The Spirit of the Laws

The Spirit of Laws (French: De l'esprit des lois, originally spelled De l'esprit des loix[1]) is a treatise on political theory, as well as a pioneering work in comparative law, published in 1748 by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.[2] Originally published anonymously, partly because Montesquieu's works were subject to censorship, its influence outside France was aided by its rapid translation into other languages. In 1750 Thomas Nugent published the first English translation.[3] In 1751 the Roman Catholic Church added De l'esprit des lois to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books"). Yet Montesquieu's treatise had an enormous influence on the work of many others, most notably: Catherine the Great, who produced Nakaz (Instruction); the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution; and Alexis de Tocqueville, who applied Montesquieu's methods to a study of American society, in Democracy in America. Macaulay referenced Montesquieu's continuing importance when he wrote in his 1827 essay entitled "Machiavelli" that "Montesquieu enjoys, perhaps, a wider celebrity than any political writer of modern Europe."

The Spirit of the Laws
Montesquieu, De l'Esprit des loix (1st ed, 1748, vol 1, title page).jpg
De l'esprit des loix, 1st edn 1748, vol. 1
Publication date
Published in English
Media typepaper

Montesquieu spent around twenty-one years researching and writing De l'esprit des lois, covering a huge range of topics including law, social life and the study of anthropology, and providing more than 3,000 commendations.[4] In this treatise Montesquieu argued that political institutions needed, for their success, to reflect the social and geographical aspects of the particular community. He pleaded for a constitutional system of government with separation of powers, the preservation of legality and civil liberties, and the end of slavery.[4]


  • Preface
  • Book I: Of Laws in General
  • Book II: Of Laws Directly Derived from the Nature of Government
  • Book III: Of the Principles of the Three Kings of Government
  • Book IV: That the Laws of Education Ought to Be in Relation to the Principles of Government
  • Book V: That the Laws Given by the Legislator Ought to Be in Relation to the Principle of Government
  • Book VI: Consequences of the Principles of Different Governments with Respect to the Simplicity of Civil and Criminal Laws, the Form of Judgments, and the Inflicting of Punishments
  • Book VII: Consequences of the Different Principles of the Three Governments with Respect to Sumptuary Laws, Luxury, and the Condition of Women
  • Book VIII: Of the Corruption of the Principles of the Three Governments
  • Book IX: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to a Defensive Force
  • Book X: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to Offensive Force
  • Book XI: Of the Laws Which Establish Political Liberty, with Regard to the Constitution
  • Book XII: Of the Laws That Form Political Liberty, in Relation to the Subject
  • Book XIII: Of the Relation Which the Levying of Taxes and the Greatness of the Public Revenues Bear to Liberty
  • Book XIV: Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of the Climate
  • Book XV: In What Manner the Laws of Civil Slavery Relate to the Nature of the Climate
  • Book XVI: How the Laws of domestic Slavery Bear a Relation to the Nature of the Climate
  • Book XVII: How the Laws of Political Servitude Bear a Relation to the Nature of the Climate
  • Book XVIII: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to the Nature of the Soil
  • Book XIX: Of Laws in Relation to the Principles Which Form the General Spirit, Morals, and Customs of a Nation
  • Book XX: Of Laws in Relation to Commerce, Considered in its Nature and Distinctions
  • Book XXI: Of Laws in relation to Commerce, considered in the Revolutions it has met with in the World
  • Book XXII: Of Laws in Relation to the Use of Money
  • Book XXIII: Of Laws in the Relation They Bear to the Number of Inhabitants
  • Book XXIV: Of Laws in relation to Religion Considered in Itself, and in Its Doctrines
  • Book XXV: Of Laws in Relation to the Establishment of Religion and its External Polity
  • Book XXVI: Of Laws in Relation to the Order of Things Which They Determine
  • Book XXVII
  • Book XXVIII: Of the Origin and Revolutions of the Civil Laws among the French
  • Book XXIX: Of the Manner of Composing Laws
  • Book XXX: Theory of the Feudal Laws among the Franks in the Relation They Bear to the Establishment of the Monarchy
  • Book XXXI: Theory of the Feudal Laws among the Franks, in the Relation They Bear to the Revolutions of their Monarchy

Constitutional theoryEdit

In his classification of political systems, Montesquieu defines three main kinds: republican, monarchical, and despotic. As he defines them, Republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship rights—those that extend citizenship relatively broadly are termed democratic republics, while those that restrict citizenship more narrowly are termed aristocratic republics. The distinction between monarchy and despotism hinges on whether or not a fixed set of laws exists that can restrain the authority of the ruler: if so, the regime counts as a monarchy; if not, it counts as despotism.

Principles that motivate citizen behaviour according to MontesquieuEdit

Driving each classification of political system, according to Montesquieu, must be what he calls a "principle". This principle acts as a spring or motor to motivate behavior on the part of the citizens in ways that will tend to support that regime and make it function smoothly.

  • For democratic republics (and to a somewhat lesser extent for aristocratic republics), this spring is the love of virtue—the willingness to put the interests of the community ahead of private interests.
  • For monarchies, the spring is the love of honor—the desire to attain greater rank and privilege.
  • Finally, for despotisms, the spring is the fear of the ruler—the fear of consequences to authority.

A political system cannot last long if its appropriate principle is lacking. Montesquieu claims, for example, that the English failed to establish a republic after the Civil War (1642–1651) because the society lacked the requisite love of virtue.

Liberty and the separation of powersEdit

A second major theme in The Spirit of the Laws concerns political liberty and the best means of preserving it. "Political liberty" is Montesquieu's concept of what we might call today personal security, especially in so far as this is provided for through a system of dependable and moderate laws. He distinguishes this view of liberty from two other views of political liberty. The first is the view that liberty consists in collective self-government—i.e. that liberty and democracy are the same. The second is the view that liberty consists in being able to do whatever one wants without constraint. Not only are these latter two not genuine political liberty, he maintains, but they can both be hostile to it.

Political liberty is not possible in a despotic political system, but it is possible, though not guaranteed, in republics and monarchies. Generally speaking, establishing political liberty on a sound footing requires two things:

Building on and revising a discussion in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, Montesquieu argues that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches. (Habeas corpus is an example of a check that the judicial branch has on the executive branch of government.) In a lengthy discussion of the English political system, he tries to show how this might be achieved and liberty secured, even in a monarchy. He also notes that liberty cannot be secure where there is no separation of powers, even in a republic.
  • The appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security.
Montesquieu intends what modern legal scholars might call the rights to "robust procedural due process", including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and the proportionality in the severity of punishment. Pursuant to this requirement to frame civil and criminal laws appropriately to ensure political liberty (i.e., personal security), Montesquieu also argues against slavery and for the freedom of thought, speech and assembly.

This book concerns explicit laws, not in unwritten cultural norms that may support the same goals. "Montesquieu believed the hard architecture of political institutions might be enough to constrain overreaching power — that constitutional design was not unlike an engineering problem," as Levitsky and Ziblatt put it.[5]

Political sociologyEdit

The third major contribution of The Spirit of the Laws was to the field of political sociology, which Montesquieu is often credited with more or less inventing. The bulk of the treatise, in fact, concerns how geography and climate interact with particular cultures to produce the spirit of a people. This spirit, in turn, inclines that people toward certain sorts of political and social institutions, and away from others. Later writers often caricatured Montesquieu's theory by suggesting that he claimed to explain legal variation simply by the distance of a community from the equator.[original research?]

While the analysis in The Spirit of the Laws is much more subtle than these later writers perceive, many of his specific claims lack rigour to modern readers. Nevertheless, his approach to politics from a naturalistic or scientific point of view proved very influential, directly or indirectly inspiring modern fields of political science, sociology, and anthropology.[original research?]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Montesquieu (1977). David Wallace Carrithers (ed.). The Spirit of the Laws: A Compendium of the First English Edition. Berkeley: U California P.
  2. ^ De l'Esprit des loix ou du Rapport que les loix doivent avoir avec la constitution de chaque gouvernement, les moeurs, le climat, la religion, le commerce, &c . à quoi l'auteur a ajouté des recherches nouvelles sur les loix romaines touchant les successions, sur les loix françoises, & sur les loix féodales. Vol. I (1 ed.). A Genève, chez Barrillot & fils. Retrieved September 7, 2016 – via Gallica.
  3. ^ Now best known as published in New York by Hafner Press in 1949, using Nugent's original version and with an introduction by Franz Neumann.
  4. ^ a b Cohler, et al., "Introduction" to the 1989 Cambridge UP ed.
  5. ^ Levitsky, Steven; Ziblatt, Daniel (16 January 2018). How Democracies Die (Nook e-book, first ed.). Crown Publishing. p. 166. ISBN 9781524762957.


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