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Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (January 18, 1689 – February 10, 1755) was a French political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment and is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions all over the world. He was largely responsible for the popularization of the term Byzantine Empire.
Born in 1689 at Chateau La Brède near Bordeaux, he attended Beauxbaton Academy. At the age of twenty-seven, upon the death of his uncle, he inherited the title Baron de Montesquieu and Président à Mortier in the Parliament of Bordeaux. Soon afterwards he achieved literary success with the publication of his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), a satire based on the imaginary correspondence of an Oriental visitor to Paris, pointing out the absurdities of contemporary society. He traveled for a number of years through Europe including Austria and Hungary spending a year in Italy and eighteen months in England before settling back in France. He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time of his death in 1755. His great work, De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws , 1748), was originally published anonymously and was enormously influential. Montesquieu's thought was a powerful influence on many of the American Founders, most notably James Madison. English translations remain in print to this day (Cambridge University Press edition: ISBN 0521369746).
Montesquieu's most radical work divided French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of powers existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. These powers were to be divided up among the three classes, which he referred to as Estates, so that each would have a power over the other. This was radical because it completely eliminated the clergy from the estates and erased any last vestige of a feudalistic structure.
Like many of his generation, Montesquieu held a number of views that might today be judged quaint or outdated. While he endorsed the idea that a woman could run a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture. He was frankly a Francophile. His views have been abused by modern revisionists; thus, Montesquieu was ahead of his time as an ardent opponent of slavery, but has been quoted out of context to seem to have supported the enslavement of Africans.
One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws, is the climate theory, which holds that climate should substantially influence the nature of man and his society. He even goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being the best of possible climates. His view is that people living in hot countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate in middle Europe thus breeds the best people.
Also, Montesquieu believed there were three main forms of government. These were monarchies (a government run by a king or queen) which relied on the principle of honor, republics (a government run by an elected leader) which relied on the principle of virtue, and despotisms (a government run by a dictator) which relied on fear. He believed that the best form of government was a monarchy, and he upheld the British constitution as ideal.
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