Charles-Louis de Secondat, aka Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu or Baron de Montesquieu, was a great French philosopher. Born at Chateau de la Brede in Aquitaine, France on 18th January, 1689, Montesquieu graduated from College of Juilly and Académie Française. Montesquieu grew up to become an author, jurist, political and social commentator. Through each of those roles that he donned, he left an unparallel philosophical imprint.
Montesquieu was born in an extremely interesting era. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the time when people across the world were experimenting with new ideas of governance. Freedom from monarchies and the need for the general people to have the power of governance were the seeds being sowed across Europe and the New World. Montesquieu was one of the principal thinkers of the era and helped shape the minds of innumerable people, including those who drafted the constitution of the United States.
1. A Brilliant Mind
Montesquieu studied sciences, literature and classical education. He attended the University of Bordeaux and studied law. He moved to Paris and started practicing. He became a councilor in the Bordeaux Parliament, got appraised to become the deputy president and attained an enviable social status. He was born to prosperous parents but he also managed to amass substantial wealth of his own in Paris.
2. The Spirit of the Laws
Very few authors have such a universal and philosophical impact on the world which doesn’t just change some people but leads to the evolution of governance, laws and eventually affects billions of people. Montesquieu started as writer with ‘Persian Letters’. It was published in 1721. The political and social satire highlighting the then French society was praised by the critics of the era. Over the next few years, Montesquieu published ‘Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate’, ‘Reflexionssur la MonarchieUniverselle’ and ‘Le Temple de Gnide’.
Those were minor works that did not have much of an impact. By 1725, he chose to relinquish his political appointments. He was already representing the Academy of Bordeaux and the parliament. He resigned and left France to travel to Germany. He explored Italy, Austria and also traveled to England. He was influenced by the English political system. Upon his return to France in 1731, he started working on ‘The Spirit of the Laws’.
In three years, he published ‘Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans’ in Holland and did so anonymously. He did not publish ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ in France until 1748. He was already mired in controversies by then so anonymity was more of a compulsion and not a choice. He further came out with ‘Défense de L’Esprit des Lois’ in 1750 that defended the contents of ‘The Spirit of the Laws’.
By 1751, ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ was banned by the Roman Catholic Church and was listed on the ‘Index of Forbidden Books’.
3. Political and Philosophical Influence
Baron de Montesquieu did not scale the echelons of political power and he did not become a very successful author financially. He had his endorsers or fans and he had his detractors and critics. With the church against him and many contemporary political influencers not in favor, Montesquieu did not have any clout of significance. But his works had a political and philosophical influence. ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ spoke of separation of powers.
Today, all democracies have executives, legislature, judiciary and an independent, free media. Some countries have executives or legislature interfering in the judiciary and vice versa but that is much fairer than having one opaque body of governors or lawmakers having absolute power. The U.S constitution and later the English governance system were both inspired by the ‘separation of powers’. All his works are considered scholarly in context of the Age of Enlightenment, which was the cultural movement in the 18th century. It was a time when reasoning was championed as a way of validating any thought, fact or reality. ‘Persian Letters’, ‘Defense de L’Esprit des Lois’, ‘Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate’, ‘Le Temple de Gnide’ and ‘Reflexionssur la MonarchieUniverselle’ are all considered today to be scholarly works of Montesquieu.
4. The Legacy
Baron de Montesquieu inspired the likes of David Hume, a Scottish philosopher; Thomas Paine, an English-American political activist; Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker and Hannah Arendt, a political theorist. Montesquieu advocated for political freedom of thought and expression.
Baron de Montesquieu died at the age of sixty six leaving behind an unfinished draft of ‘Encyclopedie of Diderot and D’Alembert’. His notebook entries dating from 1720 to 1755 have been compiled and published in a book called ‘Mes Pensees’. The book is available in English as ‘My Thoughts’. Today, Baron de Montesquieu is not only considered as one of the greatest philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment but one of the greatest of all time.