Montesquieu (1689-1755)
The Spirit of the Laws

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
In The Spirit of the Laws, Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, sought to analyze government, laws, and political culture from a wholistic and comparative perspective. He examined the relationship between the laws, history, climate, culture, political institutions, and mores of nations, drawing upon examples from the ancient and modern world. While Montesquieu sought to develop theories that were empirical and objective, following the model of Newtonian science, it is clear with hindsight that his theories were also conditioned by his political ideological commitments, and especially by the principle of "liberty" as it was embodied (he believed) in the English constitution.

1. How does Montesquieu define "political liberty"?
2. According to Montesquieu, what are the greatest dangers to liberty?
3. According to Montesquieu, how, in the face of such dangers, can liberty best be attained and preserved?
4. How would you compare Montesquieu's approach and theory to those of other thinkers encountered in this class?

[1] 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 things that depend on the civil law.

[2] By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted. By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies; establishes the public security, and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call the judiciary power, and the other simply the executive power of the state.

[3] The political liberty of the subject is a tranquility of mind, arising from the opinion each person has of his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.

[4] When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may anse, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

[5] Again, there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor.

[6] There would be an end of every thing were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people to exercise those three powers that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and that of judging the crimes or differences of individuals. . . .

[7] Hence it is that many of the princes of Europe, whose aim has been levelled at arbitrary power, have constantly set out with uniting in their own persons, all the branches of magistracy, and all the great offices of state.

[8] It is not my business to examine whether the English actually enjoy this liberty, or not. It is sufficient for my purpose to observe, that it is established by their laws; and I inquire no further.

[9] Neither do I pretend by this to undervalue other governments, not to say that this extreme political liberty ought to give uneasiness to those who have only a moderate share of it. How should I have any such design, I who think that even the excess of reason is not always desirable, and that mankind generally find their account better in mediums than in extremes?

From Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, vol. 1, trans. Thomas Nugent (London: J. Nourse, 1777), pp. 221-237, passim.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997

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