Montesquieu, Charles De Secondat, Baron Of

, a very celebrated French writer, was descended of an ancient and noble family of Guienne, and born at the castle of Brede near Bourdeaux, Jan. 18, 1639. The greatest care was taken of his education; and, at the age of twenty, he had actually prepared materials for his “Spirit of Laws,” by a well-digested extract from those immense volumes which compose the body of the civil law; and which he had studied both as a civilian and a philosopher. Maupertuis informs us that he studied this science almost from his infancy, and that the first product of his early genius was a work, in which he undertook to prove, that the idolatry of most part of the pagans did not deserve eternal punishment, but this he thought fit to suppress. In Feb. 1714, he became a counsellor of the parliament of Bourdeaux, and was received president amortier, July 13, 1716, in the room of an uncle, who left him his fortune and his office. He was admitted, April 3, 1716, into the academy of Bourdeaux, which was then only in its infancy. A taste for music, and for works of entertainment, had, at first, assembled the members who composed it; but the societies for belles lettres being grown, in his opinion, too numerous, he proposed to have physics for their chief object; and the duke de la Force, having, by a prize just founded at Bourdeaux, seconded this just and rational proposal, Bourdeaux acquired an academy of sciences.

Montesquieu is said not to have been eager to shew himself to the public, but rather to wait for “an age ripe for writing.” It was not till 1721, when he was thirty-two years of age, that he published his “Persian Letters.” The description of oriental manners, real or supposed, of the prirle and phlegm of Asiatic love, is but the smallest object of these “Letters;” which were more particularly intended as a satire upon French manners, and treat of everai important subjects, which the author investigates rather fully, while he only seems to glance at them. Though this work was. exceedingly admired, yet he did not | openly declare himself the author of it. He expresses himself sometimes freely about matters of religion, and therefore as soon as he was known to be the author, he had to encounter much censure and serious opposition, for at that time the philosophizing spirit was not tolerated in France. In 1725, he opened the parliament with a speech, the depth and eloquence of which were convincing proofs of his great abilities as an orator; and the year following he quitted his charge.

A place in the French academy becoming vacant by the death of monsieur de Sacy, in 1728, Montesquieu, by the advice of his friends, and supported also by the voice of the public, offered himself for it. Upon this, the minister, cardinal Fleury, wrote a letter to the academy, informing them, that his majesty would never agree to the election of the author of the “Persian Letters” that he had not himself read the book but that persons in whom he placed confidence, had informed him of its dangerous tendency. Montesquieu, thinking it prudent immediately to encounter this opposition, waited on the minister, and declared to him, that, for particular reasons, he had not owned the “Persian Letters,” but that he would be still farther from, disowning a work, for which he believed he had no reason to blush; and that he ought to be judged after a reading, and not upon information. At last, the minister did what he ought to have begun with; he read the book, loved the author, and learned to place his confidence better. The French academy, says D’Alembert, was not deprived of one of its greatest ornaments, nor France of a subject, of which superstition or calumny was ready to deprive her; for Montesquieu, it seems, had frankly declared to the government, that he could not think of continuing in France after the affront they were about to offer, but should seek among foreigners for that safety, repose, and honour, which he might have hoped in his own country. He was received into the academy, Jan. 24, 1728; and his discourse upon that occasion, which was reckoned a very fine one, is printed among his works.*


His conduct has been differently represented by Voltaire. Montesquieu, says that author, took a very judicious step to make the minister his friend. He printed, in a few days, a new edition of his book, in which every thing was omitted that could be condemned by a cardinal or a minister. Montesquieu himself carried the work to the cardinal, who seldom read, and he perused part of it. This air of confidence, supported by the influence of some persons of credit, regained the cardinal’s interest; and Montesquieu


obtained a seat in the academy. This seems unworthy of Montesquieu; but his conduct to —Dupin, hereafter men tioned, is a greater proof of littleness of minst, and renders the above bable.

| As before his admission into the academy, he had giveatip his civil employments, and devoted himself entirely to his genius and taste, he resolved to travel, and went first, in company with lord Waldegrave our ambassador, to Vienna, where he often saw prince Eugene; in whom he thought he could discover some remains of affection for his native country. He left Vienna to visit Hungary; and, passing thence through Venice, went to Rome. There he applied himself chiefly to examine the works of Raphael, of Titian, and of Michael Angelo, although he had not made the fine arts a particular study. After having travelled over Italy, he came to Switzerland, and carefully examined 1 those vast countries which are watered by the Rhine. He stopped afterwards some time in the United Provinces; and, at last, went to England, where he stayed three years, and contracted intimate friendships with many of the most distinguished characters of the day. He in particular received many marks of attention from queen Caroline. In the portrait of Montesquieu, written by himself, and published lately among some posthumous pieces, he gives the following proof of his gallantry in reply “Dining in England with the duke of Richmond, the French envoy there La Boine, who was at table, and was ill qualified for his situation, contended that England was not larger than the province of Guienne. I opposed the envoy. In the evening, the queen said to me, `I am informed, sir, that you undertook our defence against M. de la Boine.‘ `Madam,’ I replied, `I cannot persuade myself that a country over which you reign, is not a great kingdom.‘

During his travels to gain a personal acquaintance with the manners, genius, and laws of the different nations of Europe, he met with some singular adventures. Whilst he was at Venice he wrote much and inquired more: his writings, which he did not keep sufficiently secret, had alarmtd the state; he was informed of it, and it was hinted to him that he had some reason to be apprehensive that in crossing from Venice to Fucina, he might probably be arrested. With this information he embarked: about the middle of the passage, he saw several gondolas approach, and row round his vessel: terror seized him, and in his | panic he collected all his papers which contained his observations on Venice, and cast them into the sea. The author of the “New Memoirs of Italy” says, that the state had no design against his person, but only to discover what plans he might have formed.

After his return, he retired for two years to his estate at Brede, and there finished his work “On the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans,” which appeared in 1734, and in which he has rendered a common topic highly interesting. By seizing only the most fruitful branches of his subject, he has contrived to present within G small compass a great variety of objects. But whatever reputation he acquired by this work, it was but preparatory to the more extensive fame of his “Spirit of Laws,” of which he had, as already noticed, long formed the design. Yet scarcely was it published, in 1748, when it was attacked by the same adversaries who had objected to the “Persian Letters,” who at first treated it with levity, and even the title of it was made a-subject of ridicule; but the more serious objections made to it on the score of religion*


Among his critics was M. —Dupin, a farmer-general, who wrote an answer to the “Spirit of Laws;” but after a few copies had been distributed, Montesquieu made his complaint to madame Pompadour, who sent for the writer, and told him she took the “Sprit of the Laws,” and its author, under her protection: in consequence of this, —Dupin was obliged to submit, and the whole edition of his answer was consigned to the flames. This was not to the credit of Montesquieu, who should have learnt a different lesson from England, in which he said he had been excited to thought and reflection.

alarmed the author, who therefore drew up “A Defence* of the Spirit of Laws;” in which, while he could not pretend that it was without faults, he endeavoured to prove that it had not all the faults ascribed to it. It is said that when the “Spirit of Laws” made its appearance, the Sorbonne found in it several propositions contrary to the doctrine of the catholic church. These doctors entered into a critical investigation of the work, which they generally censured; but as among the propositions condemned, there were found some concerning ecclesiastical jurisdiction which were attended with many difficulties, and as Montesquieu had promised to give a new edition, in which he would correct any passages that had appeared against religion, this censure of the Sorbonne did not appear.

The systematical part of the “Spirit of Laws” was that of which Montesquieu seemed the most tenacious; this | indeed was the most important and the most difficult. His system, however, of the climates, inconclusive and illfounded as it is, appears borrowed from Bodin’s “Method of studying History,” and Charron’s “Treatise on Wisdom.” Still the numerous useful observations, ingenious reflections, salutary plans, and strong images, that are diffused through the work, added to the admirable maxims we there meet with for the good of society, gave the work a very high reputation in France, as well as throughout Europe in general. It has now lost much of its popularity, but at one time no book was more read and studied.

The admirers of Montesquieu have wished that he had applied himself to the writing of history; but it may be doubted whether his imagination would not have proved too lively for that attention to facts and authorities which is absolutely necessary to historical narrative. He had, however, finished the history of Lewis XI. of France, and the public was upon the point of reaping the benefit of his labours, when a singular mistake deprived them of it. Montesquieu one day left the rough draught and the copy of this history upon his table, when he ordered his secretary to burn the draught, and lock up the copy. The secretary obeyed in part, but left the copy upon the table: Montesquieu returning some hours after into his study, observed this copy, which he took for the draught, and threw it into the fire. On this and the preceding anecdote, one of his countrymen, in the true spirit of French compliment, observes, “that the elements, as well as men in power, seemed jealous of his superior merit, as water and fire deprived us of two of his most valuable productions.

In 1751, a literary dispute arose concerning the translation of the Bible into French: the question was, whether the second person singular, which is dismissed in all polite conversation, should be preserved Fontenelle was on the affirmative side, as well as Montesquieu. Remarks were written on this determination, in which the writer, among other things, observes, “That the author of the Persian Letters with his eastern taste, could not fail being an advocate for thou.

About this time, among other marks of esteem bestowed on Montesquieu, Dassier, who was celebrated for cutting of medals, and particularly the English coin, went from London to Paris, to engrave that of the author of the Spirit | of Laws; but Montesquieu modestly declined it. The artist said to him one day, “Do not you think there is as much pride in refusing my proposal, as if you accepted it?” Disarmed by this pleasantry, he yielded to Dassier’s request.

Montesquieu was peaceably enjoying that esteem which his merits had procured him, when he fell sick at Paris in 1755. His health, naturally delicate, had begun to decay for some time, partly by the slow but sure effect of deep study, and partly by the way of life he was obliged to lead at Paris. He was oppressed with cruel pains soon after he fell sick, nor had he his family, or any relations, near him; yet he preserved to his last moments great firmness and tranquillity of mind. “In short,” says his elogist, " after having performed every duty which decency required, he died with the ease and well-grounded assurance of a man who had never employed his talents but in the cause of virtue and humanity.’ 7 His last hours are said to have been disturbed by the Jesuits, who wished him to retract some of his opinions on religion; and some say he made a formal disavowal of these. He died February 10, 1755, aged 66.

Besides the works already mentioned, Montesquieu wrote others of less reputation, but which might have conferred celebrity on a tvriter of inferior merit. The most remarkable of them is the “Temple of Gnidus,” which was published soon after the “Persian Letters.” Montesquieu, says D’Alembert, after having been Horace, Theophrastus, and Lucian, in those, was Ovid and Anacreon in this new essay. In this he professes to describe the delicacy and simplicity of pastoral love, such as it is in an inexperienced heart, not yet corrupted with the commerce of the world and this he has painted in a sort of poem in prose for, such we may reasonably call a piece so full of images and descriptions as the “Temple of Gnidus.” Its voluptuous style at first made it be read with avidity, but it is now considered as unworthy of the author. Besides this, there is a small piece, called “Lysimachus,” and another, still smaller, " On Taste;' 1 but this is indeed only a fragment. Several of his works have been translated at different times into English, but are not now much read in this country. In France, however, he is still considered as one of their standard authors, and within these few years, several splendid editions of his collected works have been published | both in 4to and 8vo, with additions from the author’s manuscripts.

To the personal character of Montesquieu, as given by his eulogists and biographers, we have never heard any objection. He was not less amiable, say they, for the qualities of his heart, than those of his mind. He ever appeared in the commerce of the world with good humour, cheerfulness, and gaiety. His conversation was easy, agreeable, and instructive, from the great number of men he had lived with, and the variety of manners he had studied. It was poignant like his style, full of salt and pleasant sallies, free from invective and satire. No one could relate a narration with more vivacity, readiness, grace, and propriety. He knew that the close of a pleasing story is always the chief object; he therefore hastened to reach it, and always produced a happy effect, without creating too great an expectation. His frequent flights were very entertaining; and he constantly recovered himself by some unexpected stroke, which revived a conversation when it was drooping; but they were neither theatrically played off, forced, or impertinent. The fire of his wit gave them birth; but his judgment suppressed them in the course of a serious conversation: the wish of pleasing always made him suit himself to his company, without affectation or the desire of being clever. The agreeableness of his company was not only owing to his disposition and genius, but also to the peculiar method he observed in his studies. Though capable of the deepest and most intricate meditations, he never exhausted his powers, but always quitted his lucubrations before he felt the impulse of fatigue. He had a sense of glory; but he was not desirous of obtaining without meriting it. He never attempted to increase his reputation by those obscure and shameful means which dishonour the man, without increasing the fame of the author. Worthy of the highest distinction and the greatest rewards, he required nothing, and was not astonished at being forgotten: but he dared, even in the most critical circumstances, to protect, at Court, men of letters who were persecuted, celebrated, and unhappy, and obtained them favour. Although he lived with the great, as well from his rank as a taste for society, their company was not essential to his happiness. He sequestered himself, whenever he could, in his villa: there with joy, he embraced philosophy, erudition, and ease. Surrounded in his | leisure hours with rustics, after having studied man in the commerce of the world and the history of nations, he studied him even in those simple beings, whose sole instructor was nature, and in them he found information. He cheerfully conversed with them: like Socrates he traced their genius, and he was as much pleased with their unadorned narrations as with the polished harangues of the great, particularly when he terminated their differences, and alleviated their grievances by his benefactions. He was in general very kind to his servants: nevertheless, he was compelled one day to reprove them; when turning towards a visitor, he said with a smile, “These are clocks that must be occasionally wound up.” Nothing does greater honour to his memory than the ceconomy with which he lived; it has "indeed been deemed excessive in an avaricious and fastidious world, little formed to judge of the motive of his conduct, and still less to feel it. Beneficent and just, Montesquieu would not injure his family by the succours with which he aided the distressed, nor the extraordinary expence occasioned by his travels, the weakness of his sight, and the printing of his works. He transmitted to his children, without diminution or increase, the inheritance he received from his ancestors: he added nothing to it but his fame, and the example of his life.

Montesquieu married, in 1715, Jeanne de Lartigue, daughter to Peter de Lartigue, lieutenant-colonel of the regiment of Maulevrier. By this lady he had two daughters and a son, John. Baptista de Secondat, counsellor of the parliament of Bourdeaux, who died in that city in 1796, at the age of seventy-nine. He was author of many works; particularly of “Observations de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle sur les Eaux Minerales de Pyrenees,1750; “Considerations sur la Commerce et la Navigation de la Grande Bretagne,1740; “Considerations sur la Marine Militaire de France,1756. He resided a considerable time in London, and was elected a member of the Royal Society. 1


Eloge by D’Alerabert and by Maupcrtuis. —Dict. Hist.