Montesquieu was born to Jacques de Secondat, a noble soldier, and Marie Françoise de Pesnel, a French heiress in 1689. He was born during the reign of Louis XIV, a monarch who wanted absolute power for the Crown over every aspect of the French lifestyle. This cruel way of ruling led to Montesquieu becoming one of the most influential French philosophers of his time. Montesquieu is still to this day a well-known Enlightenment thinker who influences governments and societies around the world with his ideas on separation of powers, religious tolerance, and human nature.
Montesquieu is most commonly praised for his ideas on the separation of powers that are still seen in constitutions and governments around the world. Separation of powers breaks up the government into three branches, legislative, executive and judicial, to protect political freedom. This ensures that no one group or individual has all the power. Early signs of the separation of powers were seen in ancient Greece and Rome, but were formally written about by Montesquieu in his work The Spirit of Laws. This writing outlines Montesquieu’s belief that the power to rule must be shared between governmental offices to avoid despotism. Montesquieu defined despotism as a system that gives all authority to just one official. He believed the goal of the government is to maintain liberty and despotism put this goal in great danger. Montesquieu believed in separation of powers because it creates a “balance of power” that protects liberty. This idea of a separated government greatly influenced governments all around the world, including our own. While this idea is an important contribution given to us by Montesquieu, separation of powers is not the only idea this great philosopher is known for.
Montesquieu is also known for his religious tolerance, during a time of much upheaval. In his writing The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu mainly mentions religions “in relation only to the good they produce in civil society” (The Spirit of Laws 24.1). He believed that different religions are appropriate for different forms of government. For example, he felt that Catholicism was ideal for a Monarchy. Montesquieu also proclaimed that religion can lessen the negative effects of poor laws and governmental institutions. Religion can act as a check on the absolute power of despotism. However, Montesquieu believed that civil laws should not be based on religious principles. Religion is mainly to benefit the individual, not an entire society. Because of religions’ benefit of protecting liberty within government and everyday life, Montesquieu believed all religions should be tolerated by the state and its people. Montesquieu claimed that “religious wars are not caused by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance.” He believed tolerance was a key factor in maintaining personal liberty and influenced the thinking of others on this subject. The benefits of religious tolerance preached by Montesquieu are still seen in our teachings and laws today.
Last but not least, Montesquieu’s ideas on human nature have also shaped life around us. Montesquieu based his writings on the nature of things. He claimed that individuals are so fearful alone they avoid things such as violence and war. However, a need for food and necessities causes societies to be built. By being a part of a society, people lose their weaknesses, equality goes away and war breaks out. Montesquieu’s discussions on human nature and state of war bring up multiple reasons for our need for modern-day laws and government. Montesquieu also wrote that it is human nature to seek power, leading to the idea of separation of powers that influenced our Constitution and governments around the world. Lastly, Montesquieu claimed that despotism, slavery and religious persecution go against human nature and should be ended. These beliefs and ideas influenced our modern-day society and showed that things such as slavery are in fact a negative influence on civilization.
It is easy to see how Montesquieu has influenced our modern-day life and history with his thoughts on the separation of powers, religious tolerance, and human nature. His writings on separation of powers influenced governments around the world, while religious tolerance promoted equality and acceptance in cultures throughout history. Montesquieu’s advanced thoughts on human nature helped civilizations past and present to understand how actions can shape the world we live in. Montesquieu is a renowned Enlightenment philosopher whose theories continue to affect history and life around us.