Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu. January 18, 1689 – February 10, 1755. French philosopher, political scientist, lawyer, and writer.
Life and Work:
1. “You have to study a great deal to know a little” assured Charles Montesquieu. This French philosopher and lawyer influenced our life as well: it was him who created the principle of the division of power that now underpins all modern democracies.
2. The philosopher’s father belonged to the so-called “nobles of the robe,” i.e., he received his title for his civil service. Jacques de Secondat was the youngest son in the family and thus he did not inherit any family lands. Chateaux-de-la-Brède, i.e., the castle near Bordeaux where Charles Louis was born, was part of his mother’s dowry. The parents chose a beggar to be a godfather to their son so that he would remember throughout his life that the rich and the poor were brothers.
3. The future philosopher’s childhood was not long and cloudless. His mother died when the boy was 7. However, the Catholic College of Juilly where orphaned Charles was sent to study, possessed a great library and the teaching staff there were strict yet respectful to the personality of the child. They employed the most advanced teaching method for the early 18th century.
4. Charles Louis developed at the college in full compliance with the latter’s motto “I rise.” He mastered philosophy, literature and law. They all turned out useful as his uncle, Baron de Montesquieu who chaperoned the young man after the death of his father, provided him with a job at the Parliament of Bordeaux. Back then the Parliament in France was not the institution we think of now – it was the supreme law authority.
5. The uncle also took care of arranging his nephew’s marriage; however, the young man did not welcome his choice and stood his ground. His fiancée came from the Protestant family that were outlaws in France back then, and her family’s nobility was rather recent. However, Jeanne de Lartigue brought her husband much wealth in dowry and gave Montesquieu 3 children. She did not anyhow participate in the intellectual life of her husband, nor was she very successful at managing the household: it is believed that by the end of the philosopher’s life the situation of Chateaux-de-la-Brède was far even from comfort, let alone from luxury.
6. After the death of his uncle Charles Louis de Secondat became Baron de Montesquieu. Moreover, he inherited his uncle’s high position at the Parliament of Bordeaux. His heavy duties still gave him a chance to do some science.
7. The Academy of Bordeaux grew out of the scientific circle. It accepted Montesquieu as a member and he eagerly conducted his experiments there. His areas of interest were vast: the scientist produced works on physics, botany, anatomy. His publications included such titles as “On the origins of echo,” “On the designation of kidneys,” “On sea access and recess.”
8. Soon civil service seriously impeded research and Montesquieu opted for the scientific career. He published his main work titled “The Spirit of Laws” without the indication of the author, but the book became popular immediately.
9. It is this work by Montesquieu that sets out the founding principles of economic and social sciences and concentrates the very essence of liberal thinking. The Catholic church included this work by Montesquieu into the notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum, i.e., the list of prohibited books.
10. Montesquieu is considered to be one of the founding fathers of contemporary representative democracy, i.e., the political regime where people are regarded as the main source of power, but the government functions are delegated to different representative bodies which members are elected by citizens.
11. Montesquieu was famous for his extraordinary wit and ability to formulate thoughts aphoristically. For example, he defined liberty as a right of doing whatever the law permitted. He considered history to be a series of imagined events regarding the events that had really happened. He scathingly dubbed significant unrest in the tiny republic of San Marino “a storm in a teacup.”
12. Montesquieu traveled extensively around Europe. In his memoires he wrote that it felt good to think in England, to travel in Germany, to have fun in Italy and to own a house in France. However, he thought and worked everywhere, studying habits and laws of each nation, and engaged in geographical and anthropological research.
13. According to the theory developed by Montesquieu, climate could have a considerable impact on human nature and society. By emphasizing the influence of material external factors, Montesquieu anticipated contemporary anthropological theories on the impact of material conditions, such as accessible sources of energy, organized production systems and technologies, on the development of complex socio-cultural systems.
14. Apart from science, Montesquieu made a contribution to literature. He published Persian Letters under a pen name. In the book he ridiculed Louis XIV and his court manners. The book was banned immediately, however, the prohibition only fueled the popularity of the novel and its author abroad.
15. Montesquieu spent many years in his castle pondering and writing scholastic works. Yet he also contributed to the improvement of his lands. He ordered extensive irrigation works, sowing of clover that had not been cultivated in the area before, and planting new vineyards.
16. Montesquieu’s last work was Essay on Taste that was published after the writer’s death in the 7th Volume of the Encyclopedia by Denis Diderot.