At the end of the 16th century the astronomer Johannes Kepler built on Copernicus' insights to show that the planets revolved around the earth according to mathematical relationships. A century later Isaac Newton explained the motion of the planets using his elegant conception of gravity. This changed the medieval vision of the universe. From a place of unpredictable casualities it became an organized system of causalties. Its natural laws could be discovered and comprehended. The 'clockwork' universe model had been invented.
Newton was still alive when Montesquieu published his Persian Letters in 1721. They were a collection of epistles between two fictional Persian travellers in Europe. The author took advantage of this make-believe objective view of France to criticise its institutions. After the success of his book the author decided to spend more time in Paris where he became a regular at the salon discussions, no doubt immersing himself in the fashionable Enlightenment thinking. In 1758 he left France to travel around Europe and spent two years in England where he was impressed by the British political system brought about by the 1688 protestant revolution.
While visiting England he wrote Notes on England which were personal jottings about the political system. These annotations show that Montesquieu had a fair grasp of the British Constitution. They also demonstrate that he knew that British politics were very corrupt. His interpretation of the division of powers in the country was that they were an answer to the problem of this corruption. In short, power was divided among the powerful in order to force them to keep check on each other's honesty.
He notes the difference between physical laws, which he believes are God given, and social laws, which are made by humans. In his Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu follows the example of contemporary science and aims to explain the laws behind social institutions.
Book 1 The author offers a framework for discussing law and government.
Book 2 He divides govenments into 3 types: republican, monarchical and despotic.
Book 3 The principle of each government style is analysed. A republic is based on virtue, because the people themselves are in charge. Monarchies are maintained through honour. Despotic states are neither virtuous nor honourable. The subjects are kept obedient through fear.
Book 4 Depending on the style of government the citizens will be educated to accept it. The laws will also be adapted to the style (Book 5) and the courts and penalties (Book 6) as well as goods and status symbols (Book 7). Corruption occurs when government principles become corrupt and that will put the regime in danger (Book 8).
Books 9 and 10 deal with conflicts between nation with reference to invading others and defending themselves.
Books 11 and 12 describe the idea of political liberty. The first approaches it from a constitutional point of view and the second from the optic of the citizen.
Book 13 proposes a moving scale applied to taxes which are viewed by Montesquieu as the price of liberty.
Book 14 claims that a country's climate and geography influence its political and economic situation.
Books 15, 16 and 17 examine slavery in three aspects: civil, domestic and political.
Book 18 argues that geographical terrain and climate have an influence on political life.
Book 19 looks at the differences between a nation's laws, social conventions and manners.
Books 20 to 22 concentrate on commercial law and its adaptation to trading changes throughout history. He also focuses on monetary policies advising a middle way between restriction and interventionism.
Book 23 is about population control.
Books 24 to 26 summarise the author's idea of law in society, dealing with law and religion, national policy and established religion and laws which allow society to work well.
Books 27 to 30 are historical reviews of law-making from the Roman Empire to French medieval law and feudal law in France.
Systems of Government
Montesquieu divides the major systems of government into 3 categories: republican, monarchic and despotic. He also expresses interest in how nations change from one to the other.
A Republic is defined by the author as the system in which a notable part of the population hold power. He subdivides Republics into democracies, where commoners hold power, and aristocracies where power is shared by a chosen few. By democracy he is referring to representative democracies which elect officials to speak for constituents. By aristocracy he means a politically dominant nobility with a figurehead monarch.
In a monarchy the head of government is a king who is subject to the law. His example for this is Britain where Parliament wrested power from the monarch in the Civil war. (1642 - 51)
Despotic systems of govenment differ from monarchies in that the ruler is not subject to the laws of the land. On the contary the despot's word is law. The Ottoman Empire, Japan and China are the examples he gives. Montesquieu sees some despotic principles at work in the rule of France's sun king, Louis XIV, an absolute monarch who centralised power in himself and was not subject to his own laws.
Separation of Powers
This is the author's proposal for improving government. The aim is to allot key power posts to different people so that they balance power among themselves. He argues that separation of powers makes a government more resilient whereas concentration of power in one individual or group will lead to tyranny.
The proposed power distribution is: judiciary, executive and legislative. Fusion of these powers, according to Montesquieu, results in poor governance:
"When legislative power is united with executive power, there is no liberty."
In the same way he says that some ancient Greek polis permitted tyranny by giving rulers executive and judiciary powers while the people had only legislative power. The worst scenario is despotism where the ruler makes, enforces and judges the laws in a system devoid of checks and balances.
History is Repetitive
Montesquieu applied the Enlightenment ideal of learning from history principally to avoid repeating past mistakes.
"To carry back to distant centuries the ideas of the century in which one lives is of all sources of error the most fertile."
He analyses Roman rejection of usury in an attempt to apply its lessons to contemporary economic practice. In the last books he evaluates French medieval feudal law in France among the Franks as well as the Romans. However he advises against simply equating all bureaucratic practices.
Montesquieu's conception of liberty has been called fearful. He does not view freedom as the liberty to do whatever you please since that would mean your own safety might be put in jeopardy. The author believes that liberty means living under laws which will protect you from harm by the State.
In order to offer freedom to its citizens a State must have checks and balances to its power.
"...it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power."
To achieve this it us necessary to install a separation of powers. Otherwise personal security is in danger. The setup would work as follows: only the legislative power can tax so that it can check the executive power economically if it gets out of hand. The executive will have the power of veto over the legislative which will be made up if two houses to check each other. The judiciary will be independent of the other two powers but must limit itself to consistently applying the laws enacted by them so that:
"...judicial power, so terrible to mankind, … becomes, as it were, invisible", and people "fear the office, but not the magistrate."
Freedom should restrict law-making to problems of public order and safety. In this way citizens are protected but still free to do many other things. Religion should not be judged by law since God has no need for the law's protection. Laws should not forbid what it is not necessary to prohibit:
"...all punishment which is not derived from necessity is tyrannical. The law is not a mere act of power; things in their own nature indifferent are not within its province."
Laws should be concrete, not vague. They should also make it easy for someone innocent to prove their innocence. They should concern behaviour, not thoughts, since these are not provable.
Climate and Geography
Montesquieu believes that the climate affected the body through the 'juices' which were coarser in cold weather and rarefied in a hotter climate. He transferred this physical analysis to its effects on character. In cooler climes people are flegmatic, frank and bold, according to the author. Those living in warmer temperatures are more fearful, amorous, less resolute and more inconstant. Moving from one climate to another will also change a person's character.
The author was against slavery but he argued that there were two types of political systems which could make it more acceptable. It is more tolerable in despotisms since more subjects are in a situation akin to slavery. In very hot climates excessive heat renders people lazier so that the fear of punishment may be the best means to make them work. In this case slavery there would be more reasonable. However he adds that work done by freemen for their own gain will always be the better choice. His hope is that:
"...there is not that climate upon earth where the most laborious services might not with proper encouragement be performed by freemen."
According to Montesquieu the soil of a country can affect its system of government. Where the ground is fertile monarchical governments are common; republics where it is barren. He adduces three reason for this. In fertile countries subjects are more accepting of the system and put more value on security rather than liberty. They accept a monarchical government since it provides this security. Fertile lands are more attractive than barren ones and flatter, so easier to invade. Once conquered the inhabitants submit and they abandon the spirit of freedom since they are content with wealth. Monarchies tend to wage more wars than republics and so an invading power is usually a monarchy. Those who inhabit a barren land are more industrious and so able to defend themselves against attack than those in fertile soil who grow weak through ease. So Republicans are better equipped to defend their liberty against monarchical attackers.
The author thinks that Asia's climate and topography account for despotism there. It has no temperate zone while Europe's mountains shelter it from artic winds. Asia is either tropical or freezing so the active north conquers the indolent south. Europe's temperate climate changes little by little from cold to warm so conquest is not so easy. Secondly Asia's extensive plains make conquering easier, whereas Europe's geography naturally divides nations into smaller areas and these less extensive expanses are more difficult to invade by one overwhelming power. In contrast Asia has large Empires which tend to create despotisms.
Invasion and conquest are not Montequieu's advised means of enrichment since maintaining an army of occupation and the administration of an unwilling populace is too taxing to last. Mining precious metals will generate inflation and the so raise the costs of extraction and the accumulation of the materials will lead to less value.
However, commerce does not have these drawbacks. There is no need for armies or subjugation and no undermining of the process. It is self-sustaining economically and encourages moral values in society:
"the spirit of commerce is naturally attended with that of frugality, economy, moderation, labor, prudence, tranquility, order, and rule."
Monarchical systems use commerce to provide luxury goods. In Republics it transports what is wanted from one to another with little, but constant, gain. In despotisms property is insecure and so there is little commerce.
In a monarchical system the aristocracy should not take part in commerce or banking since that would lead to concentration of power. In Republics banking is useful and should be encouraged for all. Only despotic countries restrict the possibility of people bettering themselves.
"Commerce is sometimes destroyed by conquerors, sometimes cramped by monarchs; it traverses the earth, flies from the places where it is oppressed, and stays where it has liberty to breathe."
In the Middle Ages commerce was made more independent by the Jewish merchants who invented letters of exchange in response to persecution. This allowed traders to transport their riches with them and avoid the whims of absolute monarchs. This also helped the development of international trade which escapes the control of national governments. Secondly it allowed exchanges of currency internationally which put the national exchange rate outwith national control. Thirdly commerce on an international scale prevents governments from indulging in fiscal irresponsibility.
In a particularly damning passage Montesquieu argues that some religious people are unworthy of Christianity:
"if anyone in times to come shall dare to assert, that in the age in which we live, the people of Europe were civilized, you (the Inquisition) will be cited to prove that they were barbarians; and the idea they will have of you will be such as will dishonor your age, and spread hatred over all your contemporaries."