Montesquieu, Charles De Secondat, Baron De La Brede Et De
Montesquieu, Charles De Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de
one of the most noted moralists of the world, and a celebrated French writer, was born January 18, 1689, at the Chateau de la Brede in the immediate neighborhood of Bordeaux. He was descended from a noble and otherwise distinguished family of the province of Guienne. Even as a youth he gave the promise of his future fame. His habits were most studious, and his desire for learning was encouraged in every way by a fond and judicious father. While engaged in a most laborious study of the civil law, with a view to the profession for which he was destined, young Montesquieu was also much devoted to the study of general literature and philosophy, and even found time to prepare a work on a theological subject, namely, Whether the Idolatry which prevailed among the Heathen deserved eternal Damnation? His love of the writers of antiquity had led him to enter the lists in defence of pagan writers, pronouncing them worthy of salvation. The book was favorably received, but did not create much stir. In 1714 Montesquieu attained the rank of "conseiller" in the Parliament of Bordeaux, and three years afterwards, on the death of a paternal uncle, he succeeded at the same time to his fortune and to his post of "president mortier" in the same Parliament. With the most assiduous and conscientious discharge of his duties as a judge, he yet continued the pursuit of literature. His most favorite studies were historical and moral sciences. But he also loved the study of the natural sciences, and even joined in 1716 the Academy of Bordeaux, zealous to direct the attention of this body to physical science. He seems at this time to have been very much impressed with the importance of physical science. He wrote about this time his Physical History of the Ancient and Modern World, which was published in 1719. He shortly returned, however, and allowed the academy likewise to return, to literature and morals; and he now wrote several small essays on literary and moral subjects, which were read at meetings of the academy. In 1721, just six years after the death of Louis XIV, when France had outlived the lethargy of the last years of the great reign, and the orgies of the regency were in full swing, Montesquieu appeared with the work which first brought him fame, the Leftres Persanes, which was published anonymously. The author, however, was soon recognised, and his name was in everybody's mouth. The book, in which in the character of a Persian, he ridicules with exquisite humor and clear, sharp criticism the religious, political, social, and literary life of his countrymen, secured him a place in the "Academy," though he had even levied his attacks against it. It is supposed that the Siamoois of Dufresny, or the Espion Turc, suggested the plan of this work, but, be this as it may, its execution is entirely original. "The delineation of Oriental manners," says D'Alembert, "real or supposed, of the pride and the dulness of Asiatic love, is but the smallest of the author's objects; it serves only, so to speak, as a pretext for his delicate satire of our customs, and for other important matters which he fathoms, though appearing but to glance at them." Some censures which Montesquieu in his Persian Letters bestowed upon the conduct of Louis XIV caused the work to be regarded with an evil eye at court; and one or two sarcasms levelled at the pope awakened the zeal of such as were rigidly devout Romanists, or found it convenient to seem so, and Montesquieu was industriously represented as a man equally hostile to the interest of religion and the peace of society. Those calumnies reached the ear of cardinal de Fleury; and when Montesquieu, sustained by the public opinion of his talents, applied for the place which M. Sacy's death had left vacant in the French Academy, that learned body was made to understand that his majesty would never give his consent to the writer of the Lettres Persanes; because, though his majesty had not read the work, persons in whom he placed confidence had pointed out its poisonous tendency. Without feeling too much anxiety for literary distinction, Montesquieu perceived the fatal effect that such an accusation might produce upon his dearest interests. According to D'Alembert, Montesquieu waited upon Fleury, therefore, and signified that, although for particular reasons he had not acknowledged the Lettres Persanes, he was very far from wishing to disown that work, which he believed to contain nothing disgraceful to him, and which ought at least to be read before it was condemned. Struck by these remonstrances, the cardinal perused the work, the objections were removed, and France avoided the disgrace of forcing this great man to depart, as he had threatened, and seek among foreigners, who invited him, the security and respect which his own country seemed little inclined to grant. This story of D'Alembert is by some discredited, and, instead of it, Voltaire's version is accepted. According to him, "Montesquieu adopted a skilful artifice to regain the minister's favor: in two or three days he prepared a new edition of his book, in which he retrenched or softened whatever might be condemned by a cardinal and a minister. M. de Montesquieu himself carried the work to Fleury — no great reader — who examined a part of it. This air of confidence. supported by the zeal of some persons in authority, quieted the cardinal, and Montesquieu gained admission to the Academy" (Ecrivains du Siecle de Louis XIV, sec. Montesquieu). The authenticity of this statement, however, appears to rest solely on Voltaire's evidence, not altogether unexceptionable in the present case. D'Alembert's account is generally preferred. Shortly after his admission to the Academy, January 24, 1728, Montesquieu set out for a journey to qualify himself for the arduous task of investigating and appreciating the different political or civil constitutions of ancient or modern times, and in order to study, as far as possible, the manners and character, the physical and moral condition, of the European nations by actual inspection. He first visited Vienna, along with lord Waldegrave, the English ambassador. From this city, after conversing with the celebrated prince Eugene, and surveying all that seemed worthy of notice, he passed into Hungary, and afterwards to Italy, where he met with lord Chesterfield, and travelled in his company to Venice. While examining the singular institutions of this republic, and canvassing the subject with eager frankness in places of public resort, he learned that he had incurred the displeasure of the authorities, and was in danger of persecution. He instantly embarked for Fucino, next visited Rome, and, having surveyed Switzerland and the United Provinces, he repaired in 1730 to Great Britain. Newton and Locke were dead, but the philosophical traveller found men in England qualified to estimate his talents. He was respected and patronized by queen Caroline, and enjoyed the intimacy of Pope, Bolingbroke, and many other eminent characters of that period. He spent there two years, and collected much material for his future literary labors. He was made aware of the great esteem in which the English held him by being chosen a fellow of the Royal Society. After his return to Brede, Montesquieu published his Considerations sur les Causes de la Grandeur et de la Decadence des Romains (Paris, 1734), a masterly view of Roman history, expressed in a sententious, oracular, and vigorous style. "In attempting to derive the grandeur and downfall of Rome from the admitted principles of human nature, he gave a new turn to such investigations. If some elements of a problem so complex have been omitted, and others rated too high or too low, the work must be allowed to exhibit views of political society, at all times specious, often equally just and profound: the vivid pictures, the acute and original thoughts, with which it everywhere abounds, are to be traced in many succeeding speculations. It deserves praise also for the manly and liberal tone of feeling that pervades it." But by far his greatest work, on which he had been engaged for twenty years, the Esprit des Lois, he published in 1748 (Geneva, 2 volumes). In it Montesquieu attempts to exhibit the relation between the laws of different countries and their local and social circumstances. It was immensely popular. No fewer than twenty-two editions were published in eighteen months, and it was translated into various European languages. "The Esprit des Lois," says a contemporary, "is a wonderfully good book, considering the age in which it appeared. Without adopting Voltaire's hypereulogistic criticism, that 'when the human race had lost their charters, Montesquieu rediscovered and restored them,' it may be said that it was the first work in which the questions of civil liberty were ever treated in an enlightened and systematic manner, and. to Montesquieu, more than to any other man, is it owing that the science of politics has become a favorite subject of study with the educated public." "The Esprit des Lois," says another, "is one of the most laborious books ever written. It had an immense influence on the literature of the age, and founded that method of philosophizing and finding out facts to justify opinion which characterized his followers of the French school, and entered in a great measure into the spirit of the Scottish school of philosophy. Like most original-minded men, he brought to his work a degree of genius and knowledge which his imitators could not cope with, and which concealed, in his hands, the defects of the system." "Notwithstanding," says Villemain, "some expressions here and there inexact, according to our ideas, from their very materialism, the character of his writing is generally metaphysical. Succeeding the light and brilliant epicureanism and scepticism of the 18th century, the Esprit des Lois began the spiritualist reaction which Rousseau carried on" (Cours de Litterature, volume 1, chapter 4). The work rendered great service to humanitarianism by the respect it paid to human life. Pascal, indeed, in his letter on homicide, had preceded him in this, but we know how indifferent on this subject were the courtly and elegant Frenchmen of that day; how little they troubled themselves about "those Breton peasants who were never tired of being hanged." Montesquieu did not wish absolutely to restrain the utmost penal power of the law, but he recommended clemency and equity, and in his own century Tuscany abolished capital punishment. As Dr. Vinet has well said, we may further commend the author of the Spirit of Laws for his "respect for human nature; his love for justice; his true philanthropy; his reverence for all the virtues which ennoble man and his destiny; and, in short, for his attachment to the principles which form the basis of human society." But, though the work found many friends, there were vet some who took decided exception to many of its doctrines. Thus the editor of the Gazette Ecclesiastique, long deeply engaged in the Jansenist quarrels which then agitated France, assailed the author of the Esprit des Lois in two pamphlets with the charge of deism, and the weightier though contradictory one of following the doctrines of Spinoza. The defence which Montesquieu published, admirable for its strain of polite irony, candor, and placid contempt, was entirely triumphant. Indeed, abilities of a much lower order than his would have sufficed to cover with ridicule the weak and purblind adversary who discovered the source of the Esprit des Lois in the Bull Unigenitus, and blamed his opponent for neglecting to examine the doctrines of grace and original sin. It is to be wished that Montesquieu had employed means so legitimate to counteract Dupin's criticism. His admirers would willingly forget that when a copy of the latter's work, ready for circulation, fell into his hands, he carried it to the royal mistress, Madame Pompadour, and allowed her to inform Dupin that, as the Esprit des Lois enjoyed her special favor, all objections to it must be instantly suppressed. It must be borne in mind, however, that Montesquieu held a place peculiarly his own, and quite apart from the Christian writers. He was a moralist to be sure, but he did not claim to be a theologian, nor even a devoted or enthusiastic Christian, but simply a cold and calculating philosopher, and as such it was much for him to turn aside and pay the high tributes and warm encomiums to Christianity which he did pay in all his writings; and it may indeed be asserted that "among the laymen of the 18th century no one has spoken so admirably of Christianity." Says he, in the Spirit of Laws, "How admirable the Christian religion, which, while it seems only to have in view the felicity of the other life, constitutes the happiness of this" (book 24, chapter 3). This is very unlike the sneering infidelity of Bayle or Voltaire.
Montesquieu's moral doctrine is, perhaps, best gleaned from his Pensees Diverses, collected from his MSS., and published in 1758. From this work it appears that he differed little from the ancient stoicism, though he has not laid it down in a systematic form. His own nature was his true system. Nevertheless he loses no opportunity of boasting of stoicism in general: "No philosopher has ever made men feel the sweetness of virtue and the dignity of their nature better than Marcus Aurelius; he affects the heart, enlarges the soul, and elevates the mind." "If I could for a moment cease to think that I am a Christian, I could not possibly avoid ranking the destruction of the sect of Zeno among the misfortunes that have befallen the human race." The stoicism of Montesquieu is softened and restrained by a certain feeling of religion. Stoicism alone could not satisfy this loving mind. In the picture which he draws of human virtues, the idea of God constantly returns, not as something useless, but as its necessary completion. He several times took the opportunity of expressing the very lively aversion that he felt to atheism: "The pious man and atheist always talk of religion: the one speaks of what he loves, and the other of what he fears." This aversion, which had its principle in the uprightness of his mind, was strengthened by his acquaintance with the real necessities and true condition of society. He defended with no less warmth the immortality of the soul: "Although the immortality of the soul were an error, I should be sorry not to believe it: I confess I am not so humble as the atheists. I know not how they think, but, for myself, I would not exchange the idea of my immortality for the happiness of a day. I delight in believing that I am immortal as God himself. Independently of revelation, metaphysics give me a very strong hope of my eternal happiness, which I would not willingly renounce. Indifference about a future life leads us to be soft and easy with regard to the present, and renders us insensible and incapable of everything which implies an effort." Montesquieu knew that all religion is social, while atheism is eminently anti-social. Montesquieu felt this, and more than once expressed it. Not only does he admit that "all religions contain precepts useful to society," but he declares that religion is the best guarantee that we can have for the morals of mankind;" and he goes so far as to say that "all societies require a religion." No one has shown better than he the intimate relation between religion and social life; and it is interesting to observe that it is in the Persian Letters, namely in the work into which he has introduced the rashest statements, and in which he has conceded most to the ideas and manners of his time, that we find this remarkable passage, which explains so well what we have merely indicated: "In any religion which we profess, the observance of laws, love to men, devotedness to parents, are always the first religious acts... For, whatever religion a man professes, the moment any religion is supposed, it must also necessarily be supposed that God loves mankind, since he establishes a religion to render them happy; that, if he loves men, we are certain of pleasing him in loving them also; that is, in exercising towards them all the duties of charity and humanity, and not breaking the laws under which they live." In the Spirit of Laws, and in the Thoughts, we meet with passages much stronger in favor of Christianity, proving that Montesquieu understood it far better than the moralists of his time, at least in the philosophical view. But for further development of these criticisms we must refer the reader to Vinet, Hist. of French Lit. 18th Century (Engl. by the Reverend James Bryce, Edinb. 1855, 8vo), page 199 sq. Montesquieu died at Paris, February 10, 1755. The private character of Montesquieu was such as the tendency of his works might lead us to anticipate. Possessing that calm independence which secured him respect, he possessed also that mildness and benignity of character which displayed itself in a cheerful temper, and obtained for him universal love. He was distinguished by the readiness which he always manifested to use his influence with the government in behalf of persecuted men of letters; and strict frugality frequently enabled him, without impairing the property of his family, to mitigate the wants of the indigent. Burke characterizes him as "a genius not born in every country or every time; a man gifted by nature with a penetrating, aquiline eye; with a judgment trained by the most extensive erudition; with a herculean robustness of mind, and nerves not to be broken with labor." The most complete edition of his works is that by D'Alembert and Villemain (Paris, 1827, 8 volumes, 8vo). Nugent's translation of the Spirit of the Laws, together with D'Alembert's biographical sketch of Montesquieu, were published at Cincinnati in 1873. See Voltaire, Siecle de Louis XIV et Louis XV; D'Alembert, Ebloge de Montesquieu; Villemain, Eloge de Montesquieu (1820); Riaux, Notice sur Montesquieu (1849); Maupertui, Eloge de Montesquieu (1755); Bersot, Montesquieu (Paris, 1852); Burs, Montesquieu u. Cartesius, in Philos. Monatshefte, October 1, 1869; Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, 7:41 sq.; Mennechet, Litirature Moderne (Paris, 1857, 12mo), 4:125-143; and the excellent article in the Edinburgh Cyclop. s.v.