1902 Encyclopedia > Montesquieu

(Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu )
French social commentator and political thinker

MONTESQUIEU. CHARLES LOUIS DE SECONDAT, BARON DE LA BREDE ET DE MONTESQUIEU (1689-1755), philosophical historian, was born at the chateau of La Brède, about 10 miles to the south-east of Bordeaux, in January 1689 (the exact date being unknown), and was baptized on the 18th of that month. His mother was Marie Françoise de Penel, the heiress of a Gascon-English family. She had brought La Brède as a dowry to his father, Jacques de Secondât, a mem-ber of a good if not extremely ancient house, which seems first to have risen to importance in the early days of the 16th century. The title of Montesquieu came from his uncle, Jean Baptiste de Secondât, " président à mortier " in the parliament of Bordeaux,—an important office, which, as well as his title, he left to his nephew. Montesquieu was in his youth known as M. de la Brède. His mother died when he was seven years old, and when he was eleven he was sent to the Oratorian school of Juilly, near Meaux, where he stayed exactly five years, and where, as well as afterwards at Bor-deaux, he was thoroughly educated. The family had long been connected with the law, and Montesquieu was destined for that profession. He was made to work hard at it not-withstanding his prospects (for his uncle's office was his by reversion) ; but, as in his later life, he seems to have tempered much study with not a little society. His father died in 1713, and a year later Montesquieu, or, as he should at this time strictly be called, La Brède, was admitted coun-sellor of the parliament. In little more than another twelve-month he married Jeanne Lartigue, an heiress and the daughter of a knight of the order of St Louis, but plain, somewhat ill-educated, and a Protestant. Montesquieu does not seem to have made the slightest pretence of affection or fidelity towards his wife—things which, indeed, the times did not demand ; but there is every reason to believe that they lived on perfectly good terms. Like the three previous years, 1716 was an eventful one to him ; for his uncle died, leaving him his name, his important judicial office, and his whole fortune. He thus became one of the richest and most influential men in the district. He continued to hold his presidency for twelve years, in the course of which he had much judicial work to perforin, as well as the nonde-script administrative functions which under the old regime fell to the provincial parliaments. He was none the less addicted to society, and he took no small part in the pro-ceedings of the Bordeaux Academy, to which he contributed papers on philosophy, politics, and natural science. He also wrote much less serious things, and it was during the earlier years of his presidency that he finished, if he did not begin, the Lettres Persanes. They were completed before 1721, and appeared in that year anonymously, with Cologne on the title-page, but they were really printed and published at Amsterdam. This celebrated book (the original notion of which is generally set down to a work of Dufresny, the comic author, but which is practically original) would have been surprising enough as coming from a magistrate of the highest dignity in any other time than in the regency of the duke of Orleans, and even as it was it rather scandalized the graver among Montesquieu's contemporaries. In the guise of letters written by and to two Persians of distinction travelling in Europe, Montesquieu not only satirized un-mercifully the social, political, ecclesiastical, and literary follies of his day in France, but indulged in a great deal of the free writing (so free as very nearly to deserve the term licentious) which was characteristic of the tale-tellers of the time. But what scandalized grave and precise readers naturally attracted the majority, and the Lettres Persanes were very popular, passing, it is said, through four editions within the year, besides piracies. Then the vogue suddenly ceased, or at least editions ceased for nearly nine years to appear. It is said that a formal ministerial prohibition was the cause of this, and it is not improbable ; for, though the regent and Dubois must have enjoyed the book thoroughly, they were both shrewd enough to perceive that underneath its playful exterior there lay a spirit of very inconvenient criticism of abuses in church and state. The fact is that the Lettres Persanes is the first book of what is called the Philosophe movement. The criticism is scarcely yet aggressive, much less destructive, and in Montesquieu's hands it never became so ; but what it might become in the hands of others was obvious enough. It is this pre-cursorship in his own special line which in all probability made Voltaire so jealous of Montesquieu, as well as the advantage which a wealthy and well-born noble of high official position had over himself. It is amusing to find Voltaire describing the Lettres as a "trumpery book," a " book which anybody might have written easily." It is not certain that, in its peculiar mixture of light badinage with not merely serious purpose but gentlemanlike modera-tion, Voltaire could have written it himself, and it is certain that no one else at that time could. The reputa-tion acquired by this book brought Montesquieu much into the literary society of the capital, and he composed for, or at any rate contributed to, one of the coteries of the day the clever but rather rhetorical Dialogue de Si/lla et d'Eucrate, in which the dictator gives an apology for his conduct. For Mademoiselle de Clermont, a lady of royal blood, a great beauty and a favourite queen of society, he wrote the curious prose poem of the Temple de Guide. This is half a narrative, half an allegory, in the semi-classical or rather pseudo-classical taste of the time, decidedly frivolous and dubiously moral, but of no small elegance in its peculiar style. A later jeu d'esprit of the same kind, which is almost but not quite certainly Montesquieu's, is the Voyage à Paphos, in which his warmest admirers have found little to praise. In 1725 Montesquieu was elected a member of the Academy, but an almost obsolete rule requiring residence in Paris was appealed to, and the election was annulled. It is doubtful whether a hankering after Parisian society, or an ambition to belong to the Academy, or a desire to devote himself to literary pursuits of greater importance, or simple weariness of not wholly congenial work determined him to give up his Bordeaux office ; it is certain that he continued to hold it but a short time after this. It is tolerably clear that he had already begun his great work, and the character of some papers which, about this time, he read at the Bordeaux Academy is graver and less purely curious than his earlier contributions. In 1726 he sold the life tenure of his office, reserving the reversion for his son, and went to live in the capital, returning, however, for half of each year to La Brède. There was now no further formal obstacle to his reception in the Académie Française, but a new one arose. Ill-wishers had brought the Lettres Persanes specially under the minister Fleury's attention, and Fleury, a precisian in many ways, was shocked by them. There are various accounts of the way in which the difficulty was got over, but all seem to agree that Montesquieu made concessions which were more effectual than dignified. He was elected and received in January 1728. Almost immediately after-wards he started on a tour through Europe to observe men, things, and constitutions. He travelled through Austria to Hungary, but was unable to visit Turkey as he had proposed. Then he made for Italy, where he met Chesterfield. They sojourned together at Venice for some time, and a curious story is told of the way in which either a piece of mischief on Chesterfield's part, or Montesquieu's own nervousness and somewhat inordinate belief in his own importance, made the latter sacrifice his Venetian notes. At Venice, and elsewhere in Italy, he remained nearly a year, and then journeyed by way of Piedmont and the Rhine to England. Here he stayed for some eighteen months, and acquired an admiration for English character and polity which never, afterwards deserted him. He returned, not to Paris, but to La Brede, and to outward appearance might have seemed to be settling down as a squire. He altered his park in the English fashion, made sedulous inquiries into his own genealogy, arranged an entail, asserted, though not harshly, his seignorial rights, kept poachers in awe, and so forth. Nor did he neglect his fortune, but, on the contrary, improved his estates in every way, though he met with much opposition, partly from the dislike of his tenants to new-fangled ways, and partly from the insane economic regulations of the time, which actually prohibited the planting of fresh vineyards.

Although, however, Montesquieu was enough of a grand seigneur to be laughed at, and enough of a careful steward of his goods to be reviled for avarice, by those of his con-temporaries who did not like him, these matters by no means engrossed or even chiefly occupied his thoughts. In his great study at La Brede (a hall rather than a study, some 60 feet long by 40 wide) he was constantly dic-tating, making abstracts, revising essays, and in other ways preparing his great book. Like some other men of letters, though perhaps no other has had the experience in quite the same degree, he found himself a little hampered by his earlier work. He may have thought it wise to soften the transition from the Lettres Persanes to the Esprit des Lois, by interposing a publication graver than the former and less elaborate than the latter. He had always, as indeed was the case with most Frenchmen of his century, been interested in ancient Rome and her history; and he had composed not a few minor tractates on the subject, of which many titles and some examples remain, besides the already-mentioned dialogue on Sylla. All these now took form in the Considerations sur les Causes de la Grandeur et la Decadence des Romains, which appeared in 1734 at Amsterdam, without the author's name. This, however, was perfectly well known ; indeed, Montesquieu formally presented a copy to the French Academy. Anonymity of title-pages was a fashion of the day which meant nothing. The book was not extraordinarily popular in France at the time. The author's reputation as a jester stuck to him, and the salons affected to consider the Lettres Persanes and the new book respectively as the "grandeur" and the "decadence de M. de Montesquieu;" but more serious readers at once perceived its extraordinary merit, and it was eagerly read abroad. A copy of it exists or existed which had the singular fortune to be annotated by Frederick the Great, and to be abstracted from the Potsdam library by Napoleon. It is said, moreover, by competent authorities to have been the most enduringly popular and the most widely read of all its author's works in his own country, and it has certainly been the most frequently and carefully edited. Its merits are indeed undeniable. Merely scholastic criticism may of course object to it, as to every other book of the time, the absence of the exactness of modern critical inquiry into the facts of history; but this is only a new example of a frequent ignoratio elenchi. The virtue of Montesquieu's book is not in its facts but in its vieAvs. It is (putting Bossuet and Vico aside) almost the first important essay in the philosophy of history. The point of view is entirely different from that of Bossuet, and it seems entirely improbable that Montesquieu knew anything of Vico. In the Grandeur et Decadence the characteristics of the Esprit des Lois appear with the neces-sary subordination to a narrower subject. Two things are especially noticeable in it: a peculiarity of style, and a peculiarity of thought. The style has a superficial defect which must strike every one, and which was not overlooked by those who were jealous of Montesquieu at the time. The page is broken up into short paragraphs of but a few lines each, which look very ugly, which irritate the reader by breaking the sense, and which prepare him to expect an undue and ostentatious sententiousness. The blemish, however, is chiefly mechanical, and, though no editor has hitherto had the perhaps improper audacity so to do, it would be perfectly possible to obliterate it without changing a word. On the other hand, the merits of the expression are very great. It is grave and destitute of ornament, but extraordinarily luminous and full of what would be called epigram, if the word epigram had not a certain connotation of flippancy about it. It is a very short book; for, printed in large type with tolerably abundant notes, it fills but two hundred pages in the last edition of Montesquieu's works. But no work of the century, except Turgot's second Sorbonne Discourse, contains, in proportion to its size, more weighty and original thought on historical subjects, while Montesquieu has over Turgot the immense advantage of style.

Although, however, this ballon d'essai, in the style of his great work, may be said to have been successful, and though much of that work was, as we have seen, in all probability already composed, Montesquieu was in no hurry to publish it. He went on "cultivating the garden" diligently both as a student and as an improving landowner. He had lawsuits, sometimes on his own account, sometimes on that of others, and in one case he won from the city of Bordeaux no less than eleven hundred arpents of, it is true, the un-productive landes of the country. He is said to have begun a history of Louis XL, and there is a story that it was completed but burnt by mistake. He wrote the sketch of Lysimaque for Stanislaus Leczinski; he published new and final editions of the Temple de Gnide, of the Lettres Persanes, of Sylla et Eucrate (which indeed had never been published, properly speaking). After allowing the Grandeur et Decadence to be reprinted without alterations some half dozen times, he revised and corrected it. He also took great pains with the education of his son Charles and his daughter Denise, of whom he was extremely fond. He frequently visited Paris, where his favourite resorts were the salons of Madame de Tencin and Madame d'Aiguillon. But all the time he must have been steadily working at his book, indeed, a contemporary accuses him of having only gone into society to pick up materials for it. But it seems that he did not begin the final task of composition till 1743. Two years of uninterrupted work at La Bréde finished the greater part of it, and two more the rest. It was finally published at Geneva in the autumn of 1748, in two volumes quarto. The publication was, however, pre-ceded by one of those odd incidents which in literature illus-trate Olive's well-known saying about courts-martial in war. Montesquieu summoned a committee of friends, according to a very common practice, to hear and give an opinion on his work. It was an imposing and certainly not an unfriendly one, consistingof Hénault, Helvétius, the financier Silhouette, the dramatist Saurin, Crébillon the younger, and lastly, Fontenelle,—in fact, all sorts and conditions of literary men. The members of this eminently competent tribunal unanimously, though for different reasons and in different forms of expression, advised the author not to publish a book which has been recently described by a judge of certainly not less competence as "one of the most important books ever written," and which, when importance of matter and excellence of manner are jointly considered, may be almost certainly ranked as the greatest book of the French 18th century.

Montesquieu, of course, did not take his friends' advice. In such cases no man ever does, and in this case it was certainly fortunate. The Esprit des Lois represents the reflexions of a singularly clear, original, and comprehensive mind, cor-rected by forty years' study of men and books, arranged in accordance with a long deliberated plan, and couched in language of remarkable freshness and idiosyncrasy. The title has been somewhat cavilled at, and, like that of the Considérations, it gave a handle to the somewhat malicious frivolity of the salons. But if it had been preserved in full it would have escaped much of the criticism which it has received. In the original editions it runs L'Esprit des Lois : ou du Rapport que les Lois doivent avoir avec la Constitution de chaque Gouvernement, les Mœurs, le Climat, la Religion, le Commerce, etc. It consists of thirty-one books, which in some editions are grouped in six parts. This division into parts is known to have entered into the author's original plan, but he seems to have changed his mind about it. Speaking summarily, the first part, containing eight books, deals with law in general and with forms of government ; the second, containing five, with military arrangements, with taxation, &c. ; the third, containing six, with manners and customs, and their dependence on climatic conditions ; the fourth, containing four, with eco-nomic matters ; and the fifth, containing three, with religion. The last five books, forming a kind of supplement, deal specially with Boman, French, and feudal law. The most noteworthy peculiarity of the book to a cursory reader lies in the section dealing with effects of climate, and this indeed was almost the only characteristic which the vulgar took in, probably because it was easily susceptible of parody and reductio ad absurdum. But this theory is but the least part of the claims of the book to attention. Its vast and careful collection of facts, the novelty and brilliancy of the generalizations founded on them, the constructive spirit which penetrates it, its tolerance, its placid wisdom lighted up by vivacious epigram, could only escape the most careless reader. The singular spirit of moderation which distinguishes its views on politics and religion was indeed rather against it than in its favour in France, and Helvétius, who was as outspoken as he was good-natured, had definitely assigned this as the reason of his unfavourable judgment. On the other hand, if not destructive it was sufficiently critical, and it thus raised enemies on more than one side. Montesquieu was thought too English in his ideas by some, the severe defenders of orthodoxy considered him latitudinarian, and one zealous Jansenist informed him that he was "a pig." It was long suspected, but is now positively known, that the book (not altogether with the goodwill of the pope) was put on the Index, and the Sorbonne projected, though it did not carry out, a regular censure. To all these ob-jectors the author replied in a masterly défense ; and there seems to be no foundation for the late and scandalous stories which represent him as having used Madame de Pompadour's influence to suppress criticism. The fact was that, after the first snarlings of envy and incompetence had died away, he had little occasion to complain. Even Voltaire, who was his decided enemy, was forced at length to speak in public, if not in private, complimentarily of the Esprit, and from all parts of Europe the news of success arrived.

Montesquieu enjoyed his triumph rather at La Brède than at Paris. He was becoming an old man, and, unlike. Fontenelle, he does not seem to have preserved in old age the passion for society which had marked his youth. A rather dubious description, published long after his death, repre-sents him as " wandering in his woods from morn to night with a white cotton nightcap on his head, and a vine prop on his shoulder." This, in the florid language of its time (the Republican period), is probably only an imaginative expression of his known interest in managing his estate. But he certainly spent much of his later years in the country, though he sometimes visited Paris, and on one visit had the opportunity, which he is likely to have en-joyed, of procuring the release of his admirer La Beaumelle from an imprisonment which La Beaumelle had suffered at the instance of Voltaire. He is said also to have been instrumental in obtaining a pension for Piron. Indeed, indigent or unlucky men of letters found in him a constant protector, and that not merely at the royal expense. Nor did he by any means neglect literary composition. The curious little romance of Arsace et Ismênie, a short and unfinished treatise on Taste, many of his published Pensées, and much unpublished matter date from the period subsequent to the Esprit des Lois. He did not, however, live many years after the appearance of his great work. At the end of 1754 he visited Paris, with the intention of getting rid of the lease of his house there and finally retiring to La Brède. He was shortly after taken ill with an attack of fever, which seems to have affected the lungs, and in less than a fortnight he died, on 10th February 1755, aged sixty-six. He was buried in the church of Saint Sulpice with little pomp, and the Revolution obliterated all trace of his remains.

The literary and philosophical merits of Montesquieu and his position, actual and historical, in the literature of France and of Europe, form a subject of rather unusual interest in its kind. At the beginning of this century the vicomte de Bonald classed him with Racine and Bossuet, as the object of a "religious veneration " among Frenchmen. But Bonald was not quite a suitable spokes-man for France, and it may be doubted whether the author of the Esprit des Lois has ever really occupied any such position in his own country. For a generation after his death he remained indeed the idol and the great authority of the moderate reforming party in France, and at such times as that party recovered power during the revolutionary period Montesquieu recovered vogue with it. But the tendency of the century and a quarter which have passed since his death has been to reduce the numbers and position of this party ever more and more, and Montesquieu is not often quot-able, or quoted, either by Republicans, Bonapartists, or Legitimists, at the present day. Again, his serious works contain citation of or allusion to a vast number of facts, and the exact (let it be hoped that posterity will not call it the pettifogging) criticism of our time challenges the accuracy of these facts. Although he was really the founder, or at least one of the founders, of the sciences of comparative politics and of the philosophy of history, his descend-ants and followers in these sciences think they have outgrown him. In France his popularity has always been dubious and con-tested. It is a singular thing that, until within the last decade, there has been no properly edited edition of his works, and nothing even approaching a complete biography of him, the place of the latter being occupied by the meagre and rhetorical Eloges of the last century. He is, his chief admirers assert, hardly read at all in France to-day, and a tolerable familiarity with modern French literature enables its possessor to corroborate this by first-hand knowledge, to the effect that no writer of equal eminence is so little quoted. The admirers just mentioned attempt to explain the fact by confessing that Montesquieu, great as he is, is not altogether great according to French principles. It is not only that he is an Anglo-maniac, but that he is rather English than French in style and thought. His work, at least the Esprit, is lacking in the pro-portion and the almost ostentatious lucidity of arrangement which a Frenchman demands. His sentences are often enigmatical, and suggestive rather than clear. He is almost entirely dispassionate in polities, but he lacks the unswerving deductive consistency which Frenchmen love in that science. His wdt, it is said, is quaint and a little provincial, his style irregular and in no definite genre.

Some of these things may be allowed to exist and to be defects in Montesquieu, but they are balanced by merits which render them almost insignificant. Of the minor works, which are on the whole rather nnworthy of their author, nothing need be said here, tn the few Pensées, and in detached thoughts of the same kind scattered about the tolerably numerous letters which have reached us, there is much acuteness and point, as also in some of the best sentences of the Considerations and of the Esprit. But no one would put Montesquieu as a pensée,, or maxim, writer beside La Roche-foucauld and Joubert, Pascal and Yauvenargues. It is on his three principal works that his fame does and must rest. Each one of these is a masterpiece in its kind. It is doubtful whether the-Lettres Persanes yield at their best either in wit or in giving lively pictures of the time to the best of Voltaire's similar work, though they are more unequal. There is, moreover, the great difference-between Montesquieu and Voltaire that the former is a rational reformer, and not a mere persifleur or frondeur, to whom fault-finding is more convenient for showing off his wit than acquiescence. Of course this last description does not fully or always describe Voltaire, but it often does. It is seldom or never applicable to Montesquieu. Only one of Voltaire's own charges against the book and its author must be fully allowed. He is said to have replied to a friend who urged him to give up his habit of sneering at Montesquieu, "il est coupable de lèse-poésie," and this is true. Not only are Montesquieu's remarks on poetry (he himself occasion-ally wrote verses, and very bad ones) childish, but he is never happy in purely literary appreciation. The Considérations are noteworthy, not only for the complete change of style (which from the light and mocking tone of the Lettres becomes grave, weighty, and sustained, with abundance of striking expression), but for the profundity and originality of the views, and for the completeness with which the author carries out his plan. These words—except, perhaps, the last clause—apply with increasing force to the Esprit des Lois. The book has been accused of desultoriness, but this arises, in part at least, from a misapprehension of the author's design. At the same time, it is impossible to say that the equivocal meaning of the word ' ' law," wdiich has misled so many reasoners, has not sometimes misled Montesquieu himself. For the most part, however, he keeps the promise of his sub-title (given above) with fidelity, and applies it with exhaustive care. It is only in the last few books, wdiich have been said to be a kind of appendix, that something of irrelevancy suggests itself. The real importance of the Esp>rit des Lois, how-ever, is not that of a formal treatise on law, or even on polity. It is thatof an assemblage of the most fertile, original, andinspiritingviews on legal and political subjects, put in language of singular sugges-tiveness and vigour, illustrated by examples which are always apt and luminous, permeated by the spirit of temperate and tolerant de-sire for human improvement and happiness, and almost unique in its entire freedom at once from doctrinairianism, from visionary enthusiasm, from egotism, and from an undue spirit of system. As for the style, no one wdio does not mistake the definition of that much used and much misused word can deny it to Montesquieu. He has in the Esprit little ornament, but his composition is wholly admirable. Every now and then there are reminiscences, perhaps a little more close than is necessary, of the badinage of the Lettres Per-sanes, but these are rare, and the author's wit is for the most used only to lighten his pages. Yet another great peculiarity of this book, as well as of the Considérations, has to be noticed. The genius of the author for generalization is so great, his instinct in political science so sure, that even the falsity of his premises frequently fails to vitiate his conclusions. He has known wrong, but he has thought right.

The sole edition of Montesquieu wdiich need be mentioned here is that of Edouard Laboulaye (7 vols., Paris, 1875-1879), the sole biography that of Louis Vian (Paris, second edition, 1879). From the latter the facts of the above notice are principally drawn. The bibliography of Montesquieu's published works is not of any special interest, but in respect of anecdota he occupies a singular position. There is known to exist at La Brède a great mass of MSS. materials for the Esprit des Lois, additional Lettres Persanes, essays and fragments of all kinds, diaries, letters, notebooks, and so forth. The present possessors, however, who represent Montesquieu, though not in the direct male line, have hitherto refused permission to examine these to all editors and critics, though the publication of some of them has been vaguely promised. At present they are chiefly known by a paper contributed nearly half a century ago to the Transactions of the Academy of Agen (1834). (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: George Saintsbury.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries