Jul 17, 2019 in History

The Influence of Montesquieu’s Ideas

The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment concerning government and state were crucial for development of political theories. Many notable thinkers laid the foundation of modern state systems. Their influence on the contemporary society was extremely great. One of the brightest examples of such Enlightenment thinkers is Montesquieu. His idea of the separation of powers was revolutionary as it now became the role model of constitution for modern states. Generally, some of his ideas were implemented in the US Declaration of Independence and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Montesquieu’s ideas initiated the development of numerous theories and studies. Furthermore, unlike many other philosophers, the ideas of Montesquieu were not alien to simple people. Even though many of his ideas were not original and include some disadvantages, Montesquieu greatly contributed to the evolution of political thought in his time and laid the foundation for the modern political systems and democratic principles.

Without any doubts, not all ideas of the period of the Enlightenment were written from the scratch without influence of Antique and Renaissance philosophers. The idea of separation of powers was not a brand new idea. Kingston suggests that this idea along with checks and balances “had been developing in an unsystematic way during the struggle between King and Parliament in the seventeenth century” in the British Empire. However, it was Montesquieu who was the first to improve and systematize this theory. Furthermore, neither the separation of powers, nor checks and balances were implemented by any government before Montesquieu had published his The Spirit of the Laws. John Locke and antique philosophers did not develop the theory to its final version as Montesquieu did. He composed a thesis and emphasized the necessity to divide power into three branches as well as illustrated the role of checks and balances system. Obviously, the influence of his ideas was crucial as the idea of the separation of powers was firstly implemented in the US Constitution, in a way that Montesquieu presented it.

The influence of Montesquieu on the Founding Fathers is evident. However, taking into account that his ideas were relatively not new, some researchers tend to claim that the influence of the Enlightenment was not decisive during the American Revolution. Thus, Bailyn claims that “Enlightenment ideas were not instruments of a particular social group, they did not create new social and political forces in America”. Nonetheless, the Founding Fathers only adopted the theories, developed by Montesquieu and other thinkers of the Enlightenment, only adapting them to the realities of the newly created United States of America. Bailyn underestimates the contribution of Montesquieu in systematizing the concepts of despotism and separation of powers. Undoubtedly, there was no need to be too sophisticated to understand that despotism is a destructive political system and republican system is the most progressive. However, due to Montesquieu it became possible to realize the causes of establishing despotic regime and solutions how to avoid and prevent it. The establishment of the republican regime in the United States was influenced not only by the response of colonists to the circumstances and “American political genius” as Bailyn explains it. In the same cases and under the similar circumstances, countries, which obtained independence, quickly turned into despotic states. Only strict adherence of the Founding Fathers to the theories of the Age of Enlightenment allowed the United States to maintain this political system for a long time.

Although the concept of separation of powers was invented long before Montesquieu, he was the first to suggest that judicial branch of power should be separate from other branches. Only the separation of judicial power from executive and legislative branches would allow to create a political system, which Montesquieu considered perfect. On the one hand, Pangle suggests that “the only reason for separating judicial power is to keep it independent”. Although the judicial branch of power is traditionally considered to be the weakest, its separation is vitally necessary for maintaining moderate government. All in all, law is one of the most significant tools that guarantee equality, order and freedom according to Montesquieu. The judicial branch of power, which ensures following the laws, plays a crucial role in republican system. Biased and non-independent courts would never provide the necessary justice. If one of the most distinctive features of despotism is reliance on personal interests of a ruler than republic mostly relies on law. That is why, Montesquieu’s version of theory of checks and balances is so complete and comprehensive, in opposition to previous versions.

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Nonetheless, as well as any other political theory, in practice Montesquieu’s concept of separation of powers, revealed some flaws. First and the most obvious disadvantage of the separation of powers is the absence of executive branch of power to take decisions without cooperation with legislative body. On the one hand, the limited power of executive branch would prevent the establishment of totalitarian regime. However, on the other hand, the weak government cannot initiate any positive changes in the state, if legislative body slows down their enactment. Pangle claims that “monarchic executive is meant to be the answer to these difficulties”. He illustrates the example of the Dutch Republic, which was weak without having a monarch. Undoubtedly, a monarch who solely rules the country and carries out both legislative and executive powers has more opportunities to improve the situation in his country. At the same time, such monarch can also take wrong decisions, which would have negative effects for state economy, the society, etc. The separation of powers almost excludes the chance to enact the law, which will inevitably ruin state economy or provoke tension within the society. Although it does not exclude such opportunity, but such decision will not be taken spontaneously as it could be under despotism or monarchy.

Another disadvantage of liberal republican government is less responsiveness to the needs of the citizens. Thus, Hudson considers that the separation of powers is “one of the main challenges to American democracy”. Without any doubts, the concept of separation of powers was initially meant to protect the independence of three branches of power from each other and create the democratic government. Nevertheless, in many ways, the separation of powers makes government less responsive, effective and responsible to its citizens and its advantages rather turn into negative effects on the US democracy. Whether it may sound paradoxical, the idea of separation of powers is too aimed at prevention of tyranny. Hudson suggests that it is rather promotes tyranny than prevents it. First of all, it is related to the tyranny of minority. Hence, Hudson claims that the tyranny of minority is evident in the United States where “less-populated states are overrepresented and two-thirds of the senators have not faced the electorate in the most recent election” deny to enact bills, which are profitable for the majority of citizens. In this case, the separation of powers really makes the legislative body, and as a result the executive branch, less responsive to the needs of simple citizens. Nevertheless, the competition between House of Representatives and the Senate are rather related to the flawed American system of legislative body than to the separation of powers.

Finally, Hudson considers that the elimination of separation of powers system would not change the political situation in the United States dramatically as soon as there were always US presidents who like “George W. Bush had little fear from congressional oversight”. Undoubtedly, Montesquieu could not predict and take into account all specific peculiarities of American politics. Nevertheless, the opportunity of establishment a powerful executive branch under the system of separation of powers only disapproves Pangle’s argument that it can be only possible under monarchic or despotic system of government. Generally, it seems that neither of the counterarguments can be treated as a serious argument against the concept of separation of powers. Politics is too inaccurate to try to make judgements with regards to comparison and contrast of different political regimes. Many circumstances matter in this case and the failure of one executive to overcome legislative body does not mean that separation of powers weakens the government.

All political theories have their pros and cons, but in case of Montesquieu’s separation of powers, the risks of establishing the despotic regime are much more hazardous than the disadvantage of a weak government. This risk does not justify the possible lack of a government to take decisions, which are significant for the society because the despotic government would not take them at all. None of governments are perfect, but in case of a despotism, moderate and even weak government is better.

Another significant work by Montesquieu is theory of tyranny that was also extremely important as he developed his own set of political and social systems. Montesquieu divided states into republics, monarchies and despotisms. In reality, he illustrated of flaws of despotism and advantages of republican system immensely accurately. Despotism, which uses fear as the main power of control over the population, stands against everything that is related to social welfare. On the other hand, the republican system embodies the liberty and social equality. At the same time, Montesquieu did not simply emphasize the disadvantages of despotism, keeping away from being subjective and one-sided. Boesche states that Montesquieu not only the despotic regime, based on fear and avarice of a monarch, but also despotism that establishes “urbanization and at least enough production and commerce to distribute luxuries to some significant portion of population”. His philosophy is quite flexible and vivid with regards to dynamic political tendencies. It allows to interpret the views of Montesquieu in different ways, even though his position concerning despotism is clear and does not need additional clarifications. 

Throughout his works, Montesquieu tried to maintain and develop democratic principles. Generally, the worldview of Montesquieu is full of liberal ideas and humanism. Pangle states that Montesquieu considered “the liberal state and society as the goal of the historical process”. Montesquieu often appears a defender of basic freedoms and rights of person, which were not understood in his time. Thus, he was skeptical concerning the role of religion in the society and was afraid of religious propaganda. At the same time, Montesquieu also disapproved the discrimination of freedom of religion. It is impossible to argue merely against the religion without mentioning its positive effects. His moderate views on the maintenance of harmony within the society would be greatly. Tolerance in his works illustrates his personal views on freedom of speech and equality.

The philosophy of Montesquieu played a crucial role in forming the political thought in the Age of Enlightenment. His teachings became role models for numerous governments who tried to adopt his theories in real circumstances. At the same time, it is difficult to call his ideas of separation of powers, checks and balances and despotism original. Many of these concepts were developed by his predecessors. Nevertheless, only due to Montesquieu’s systematization it became possible to implement his ideas in real states with real societies that very few philosophers managed to do. Montesquieu considerably improved the idea of separation of powers that make it possible to implement this concept in the post-revolutionary United States and France. His proposal to separate the judicial branch of power from executive and legislative branches allowed to form a political system where justice would not be violated for personal interests of representatives of other branches. However, it is difficult to deny that as any other theory, the system of separation of powers has some disadvantages. It may weaken the government, make it less responsive to people and fail to prevent tyranny. Nevertheless, none of those who argued against the separation of powers system suggested any effective solution, which could substitute it. Montesquieu composed numerous works where he depicted his views concerning the contemporary politics, society, the role of climate, law, etc. The society and government still apply his theories in different areas of human activity and state-making. It shows how influential and progressive were the views of Montesquieu and the thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment as a whole. It would be difficult to imagine the modern politics without concepts, which Montesquieu popularized and systematized to make them applicable in the real political environment.

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