Montesquieu

On this date in 1689, political philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, was born near Bordeaux, France. Educated at Roman Catholic schools, Montesquieu earned his law degree at the University of Bordeaux in 1708. He inherited his father's estates in 1713. In 1716, he became a titled baron. He married a practicing Protestant woman and had three children, but immersed himself in work and scholarship. For about a decade he presided over the criminal division of Bordeaux' parliament, then sold his office and resigned in 1725. His irreverent spoof, Persian Letters, published anonymously in 1721, was banned by the Pope. The novel, pessimistic but amusing, was written as a correspondence between two Persian Muslims commenting on the peculiar customs of Europe. Aware of the identity of Persian Letters' author, Catholic officials attempted to bar Montesquieu from the Academie Francaise, but he was eventually admitted in 1728. Through 1731, Montesquieu traveled in Italy, Germany, Austria and England. His opus, The Spirit of Laws (1731), promoted a republican democracy, the separation of powers, specifying "three estates"--legislative, executive and judiciary, and called for the abolition of slavery and of religious persecution. The book has remained in print, and was a major inspiration to James Madison and the American founders, who adopted a Constitution closely patterned after Monesquieu's political philosophy. The most radical notion in his work was the omission of a role for clergy in government. The Spirit of Laws also found its way into the Index of Forbidden Books. A classical deist of the Enlightenment, Monesquieu believed only in a nature's god, not a personal deity. D. 1755.

“If triangles made a god, they would give him three sides.”

—Montesquieu, Persian Letters, 1721

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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