The Spirit of the Laws

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For general spirit of law, see Letter and spirit of the law.
The Spirit of the Laws
Esprit Loix 1749.JPG
Volume 2 of revised and corrected edition. Amsterdam, Chatelain, 1749
Author Montesquieu
Country France
Language French
Subject law
Genre non-fiction
Publication date
1748
Published in English
1750
Media type paper

The Spirit of the Laws (French: De l'esprit des lois, originally spelled De l'esprit des loix; also sometimes called The Spirit of Laws)[1] is a treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu in 1748 with the help of Claudine Guérin de Tencin. Originally published anonymously partly because Montesquieu's works were subject to censorship, its influence outside of France was aided by its rapid translation into other languages. In 1750 Thomas Nugent published the first English translation. In 1751 the Catholic Church added De l'esprit des lois to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books"). Yet Montesquieu's political treatise had an enormous influence on the work of many others, most notably: Catherine the Great, who produced Nakaz (Instruction); the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution; and Alexis de Tocqueville, who applied Montesquieu's methods to a study of American society, in Democracy in America. Macaulay offers us a hint of Montesquieu's importance when he writes in his 1827 essay entitled "Machiavelli" that "Montesquieu enjoys, perhaps, a wider celebrity than any political writer of modern Europe."

Montesquieu spent around twenty one years researching and writing De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), covering many things like the law, social life, and the study of anthropology and providing more than 3,000 commendations.[2] In this political treatise Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government and the separation of powers, the ending of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community.[2]

Constitutional theory[edit]

In his classification of political systems, Montesquieu defines three main kinds: republican, monarchical, and despotic. As he defines them, Republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship rights—those that extend citizenship relatively broadly are termed democratic republics, while those that restrict citizenship more narrowly are termed aristocratic republics. The distinction between monarchy and despotism hinges on whether or not a fixed set of laws exists that can restrain the authority of the ruler: if so, the regime counts as a monarchy; if not, it counts as despotism.

Principles that motivate citizen behaviour according to Montesquieu[edit]

Driving each classification of political system, according to Montesquieu, must be what he calls a "principle". This principle acts as a spring or motor to motivate behavior on the part of the citizens in ways that will tend to support that regime and make it function smoothly.

  • For democratic republics (and to a somewhat lesser extent for aristocratic republics), this spring is the love of virtue—the willingness to put the interests of the community ahead of private interests.
  • For monarchies, the spring is the love of honor—the desire to attain greater rank and privilege.
  • Finally, for despotisms, the spring is the fear of the ruler.

A political system cannot last long if its appropriate principle is lacking. Montesquieu claims, for example, that the English failed to establish a republic after the Civil War (1642–1651) because the society lacked the requisite love of virtue.

Liberty and the separation of powers[edit]

A second major theme in De l'esprit des lois concerns political liberty and the best means of preserving it. "Political liberty" is Montesquieu's concept of what we might call today personal security, especially insofar as this is provided for through a system of dependable and moderate laws. He distinguishes this view of liberty from two other, misleading views of political liberty. The first is the view that liberty consists in collective self-government—i.e. that liberty and democracy are the same. The second is the view that liberty consists in being able to do whatever one wants without constraint. Not only are these latter two not genuine political liberty, he thinks, they can both be hostile to it.

Political liberty is not possible in a despotic political system, but it is possible, though not guaranteed, in republics and monarchies. Generally speaking, establishing political liberty on a sound footing requires two things:

Building on and revising a discussion in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, Montesquieu argues that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches. (Habeas Corpus is an example of a check that the Judiciary branch has on the Executive branch of government.) In a lengthy discussion of the English political system, he tries to show how this might be achieved and liberty secured, even in a monarchy. He also notes that liberty cannot be secure where there is no separation of powers, even in a republic.
  • The appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security.
Montesquieu intends what modern legal scholars might call the rights to "robust procedural due process", including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and the proportionality in the severity of punishment. Pursuant to this requirement to frame civil and criminal laws appropriately to ensure political liberty (i.e., personal security), Montesquieu also argues against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech and assembly.

Climate, culture, and society[edit]

The third major contribution of De l'esprit des lois was to the field of political sociology, which Montesquieu is often credited with more or less inventing. The bulk of the treatise, in fact, concerns how geography and climate interact with particular cultures to produce the "spirit" of a people. This spirit, in turn, inclines that people toward certain sorts of political and social institutions, and away from others. Later writers often caricatured Montesquieu's theory by suggesting that he claimed to explain legal variation simply by the distance of a community from the equator.

While the analysis in De l'esprit des lois is much more subtle than these later writers perceive, many of his specific claims appear foolish to modern readers. Nevertheless, his approach to politics from a naturalistic or scientific point of view proved very influential, directly or indirectly inspiring modern fields of political science, sociology, and anthropology.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ de Secondat, Charles, Baron de Montesquieu, "The Spirit of Laws: A Compendium of the First English Edition", 1977
  2. ^ a b Cohler, et al., "Introduction" to the 1989 Cambridge UP ed.

References[edit]

External links[edit]