Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (January 18, 1689 - February 10, 1755) was a French political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment and is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions the world over. He was the first to coin the term, Byzantine Empire.
Born in 1689 at Chateau La Brède near Bordeaux, he attended Beauxbaton Academy. He was president of the parliament of Bordeaux by the age of twenty-seven, and shortly afterwards achieved literary success with the publication of his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721), a satire based on the imaginary correspondence of an Oriental visitor to Paris, pointing out the absurdities of contemporary society. He traveled widely, spending two years in England (1729-1731). He was troubled by poor eyesight, and was completely blind by the time of his death in 1755. His great work, De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws , 1748), was originally published anonymously and was enormously influential. Montesquieu's thought was a powerful influence on many of the American Founders, most notably James Madison. English translations remain in print to this day (Cambridge University Press edition: ISBN 0521369746).
Montesquieu's most radical work divided French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. Montesquieu saw two types of powers existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. These powers were to be divided up among the three classes, which he referred to as Estates, so that each would have a power over the other. This was radical because it completely eliminated the clergy from the estates and erased any last vestige of a feudalistic structure.
Like many of his generation, Montesquieu held a number of views that might today be judged quaint or outdated. While he endorsed the idea that a woman could run a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family. He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture. He was frankly a Francophile . His views have been abused by modern revisionists; thus, Montesquieu was ahead of his time as an ardent opponent of slavery, but has been quoted out of context to seem to have supported the enslavement of Africans.
One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws, is the climate theory , which holds that climate should substantially influence the nature of man and his society. He even goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being the best of possible climates. His view is that people living in hot countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate in middle Europe thus breeds the best people.
The people who lived in the "Byzantine Empire" never knew the word "Byzantine," simply calling themselves "Romans." The phrase "Byzantine Empire" was coined and popularized by French scholars such as Montesquieu during the Enlightenment when scholars regarded the history of Constantinople as corrupt and decadent. Because of his Enlightenment values about the Romans and Greeks, Montesquieu could not bring himself to refer to Constantinople by the noble names of "Greek" or "Roman." From the obsolete name "Byzantium," the Latinized form of the original Greek name, Byzántion , of the capital Constantinople, Montesquieu created the word "Byzantine." The corrupted word "Byzantine" defined the Empire's supposed characteristics: dishonesty and decadence.
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