In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Montesquieu

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Research Tools
  • Politics and the Question of Freedom
  • Law and Justice
  • The Question of History
  • Persian Letters as a Real Work of Philosophy
  • Montesquieu in Context
  • Montesquieu and the Foundations of Modern Thought
  • Posterity
  • United States
  • Monographs
  • Edited Collections
  • From Life to Work

Philosophy Montesquieu
Catherine Volpilhac-Auger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0275


The first readers of Montesquieu (b. 1689–d. 1755) confronted the breadth of writings that extended into every domain, seeking to offer a global vision of human activities by means of the notion of relationship (rapport) that outright rejects any artificial segmentation of the real. It is multiple as well in its form, insofar as it adopts, while renewing them radically, the paths of fiction, treatises, and essays. But his thought has often been teleologically reduced to The Spirit of Law (L’Esprit des lois, 1748) alone, to which all the rest of his work was supposed to be leading. To be sure, it is a culminating work; but with the discovery of a mass of uncompleted or confidential manuscripts it has become impossible to limit ourselves to his published works: if we are to understand its design and implications in depth, to see even its meaning (for Montesquieu’s thought, synthetic and rich in allusions, is concentrated, even elliptical), it is better to contextualize it and show its evolution. The edition of the texts (and of course their translations as well) here assumes particular importance, for it is not merely a function of philology, but also of interpretation, and it grounds the hermeneutic, which has developed historically in several directions. The first critiques bore on the supposed disorder of The Spirit of Law. This still sometimes underlying notion has become marginal, especially after the renewal of research around 1960. On the other hand the reproach of not choosing between fact (particular) and right (universal), what is and what ought to be, or rather describing without taking sides and underrating the question of value, assumes major importance; to it correspond the political question and that of justice, to which must be added two little-understood aspects of his philosophical activity: the domain of history, and that opened by the Persian Letters. A section on Montesquieu in Context also allows us to put Montesquieu’s originality into relief by indicating the philosophical currents in which he can be situated, more precisely in a section on Montesquieu and the Foundations of Modern Thought; and the Posterity section looks at the echo and influence of his work, more especially in the United States, which merits its own section. As a complement, we have thus also adopted an analytical presentation of the different means that allow us to approach his work: simple tools, edited collections, monographs that are rarely aligned along a single axis or theme of his thought, so pregnant is this totalizing vision in which “everything is closely connected.” By way of complement, bibliographies, biographies, and research resources, indispensable tools, are also presented. The author would like to thank Philip Stewart for translating this article from French into English.


A presentation of L’Esprit des lois is the simplest and most effective means of introducing a reader to Montesquieu’s thought, whether in the form of a rapid, brilliant synthesis as in Larrère 1999; methodical analysis as in Spector 2010; or extended, systematic examination as in Binoche 2015. An overall approach is provided on a beginning level in Macfarlane 2000 and with more sophistication in Shklar 1987 and Starobinski 1994, with Ehrard 1998 offering a series of closer looks. The first biobibliographical presentation including an analysis of L’Esprit des lois was put forward just after Montesquieu’s death in d’Alembert 2017 (cited under From Life to Work).

  • Binoche, Bertrand. Introduction à De l’esprit des lois de Montesquieu. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2015.

    This plunge (and not a simple introduction) into Montesquieu’s thought defines the originality of his properly philosophical method: without ever dissociating fact and value, L’Esprit des lois constitutes a “new science,” that of human institutions (and not laws only), and seeks in a “negative politics” the means of combating despotism. A rigorous demonstration based on close reading of the text.

  • Ehrard, Jean. L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1998.

    A republication of earlier articles that constitute a perfectly coherent ensemble on Montesquieu and all the contemporaries with whom he had intellectual affinities (from Voltaire to Diderot, by way of Marivaux, Rousseau, etc.), as well as major themes of his thought (Rome, the Regency, revolutions, sovereignty, and so forth). Although discontinuous, it is the best approach for articulation of Montesquieu’s life and work.

  • Larrère, Catherine. Actualité de Montesquieu. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1999.

    An “incitation to read L’Esprit des lois,” this short work (fewer than 130 pages in small format) shows clearly and effectively how Montesquieu could bring to liberalism (see Politics and the Question of Freedom) a critical dimension, thanks to the tension between universality and diversity that constitutes one of the principal axes of his work.

  • Macfarlane, Alan. The Riddle of the Modern World: Of Liberty, Wealth and Equality. Basingstoke, UK, and London: Macmillan, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403913913

    A quick overview of some key points in his thought, under the heading of “Liberty” (the book goes on to consider two other traits of the modern “riddle,” wealth and equality). See pp. 1–69.

  • Shklar, Judith. Montesquieu. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    A pioneering work in its time, which takes into account the whole life and work of Montesquieu, while stressing his education and the eclecticism of his readings, determining a skepticism that led him to a more humane vision of politics. Montesquieu thus illustrates a key notion: the “liberalism of fear.”

  • Spector, Céline. Montesquieu: Liberté, droit et histoire. Paris: Michalon, 2010.

    This study essentially follows the unfolding of L’Esprit des lois the better to clarify its structure. This analytical approach rests on a very sure and well-informed reading. The demonstration is utterly clear. Certainly one of the best ways of approaching Montesquieu, and already in some depth.

  • Starobinski, Jean. Montesquieu. Paris: Seuil, Écrivains de toujours, 1994.

    A much-revised version since its first edition (1953), abetted by a rich iconography, which applies to the work of Montesquieu’s own precept in his Voyages: to see “the whole together.” The first edition had laid the bases of a “modern” Montesquieu; the edition of 1994 complements that presentation, accounting for all dimensions of the man and the philosopher.

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