Montesquieu's Greatest Mark on Philosophy Essay

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Doubtless, if Montesquieu were forced to choose a favorite mathematical formula, he would pick the average function. For even among the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, the baron de Montesquieu stands out as an especially impassioned advocate for moderation. Montesquieu, of course, left his greatest mark on the philosophy of the governance through his great work The Spirit of the Laws. Though certainly his earlier work The Persian Letters sowed the seeds of many of the ideas featured in his chef d’œuvre. In particular, Montesquieu spends some time in both works examining the universe of possible governments. But he advocates not, in fact, for republicanism or, perhaps less surprisingly, despotism. Rather, Montesquieu supports the “moderate” position: a government less despotic than despotism, and yet less democratic than democracy or republicanism. He makes the case, in other words, for rule by an enlightened monarch.
Montesquieu himself divides the principal forms of government into three broad groupings in his seminal work The Spirit of the Laws. At one extreme he places the “republican” government, at the other the despotic. The “monarchical” he places somewhere in the center (Spirit of the Laws bk. II, ch. 1). The ordering alone belies Montesquieu’s stance; of course other evidence is more explicit.
To begin, Montesquieu does little to disguise his distaste for despotic governments. Even Usbek, Rhedi and Rica, Montesquieu’s invented Persian aristocrats in The Persian Letters—whose nobility flows from a despotic Asian government—find fault with the despotic system, as if to underline the system’s lack of merit. Usbek says of European states, “A week’s imprisonment, or a small fine, impress the mind of a...

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Government in moderation is Montesquieu’s prescription for political success. He finds obvious and glaring faults with the despotic system, from the cruelty despots show their subjects to the instability of the despotic government as an institution. The republican system, as Montesquieu sees it, is not without its merits. But he seems certain that such a system is doomed to succumb to human caprice. Monarchy, though, strikes a balance in Montesquieu’s eyes. It neither rests upon the resolve of the citizenry, nor allows a prince the kind of unchecked control that subjects a population to the whims of a single man.

Works Cited
Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède. The Persian Letters. Trans. C. J. Betts. London: The Penguin Group, 1973.
—. The Spirit of the Laws. Ed. J.V. Prichard. Trans. Thomas Nugent. London: Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1914.

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