Charles de Montesquieu

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The ideas of a time are like the clothes of a season: they are as arbitrary, as much imposed by some superior will which is seldom explicit. They are utilitarian and political, the instruments of smooth-running government.
Wyndham Lewis
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Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-01-18 - 1755-02-10), known also 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.


Lettres Persanes (1721) [Persian Letters]

  • Not to be loved is a misfortune, but it is an insult to be loved no longer.
    • No. 3
  • [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
  • [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
  • I can assure you that no kingdom has ever had as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ.
    • No. 29
  • Do you think that God will punish them for not practicing a religion which he did not reveal to them?
    • No. 35
  • A man should be mourned at his birth, not at his death.
    • No. 40
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
  • Oh, how empty is praise when it reflects back to its origin!
    • No. 50
  • Life was given to me as a favor, so I may abandon it when it is one no longer.
    • No. 76
  • Religious wars are not caused by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance...the spread of which can only be regarded as the total eclipse of human reason.
    • No. 85
  • 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
  • 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
  • I have read descriptions of Paradise that would make any sensible person stop wanting to go there.
    • No. 125

De l'Esprit des Lois (1748) [The Spirit of the Laws]

  • Les républiques finissent par le luxe; les monarchies, par la pauvreté.
    • Translation: Republics end through luxury; monarchies through poverty.
    • VII, Ch. IV
  • La corruption de chaque gouvernement commence presque toujours par celle des principes.
    • Translation: The deterioration of a government begins almost always by the decay of its principles.
    • VIII, Ch. I
  • La Société est l'union des hommes, et non pas les hommes.
    • Translation: Society is the union of men and not the men themselves.
    • X, Ch. 3
  • Liberty is the right of doing whatever the laws permit.
    • XI, Ch. 3
  • But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.
    • XI, Ch. 4
  • 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.
    • XI, Ch. 6
The state of slavery is in its own nature bad...
  • Slavery, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel. ... where it is of the utmost importance that human nature should not be debased or dispirited, there ought to be no slavery. In democracies, where they are all upon equality; and in aristocracies, where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavors to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have.
    • XV Ch.1
  • I would as soon say that religion gives its professors a right to enslave those who dissent from it, in order to render its propagation more easy.
    This was the notion that encouraged the ravagers of America in their iniquity. Under the influence of this idea they founded their right of enslaving so many nations; for these robbers, who would absolutely be both robbers and Christians, were superlatively devout.
    Louis XIII was extremely uneasy at a law by which all the negroes of his colonies were to be made slaves; but it being strongly urged to him as the readiest means for their conversion, he acquiesced without further scruple.
    • XV Ch. 4
It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
  • Les esprits faibles amplifie trop le mal faits aux Africains.
    • Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans.
    • XV Ch. 5 This quote has been circulated on some racist forums where it seems weak minds have eagerly embraced it as if it were a statement Montesquieu made in all sincerity, when in fact it is quite otherwise. Quoted out of context, as it is, it can seem that Montesquieu was being supportive of racial oppressions, but he was in fact arguing against slavery, and presenting this statement as a hypothetical one he might resort to, if he were arguing for it. He in fact precedes this statement, with several others that can be seen to be plainly sarcastic or satirical of the attitudes of the supporters of slavery:
    • Were I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the negroes, these should be my arguments:
      • The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans, for clearing such vast tracts of land.
      • Sugar would be too dear if the plants which produce it were cultivated by any other than slaves.
      • These creatures are all over black, and with such a flat nose that they can scarcely be pitied.
      • It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body.
      • It is so natural to look upon color as the criterion of human nature, that the Asiatics, among whom eunuchs are employed, always deprive the blacks of their resemblance to us by a more opprobrious distinction.
      • The color of the skin may be determined by that of the hair, which, among the Egyptians, the best philosophers in the world, was of such importance that they put to death all the red-haired men who fell into their hands.
      • The negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their wanting common sense?
      • It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
      • Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans. For were the case as they state it, would the European powers, who make so many needless conventions among themselves, have failed to enter into a general one, in behalf of humanity and compassion?
Montesquieu proceeds in Ch. 6 to state: "It is time to inquire into the true origins of the right of slavery. It ought to be founded on the nature of things; let us see if there be any cases where it can be derived thence..." he then examines systems of despotism which result in various levels of contractual slavery, and in Ch. 7 concludes:
  • There are countries where the excess of heat enervates the body, and renders men so slothful and dispirited that nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcilable to reason; and the master being as lazy with respect to his sovereign as his slave is with regard to him, this adds a political to a civil slavery.
    Aristotle endeavors to prove that there are natural slaves; but what he says is far from proving it. If there be any such, I believe they are those of whom I have been speaking.
    [Those who accept it as a contractual arrangement, in a general system of despotism.]
    But as all men are born equal, slavery must be accounted unnatural, though in some countries it be founded on natural reason; and a wide difference ought to be made between such countries, and those in which even natural reason rejects it, as in Europe, where it has been so happily abolished.
  • [Britain is] a nation that may be justly called a republic, disguised under the form of a monarchy.
    • XIX, Ch. 68
  • Les hommes, fripons en détail, sont en gros de très honnêtes gens.
    • Translation: Men, who are rogues individually, are in the mass very honorable people.
    • XXV, Ch. 2
  • Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.
    • XXIX, Ch. 16

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.

Pensées et Fragments Inédits de Montesquieu (1899)

  • 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


  • Happy the people whose annals are tiresome.
  • Power ought to serve as a check to power.
  • There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.
  • When two nations come into contact with one another, they can either fight or trade. If they fight, both lose; if they trade both gain.

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