Montesquieu: The Spirit of Separation


How do people generate new ideas and theories? How do you come up with good ideas when there are millions of people who probably already came up with better ones? How do you ensure that the theory you propose is the best solution possible? 

The Answer

Research plays a large part in this process. Old ideas inspire new ones and it’s always best to stay informed on your subject. Montesquieu, a famous Enlightenment thinker, likely wouldn’t have come up with half his extremely influential ideas if he hadn’t studied so rigorously. 


Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu greatly influenced political theory with his writing. Simply referred to as Montesquieu by historians and scholars, the man was an avid student. He studied law, history, economics, geography, political theory, and built new theories upon the older ones he studied. In his famous work, The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu discussed the then novel idea of separation of powers.

The History

Montesquieu first made a name for himself in 1722 after publishing Lettres persanes or Persian Letters. A satire of French and Persian civilization, the story continuously mocks Louis XIV as well as compares Islam and Christianity.  Although published anonymously, Montesquieu’s identity as the Persian Letters’ author quickly became known, making him famous. 

Following his success, Montesquieu traveled abroad and continued to be a devoted scholar. It was during this time that he worked on his book, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, or, in English, Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans. The work quickly outstripped his original idea - it wasn’t published until 1734. The book documents from the beginning of the Roman Republic to the fall of the Roman Empire. Unlike other historians of his day, Montesquieu dared to argue that the Roman’s wealth, military, and drive to expand actually led to the decay of its people’s civic virtue. While scholars consider Reflections to be one of Montesquieu’s major works, it pales in comparison to The Spirit of Laws.

Published anonymously in 1748, De l’esprit des loix or The Spirit of Laws consisted of two quarto volumes, made up of thirty-one books in 1,086 pages. The work was extremely controversial in its day, getting banned by the Roman Catholic Church and placed on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1751. Its reception however was worldwide and it quickly gained praise in England. It was considered the authoritative source on political theory, in no small part because Montesquieu did his research. The Spirit of the Laws is so long because Montesquieu addresses a considerable amount of political theories that came before his own.

Montesquieu rejected the classical divisions of governments into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He argued that classification based on the location of power was too narrow of a description. Instead, it would be better to take into account history as well as how the government conducts policy. He proposed that it would be better to categorize them as the republic, which is based on virtue; the monarchy, which is based on honor; and despotism, which is based on fear. Many scholars argue that it’s because of Montesquieu that the word “despotism” is so well known.

The Spirit of the Laws is best known for introducing the idea of separation of powers. Montesquieu considered administrative political power to belong to one of three branches - legislative, executive, or judicial. In order to have a government that promoted liberty, the three powers had to be wielded by three different entities, each acting independently.  He expressly stated that each power must only exercise its own power. Montesquieu even argued that allowing one branch to appoint leaders in another would ruin this division of powers, since it would promote collusion between branches. Thus, he stated, the three administrative powers must remain separated.

So What

Montesquieu took time to do his research, which helped make his work so powerful and long lasting. His idea of the separation of powers clearly inspired the United States’ Declaration of Independence and Constitution. His classification of governments is still felt today and has become attached to the terms’ connotations. 

It’s important to learn from history. Examining the past can lead to important revelations about the future. It’s likely someone has experienced something similar, if not exactly the same, as an issue or topic you’re struggling and debating over. There might be a solution waiting for you in past knowledge. But if not, the ideas you find there might inspire a new, unthought of answer.

Think Further

  1. How has our concept of the separation of power evolved?
  2. What do you think was Montesquieu’s most important quality? How can you embody it?
  3. What are some other spheres outside the political ones that Montesquieu’s works have influenced?


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Learn More

  1. de Secondat, Charles, Baron de Montesquieu, “The Spirit of Laws”. New York: The Colonial Press, Internet Archive.
  2. Howse, Robert. “Montesquieu on Commerce, Conquest, War and Peace”. Brooklyn Journal of International Law, vol 31, issue 3, pp 693-708, 2006.
  3. Kingston, Rebecca E. Montesquieu and His Legacy. State University of New York Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-7914-7621-5. 
  4. Krause, Sharon. “The Spirit of Separate Powers in Montesquieu”. The Review of Politics, vol 62, issue 2, pp 231-265, Spring 2000. Doi: 10.1017/S0034670500029454
  5. Stark, Werner. Montesquieu: Pioneer of the Sociology of Knowledge. Routledge, 1998. ISBN: 0-415-17511-9.