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LIFE AND WRITINGS
BARON DE MONTESQUIEU,
Extracted chiefly from the Eulogiums on that Author,
M. DE MAUPERTUIS, AND M. D'ALEMBERT.
THE author of the following work, CHARLES DE SECONDAT, BARON DE MONTESQUIEU, was descended of a noble family in Guienne, and born at the castle of la Brede, near Bourdeaux, on the 18th of January, 1689. His father was a younger brother, who had served some time in the army, from which he soon retired. Young Montesquieu gave early proofs of his superior talents, and his father was diligent to improve them. At the age of twenty, he was employed in preparing the materials of his SPIRIT OF Laws, by judicious extracts from the immense volumes that compose the body of civil law. Jurisprudence, though less dry to him than to most who apply to it, because he cultivated it as a philosopher, was not sufficient for his extensive and active genius. He entered, at the same time, into the depths of the most important and delicate subjects ;* and treated them with that judgment
* This alludes to a tract published by Montesquieu in the form of Letters, designed to show, that the idolatry of the Pagans did not deserve eternal damnation : but he took care in time to suppress it.
decency, and justice, by which all his writings are distinguished.
His father's brother, president à mortier of the parliament of Bourdeaux, who was the eldest branch of the family, losing his only son, left his fortune and his office to M. de Montesquieu, who had been admitted a counsellor in the parliament of Bourdeaux, February 24th, 1714, and was received president à mortier, July 13th, 1716. In 1722, during the king's minority, he was deputed by the parliament to make remonstrances against a new oppressive tax upon wine. This commission he discharged with so much spirit and address, that the tax was abolished, though it afterwards revived under another form. April 3rd, 1716, he was admitted a member of the infant academy of Bourdeaux, and diverted the society from the study of the polite arts, which can seldom be cultivated to advantage but in the capital, to the more useful study of physic.
But the functions of magistracy proved a confinement to M. de Montesquieu's genius. He was sensible that he could be more serviceable to his country and to mankind, by his writings than by his judicial decisions. He therefore sold his employment in 1726, a step for which he would have been censured by many, if by resigning a place in which he explained and enforced the observance of the laws, he had not rendered himself more capable of improving the great art of legislation.
In 1721, when he was thirty-two years of age, he published his first work, entitled Lettres Persannes, or Persian Letters. In these he exposes, with great sprightliness and energy, the custom of the French, to treat the most trifling things with seriousness, and to turn the most important into ridicule ; their conversation so noisy and frivolous ; their languor even in the center of pleasure ; their prejudices and their actions, in continual contradiction to their understanding; their ardent love of glory, joined to the most profound homage to the idol of court favour; their courtiers so servile and yet so vain ; their outward politeness to, and their inward contempt of foreigners ; the extravagance of their taste, than which nothing can be more ridiculous, except the eagerness of all Europe to adopt it; their barbarous disdain of the most respectable occupations of a citizen, namely, commerce, and the administration of justice ; their literary disputes, so warm, and yet so useless; in fine, their rage of writing without thought, and judging without knowledge. To this lively portrait he opposes, in the apologue of the Troglodites, a representation of England, which he calls a virtuous nation made wise by misfortunes.
Though this piece had the greatest success, it was not owned by the author. There were several free expressions in it, relating, not to the essentials of Christianity, but to things that many people endeavour to confound with Christianity; such as the spirit of persecution with which so many pretended Christians have been animated; the tempor al usurpations made by the clergy; and the excessive multiplication of monasteries, which lessens the number of subjects in the state, without increasing the sincere worshippers of God.
These and some other points being misrepresented to the ministry, when our author stood candidate for a place in the French academy, vacant by the death of M. de Sacy, it was signified to the members, by cardinal Fleury, that the king would not approve of the election of the author of the Lettres Persannes. M. de Montesquieu saw the consequence of this blow to his person, his family, and the tranquillity of his life. He considered a perpetual exclusion from the academy, especially from such motives, as an act of injustice. He waited on the minister, who told him that he must either relinquish his pretensions, or disown the book. Our learned president replied that, for private reasons, he did not acknowledge himself to be the author of the Lettres Persannes ; but that there was nothing in them that he was ashamed of; and that he ought to have been judged, not upon the representation of an informer, but upon a candid perusal of this work. The minister did what he ought to have done at first : he read the book, liked the author, and learned where to place his confidence. France retained a subject, of whom she had like to have been deprived by superstition and calumny: for M. de Montesquieu declared, that, after such an affront, he would seek among strangers, who held out their arms to receive him, that security and quiet, and perhaps those recompences which he might have hoped for in his own country. He was received into the academy, January 24th, 1728.
The new academician was the more deserving of that honour, as he had lately quitted his employment to follow the bent of his genius, and had now devoted his time entirely to letters. For his farther improvement in knowledge, he set out a few months after on his travels, in company with his intimate friend lord Waldegrave, ambassador from England to the court of Vienna. There he often saw the celebrated prince Eugene. This hero, after humbling the Gallic and Ottoman pride, lived, in time of peace, without pomp, a lover and encourager of letters.
M. de Montesquieu went next to Hungary, a fertile kingdom, inhabited by a brave and generous people ; and afterwards proceeded to Italy. At Venice he saw the famous Law,
Voltaire says (Siecle de Louis XIV.) that Montesquieu caused a new edition of his book to be printed off in a few days; in which he either omitted, or softened, whatever could give offence to cardinal Fleury, and carried the book to him himself. The cardinal, who scarcely ever read, cursorily looked into some parts of it, and the air of confidence which Montesquieu assumed, joined to the solicitations of some persons of high rank, induced him to drop his opposition.
who had nothing left of his former prosperity, but projects that were happily destined to die with him, and a diamond which he often pledged to raise money to play at games of chance. Another person, not less famous, whom our author saw frequently at Venice, was count Bonneval. This man so well known by his adventures, which were not yet brought to their final period, pleased to have a judge that deserved so well to hear him, took great satisfaction in giving M. de Montesquieu a detail of his very extraordinary life, of the military actions in which he had been concerned, and the characters of the generals and ministers with whom he had been acquainted. Montesquieu often recalled to mind those conversations, and related many passages of them to his friends.
From Venice he went to Rome. In this famous capital he viewed the wonders of antiquity with a philosophic eye, and showed his taste in his remarks on the celebrated performances of Raphael, Titian, and Michael Angelo. He had not made the polite arts his particular study; but the expression so conspicuous in master-pieces of that kind never fails to strike man of genius. Accustomed to observe nature, he knows her when he sees her imitated ; as a good likeness strikes all who are well acquainted with the original. But more curious to converse with great men, than to admire the wonders of art, he entered into an intimate connection with cardinal Polignac, ambassador from France, and cardinal Corsini, afterwards pope Clement XII.
After travelling through Italy, M. de Montesquieu went to Switzerland, and carefully examined the several countries watered by the Rhine. Following the course of this river, he came to Holland, where he stayed some time, and from thence crossed over to England. Here he had often the honour to wait on that generous protectress of the literati, queen Caroline, who cultivated philosophy on the throne, and had a just relish for M. de Montesquieu's conversation. He was equally well received by the nation ; who in this instance did not want to