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Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (18 January 168910 February 1755), also known as Charles de Montesquieu, was a French political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment and is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers.


  • If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts : Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern (1891) edited by Tryon Edwards.

Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters, 1721)[edit]

Zeal for the advancement of religion is different from a due attachment to it; and that in order to love it and fulfil its behests, it is not necessary to hate and persecute those who are opposed to it.
  • Not to be loved is a misfortune, but it is an insult to be loved no longer.
    • No. 3.
  • [The Ottoman Empire] whose sick body was not supported by a mild and regular diet, but by a powerful treatment, which continually exhausted it.
    • No. 19.
  • [The Pope] will make the king believe that three are only one, that the bread he eats is not bread...and a thousand other things of the same kind.
    • No. 24.
  • I can assure you that no kingdom has ever had as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ.
    • No. 29.
  • Do you think that God will punish them for not practicing a religion which he did not reveal to them?
    • No. 35.
  • A man should be mourned at his birth, not at his death.
    • No. 40.
  • In France there are three kinds of professions: the church, the sword, and the long robe. Each hath a sovereign contempt for the other two. For example, a man who ought to be despised only for being a fool is often so because he is a lawyer.
    • No. 44
People here argue about religion interminably, but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.
  • People here argue about religion interminably, but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.
    • No. 46.
  • Oh, how empty is praise when it reflects back to its origin!
    • No. 50.
  • And yet there is nothing so badly imagined: nature seems to have provided, that the follies of men should be transient, but they by writing books render them permanent. A fool ought to content himself with having wearied those who lived with him: but he is for tormenting future generations; he is desirous that his folly should triumph over oblivion, which he ought to have enjoyed as well as his grave; he is desirous that posterity should be informed that he lived, and that it should be known for ever that he was a fool.
    • Commonly paraphrased as "An author is a fool who, not content with having bored those who have lived with him, insists on boring future generations".
    • No. 66.
  • "Of all kind of authors there are none I despise more than compilers, who search every where for shreds of other men's works, which they join to their own, like so many pieces of green turf in a garden: they are not at all superior to compositors in a printing house, who range the types, which, collected together, make a book, towards which they contribute nothing but the labours of the hand. I would have original writers respected, and it seems to me a kind of profanation to take those pieces from the sanctuary in which they reside, and to expose them to a contempt they do not deserve. When a man hath nothing new to say, why does not he hold his tongue? What business have we with this double employment?"
    • No. 66.
  • I write to thee on this subject, [friend], because I am angry at a book which I have just left, which is so large, that it seems to contain universal science, but it hath almost split my head, without teaching me anything.
    • No. 66.
  • Life was given to me as a favor, so I may abandon it when it is one no longer.
    • No. 76.
  • I acknowledge that history is full of religious wars: but we must distinguish; it is not the multiplicity of religions which has produced wars; it is the intolerant spirit animating that which believed itself in the ascendant.
    • No. 86.
  • There are only two cases in which war is just: first, in order to resist the aggression of an enemy, and second, in order to help an ally who has been attacked.
    • No. 95.
  • There is only one thing that can form a bond between men, and that is gratitude...we cannot give someone else greater power over us than we have ourselves.
    • No. 104.
  • I have read descriptions of Paradise that would make any sensible person stop wanting to go there.
    • No. 125.

De l'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws, 1748)[edit]

  • Better it is to say that the government most comformable to nature is that which best agrees with the humor and disposition of the people in whose favor it is established.
    • Book I, Chapter 3.
  • The public business must be carried on with a certain motion, neither too quick nor too slow.
    • Book II, Chapter 2.
  • Honor sets all the parts of the body politic in motion, and by its very action connects them; thus each individual advances the public good, while he only thinks of promoting his own interest.
  • It is not the young people that degenerate; they are not spoiled till those of maturer age are already sunk into corruption.
    • Book IV, Chapter 5.
  • At our coming into the world, we contract an immense debt to our country, which we can never discharge.
    • Book V, Chapter 3.
  • The wickedness of mankind makes it necessary for the law to suppose them better than they really are.
    • Book VI, Chapter 17.
  • Les républiques finissent par le luxe; les monarchies, par la pauvreté.
    • Translation: Republics end through luxury; monarchies through poverty.
    • Book VII, Chapter 4.
  • La corruption de chaque gouvernement commence presque toujours par celle des principes.
    • Translation: The deterioration of a government begins almost always by the decay of its principles.
    • Book VIII, Chapter 1.
  • It is difficult for the united states to be all of equal power and extent.
    • Book IX, Chapter 3.
  • La société est l'union des hommes, et non pas les hommes...
    • Translation: Society is the union of men and not the men themselves.
    • Book X, Chapter 3.
  • There is no word that has admitted of more various significations, and has made more different impressions on human minds, than that of Liberty. Some have taken it for a facility of deposing a person on whom they had conferred a tyrannical authority; others for the power of choosing a person whom they are obliged to obey; others for the right of bearing arms, and of being thereby enabled to use violence, others in fine for the privilege of being governed by a native of their own country or by their own laws.
    Some have annexed this name to one form of government, in exclusion of others: Those who had a republican taste, applied it to this government; those who liked a monarchical state, gave it to monarchies. Thus they all have applied the name of liberty to the government most conformable to their own customs and inclinations: and as in a republic people have not so constant and so present a view of the instruments of the evils they complain of, and likewise as the laws seem there to speak more, and the executors of the laws less, it is generally attributed to republics, and denied to monarchies. In fine as in democracies the people seem to do very near whatever they please, liberty has been placed in this sort of government, and the power of the people has been confounded with their liberty.
    • Book XI, Chapter 3.
  • Liberty is the right of doing whatever the laws permit.
    • Book XI, Chapter 3.
  • Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?
To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. A government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits.
  • Book XI, Chapter 4.
  • When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
    • Book XI, Chapter 6.
  • This punishment of death is the remedy, as it were, of a sick society.
    • Book XII, Chapter 4.
  • The laws do not take upon them to punish any other than overt acts.
    • Book XII, Chapter 11.
  • The public revenues are a portion that each subject gives of his property, in order to secure or enjoy the remainder.
    • Book XIII, Chapter 1.
  • Politics are a smooth file, which cuts gradually, and attains its end by slow progression.
    • Book XIV, Chapter 13
The state of slavery is in its own nature bad...
  • Slavery, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel. … where it is of the utmost importance that human nature should not be debased or dispirited, there ought to be no slavery. In democracies, where they are all upon equality; and in aristocracies, where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavors to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have.
    • Book XV, Chapter 1.
  • I would as soon say that religion gives its professors a right to enslave those who dissent from it, in order to render its propagation more easy.
    This was the notion that encouraged the ravagers of America in their iniquity. Under the influence of this idea they founded their right of enslaving so many nations; for these robbers, who would absolutely be both robbers and Christians, were superlatively devout.
    Louis XIII was extremely uneasy at a law by which all the negroes of his colonies were to be made slaves; but it being strongly urged to him as the readiest means for their conversion, he acquiesced without further scruple.
    • Book XV, Chapter 4
It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
  • De petits esprits exagèrent trop l'injustice que l'on fait aux Africains.
    • Weak minds exaggerate too much the injustice done to the Africans.
    • XV Ch. 5 Montesquieu precedes the following statement with several others thereby making the statement sarcastic or satirical when read in context, lampooning the attitudes of the supporters of slavery:
    • Were I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the negroes, these should be my arguments:
      • The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans, for clearing such vast tracts of land.
      • Sugar would be too dear if the plants which produce it were cultivated by any other than slaves.
      • These creatures are all over black, and with such a flat nose that they can scarcely be pitied.
      • It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body.
      • It is so natural to look upon color as the criterion of human nature, that the Asiatics, among whom eunuchs are employed, always deprive the blacks of their resemblance to us by a more opprobrious distinction.
      • The color of the skin may be determined by that of the hair, which, among the Egyptians, the best philosophers in the world, was of such importance that they put to death all the red-haired men who fell into their hands.
      • The negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their wanting common sense?
      • It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
      • Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans. For were the case as they state it, would the European powers, who make so many needless conventions among themselves, have failed to enter into a general one, in behalf of humanity and compassion?
Montesquieu proceeds in Ch. 6 to state: "It is time to inquire into the true origins of the right of slavery. It ought to be founded on the nature of things; let us see if there be any cases where it can be derived thence..." he then examines systems of despotism which result in various levels of contractual slavery, and in Ch. 7 concludes:
  • There are countries where the excess of heat enervates the body, and renders men so slothful and dispirited that nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcilable to reason; and the master being as lazy with respect to his sovereign as his slave is with regard to him, this adds a political to a civil slavery.
    Aristotle endeavors to prove that there are natural slaves; but what he says is far from proving it. If there be any such, I believe they are those of whom I have been speaking.
    [Those who accept it as a contractual arrangement, in a general system of despotism.]
    But as all men are born equal, slavery must be accounted unnatural, though in some countries it be founded on natural reason; and a wide difference ought to be made between such countries, and those in which even natural reason rejects it, as in Europe, where it has been so happily abolished.
  • Mankind by their industry, and by the influence of good laws, have rendered the earth more proper for their abode.
    • Book XVIII, Chapter 7.
  • The culture of lands requires the use of money.
    • Book XVIII, Chapter 15.
  • The prejudices of superstition are superior to all others, and have the strongest influence on the human mind.
    • Book XVIII, Chapter 18.
  • I shall be obliged to wander to the right and to the left, that I may investigate and discover the truth.
    • Book XIX, Chapter 1.
  • Liberty itself has appeared intolerable to those nations who have not been accustomed to enjoy it.
    • Book XIX, Chapter 2.
  • [Britain is] a nation that may be justly called a republic, disguised under the form of a monarchy.
    • Book XIX, Chapter 68.
  • Fain would I glide down a gentle river, but I am carried away by a torrent.
    • Book XX, Chapter 1.
  • The avarice of nations makes them quarrel for the movables of the whole universe.
    • Book XX, Chapter 23.
  • The history of commerce is that of the communication of the people.
    • Book XXI, Chapter 5.
  • Slowness is frequently the cause of much greater slowness.
    • Book XXI, Chapter 6.
  • The first Greeks were all pirates.
    • Book XXI, Chapter 7.
  • Great commanders write their actions with simplicity; because they receive more glory from facts than from words.
    • Book XXI, Chapter 11.
  • The compass opened, if I may so express myself, the universe.
    • Book XXI, Chapter 21.
  • Money is a sign which represents the value of all merchandise.
    • Book XXII, Chapter 2.
  • I shall ever repeat it, that mankind are governed not by extremes, but by principles of moderation.
    • Book XXII, Chapter 22.
  • Men who have absolutely nothing, such as beggars, have many children.
    • Book XXIII, Chapter 11.
  • There are countries where a man is worth nothing; there are others where he is worth less than nothing.
    • Book XXIII, Chapter 17.
  • It is a misfortune to human nature, when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.
    • Book XXIV, Chapter 4.
  • Les hommes, fripons en détail, sont en gros de très honnêtes gens.
    • Translation: Men, who are rogues individually, are in the mass very honorable people.
    • Book XXV, Chapter 2.
  • Christianity stamped its character on jurisprudence; for empire has ever a connection with the priesthood.
    • Book XXIX, Chapter 20.
  • The alms given to a naked man in the street do not fulfil the obligations of the state, which owes to every citizen a certain subsistence, a proper nourishment, convenient clothing, and a kind of life not incompatible with health.
    • Book XXIX, Chapter 29.
  • Nothing is a greater obstacle to our progress in knowledge, then a bad performance of a celebrated author; because, before we instruct we must begin with undeceiving.
    • Book XXX, Chapter 15.
  • Very good laws may be ill timed.
    • Book XXXI, Chapter 21.

Pensées Diverses[edit]

  • La raillerie est un discours en faveur de son esprit contre son bon naturel.
    • Translation: Raillery is a mode of speaking in favor of one's wit at the expense of one's better nature.
  • Le succès de la plupart des choses dépend de savoir combien il faut de temps pour réussir.
    • Translation: The success of most things depends upon knowing how long it will take to succeed.
  • J'ai toujours vu que, pour réussir dans le monde, il fallait avoir l'air fou et être sage.
    • Translation: I have always observed that to succeed in the world one should appear like a fool but be wise.
  • Horace et Aristote nous ont déjà parlé des vertus de leurs pères, et des vices de leur temps, et les auteurs de siècle en siècle nous en ont parlé de même. S'ils avaient dit vrai, les hommes seraient à présent des ours.
    • Translation: Horace and Aristotle told us of the virtues of their fathers, and the vices of their own time, and authors down through the centuries have told us the same. If they were right, men would now be bears.

Pensées et Fragments Inédits de Montesquieu (1899)[edit]

  • If I knew of something that could serve my nation but would ruin another, I would not propose it to my prince, for I am first a man and only then a Frenchman...because I am necessarily a man, and only accidentally am I French.
    • I.
  • You have to study a great deal to know a little.
    • I


  • Power ought to serve as a check to power.
    • As quoted in Hostile Takeover (2004) by S. Andrew Swann; no earlier occurences of this phrasing have been located (that's not true: see "it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power" Book XI, Chapter 4 at as well as above). But see however De l'Esprit des Lois, Book V, Chapter 14: "One must give one power a ballast, so to speak, to put it in a position to resist another."
  • Government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another.
    • As quoted in Preface of Encyclopedia of Philosophy for Smartphones and Mobile Devices (2007) by MobileReference; this is the earliest occurence of such phrasing, and might be a paraphrase of a translation or a summary of Montesquieu's ideas (Yawn: "It is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another" at Book XI, Chapter 6, same link as for the previous quotation).
  • There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law.
    • As quoted in With Prejudice : The Perspective of an Acquitted Defendent (2010) by Vicky Gallas; no earlier occurence of this phrasing has been located (Well, "Il n’y a point de plus cruelle tyrannie que celle que l’on exerce à l’ombre des lois et avec les couleurs de la justice" i.e. "There is no crueller tyranny than that which is exerted under the shadow of the law and with the colors of justice." in Chap. XIV of "Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence").

Quotes about Montesquieu[edit]

  • In recent times it has been held by many economists that the rate of current saving determined the supply of free capital, that the rate of current investment governed the demand for it, and that the rate of interest was, so to speak, the equilibrating price-factor determined by the point of intersection of the supply curve of savings and the demand curve of investment. But if aggregate saving is necessarily and in all circumstances exactly equal to aggregate investment, it is evident that this explanation collapses. We have to search elsewhere for the solution. I find it in the idea that it is the function of the rate of interest to preserve equilibrium, not between the demand and the supply of new capital goods, but between the demand and the supply of money, that is to say between the demand for liquidity and the means of satisfying this demand. I am here returning to the doctrine of the older, pre-nineteenth century economists. Montesquieu, for example, saw this truth with considerable clarity,— Montesquieu who was the real French equivalent of Adam Smith, the greatest of your economists, head and shoulders above the physiocrats in penetration, clear-headedness and good sense (which are the qualities an economist should have). But I must leave it to the text of this book to show how in detail all this works out.

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