Today is the birthday (1689) of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, generally referred to simply as Montesquieu, French lawyer, man of letters, and political philosopher. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world.
Montesquieu was born at the Château de la Brède in the southwest of France, 25 km south of Bordeaux. His father, Jacques de Secondat, was a soldier with a long noble ancestry. His mother, Marie Françoise de Pesnel, who died when Charles was seven, was an heiress who brought the title of Barony of La Brède to the Secondat family. After the death of his mother he was sent to the Catholic College of Juilly, a prominent school for the children of French nobility, where he remained from 1700 to 1711. His father died in 1713 and he became a ward of his uncle, the Baron de Montesquieu. He became a counselor of the Bordeaux Parliament in 1714. In 1715 he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a Protestant, and they had three children together. The Baron died in 1716, leaving him his fortune as well as his title, and the office of Président à Mortier in the Bordeaux Parliament.
Montesquieu’s early life played out at a time of significant governmental change. England had declared itself a constitutional monarchy in the wake of its Glorious Revolution (1688–89), and had joined with Scotland in the Union of 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In France the long-reigning Louis XIV died in 1715 and was succeeded by the five-year-old Louis XV. Montesquieu referred to these events repeatedly in his work.
Montesquieu achieved literary success with the publication of his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), a satire representing society as seen through the eyes of two imaginary Persian visitors to Paris and Europe, shrewdly criticizing the absurdities of contemporary French society. He next published Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, 1734), considered by some scholars, among his three best known books, as a transition from The Persian Letters to his master work. De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws) was originally published anonymously in 1748. The book quickly rose to influence political thought profoundly in Europe and North America. In France, the book met with an unfriendly reception from both supporters and opponents of the regime. The Catholic Church banned l’Esprit – along with many of Montesquieu’s other works – in 1751 and included it on the Index of Prohibited Books. It received the highest praise from the rest of Europe, especially Britain.
Montesquieu was also highly regarded in the British colonies in North America as a champion of liberty (though not of American independence). Montesquieu was the most frequently quoted authority on government and politics in colonial pre-revolutionary British America, cited more by the American founders than any source except for the Bible. Following the American revolution, Montesquieu’s work remained a powerful influence on many of the American founders, most notably James Madison of Virginia, the “Father of the Constitution.” Montesquieu’s philosophy that “government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another” reminded Madison and others that a free and stable foundation for their new national government required a clearly defined and balanced separation of powers.
Besides composing additional works on society and politics, Montesquieu traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary, spending a year in Italy and 18 months in England where he became a freemason, admitted to the Horn Tavern Lodge in Westminster, before resettling in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time he died from a high fever in 1755. He was buried in the Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris.
Montesquieu’s philosophy of history minimized the role of individuals and events. He expounded the view in Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence that each historical event was driven by a principal movement:
It is not chance that rules the world. Ask the Romans, who had a continuous sequence of successes when they were guided by a certain plan, and an uninterrupted sequence of reverses when they followed another. There are general causes, moral and physical, which act in every monarchy, elevating it, maintaining it, or hurling it to the ground. All accidents are controlled by these causes. And if the chance of one battle—that is, a particular cause—has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle. In a word, the main trend draws with it all particular accidents.
In discussing the transition from the Republic to the Empire, for example, he suggested that if Caesar and Pompey had not worked to usurp the government of the Republic, other men would have risen in their place. The cause was not the ambition of Caesar or Pompey, but the circumstances of the times.
Montesquieu divided French society into three classes: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from, yet dependent upon, each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. This was a radical idea because it completely eliminated the three Estates structure of the French Monarchy: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people at large represented by the Estates-General, thereby erasing the last vestige of a feudalistic structure.
Likewise, Montesquieu proposed that there were three main forms of government, each supported by a social principle: monarchies (free governments headed by a hereditary figure, e.g. king, queen, emperor), which rely on the principle of honor; republics (free governments headed by popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (enslaved governments headed by dictators), which rely on fear. Free governments are dependent on fragile constitutional arrangements. Montesquieu devotes four chapters of The Spirit of the Laws to a discussion of England, a contemporary free government, where liberty was sustained by a balance of powers. Montesquieu worried that in France the intermediate powers (i.e., the nobility) which moderated the power of the prince were being eroded. These ideas of the control of power were often used in the thinking of Maximilien de Robespierre.
Montesquieu was forward thinking in advocating major reform of slavery in The Spirit of the Laws. As part of his advocacy he presented a satirical hypothetical list of arguments for slavery, which has often been quoted out of context. However, like many of his generation, Montesquieu also held a number of views that might today be judged controversial. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture, and while he endorsed the idea that a woman could head a state, he held that one could not be effective as the head of a family.
Montesquieu outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, a meteorological climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of human society. His theorizing involves a kind of environmental determinism that is untenable, but his reflections on the relationship between certain material conditions and the development of culture are valuable.
He goes too far in his assertion that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being ideal. His view is that people living in very warm countries are “too hot-tempered,” while those in northern countries are “icy” or “stiff.” The climate of middle Europe is therefore optimal. On this point, Montesquieu may well have been influenced by a similar pronouncement in The Histories of Herodotus, where he makes a distinction between the “ideal” temperate climate of Greece as opposed to the overly cold climate of Scythia and the overly warm climate of Egypt. This was a common belief at the time, and can also be found within the medical writings of Herodotus’ times, including the “On Airs, Waters, Places” of the Hippocratic corpus. One can find a similar statement in Germania by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu’s favorite authors.
Nevertheless, when considering the development of the domestication of plants and animals, followed by sedentary living, and ultimately urbanism, it is notable that such events occurred first in warm temperate zones such as central Mexico, the Fertile Crescent, and the Indus Valley, and then spread to other zones. So there is an interplay between environment and human culture and adaptation.
I love this quote from Montesquieu:
Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half.
It conjures up classic images of 18th century Parisian overindulgence. I must admit that many of my recipes presented here are over the top. But they are not reflective of my actual eating habits. The bulk of my daily diet is made up of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. I eat meat and fat in moderation, and rarely use sugar or salt in cooking. Then again, from time to time I’ll cook something rich in butter and cream without thinking twice about it because it is a rarity. So, to honor Montesquieu I present you with a supremely indulgent classic sauce from his native Bordeaux, sauce bordelaise, made with dry red wine, bone marrow, butter, shallots and demi-glace. Traditionally, bordelaise sauce is served with grilled beef or steak, though it can also be served with other meats or vegetables.
1 oz butter
¼ cup finely chopped shallots
½ cup Bordeaux red wine
½ tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp cracked black peppercorn
1 cup demi glace
You need enough marrow bones to produce about 4 ounces of marrow. Place them on a baking tray and roast at 350°F/175°C for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the marrow is soft. Remove the marrow from the bone and dice. Reserve with any pan juices.
Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat, add the butter, then the shallots. Sauté the shallots for a couple of minutes until they become translucent but not colored.
Add the red wine and reduce for 2 to 3 minutes. If you are feeling flamboyant (!) you can ignite the alcohol as it burns off. Add the thyme and peppercorns (to taste).
Continue reducing until most of the wine is cooked off. There should be very little liquid left in the pan.
Add the demi glace and simmer, stirring occasionally, for approximately 6 minutes or until the sauce begins to thicken.
Add the reserved bone marrow and juices to the sauce and continue simmering until the marrow has melted and becomes well incorporated into the sauce. Reduce the sauce until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Some cooks add extra butter at this stage to help the thickening.
Serve in a sauce boat or poured over your meat.