Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu was a French philosopher of the Enlightenment period. He is famed for his political theory of the separation of powers, which continues to be recognized as a fundamental element of modern constitutions and the rule of law.
Born in Bordeaux in 1689, Baron de Montesquieu went on to become an author, lawyer, philosopher and social commentator during the Enlightenment. His father was from a wealthy aristocratic background and his mother died when he was very young. The Spirit of Laws is widely regarded as Montesquieu’s most significant work and it continues to inspire constitutions and theories of political governance today. Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers – the trias politica – in which the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government are separate, formed the basis of democracies such as the UK and USA.
Montesquieu attended a prestigious Catholic College and on the death of his father, he was sent to live with his uncle. He received a classical education, before going on to study law in Bordeaux. Montesquieu started his career as a Parliamentary Councilor in Bordeaux and later became the Deputy President of the Bordeaux Parliament. He resigned in 1725 to travel to Germany, Austria, England and Italy, returning to his native France in 1731. Back in France, Montesquieu wrote The Spirit of Laws, drawing inspiration from his travels, particularly the English parliamentary system. Other important works by Montesquieu include System of Ideas (1716) and Persian Letters (1721).
Montesquieu’s political philosophy was grounded in liberalism and his political ideas were radical and progressive for his time. Essentially, Montesquieu’s ideas were advocating for limitations on political power and posed a serious threat to the status quo of the political order and social structures. Montesquieu’s works mocked all social classes and his writing created a rich new system of political classification and lexicon.
Montesquieu died from a fever in 1755 in Paris, where he is buried at the Church of Saint-Sulpice.
The deterioration of every government begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded.
There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.
We wish to be happier than other people; and this is difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.
“There is no nation so powerful, as the one that obeys its laws not from principles of fear or reason, but from passion.”
“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”
Check out the rest of our Teacher Guides and Lesson Plans!