Montesquieu’s Understanding of Society and History

Montesquieu’s Understanding of Society and History

June 26, 2021 Off By Felso

Montesquieu is a sociologist as well as a political thinker and philosopher of history. As a political writer, he argues that geographical factors have a decisive influence on the mentality of a nation and the spirit of the laws.

Thus, he develops a theory of climates and regions; According to this theory, human societies vary according to physical factors, the consequences of which must be met by legislators: laws must cope with the negative trends of Asian heat or cold, but they must also protect the beneficial effects of the temperate climate. Thus, Montesquieu expresses a contrast between Asia and Europe: according to him, climates have made Asia the land of slavery and Europe the land of freedom.

Thus, he develops a theory of climates and regions; According to this theory, human societies vary according to physical factors, the consequences of which must be met by legislators: laws must cope with the negative trends of Asian heat or cold, but they must also protect the beneficial effects of the temperate climate. Thus, Montesquieu expresses a contrast between Asia and Europe: according to him, climates have made Asia the land of slavery and Europe the land of freedom.

The history and mentality of nations

Montesquieu is neither a fatalist nor a relative philosopher of history, arguing that the structure and laws of states are extremely diverse and do not result from the diversity of social facts that determine them. In the picture he draws from the history of peoples, institutions, and traditions, all of the factors that shape the general character of nations are based on rational causes, as can be seen in the book Reflections on the Romans’ Great Departures. According to him, there is a balance between the various causes: <If someone resorts to violence, others will follow the same path.» For this reason, it accepts that people are competent to deal with and correct all tendencies that deviate from the principle of moderate government and turn towards despotism.

However, according to Montesquieu, a tendency towards collapse gives a distinctive character to the history of societies. This law of decadence is witnessed by the loss of dignity in monarchies as well as the loss of virtue in republics. Laws constantly deviate from spontaneity and logic, because people are ‘by nature narrow-minded and therefore easily mistaken’. According to him, there are two solutions to prevent this situation: either to return to natural law, that is, to the connections of justice that preceded the laws of nations, or to adopt the moderation that guides divine laws. Praising a legal order based on the economy, distribution and representation of powers, Montesquieu states that, in accordance with the logic that dominates the human world as well as the physical world, he stands for human freedom, which allows to stop the collapse of history and improve the laws.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook