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from The Collected Works
The Elements of Political Liberty
The Climate in 18th Century England and France
The French revolt paralleling Hume’s critique of reason came through Montesquieu [Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu–ed] (1689−1755).
Again a new set of problems was opened that could not be covered by the Myth of Reason or the contract theory of government. But here the parallel ends, for the approach of Montesquieu differs as widely from that of Hume as the French political situation differed from the English.
Hume was the philosopher of a settled society that had passed through a revolution. A splenetic humor is creeping up, tempered in Hume by a natural complacency; but through the veneer of his conformism and skepticism one can sense other possibilities: the century of Hume is the century of Beckford and his Vathek.
The France of Montesquieu is full of unrest presaging a revolution; the expectancy of movement, the smell of unknown horizons, is as characteristic of Montesquieu as a certain musty smell of stagnation is peculiar to Hume.
It may surprise the reader to see Montesquieu and Hume compared in terms of atmosphere, but I am not indulging in poetic license.
It is necessary to get a feeling of the atmosphere if we wish to understand the significance of Montesquieu’s work at all.
The great treatise De l’esprit des Lois (published 1748) is a curiosity in the literature on politics, for there exists no other work of similar physical dimensions, of a similar range of problems, of a comparable reputation, and of an investment of some twenty years of labor that, if we look for tangible results, does not offer any.
We can scratch up some minor ideas, such as the suggestions for the reform of criminal law, or Montesquieu’s stand against slavery, his personal enthusiasm for liberty, or his tripartite division of governmental powers into legislative, executive, and judiciary, all of which, though not unimportant, are not in a reasonable proportion to the magnitude of his work.
But his name is not associated with any outstanding contribution touching the principles of political theory. The results of the Esprit des Lois are distinctly not worth reporting like those of Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes, or Vico.