After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Montesquieu.
Life of Montesquieu:
Montesquieu’s full name is baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu—popularly known as Montesquieu. He was born in a French noble family in 1689 and died in 1755. He loved to read and write and, like the utilitarian thinker he spent his life in reading and writing. He was really a great intellectual of eighteenth century France, and not only France, his name and fame crossed the border of France and spread in other parts of Western Europe. Three important works of Montesquieu deal with political theory.
These are – The Persian Letters (1721), Consideration on the Causes of the Greatness and Decline of Romans (1734), and the most important and widely read book The Spirit of the Laws (1748).
I have already noted that Montesquieu was the most important figure of the Enlightenment. Let us throw light on this issue. He once said that there was no second opinion that people should be enlightened because without this their prejudice and ignorance would never vanish.
Again, he believed that both prejudice and ignorance were the greatest enemies of man, progress and, above all, civilization.
In this connection Dante Germino says:
“Enlightenment was Montesquieu’s goal. By enlightenment he meant the liberation from prejudice of both rulers and the ruled. By prejudice he meant not what makes men ignorant of certain things but what makes them ignorant of themselves. He shared the Enlightenments confidence in the power of education to liberate man”.
Through the machinery of Enlightenment Montesquieu wanted the overall progress of society. Some of his biographers and critics of his political philosophy claim that he used Enlightenment for the purpose of new political ideas and concepts.
Political Ideas of Montesquieu:
1. Separation of Powers:
Montesquieu is famous in the history of political thought for his famous formulation of separation of powers as the most important precondition of political liberty and this idea he stated in his famous the Spirit of Laws.
About this book Marxey says “It would be hard to name a book that has ever achieved speedier, wider or more lasting fame than The Spirit of the Laws. In this book he dealt with number of political concepts which are still of prime importance. One such concept is separation of powers and the other is laws.”
Let us quote liberally from the Spirit of the Laws:
“In every government there are three sorts of power the legislative, the executive in respect to things dependent on the law of nations, and the executive in regard to matters that depend in the civil law. By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws. By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies, establishes the public securities. By the third, he punishes criminals and determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call judiciary power.”
This is the clear formulation of separation of power stated by Montesquieu. He visited several European countries including Britain and there he “found” that the British people enjoyed liberty because of the separation of power. In other words, the separation of powers was the recipe of political liberty.
Let us again quote him:
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or in the body of magistrates, there can be no liberty. Again there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control.
Were it joined to the executive power the judge might behave with violence and oppression. There would be an end of everything, were the same men or the same body, whether of nobles or of the people to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.
We have quoted a lengthy passage from Montesquieu’s .The Spirit of the Laws. In the opinion of Montesquieu the key to political liberty lies in the separation of powers. He was so impressed at the sight of the quantum of political liberty enjoyed by the British people that without going into the depth of the matter he forthwith arrived at the conclusion that this was due to the separation of powers. But, in reality, this is wrong.
Montesquieu gathered a very wrong conception about the structure and working of the British administrative system.
Being an Enlightenment man he was a great lover and worshipper of freedom and the amount of liberty enjoyed by Englishmen impressed him. But the fact is that in his time and even today there is no trace of separation of powers in Britain. Notwithstanding, British people enjoy political liberty.
Why and how? Let us quote few lines from Maxey’s book:
“British liberty had been achieved by the erection of constitutional barriers against arbitrary power and there was a feeling that the courts should be independent and the crown and parliament balanced against one another, though full organic separation had not taken place and never did”. He believed that without liberty people could not get any scope to enlighten his thought and achieve success in life.
Montesquieu has treated laws as simply social facts. Laws are the crystallizations of social experience and by-products of social adjustments. In human society, people live, and they are to make adjustments among themselves.
Laws are the products of those adjustments. Let us elaborate the matter. At some period of time people lived in unorganized societies and the relationship among them was not controlled by law because there was no law worth its name.
The formation of society was actually the originator of law. He writes – “As soon as man enters into a state of society he loses the sense of his weakness, equality ceases and then commences the state of war”. Social life makes men conscious and courageous.
They prepare themselves to face any situation. But the society does remain static in a particular situation. It moves forward, which means that, with the change of time and physical environment, society also changes. This change brings about change in the nature and structure of law.
Summing up Montesquieu’s stand Maxey says “These two states of war give rise to positive law; the law of nations, governing the relations between individuals within societies.” Behind the formation of law there was always the active role of reason. Let us see what Montesquieu says about law.
“Laws, in their most comprehensive signification, are the necessary relations which derive from the nature of things, and, in this sense all beings have their laws, the divinity has its laws, the material world its laws, intelligences superior to man their laws, beasts their laws, man his laws”.
If we thoroughly study Montesquieu’s view about law we shall find that there are several factors behind every law; one such factor is reason. Since he was an Enlightenment man he always thought that behind every act or gesture there must be reason.
In other words, the laws are always the manifestations of reason. Laws, again, are built upon the relations among men. In his view the relations are practically built upon reason and, finally, on law.
Explaining Montesquieu’s view about law Plamenatz makes the following observation. His definition of law “is meant to cover all uniformities of behaviour as well as moral rules, custom and civil laws. It, therefore, treats descriptive and prescriptive laws as if they were of the same general type.”
Montesquieu divides law into three classes corresponding to three sets of relations. When the law is between the nations, it is the law of nations. When there is the question of the relation between ruler and the ruled it is called political law.
The relations among the individual citizens are decided by civil law. His classification of law is unique. Today there exist all these three types of law. Even there are other types of laws. But Montesquieu had noted three basic forms of laws. Here lies his credit. His view about law has been criticized by Sabine. He says that Montesquieu’s theory of law is based on a vague formula and he makes no attempt to clear his definitions.
Plamenatz says that it is easy to pull his theory of law to pieces. But many of his innumerable facts and conclusions have proved true or close to the truth. Though Voltaire did not like him he thought that Montesquieu’s opinion about law was correct.