French philosopher (Charles de Secondat)

1689 - 1755

Montesquieu was a French philosopher. His major work, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), influenced the writing of many constitutions, including the Constitution of the United States.

Montesquieu believed that laws underlie all things--human, natural, and divine. One of philosophy's major tasks was to discover these laws. It was difficult to study humanity because the laws governing human nature were complex. Yet Montesquieu believed these laws could be found by empirical (experimental) methods of investigation. Knowledge of the laws would ease the ills of society and improve life.

Montesquieu said there were three basic types of government--monarchal, republican, and despotic. A monarchal government had limited power placed in a king or queen. A republican government was either an aristocracy or a democracy. In an aristocracy, only a few had power. In a democracy, all had it. A despotic government was controlled by a tyrant, who had absolute authority. Montesquieu believed legal systems should vary according to the basic type of government.

Montesquieu supported human freedom and opposed tyranny. He believed that political liberty involved separating the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government. He believed that liberty and respect for properly constituted law could exist together.

Montesquieu, whose real name was Charles de Secondat, was born near Bordeaux. He inherited the title Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu. He gained fame with his Persian Letters (1721), which ridiculed Parisian life and many French institutions. He also criticized the church and national governments of France. Montesquieu was admitted to the French Academy in 1727. He lived in England from 1729 to 1731 and came to admire the British political system.

Contributor: James Creech, Ph.D., Prof., Department of French and Italian, Miami Univ.
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