Classification of Forms of Government and Spirit of LawsJune 26, 2021
After returning to France in 1731, Montesquieu began working on Roman history and wrote in 1734 his first major work, Considerations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de Leur decadence (Reflections on the Greatness of the Romans and the Causes of their Decline). In 1748, after fourteen years of research and study in which he evaluated his travel notes and observations, he published his masterpiece, De l’esprit des lois (On the Spirit of the Laws).
After this work, which had a great impact, Enlightenment thinkers adopted Montesquieu as one of their own, while some circles accused him of being against religion and turning to Materialism. The book, which the Sorbonne University twice attempted to censor, was placed on the “forbidden books” list by the Papacy, despite the opposition of the French consul and liberal-minded clergy. Thereupon, Montesquieu, who published De-fense de l’esprit des lois (“Defense of the Spirit of the Laws”) in 1750 to defend his book, refused this request of the church, who, in the last years of his life, asked him to make corrections on the religious theories in Lettrespersanes. .
Montesquieu’s natural science studies, which cover a very wide section of science such as insects, parasitic plants, echo, tides, transparency of objects, movement, kidney diseases, also deeply affected his intellectual development. Having a great admiration for Descartes and Newton, Montesquieu was greatly influenced by the views of Malebranche, who was a teacher at the college he attended, and by Locke’s empiricism, which he studied during his years in England. With the influence of Descartes and Malebranche, he always approached the events in the light of reason, but the starting point was always concrete events and he always tried to find the connections between the events in all fields of knowledge, from natural sciences to the study of social facts, based on observation and experiment. Reasoning and experimentation are the mainstays of his method.
In his research on Roman history, he tried to find the concrete, real reasons behind historical events, rejecting the moral and religious interpretation of history. He argued that even if coincidence plays a role in historical events from time to time, history can be studied rationally and the general reasons behind it can be found. In this framework, he tried to find a middle way between the role of individuals in history and the necessity of historical facts.
On the other hand, he considered religion as a social phenomenon without discussing its correctness or falsity. According to him, religion has social and political benefits. In countries where religious belief is strong, laws will be easier to enforce, so that the state will not have to apply a very strict control. However, while not denying the function of religion, it is against religious intolerance and bigotry. In Lettres persanes he sarcastically criticized the bigotry of the church.
Yet Montesquieu’s true worth derives from his thoughts on law and politics in his De l’esprit des lois. In this work, according to Montesquieu, who investigates the real causes of laws beyond the intentions and purposes of the legislator, laws are a product of the human mind, and the political and civil laws of every society, every nation are special situations in which this mind is applied. At this point, Montesquieu differs from most Enlightenment thinkers who base laws and social institutions on natural rights, institutions arising from social contracts, and argue that social theories can be best formed through reason, and focuses on environmental effects. The fact that every country, every nation has certain laws and a unique social and political structure, attributes it to a number of effects that are grouped into two separate groups as physical and spiritual factors. Among the physical factors such as the country’s surface forms, the breadth of its territory, the structure and distribution of the population, it also highlights the “climate” as it affects people’s personality, spirit and mentality. According to Montesquieu, who reintroduced this ongoing assumption starting from Aristotle, with some changes and to support his own views, people in hot climates become shy, emotional and lazy, and easily accept slavery. For this reason, regimes based on slavery prevail in Asian countries with hot climates, and regimes based on freedom in European countries with cold climates. However, according to Montesquieu, who emphasized that physical factors such as geography and climatic conditions, no matter how important, are not strong enough to directly and alone affect the lifestyle of a society, a good administrator and legislator can even mitigate and overcome the impact of climatic conditions. and determine the most appropriate form of government for the physical conditions of that country. Because spiritual factors such as religion, laws, traditions, customs and traditions, economy and trade, mentality, literature and works of art are always stronger than physical factors. The sum of these spiritual and physical factors constitutes the “general spirit” of a nation.