Charles Louis de Montesquieu

Montesquieu

Modern philosophy

Montesquieu was a French philosopher of the 18th century (1689-1755). He is known for his work The Spirit of the Laws, but also Persian Letters. Born at the Château de la Brède, near Bordeaux, he became a councillor in the Bordeaux parliament. An inheritance enabled him to leave his position as soon as he could, and he developed a passion for science, politics and philosophy. However, his works, praised throughout Europe, were placed on the Index. He began contributing to the Encyclopédie shortly before his death.


Montesquieu's works summarised on this site

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The Spirit of the Laws

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu identifies the different types of government (monarchy, aristocracy, republic...) and shows which type of law corresponds to each


Bibliography

Here are the essential books if you wish to gain a better understanding of this author's thought:

Paul A. Rahe, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Keegan Callanan, Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Sharon R. Krause, The Rule of Law in Montesquieu, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Keegan Callanan and Sharon Ruth Krause (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Montesquieu, Cambridge University Press, 2023.
Vickie B. Sullivan, Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe: an interpretation of "The Spirit of the laws", University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Recommended videos

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Biography: life of Montesquieu

Youth

Charles Louis de Montesquieu was born in 1689 at the Château de la Brède in Gironde, near Bordeaux, into a family belonging to the noblesse de robe. His mother died when he was seven years old.

He was educated at Juilly, in Seine et Marne, then at the Collège d'Harcourt in Paris.

In 1708, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law in Bordeaux. After obtaining his law degree, he became a lawyer. He settled in Paris and frequented intellectual circles.


When his father died in 1713, he inherited the château of la Brède.

At the age of twenty-five, he was appointed councillor to the Parliament of Bordeaux. A year later, in 1715, he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a marriage that provided him with a substantial dowry.

On the death of his uncle, he inherited a real fortune, as well as the title of Baron de Montesquieu and the office of President à mortier of the Bordeaux Parliament, which he eventually sold, to pay off debts.

He wrote his first work of political philosophy: Dissertation On The Policy Of The Romans In Religious Matters. This first essay, with no real depth, went unnoticed.

Success

Portrait of Montesquieu
Portrait of Montesquieu

He first became interested in the sciences and carried out a few experiments; he was elected to the Bordeaux Academy of Sciences. He wrote works on physics and medicine.

His literary temperament then took over, and at the age of 32 he wrote the Persian Letters, which appeared anonymously in Amsterdam in 1721. The work met with great success, and he was soon recognised as its author.

This opened the doors of the Parisian salons to him. He stayed in the capital for seven years.


Elected to the Académie française, he began to travel throughout Europe: Austria, Germany, Italy... He resided for a year and a half in England, where he was initiated into Freemasonry.


He studied the various political, economic and other aspects of the countries he visited. This gave him the material to write his Reflections on the Causes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, a monumental work that tells the story of the Roman Empire, from its foundation to its fall.

Beyond that, he planned to write a much more important work.


It would take him fourteen years to write it. In 1748, he put the finishing touches to his fundamental work: The Spirit of Laws.

It was published, again anonymously, in Geneva, a free country where there was less censorship than in France.

It was a huge success: the book was immediately translated into every language and there were twenty-two editions in eighteen months.

However, Montesquieu suffered numerous attacks, which led him to write a Defense of The Spirit of Law. This was not enough to prevent the book from being banned by the Catholic Church, which put it on the Index. The Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne censured 17 propositions contained in this work.

The Spirit of Laws had a profound influence on the thinking of its time. For example, several decades later, the drafters of the Constitution of 1791 would draw inspiration from its ideas, in particular the famous separation of the three powers (executive, legislative and judicial) which would define the democratic regime.

End of life

Montesquieu continued his travels throughout Europe: Hungary, Austria, Italy, etc. He was appointed director of the Académie française.

Almost blind, he takes part in the project of the Encyclopaedia, and thus gives it the fame attached to his name. He was responsible for writing the "taste" article, but died before he could complete it; it was finished by Voltaire.


He devoted the last years of his life to rereading and correcting certain passages of The Spirit of Laws.

In 1755, he died of a high fever and was buried in the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris.

Main works

Persian Letters
Reflections on the Causes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Spirit of Laws