Baron de Montesquieu
Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu was born in 1689 to a French noble family. "His family tree could be traced 350 years, which in his view made its name neither good nor bad." (The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, p. 68) Montesquieu's views started to be shaped at a very early age. A beggar was chosen to be his godfather to remind him of his obligations to the poor.
In the Considerations Montesquieu used Roman history to prove some of his ideas about reasons for the rise and the fall of civilizations. His most important point was that history is made by causes and effects, by events influenced by man, and not by luck. His ideas are summarized in this passage:
I is not fortune that rules the world . . .The Romans had a series of consecutive successes when their government followed one policy, and an unbroken set of reverses when it adopted another. There are general causes, whether moral or physical, which act upon every monarchy, which create, maintain, or ruin it. All accidents are subject to these causes, and if the chance loss of a battle, that is to say, a particular cause, ruins a state, there is a general cause that created the situation whereby this state could perish by the loss of a single battle. (1734, chapter 18)
"Montesquieu advocated constitutionalism, the preservation of civil liberties, the abolition of slavery, gradualism, moderation, peace, internationalism, social and economic justice with due respect to national and local tradition. He believed in justice and the rule of law; detested all forms of extremism and fanaticism; put his faith in the balance of power and the division of authority as a weapon against despotic rule by individuals or groups or majorities; and approved of social equality, but not the point which it threatened individual liberty; and out of liberty, but not to the point where it threatened to disrupt orderly government."
Sir Isaiah Berlin
Against the Current
Montesquieu loved knowledge, science, law, toleration.
Montesquieu hated armies, conquests, tyrants, priests.
"In republican governments, men are all equal; equal they are also in despotic governments: in the former, because they are everything; in the latter, because they are nothing."
Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Bk. VI, Ch. 2
"Luxury is therefore absolutely necessary in monarchies; as it is also in despotic states, In the former, it is the use of liberty, in the latter, it is the abuse of servitude...
"Hence arrives a very natural reflection. Republics end with luxury; monarchies with poverty."
Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Bk. VII, Ch. 4
"As distant as heaven is from the earth, so is the true spirit of equality from that of extreme equality... "In a true state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of laws."
Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Bk. VIII, Ch. 3
1. Hollier, Denis , A New History of French Literature, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1989.
2. The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, p. 467-476.
3. Loy, John Robert, Montesquieu, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1968.
4. A History of World Societies volume II, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, p. 669-679.
5. Robert Shedlock, Lessons on World History, 1980, p. 38a-38c.