22 Sep

Biography :

Charles- Louis de Secondat was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1689 to a wealthy family.Despite his family's wealth, de Secondat was placed in the care of a poor family during his childhood. He later went to college and studied science and history, eventually becoming a lawyer in the local government. De Secondat's father died in 1713 and he was placed under the care of his uncle, Baron de Montesquieu The Baron died in 1716 and left de Secondat's his fortune, his office as president of the Bordeaux Parliament, and his title of Baron de Montesquieu. Later, he was a member of the Bordeaux and French Academies of Science and studied the laws and customs and govemments of the countries of Europe. He gained fame in 1721 with his Persian Letters, which criticized the lifestyle and liberties of the wealthy French as well as the church.

However, Montesquieu's book On the Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, was his most famous work. It outlined his ideas on how government would best work. Montescquieu died of a fever in Paris on February 10, 1755.

Introduction :

Montesquieu political philosophy was affected by the spirit of rational liberty, which characterized French thought in his days. His philosophy represented a reaction against the absolution and general conditions prevailing in the age of Louis XIV. The best of his publications are :

  •  Persian Letters
  • Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of Romans and their Decline
  • The Spirit of Laws

The Persian Letters of Montesquieu was a brilliant satire on the existing political religious and social institutions in France.

Montesquieu visited England. His philosophy was influenced by the liberty of Englishmen and the working of English constitutional machinery. It was the study of the Roman history and of contemporary English institution, which determined the purpose as well as the content of Montesquieu political philolosophy. These two sources gave him the conception of liberty, which forms the control scheme of speculations.

Relativity of Human Institution :

There is both uniformity and diversity of behaviour in the world. There is divert on the surface but beneath the surface, there is uniformity of behavior provided by the laws of nature.Uniformity is provided by the universal law of self-preservation, and diversity by the variety in customs, conventions, moral codes and institutions arising out of differences in environment,climate, soil and genius of the people, etc.

Laws are any necessary relations arising from a thing's nature. In this sense all beings have their laws. The material world has its laws, the beasts their laws, man his laws... Before these laws were there man was guided by the laws of nature. The first law of nature enjoined on him; the necessity of self-preservation, peace and security.

Montesquieu on Kinds of Law :

To Montesquieu man in the state of nature was a timid creature. He was not an intelligent creature as Locke conceived him to be nor a wilful brute of Hobbes.  He followed the laws of nature with the formation of societies and increase in knowledge, man lost his timidity and equality sought for dominion over others and inaugurated a state of war. There began a conflict the positive in two directions, i.e. between individuals and human societies. This gave rise to the  positive laws which which are of three types corresponding  to the three sets of relations. Relations between nation and nation (law of nations), between ruler and ruled in society (political law), and between individual citizens belonging to a community (civil law). The 'law of nations is common to all nations but the political and 'civil' laws vary with different nations.


Montesquieu repudiated the contractual theory of the origins of the state. The state was not a result of a contract between individuals. It was product of environment and was organic notconventional in nature.

He classifies governments as ;

Monarchy : which represents the rule of an individual based on law.

Despotism : meaning the rule of an individual without law.

Republic : which could be further classified into aristocracy and democracy as aristocratic or democratic republic.

Basic principles of Government :

The classification of Government of Montesquieu is based partly on the number of those  who told political power and partly on the manner in which that power is exercised. Montesquieu attaches more importance to the principle on which a government is based to its nature. By nature he means the peculiar structure and the location and manner of exercise of the sovereign power, while by the principle of a government Montesquieu means the human passions which make it act. Montesquieu assigned a particular basic principle  to every form of government.

Montesquieu was so obsessed with liberty that he practically ignored the concept of sovereignty.

Virtue of a Government :

Montesquieu believed that no type of government was inherently good or bad in itself. The goodness and badness of a govemment was relative. A form of government suiting one set of conditions would be bad in a different environment.

Form of a Government: Religion and size of the state :

According to Montesquieu, certain religions have a definite affinity for certain types of govenment.

Small size: Moderate: Big size republication form monarchy must have despotic govermment.

Change of size was attained with the change in the type of government. Real democracy was only possible in a small city- state. France in Montesquieu times was too large for a republic and Monarchy would suit her best. Since a large state must have a despotic government. which he declared to be the worse form of government. Montesquieu unlike Machiavelli was against a policyof expansion and aggrandizement. To prevent small states from being absorbed by the bigger ones he favoured the principle of Federation as was adopted by Americans. Division power in Federation ensured liberty, which Montesquieu valued so highly.

Concept of Liberty :

The most significant of the political contributions of Montesquieu is his conception of liberty which  pervades through his The Spirit of Laws. Liberty may be conceived in absolute or relative sense. Absolute liberty is the unrestricted liberty of the individual to do what he is pleased to do. Whereas relative liberty, which alone is a rational form of liberty is the equal liberty of all tothat which is not forbidden by law. Montesquieu sharply distinguished political liberty civil or individual liberty.

To Montesquieu, political liberty connected a relation between the subiect and the state. It means the right of doing all that the law permits. If an individual violated law he could not retain liberty, because then everybody would be liberty for none. Political liberty is to be gained by conforming to laws and not by violating them. It means freedom of action in accordance with and under the protection of the laws. It follows naturally that if in a state an individual or a body of individuals are above the laws, there can be no liberty.


Liberty lies in subjection to law instead of subjection to persons, secured best by separation of powers. Montesquieu subjected the constitution of England to a critical examination with a view to finding out a machinery of government which would best ensure liberty. He began by pointing out that liberty was possible in a country where all parts of government were subject to law and control. He found in the separation of the three powers of government, ie. executive,legislature and judicial the best guarantee for liberty.

If the legislative power is united with the executive power in the hands of one person or of one body of officials, there can be no liberty: nor can there be any liberty if the power of judge is not separated from the legislative and executive powers.

Montesquieu instance on the separation of powers was his main contribution to political philosophy and this instance was no lost sight of when the constitution in USA and revolutionary France were framed.

Montesquieu distinguished between political and civil liberty. The later grows out of relative between man and man is against slavery. To him, the system of slavery, founded on a conception of inequality of men was in human. Superiority of one people to another was no justification for slavery. He would not allow prisoners of wars (POWs) to be reduced to slaves. Slavery violated the law of nature according to which all men are born equal. Montesquieu even suggested an international convention for the purpose of stopping slave trade.

Influence of Physical Phenomena on National Life :

Montesquieu dilated on the influence of physical environment on the social, economic,religious and political institutions of a country. Intellect and passions of nations vary according to climate. People of cold climate are restless and irritable and independent in spirit. Then again from different wants in different climates arise different ways of living and these different ways of living result in different kinds of laws. According to Montesquieu, there is a direct relation between climate and liberty. To Montesquieu, the English constitution is primarily the result of English clmate, Hot climate breeds despotism and slavery. The cold climate, as of Europe makes for the virtues ofstrength, self-reliance and frankness and these virtues produce political and civil liberty.

Geography plays an important role in the formation of national institution You will have liberty in the hills while are difficult of cultivation as well as of conquest, and despotism in the plains which are more easily cultivable and conquerable. Again, the larger the area of the smaller the chance of a constitutional government and political liberty there.  Montesquieu hated religious cruelty and favored religious toleration.

State and the church :

Montesquieu was strongly secular in his attitude towards the church. He was for a national and not for a universal Christian church. Montesquieu, like Machiavell, thought of the church as a department of the state. He considered the power of the church very useful for the state and also for the people. The church strengthened the government as well as ensures liberty to the people by opposing arbitrariness of the government.

Conclusion :

Montesquieu pointed out that history was not merely a record of facts but a study of causes and relations. He changed not only the method but also the ideals of history and political philosophy. Montesquieu cared little for the dogma of natural rights.

Rather neglected in his own country, he was deeply respected elsewhere. He was read and admired in England and USA. The framers of the constitution of America learnt from him the extreme advisability of brining about the separation of powers.

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