1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bède et de

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19729031911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 18 — Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bède et deGeorge Saintsbury

MONTESQUIEU, CHARLES LOUIS DE SECONDAT, Baron de la Brède et de (1689–1755), French philosophical historian, was born at the château of La Brède, about 10 m. south-east of Bordeaux, in January 1689, and was baptized on the 18th of that month. His mother was Marie Françoise de Penel, the heiress of a Gascon-English family. She had brought La Brède as a dowry to his father, Jacques de Secondat, a member of a good if not extremely ancient house, which seems first to have risen to importance in the early days of the 16th century. The title of Montesquieu came from his uncle, Jean Baptiste de Secondat, “président à mortier” in the parliament of Bordeaux—an important office, which, as well as his title, he left to his nephew. Montesquieu was in his youth known as M. de la Brède. His mother died when he was seven years old, and when he was eleven he was sent to the Oratorian school of Juilly, near Meaux, where he stayed exactly five years, and where, as well as afterwards at Bordeaux, he was thoroughly educated. The family had long been connected with the law, and Montesquieu was destined for that profession. His father died in 1713, and a year later Montesquieu was admitted counsellor of the parliament. In little more than another twelvemonth he married Jeanne Lartigue, an heiress and the daughter of a knight of the order of St Louis, but plain, somewhat ill-educated, and a Protestant. Montesquieu does not seem to have made the slightest pretence of affection or fidelity towards his wife, but there is every reason to believe that they lived on perfectly good terms. In 1716 his uncle died, leaving him his name, his important judicial office and his whole fortune.

He continued to hold his presidency for twelve years, and took part in the proceedings of the Bordeaux Academy, to which he contributed papers on philosophy, politics and natural science. He also wrote much less serious things, and it was during the earlier years of his presidency that he finished, if he did not begin, the Lettres persanes. They were completed before 1721, and appeared in that year anonymously, with Cologne on the title-page, but they were really printed and published at Amsterdam. In the guise of letters written by and to two Persians of distinction travelling in Europe, Montesquieu not only satirized unmercifully the social, political, ecclesiastical and literary follies of his day in France, but indulged in a great deal of the free writing which was characteristic of the tale-tellers of the time. But what scandalized grave and precise readers naturally attracted the majority, and the Lettres persanes were very popular, passing, it is said, through four editions within the year, besides piracies. Then the vogue suddenly ceased, or at least editions ceased for nearly nine years to appear. It is said that a formal ministerial prohibition was the cause of this, and it is not improbable; for, though the regent and Guillaume Dubois must have enjoyed the book thoroughly, they were both shrewd enough to perceive that underneath its playful exterior there lay a spirit of very inconvenient criticism of abuses in church and state. The fact is that the Lettres persanes is the first book of what is called the Philosophe movement. It is amusing to find Voltaire describing the Lettres as a “trumpery book,” a “book which anybody might have written easily.” It is not certain that, in its peculiar mixture of light badinage with not merely serious purpose but gentlemanlike moderation, Voltaire could have written it himself, and it is certain that no one else at that time could.

The reputation acquired by this book brought Montesquieu much into the literary society of the capital, and he composed for, or at any rate contributed to, one of the coteries of the day the clever but rather rhetorical Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate, in which the dictator gives an apology for his conduct; For Mlle de Clermont, a lady of royal blood, a great beauty and a favourite queen of society, he wrote the curious prose-poem of the Temple de Gnide. This is half a narrative, half an allegory, in the semi-classical or rather pseudo-classical taste of the time, decidedly frivolous and dubiously moral, but of no small elegance in its peculiar style. A later jeu d’esprit of the same kind, which is almost but not quite certainly Montesquieu’s, is the Voyage à Paphos, in which his warmest admirers have found little to praise. In 1725 Montesquieu was elected a member of the Academy, but an almost obsolete rule requiring residence in Paris was appealed to, and the election was annulled. It is doubtful whether a hankering after Parisian society, or an ambition to belong to the Academy, or a desire to devote himself to literary pursuits of greater importance, or simple weariness of not wholly congenial work determined him to give up his Bordeaux office. In 1726 he sold the life-tenure of his office, reserving the reversion for his son, and went to live in the capital, returning, however, for half of each year to La Brède. There was now no further formal obstacle to his reception in the Académie Française, but a new one arose. Ill-wishers had brought the Lettres persanes specially under the minister André Hercule de Fleury’s attention, and Fleury, a precisian in many ways, was shocked by them. There are various accounts of the way in which the difficulty was got over, but all seem to agree that Montesquieu made concessions which were more effectual than dignified. He was elected and received in January 1728.

Almost immediately afterwards he started on a tour through Europe to observe men, things and constitutions. He travelled through Austria to Hungary, but was unable to visit Turkey as he had proposed. Then he made for Italy, where he met Chesterfield. At Venice, and elsewhere in Italy, he remained nearly a year, and then journeyed by way of Piedmont and the Rhine to England. Here he stayed for some eighteen months, and acquired an admiration for English character and polity which never afterwards deserted him. He returned, not to Paris, but to La Brède, and to outward appearance might have seemed to be settling down as a squire. He altered his park in the English fashion, made sedulous inquiries into his own genealogy, arranged an entail, asserted, though not harshly, his seignorial rights, kept poachers in awe and so forth. But these matters by no means engrossed his thoughts. In his great study at La Brède (a hall rather than a study, some 60 ft. long by 40 wide) he was constantly dictating, making abstracts, revising essays, and in other ways preparing his main book. He may have thought it wise to soften the transition from the Lettres persanes to the Esprit des lois, by interposing a publication graver than the former and less elaborate than the latter. The Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur et de la décadence des Romains appeared in 1734 at Amsterdam, without the author’s name. This, however, was perfectly well known; indeed, Montesquieu formally presented a copy to the French Academy. But the author’s reputation as a jester stuck to him, and the salons affected to consider the Lettres persanes and the new book respectively as the “grandeur” and the “décadence de” M. de Montesquieu; but more serious readers at once perceived its extraordinary merit, and it was eagerly read abroad. A copy of it exists or existed which had the singular misfortune to be annotated by Frederick the Great, and to be abstracted from the Potsdam library by Napoleon. It is said, moreover, by competent authorities to have been the most enduringly popular and the most widely read of all its author’s works in his own country, and it was certainly been the most frequently and carefully edited. Merely scholastic criticism may of course object to it, as to every other book of the time, the absence of the exactness of modern critical inquiry into the facts of history; but the virtue of Montesquieu’s book is in its views, not in its facts. It is (putting Bossuet and Giovanni Vico aside) almost the first important essay in the philosophy of history. The point of view is entirely different from that of Bossuet, and it seems entirely improbable that Montesquieu knew anything of Vico. In the Grandeur et decadence the characteristics of the Esprit des lois appear with the necessary subordination to a narrower subject. Two things are especially noticeable in it: a peculiarity of style, and a peculiarity of thought. The style has a superficial defect. The page is broken up into short paragraphs of but a few lines each, which look very ugly, which irritate the reader by breaking the sense, and which prepare him to expect an undue and ostentatious sententiousness. On the other hand, the merits of the expression are very great. It is grave and destitute of ornament, but extraordinarily luminous and full of what would be called epigram, if the word epigram had not a certain connotation of flippancy about it. It is a very short book; for, printed in large type with tolerably abundant notes, it fills but two hundred pages in the standard edition of Montesquieu’s works. But no work of the century, except Turgot’s second Sorbonne Discourse, contains, in proportion to its size, more weighty and original thought on historical subjects, while Montesquieu has over Turgot the immense advantage of style.

Although, however, this ballon d’essai, in the style of his great work, may be said to have been successful, and though much of that work was, as we have seen, in all probability already composed, Montesquieu was in no hurry to publish it. He went on “cultivating the garden” diligently both as a student and as an improving landowner. He wrote the sketch of Lysimaque for Stanislaus Leczinski; he published new and final editions of the Temple de Gnide, of the Lettres persanes, of Sylla et Eucrate (which indeed had never been published, properly speaking). After allowing the Grandeur et decadence to be reprinted without alterations some half-dozen times, he revised and corrected it. He also took great pains with the education of his son Charles and his daughter Denise, of whom he was extremely fond. He frequently visited Paris, where his favourite resorts were the salons of Mme de Tencin and Mme d’Aiguillon. Yet it seems that he did not begin the final task of composition till 1743. Two years of uninterrupted work at La Brède finished the greater part of it, and two more the rest. It was finally published at Geneva in the autumn of 1748, in two volumes quarto. The publication was, however, preceded by one of those odd incidents which in literature illustrate Clive’s well-known saying about courts-martial in war. Montesquieu summoned a committee of friends, according to a very common practice, to hear and give an opinion on his work. It was an imposing and certainly not an unfriendly one, consisting of Charles Jean François Hénault, Helvétius, the financier Étienne de Silhouette, the dramatist Joseph Saurin, Crébillon the younger, and, lastly, Fontenelle—in fact, all sorts and conditions of literary men. They unanimously advised the author not to publish a book which has been described as “one of the most important books ever written,” and which may be almost certainly ranked as the greatest book of the French 18th century.

Montesquieu, of course, did not take his friends’ advice. In such cases no man ever does, and in this case it was certainly fortunate. The Esprit des lois represents the reflections of a singularly clear, original, and comprehensive mind, corrected by forty years’ study of men and books, arranged in accordance with a long deliberated plan, and couched in language of remarkable freshness and idiosyncrasy. In the original editions the full title runs L’Esprit des lois : ou du rapport que les lois doivent avoir avec la constitution de chaque gouvernement, les mœurs, le climat, la religion, le commerce, &c. It consists of thirty-one books, which in some editions are grouped in six parts. Speaking summarily, the first part, containing eight books, deals with law in general and with forms of government; the second, containing five, with military arrangements, with taxation, &c.; the third, containing six, with manners and customs, and their dependence on climatic conditions; the fourth, containing four, with economic matters; and the fifth, containing three, with religion. The last five books, forming a kind of supplement, deal specially with Roman, French, and feudal law. The most noteworthy peculiarity of the book to a cursory reader lies in the section dealing with effects of climate, and this indeed was almost the only characteristic which the vulgar took in, probably because it was easily susceptible of parody and reductio ad absurdum. The singular spirit of moderation which distinguishes its views on politics and religion was indeed rather against it than in its favour in France, and Helvétius, who was as outspoken as he was good-natured, had definitely assigned this as the reason of his unfavourable judgment. On the other hand, if not destructive it was sufficiently critical, and it thus raised enemies on more than one side. It was long suspected, but is now positively known, that the book (not altogether with the goodwill of the pope) was put on the Index, and the Sorbonne projected, though it did not carry out, a regular censure. To all these objectors the author replied in a masterly défense; and there seems to be no foundation for the late and scandalous stories which represent him as having used Mme de Pompadour’s influence to suppress criticism. The fact was that, after the first snarlings of envy and incompetence had died away, he had little occasion to complain. Even Voltaire, who was his decided enemy, was forced at length to speak in public, if not in private, complimentarily of the Esprit, and from all parts of Europe the news of success arrived.

Montesquieu enjoyed his triumph rather at La Brède than at Paris. He was becoming an old man, and, unlike Fontenelle, he does not seem to have preserved in old age the passion for society which had marked his youth. He certainly spent much of his later years in the country, though he sometimes visited Paris, and on one visit procured the release of his admirer Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle from an imprisonment which La Beaumelle had suffered at the instance of Voltaire. He is said also to have been instrumental in obtaining a pension for Alexis Piron. Nor did he by any means neglect literary composition. The curious little romance of Arsace et Isménie, a short and unfinished treatise on Taste, many of his published Pensées, and much unpublished matter date from the period subsequent to the Esprit des lois. He did not, however, live many years after the appearance of his great work. At the end of 1754 he visited Paris, with the intention of getting rid of the lease of his house there and finally retiring to La Brède. He was shortly after taken ill with an attack of fever, which seems to have affected the lungs, and in less than a fortnight he died, on the 10th of February 1755, aged sixty-six. He was buried in the church of St Sulpice with little pomp, and the Revolution obliterated all trace of his remains.

The literary and philosophical merits of Montesquieu and his position, actual and historical, in the literature of France and of Europe, are of unusual interest. At the beginning of the next century the vicomte de Bonald classed him with Racine and Bossuet, as the object of a “religious veneration” among Frenchmen. But Bonald was not quite a suitable spokesman for France, and it may be doubted whether the author of the Esprit des lois has ever really occupied any such position in his own country. For a generation after his death he remained indeed the idol and the great authority of the moderate reforming party in France. Montesquieu is not often quotable, or quoted, at the present day, and the exact criticism of our time challenges the accuracy of his facts. Although he was really the founder, or at least one of the founders, of the sciences of comparative politics and of the philosophy of history, his descendants and followers in these sciences think they have outgrown him. In France his popularity has always been dubious and contested. It is a singular thing that for more than a century there was no properly edited edition of his works, and nothing even approaching a complete biography of him, the place of the latter being occupied by the meagre and rhetorical Éloges of the last century. According to his chief admirers, he is hardly read at all in France to-day, and they attempt to explain the fact by confessing that Montesquieu, great as he is, is not altogether great according to French principles. It is not only that he is an Anglo-maniac, but that he is rather English than French in style and thought. He is almost entirely dispassionate in politics, but he lacks the unswerving deductive consistency which Frenchmen love in that science. His wit, it is said, is quaint and a little provincial, his style irregular and in no definite genre.

Some of these things may be allowed to exist and to be defects in Montesquieu, but they are balanced by merits which render them almost insignificant. It is on his three principal works that his fame does and must rest. Each one of these is a masterpiece in its kind. It is doubtful whether the Lettres persanes yield at their best either in wit or in giving lively pictures of the time to the best of Voltaire’s similar work, though they are more unequal. There is, moreover, the great difference between Montesquieu and Voltaire that the former is a rational reformer, and not a mere persifleur or frondeur, to whom fault-finding is more convenient than acquiescence for showing off his wit. Of course this last description does not fully or always describe Voltaire, but it often does. It is seldom or never applicable to Montesquieu. Only one of Voltaire’s own charges against the book and its author must be fully allowed. He is said to have replied to a friend who urged him to give up his habit of sneering at Montesquieu, “Il est coupable de lèse-poésie,” and this is true. Not only are Montesquieu’s remarks on poetry childish (he himself occasionally wrote verses, and very bad ones), but he is never happy in purely literary appreciation. The Considérations are noteworthy, not only for the complete change of style (which from the light and mocking tone of the Lettres becomes grave, weighty and sustained, with abundance of striking expression), but for the profundity and originality of the views, and for the completeness with which the author carries out his plan. These words—except, perhaps the last clause—apply with increasing force to the Esprit des lois. The book has been accused of desultoriness, but this arises, in part at least, from a misapprehension of the author’s design. At the same time, it is impossible to deny that the equivocal meaning of the word “law,” which has misled so many reasoners, has sometimes misled Montesquieu himself. For the most part, however, he keeps the promise of his sub-title (given above) with fidelity, and applies it with exhaustive care. It is only in the last few books, which have been said to be a kind of appendix, that something of irrelevancy suggests itself. The real importance of the Esprit des lois, however, is not that of a formal treatise on law, or even on polity. It is that of an assemblage of the most fertile, original and inspiriting views on legal and political subjects, put in language of singular suggestiveness and vigour, illustrated by examples which are always apt and luminous, permeated by the spirit of temperate and tolerant desire for human improvement and happiness, and almost unique in its entire freedom at once from doctrinairism, from visionary enthusiasm, from egotism, and from an undue spirit of system. As for the style, no one who does not mistake the definition of that much used and much misused word can deny it to Montesquieu. He has in the Esprit little ornament, but his composition is wholly admirable. Yet another great peculiarity of this book, as well as of the Considérations, has to be noticed. The genius of the author for generalization is so great, his instinct in political science so sure, that even the falsity of his premises frequently fails to vitiate his conclusions. He has known wrong, but he has thought right.

The best edition of Montesquieu is that of Edouard Laboulaye (7 vols., Paris, 1875–1879), the best biography that of Louis Vian (Paris, 2nd ed., 1879). The bibliography of Montesquieu was dealt with by L. Dangeau in 1874. There is known to exist at La Brède a great mass of MS. materials for the Esprit des lois, additional Lettres persanes, essays, and fragments of all kinds, diaries, letters, notebooks and so forth. The present possessors, however, who represent Montesquieu, long refused permission to examine these to all editors and critics, and they were chiefly known by a paper contributed in 1834 to the, Transactions of the Academy of Agen. At last in 1891 Baron Charles de Montesquieu published Deux opuscules of his ancestors, and in 1899 Baron Gaston de Montesquieu added Pensées, &c. Nothing, however, of much interest has yet appeared. For a thorough student L’Esprit de Montesquieu by A. Charaux (1885) has value, for it is written, with some ability, from a point of view now very uncommon, that of a convinced Roman Catholic, anti-parliamentarian and anglophobe critic, who regards Montesquieu as an “evangelist of social atheism” and the like. The view is quite untenable but useful as a corrective. An article by Churton Collins on “Montesquieu in England” (Quarterly Review, No. 394, April 1903) may be also consulted.)  (G. Sa.)