Life, Death & Philosophy – Montesquieu

Without him, the world was missing an important piece. His legacy shall never be forgotten. We would live in a quite different world, if not for his contributions to philosophy, political theory and real-world politics. A prolific writer, wonderful essayist and, one could argue, the intellectual father of the United States of America. Today, February the 10th  marks the anniversary of the death of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. No worries, you will still look smart, if you just remember the name Montesquieu.

The Spirit of Law

Probably Montesquieu’s most important work is his treatise The Spirit of Law. His thoughts were so influential and contrary to the religious zeitgeist of the superiority of some people over others that the Roman Catholic Church felt compelled to put The Spirit of Law on its list of forbidden books, i.e. the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. No telling what would happen if more and more people began to think for themselves and such things as democracy, freedom, and the abolition of slavery suddenly became en vogue. Since the church had been doing excellent business with war, exploitation and slavery for millennia, banning Montesquieu’s writings was only logical.

However, it did them little good. Especially outside France, The Spirit of Law spread rapidly and was translated into many different languages. It is therefore hardly surprising that Montesquieu’s thoughts left a lasting impression on such notable figures as Catherine the Great, James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. But modern intellectuals such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb also have very favorable remarks to make about Montesquieu’s work.

Three dangerous ideas

But what made Spirit of Law so dangerous at the time?

The treatise can be roughly divided into three different areas of ideas: Constitutional theory; separation of powers and liberties; climate, culture, and society.
For Montesquieu, political systems could be further divided into three distinct categories: democratic republics, monarchies, and despotic regimes.

In his view, each of these systems is based on associated fundamental principles, adherence to which is necessary for the respective system to succeed in the long term.
For democracies, a love of virtue was crucial, which can be explained by a willingness to put self-interest behind the interests of the community.
Monarchies, on the other hand, require a love of honor, i.e. the individual striving for a better social position and the privileges that go with it.
A despot, in turn, requires the fear of the ruler. Those who have no fear of oppression and punishment are more inclined to rebel against injustice. If enough people share this view, the despotic system will eventually collapse.

The Dangers of Freedom

Montesquieu went even further. He demanded that a separation of powers in the form of separate government bodies for the executive, legislative and judiciary was necessary to guarantee individual liberties. Where there is no separation of powers, there can be no freedom – regardless of the form of government.

Drawing on this, he developed a process for judicial procedures that does not need to hide even today. Rule of law standards such as the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, or the appropriateness of punishment are now part of any state that cares about its reputation in the “we think human rights are cool” community.
Side note: The UN Human Rights Council is almost certainly not one of them. It’s more of a collection of “Human rights? What’s that?” states.

Of course, Montesquieu also advocated the abolition of slavery and was a vehement defender of freedom of speech. It is not surprising, then, that he became one of the most widely cited political philosophers in the still-young America. His intellectual influence on James Madison as well as the later Declaration of Independence can hardly be overestimated. Who knows how many Americans today still know who, in spirit, co-authored their much-loved Constitution?

My name is Nathan Reed and this short piece is part of a new series I am writing. Snapshots of philosophy on a particular date, so to speak. I will try my best to give you some new bites every notable day.  

You are a decent human being. Behave accordingly.

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