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Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat (1689–1755)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB053-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

Article Summary

Montesquieu, one of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment, was famous in his own century both in France and in foreign lands, from Russia to the American colonies. Later generations of French philosophes took for granted his concern to reform the criminal laws, to replace the Inquisition with a reign of tolerance, and to repudiate the vicious conquests of the Spaniards in the Americas. They also accepted his finding that Protestant, commercial, and constitutionalist England and Holland represented all the best possibilities of Europe; whereas Catholic, economically backward, and politically absolutist Portugal and Spain represented the worst of the Western world and constituted a warning to the French.

Although the findings and specific reforms proposed by Montesquieu were repeated by many another figure of the French Enlightenment, his work in certain respects remained unique in the circles of the most advanced thinkers. In his efforts to think systematically about politics and to do so by employing the comparative method, he stands virtually alone in his age. Other thinkers sharing his commitments resorted to the universalizing language of natural rights when they ventured into the realm of political philosophy. Or, like Voltaire, they tied their thoughts about politics to a succession of specific issues, each essay bearing so indelibly the imprint of specific time and place that there was no room for theory in their writings. Finally, as is true of Diderot or D’Alembert, many of the philosophes were slow to recognize what Montesquieu knew from the outset, that if Enlightenment does not extend to politics it is futile.

Steeped in Montaigne’s scepticism, Montesquieu found that in the absence of absolutes there were good reasons to appreciate the ‘more than/less than’ and ‘better than/worse than’ judgments of comparative analysis. In his notebooks he commented that the flaw of most philosophers had been to ignore that the terms beautiful, good, noble, grand, and perfect are ‘relative to the beings who use them’. Only one absolute existed for Montesquieu and that was the evil of despotism, which must be avoided at all costs.

Montesquieu wrote three great works, each teaching lessons about despotism and freedom,The Persian Letters (1721), the Considerations of the Grandeur of the Romans and the Cause of Their Decline (1734), and The Spirit of the Laws (1748).

Citing this article:
Hulliung, Mark. Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat (1689–1755), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB053-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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