: that of making laws, that of executing public resolutions, and that of judging crimes or disputes between individuals.
– The Spirit of Law, XI, 6.

If the legislative branch appoints the executive and judicial powers, as Montesquieu indicated, there will be no separation or division of its powers, since the power to appoint carries with it the power to revoke.

The executive authority must be in the hands of a monarch, for this part of the government, which almost always requires immediate action, is better administrated by one than by several, whereas that which depends on the legislative authority is often better organized by several than by one person alone.

If there were no monarch, and the executive authority were entrusted to a certain number of persons chosen from the legislative body, that would be the end of freedom, because the two authorities would be combined, the same persons sometimes having, and always in a position to have, a role in both.
-The Spirit of Law, XI, 6.

Montesquieu identifies three main forms of government, each supported by a social “principle”: monarchies (free governments headed by a hereditary figure, e.g. king, queen, emperor), which rely on the principle of honor; republics (free governments headed by popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (unfree), headed by despots which rely on fear. The free governments are dependent on constitutional arrangements that establish checks and balances. Montesquieu devotes one chapter of The Spirit of Law to a discussion of how the England’s constitution sustained liberty (XI, 6), and another to the realities of English politics (XIX, 27). As for France, the intermediate powers (including the nobility) the nobility and the parlements had been weakened by Louis XIV, and welcomed the strenthening of parlementary power in 1715. Montesquieu advocated reform of slavery in The Spirit of Law, specifically arguing that slavery was inherently wrong because all humans are born equal, but that it could perhaps be justified within the context of climates with intense heat, wherein laborers would feel less inclined to work voluntarily. As part of his advocacy he presented a satirical hypothetical list of arguments for slavery. In the hypothetical list, he’d ironically list pro-slavery arguments without further comment, including an argument stating that sugar would become too expensive without the free labor of slaves. While addressing French readers of his General Theory, John Maynard Keynes described Montesquieu as “the real French equivalent of Adam Smith, the greatest of your economists, head and shoulders above the physiocrats in penetration, clear-headedness and good sense (which are the qualities an economist should have).”

Read more on Wikipedia Montesquieu (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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