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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Montesquieu was a student of science


justify;">Bossuet had dealt

nobly with Roman history, but in the spirit of a theologian expounding the course of Divine Providence in human affairs. Montesquieu studied the operation of natural causes. His knowledge, indeed, was incomplete, but it was the knowledge afforded by the scholarship of his own time. The love of liberty, the patriotic pride, the military discipline, the education in public spirit attained by discussion, the national fortitude under reverses, the support given to peoples against their rulers, the respect for the religion of conquered tribes and races, the practice of dealing at one time with only a single hostile power, are pointed out as contributing to the supremacy of Rome in the ancient world. Its decadence is explained as the gradual result of its vast overgrowth, its civil wars, the loss of patriotism among the soldiery engaged in remote provinces, the inroads of luxury, the proscription of citizens, the succession of unworthy rulers, the division of the Empire, the incursion of the barbarians; and in treating this portion of his subject Montesquieu may be said to be wholly original. A short _Dialogue de Sylla et d'Eucrate_ may be viewed as a pendant to the _Considerations_, discussing a fragment of the subject in dramatic form. Montesquieu's desire to arrive at general truths sometimes led him to large conclusions resting on too slender a basis of fact; but the errors in applying his method detract only a little from the service which he rendered to thought in a treatment
of history at least tending in the direction of philosophic truth.

The whole of his mind--almost the whole of his existence--is embodied in the _Esprit des Lois_ (1748). It lacks the unity of a ruling idea; it is deficient in construction, in continuity, in cohesion; much that it contains has grown obsolete or is obsolescent; yet in the literature of eighteenth-century thought it takes, perhaps, the highest place; and it must always be precious as the self-revealment of a great intellect--swift yet patient, ardent yet temperate, liberal yet the reverse of revolutionary--an intellect that before all else loved the light. It lacks unity, because its author's mind was many-sided, and he would not suppress a portion of himself to secure a factitious unity. Montesquieu was a student of science, who believed in the potency of the laws of nature, and he saw that human society is the product of, or at least is largely modified by, natural law; he was also a believer in the power of human reason and human will, an admirer of Roman virtue, a citizen, a patriot, and a reformer. He would write the natural history of human laws, exhibit the invariable principles from which they proceed, and reduce the study of governments to a science; but at the same time he would exhibit how society acts upon itself; he would warn and he would exhort; he would help, if possible, to create intelligent and patriotic citizens. To these intentions we may add another--that of a criticism, touched with satire, of the contemporary political and social arrangements of France.


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