Montesquieu was a French political philosopher born in 1689 in the Bordeaux region of France. He is best known for his works The Persian Letters and The Spirit of the Laws. In the Persian Letters, Montesquieu writes about a traveling pair from Persia who try to understand the social customs of France and Europe, and how they differ from the way things are done in Persia. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu describes the different types of government: democracy, republic, monarchy and despotism, explaining their differences, and how they can be best structured. Like Locke, Montesquieu believed in the separation of powers, and he explains the importance of having a legislative, executive, and judiciary branch which check each other’s power. Montesquieu believed that different governments are appropriate for different people, and explains how things such as laws, education, and commerce can help ensure the various types of governments do not become corrupt. Montesquieu’s political philosophy would deeply influenced the writing of the United States constitution, as well as the constitutions of many other countries.
Montesquie first became famous with his literary work The Persian Letters. In the Letters, Montesquieu uses the characters Usbek and Rica, a traveling pair from Persia, to make observations about the social customs and political institutions of France and Europe. In this way, Montesquieu was both able to present his opinions about French society and government from an “outsider’s perspective,” as well present European readers with an imagined picture of the “exotic East.” In the Letters, Montesquieu explains that the best government is the one “which attains its purpose with the least trouble” and “controls men in the manner best adapted to their inclinations and desires.” He also warns about the dangers inherent in attempting legal reforms, stating that they should only be done when it is absolutely necessary, “in fear and trembling.” He uses the character Usbek’s harem in Persia as an example of despotism, describes what it means for a society to promote justice, and encourages the toleration of other religions.
The themes which Montesquieu introduced his readers to in the Persian Letters are picked up in his later more formal work of political philosophy The Spirit of the Laws. Here, Montesquieu explains that different laws have evolved in different countries based on the dispositions of the people, the climate, and the geography. Montesquieu is in favor of legal reform, and in particular making the laws of a country more liberal, but he cautions that one must understand why the laws are the way they are in the first place in order to be able to properly make the desired reforms. For example, although some people suggested that a weakened nobility would strengthen the power of a King, Montesquieu explains the importance of a strong nobility to check the King’s power in order to ensure the monarchy does not degenerate into tyrannical rule. Rather, Montesquieu suggests act such as promoting religious tolerance, abolishing slavery, and encouraging commerce will make a country strong.
Montesquieu explains that there are three types of government: a republic, a monarchy, and a despotism. Republics can either be democracies or aristocracies. In a democracy, the people are sovereign and they choose representatives to act on their behalf. Montesquieu explains that in a democracy, the primary political virtue is “the love of the laws and of our country.” The people must have deep admiration for the constitution upon which the country is founded, as well as the democratic institutions in place to make sure that the democracy runs efficiently, and that power does not rest in one person or group’s hands. He explains that democratic virtue isn’t natural, and therefore emphasizes the importance for a democratic country to educate its citizens as to the merits of this “unnatural self-renunciation.” Montesquieu also explains that a democracy works best when it encourages frugality and the property being equally distributed, because in this way people are not tempted to advance their own interests at the expense of the greater good.
In an aristocracy, one group of individuals is selected to rule for the best interest of everyone. Montesquieu explains that the principle which keeps aristocracies running smoothly is moderation, for it keeps those that have been selected to rule from abusing their position of power. The laws in an aristocracy, therefore, should encourage moderation and discourage the nobility from taking advantage of the people through measures such as taxation. Furthermore, Montesquieu explains that it is best if the differences between the nobility and the people are disguised as much as possible, that way “the people are apt to forget their subjection and weakness.” Without moderation, the ruling class may oppress the people, or constantly fight with one another for ever-increasing power, in either case corrupting the integrity of the state.
A monarchy is when one person rules according to “fixed and established laws.” Montesquieu explains that laws, as well as independent institutions to make sure these laws are upheld, are important because they keep the monarch from ruling on the basis of his own will. Montesquieu explains, “if there be only the momentary and capricious will of a single person to govern the state, nothing can be fixed, and, of course, there is no fundamental law.” The accountability of the king to the laws of the land is what distinguishes a monarchy from a despotism. Montesquieu says that the fundamental principle of a monarchy is honor, since it gives people something to aspire to, whether it’s their personal sense of self-worth, or their desire to serve their king.
In contrast to democracies, aristocracies, and monarchies, in a despotism there is no rule of law. Rather, a tyrant is able to do as he pleases. Montesquieu explains that in a tyranny, such as the harem described in The Persian Letters, the people are like slaves. The despot can do what he wants with them. There is no one to check his power. Montesquieu says therefore that the fundamental principle of a despotism is fear. The people live in a constant state of fear, and all honor and virtue is discouraged. Montesquieu writes that “Fear must therefore depress their spirits, and extinguish even the least sense of ambition” and that their “portion here, like that of beasts, is instinct, compliance, and punishment.”
Montesquieu explains that whether a republic or monarchy, any form of government can be corrupted. A democracy becomes corrupt either when the people are taken over by “the spirit of inequality” or “the spirit of extreme equality.” When the spirit of inequality takes hold, the people no longer identify their interests with that of the country, and therefore choose to do what’s in their best interest regardless of the consequences. When the spirit of extreme equality exists, the people no longer want to just be citizens, but to be equal to the ruling class. Montesquieu writes, the people “want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges.” Either way, because the fundamental principle of identifying one’s private interests with the public good no longer holds, the integrity of the state is compromised.
Likewise, an aristocracy becomes threatened when it’s principle, moderation, is lost. The nobles become greedy, abusing the people and each other. When this happens, it’s only a matter of time when the whole system will collapse. Similarly, a monarchy is threatened when honor is disregarded. Without honor, the people no longer are proud to be ruled by their king. This is why a king must not encourage those who act dishonorably. A monarchy will also become threatened when the king himself does not honor the people, either by disregarding the institutions designed to check his powers and ruling based on his own capricious will, or by having them destroyed. For these reasons, it is of the utmost importance that whether a democracy, aristocracy, or republic, a government follows laws, has institutions to keep a balance of power, and encourage the appropriate virtues.
Montesquieu explains that it is of particular importance that democracies, aristocracies, and monarchies do what they can to prevent corruption, since once corrupted it is far easier for a despotism to come to power than a new constitutional form of government. Unlike a republic or a monarchy, a despotism rules by sheer force, terrorizing the people. Institutions are unnecessary to check his power, and laws are meaningless. While constitutional forms of government can become tyrannical when corrupted, Montesquieu points out that despotisms are corrupt by their very nature. For this reason, a tyrant’s life is constantly threatened, and he is no more secure than the people.
Liberty, for Montesquieu, is conceived of as the “tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety.” Liberty is therefore not the ability to do whatever one wants, but rather the freedom from oppression which comes from living in a land where laws are upheld. Montesquieu explains that by having a legislative, executive and judiciary branch which check each other’s power, this ensures that the laws will be upheld. For example, Montesquieu suggests the legislative power should be the only branch of government that can tax the people, that way it is able to deprive the executive branch funds if it is getting out of control. He will also propose that the executive branch be able to veto legislation, that the legislative branch be comprised of two houses, and that there is a judiciary which is limited to making decisions on particular cases. All of these suggestions were integrated into the fabric of the US Constitution.
Religion, which concerns private affairs, should not be tied with government, which is concerned with matters of a public nature. Laws should therefore not be created to persecute this or that religious group. Laws should only be created when there is a threat to the security of people and the proper functioning of society. Montesquieu explains that unnecessary laws should not be made, laws should be clearly defined, and people should not have to be concerned about breaking a law by accident. Furthermore, Montesquieu opposed laws which concerned people’s thoughts rather than their actions, like witchcraft, or which can’t easily be proved, like sodomy. Having been trained in law himself, in The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu explains exactly why laws are good, how they can be enforced, and which laws should or shouldn’t be created in the first place.
In addition to laws, Montesquieu was also a proponent of commerce. He explains that things such as plundering or mining for gold or silver are actually not the best ways of improving the economy. While in ransacking another country, one initially acquires new resources, Montesquieu explains this is itself an expensive venture since it requires maintaining the occupying army as well as administering over the conquered people. Likewise, mining for precious metals results in inflation. In contrast, Montesquieu explains that commerce greatly benefits a country’s economy. In addition to encouraging industry, it also promotes virtue. Montesquieu writes, “the spirit of commerce is naturally attended with that of frugality, economy, moderation, labor, prudence, tranquility, order, and rule.” He encourages moderate taxation so that people are still encouraged to work hard, international markets which allow the value of commodities and money to exist beyond the control of a particular government, and enough freedom in the laws to allow people to freely engage in trade.
In his understanding of governmental forms, institutions, laws, religious toleration, liberty and commerce, Montesquieu has deeply influenced philosophy, political thought and economic thought in the West. Along with Locke, Montesquieu’s thoughts on society, government, and politics deeply influenced thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and form the basis of the US Constitution as well as the constitutions, governments, and political institutions of many other countries. And as a writer, The Persian Letters is recognized as one of the great pieces of French literature.