French philosopher

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (18 January 168910 February 1755), also known as Charles de Montesquieu, was a French political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment and is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers.

Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.
See also The Spirit of the Laws


  • If one only wished to be Sad, this could be horrible for the rest of civilisation; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts : Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern (1891) edited by Tryon Edwards.
  • In a free nation, it matters not whether individuals reason well or ill; it is sufficient that they do reason. Truth arises from the collision and from hence springs liberty, which is a security from the effects of reasoning.

Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (1876)

  • The laws of Rome had wisely divided public power among a large number of magistracies, which supported, checked and tempered each other. Since they all had only limited power, every citizen was qualified for them, and the people — seeing many persons pass before them one after the other — did not grow accustomed to any in particular. But in these times the system of the republic changed. Through the people the most powerful men gave themselves extraordinary commissions — which destroyed the authority of the people and magistrates, and placed all great matters in the hands of one man, or a few.
  • Il n’y a point de plus cruelle tyrannie que celle que l’on exerce à l’ombre des lois et avec les couleurs de la justice, lorsqu’on va, pour ainsi dire, noyer des malheureux sur la planche même sur laquelle ils s’étaient sauvés.

Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters, 1721)

Zeal for the advancement of religion is different from a due attachment to it; and that in order to love it and fulfil its behests, it is not necessary to hate and persecute those who are opposed to it.
  • Not to be loved is a misfortune, but it is an insult to be loved no longer.
    • No. 3. (Zachi writing to Usbek)
  • [The Ottoman Empire] whose sick body was not supported by a mild and regular diet, but by a powerful treatment, which continually exhausted it.
    • No. 19. (Usbek writing to Rustan)
  • [The Pope] will make the king believe that three are only one, that the bread he eats is not bread...and a thousand other things of the same kind.
    • No. 24. (Rica writing to Ibben)
  • I can assure you that no kingdom has ever had as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ.
    • No. 29. (Rica writing to Ibben)
  • Do you think that God will punish them for not practicing a religion which he did not reveal to them?
    • No. 35. (Usbek writing to Gemchid)
  • A man should be mourned at his birth, not at his death.
    • No. 40. (Usbek writing to Ibben)
  • In France there are three kinds of professions: the church, the sword, and the long robe. Each hath a sovereign contempt for the other two. For example, a man who ought to be despised only for being a fool is often so because he is a lawyer.
    • No. 44 (Usbek writing to Rhedi)
People here argue about religion interminably, but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.
  • People here argue about religion interminably, but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.
    • No. 46. (Usbek writing to Rhedi)
  • Oh, how empty is praise when it reflects back to its origin!
    • No. 50. (Rica writing to * * *)
  • History is full of religious wars; but, we must take care to observe, it was not the multiplicity of religions that produced these wars, it was the intolerating spirit which animated that one which thought she had the power of governing.
    • No. 65. (Usbek writing to his wives)
  • And yet there is nothing so badly imagined: nature seems to have provided, that the follies of men should be transient, but they by writing books render them permanent. A fool ought to content himself with having wearied those who lived with him: but he is for tormenting future generations; he is desirous that his folly should triumph over oblivion, which he ought to have enjoyed as well as his grave; he is desirous that posterity should be informed that he lived, and that it should be known for ever that he was a fool.
    • Commonly paraphrased as "An author is a fool who, not content with having bored those who have lived with him, insists on boring future generations".
    • No. 66. (Rica writing to * * *)
  • "Of all kind of authors there are none I despise more than compilers, who search every where for shreds of other men's works, which they join to their own, like so many pieces of green turf in a garden: they are not at all superior to compositors in a printing house, who range the types, which, collected together, make a book, towards which they contribute nothing but the labours of the hand. I would have original writers respected, and it seems to me a kind of profanation to take those pieces from the sanctuary in which they reside, and to expose them to a contempt they do not deserve. When a man hath nothing new to say, why does not he hold his tongue? What business have we with this double employment?"
    • No. 66.
  • I write to thee on this subject, [friend], because I am angry at a book which I have just left, which is so large, that it seems to contain universal science, but it hath almost split my head, without teaching me anything.
    • No. 66.
  • Life was given to me as a favor, so I may abandon it when it is one no longer.
    • No. 76. (Usbek writing to Ibben)
  • I acknowledge that history is full of religious wars: but we must distinguish; it is not the multiplicity of religions which has produced wars; it is the intolerant spirit animating that which believed itself in the ascendant.
    • No. 86. (Usbek writing to Mirza)
  • There are only two cases in which war is just: first, in order to resist the aggression of an enemy, and second, in order to help an ally who has been attacked.
    • No. 95. (Usbek writing to Rhedi)
  • There is only one thing that can form a bond between men, and that is gratitude...we cannot give someone else greater power over us than we have ourselves.
    • No. 104. (Usbek writing to Ibben)
  • I have read descriptions of Paradise that would make any sensible person stop wanting to go there.
    • No. 125. (Usbek writing to Rhedi)

Pensées Diverses

  • La raillerie est un discours en faveur de son esprit contre son bon naturel.
    • Translation: Raillery is a mode of speaking in favor of one's wit at the expense of one's better nature.
  • Le succès de la plupart des choses dépend de savoir combien il faut de temps pour réussir.
    • Translation: The success of most things depends upon knowing how long it will take to succeed.
  • J'ai toujours vu que, pour réussir dans le monde, il fallait avoir l'air fou et être sage.
    • Translation: I have always observed that to succeed in the world one should appear like a fool but be wise.
  • Horace et Aristote nous ont déjà parlé des vertus de leurs pères, et des vices de leur temps, et les auteurs de siècle en siècle nous en ont parlé de même. S'ils avaient dit vrai, les hommes seraient à présent des ours.
    • Translation: Horace and Aristotle told us of the virtues of their fathers, and the vices of their own time, and authors down through the centuries have told us the same. If they were right, men would now be bears.

Pensées et Fragments Inédits de Montesquieu (1899)

  • Si je savais une chose utile à ma nation qui fût rui­neuse à une autre, je ne la pro­po­se­rais pas à mon prince, parce que je suis homme avant d’être Français, parce que je suis néces­sai­re­ment homme, et que je ne suis Français que par hasard
    • Translation: If I knew of something that could serve my nation but would ruin another, I would not propose it to my prince, for I am first a man and only then a Frenchman, because I am necessarily a man, and only accidentally am I French.
      • I.
  • You have to study a great deal to know a little.
    • I

The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

  • One must give one power a ballast, so to speak, to put it in a position to resist another.
    • Book V, Chapter 14.
  • Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man who has power is inclined to abuse it; he goes until he finds limits. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?.
    To prevent this abuse, it is necessary that, by the arrangement of things, power shall stop power. A government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits.
    • Book XI, Chapter 4.
  • In every government there are three sorts of power: the legislative; the executive in respect to things dependent on the law of nations; and the executive in regard to matters that depend on the civil law.
    By virtue of the first, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted. By the second, he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies, establishes the public security, and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the disputes that arise between individuals. The latter we shall call the judiciary power, and the other, simply, the executive power of the state.
    When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
    Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
    There would be an end of every thing, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.
    The executive power ought to be in the hands of a monarch, because this branch of government, having need of dispatch, is better administered by one than by many: on the other hand, whatever depends on the legislative power, is oftentimes better regulated by many than by a single person.
    But, if there were no monarch, and the executive power should be committed to a certain number of persons, selected from the legislative body, there would be an end of liberty, by reason the two powers would be united; as the same persons would sometimes possess, and would be always able to possess, a share in both.
    • Book XI, Chapter 6.[3]
  • It is a paralogism to say, that the good of the individual should give way to that of the public; this can never take place, except when the government of the community, or, in other words, the liberty of the subject is concerned; this does not affect such cases as relate to private property, because the public good consists in everyone's having his property, which was given him by the civil laws, invariably preserved.
    • Book XXVI, Chapter 15.[4]
  • Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.
    • Book XXIX: Of the Manner of Composing Laws, Chapter 16: Things to be Observed in the Composing of Laws

Quotes about Montesquieu

  • [The Spirit of the Laws] became the nobleman's Bible all over Europe.
    • Catherine Behrens, The Ancien Régime (1967), p. 78
  • You say, my dear sir, that they read Montesquieu — I believe not. If they do, they do not understand him. He is often obscure, sometimes misled by system; but, on the whole, a learned, and ingenious writer, and sometimes a most profound thinker. Sure it is, that they have not followed him in any one thing they have done. Had he lived at this time, he would certainly be among the fugitives from France.
    • Edmund Burke to an unknown correspondent (January 1790), quoted in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, Volume VI: July 1789—December 1791, eds. Alfred Cobban and Robert A. Smith (1967), pp. 80–81
  • Place...before your eyes, such a man as Montesquieu. Think of a genius not born in every country, or every time; a man gifted by nature with a penetrating aquiline eye; with a judgment prepared with the most extensive erudition; with an herculean robustness of mind, and nerves not to be broken with labour; a man who could spend twenty years in one pursuit.
    • Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), quoted in Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the French Revolution, ed. Daniel E. Ritchie (1992), p. 198
  • When I recollect what the President Montesquieu has written, I am at a loss to tell, why I should treat of human affairs: But I too am instigated by my reflections, and my sentiments; and I may utter them more to the comprehension of ordinary capacities, because I am more on the level of ordinary men. If it be necessary to pave the way for what follows on the general history of nations, by giving some account of the heads under which various forms of government may be conveniently ranged, the reader should perhaps be referred to what has been already delivered on the subject by this profound politician and amiable moralist. In his writings will be found, not only the original of what I am now, for the sake of order, to copy from him, but likewise probably the source of many observations, which, in different places, I may, under the belief of invention, have repeated, without quoting their author.
    • Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767], ed. Fania Oz-Salzberger (1995), p. 66
  • He had been a great reader, and had commonplaced every thing he read. At length he wished to undertake some work into which he could bring his whole commonplace book in a digested form. He fixed on the subject of his Spirit of Laws, and wrote the book. He consulted his friend Helvetius about publishing it, who strongly dissuaded it. He published it, however, and the world did not confirm Helvetius' opinion. Still, every man who reflects as he reads, has considered it as a book of paradoxes; having, indeed, much of truth and sound principle, but abounding also with inconsistencies, apocryphal facts and false inferences.
    • Thomas Jefferson to William Duane (12 August 1810), quoted in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (1984), pp. 1229–1230
  • In recent times it has been held by many economists that the rate of current saving determined the supply of free capital, that the rate of current investment governed the demand for it, and that the rate of interest was, so to speak, the equilibrating price-factor determined by the point of intersection of the supply curve of savings and the demand curve of investment. But if aggregate saving is necessarily and in all circumstances exactly equal to aggregate investment, it is evident that this explanation collapses. We have to search elsewhere for the solution. I find it in the idea that it is the function of the rate of interest to preserve equilibrium, not between the demand and the supply of new capital goods, but between the demand and the supply of money, that is to say between the demand for liquidity and the means of satisfying this demand. I am here returning to the doctrine of the older, pre-nineteenth century economists. Montesquieu, for example, saw this truth with considerable clarity,— Montesquieu who was the real French equivalent of Adam Smith, the greatest of your economists, head and shoulders above the physiocrats in penetration, clear-headedness and good sense (which are the qualities an economist should have). But I must leave it to the text of this book to show how in detail all this works out.
  • The British constitution was to Montesquieu, what Homer has been to the didactic writers on epic poetry. As the latter have considered the work of the immortal bard, as the perfect model from which the principles and rules of the epic art were to be drawn, and by which all similar works were to be judged; so this great political critic appears to have viewed the constitution of England as the standard, or to use his own expression, as the mirror of political liberty; and to have delivered in the form of elementary truths, the several characteristic principles of that particular system.
  • Montesquieu has resolved the great operative principles of government into fear, honor, and virtue, applying the first to pure despotisms, the second to regular monarchies, and the third to republics. The portion of truth blended with the ingenuity of this system, sufficiently justifies the admiration bestowed on its author. Its accuracy however can never be defended against the criticisms which it has encountered. Montesquieu was in politics not a Newton or a Locke, who established immortal systems, the one in matter, the other in mind. He was in his particular science what Bacon was in universal science: He lifted the veil from the venerable errors which enslaved opinion, and pointed the way to those luminous truths of which he had but a glimpse himself.
    • James Madison, ‘Universal Peace’, National Gazette (20 February 1792), quoted in James Madison, Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (1999), p. 510
  • The great Montesquieu pointed out the road. He was the Lord Bacon in this branch of philosophy. Dr. Smith is the Newton.
    • John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government [1803], eds. Mark Salber Phillips and Dale R. Smith (2006), p. 404, n
  • Montesquiou's Espirit des loix; which I think the best book that was ever written—at least I never learned half as much from all I ever read. There is as much wit in it as there is practical knowledge.
    • Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann (10 January 1750), quoted in Horace Walpole, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, Volume 20: Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann. IV, eds. W. S. Lewis, Warren Hunting Smith and George L. Lam (1960), p. 107

See also

Social and political philosophers
Classic AristotleMarcus AureliusChanakyaCiceroConfuciusMozi LaoziMenciusMoziPlatoPlutarchPolybiusSeneca the YoungerSocratesSun TzuThucydidesXenophonXun Zi
Conservative de BenoistBolingbrokeBonaldBurkeBurnhamCarlyleColeridgeComteCortésDurkheimDávilaEvolaFichteFilmerGaltonGentileHegelHeideggerHerderHobbesHoppeHumede JouvenelJüngerKirkvon Kuehnelt-LeddihnLandde MaistreMansfieldMoscaOakeshottOrtegaParetoPetersonSantayanaSchmittScrutonSowellSpenglerStraussTaineTocqueville • VicoVoegelinWeaverYarvin
Liberal ArendtAronBastiatBeccariaBenthamBerlinBoétieCamusCondorcetConstantDworkinEmersonErasmusFranklinFukuyamaHayekJeffersonKantLockeMachiavelliMadisonMaineMillMiltonMenckenMisesMontaigneMontesquieuNietzscheNozickOrtegaPopperRandRawlsRothbardSadeSchillerSimmelSmithSpencerSpinozade StaëlStirnerThoreauTocquevilleTuckerVoltaireWeberWollstonecraft
Religious al-GhazaliAmbedkarAugustine of HippoAquinasAugustineAurobindoCalvinChestertonDanteDayanandaDostoyevskyEliadeGandhiGirardGregoryGuénonJesusJohn of SalisburyJungKierkegaardKołakowskiLewisLutherMaimonidesMalebrancheMaritainMoreMuhammadMüntzerNiebuhrOckhamOrigenPhiloPizanQutbRadhakrishnanShariatiSolzhenitsynTaylorTeilhard de ChardinTertullianTolstoyVivekanandaWeil
Socialist AdornoAflaqAgambenBadiouBakuninBaudrillardBaumanBernsteinButlerChomskyde BeauvoirDebordDeleuzeDeweyDu BoisEngelsFanonFoucaultFourierFrommGodwinGoldmanGramsciHabermasKropotkinLeninLondonLuxemburgMaoMarcuseMarxMazziniNegriOwenPaine RortyRousseauRussellSaint-SimonSartreSkinnerSorelTrotskyWalzerXiaopingŽižek

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