Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, as those titles suggest, was born to a powerful and prosperous Bordeaux family. He became a leading political philosopher of the Enlightenment. He produced descriptions of the various forms of government. He was particularly exercised by despotism. Through his work he sought to promote the notion that different bodies should each operate within the rule of law but to separately hold executive, legislative and judicial powers, to prevent despotism.
In his Persian Letters he created two fictional Persians who travelled through Europe commenting by letter as to the customs and practices they found in various countries. This early use of the device of a ‘Martian account’ used misinterpretations of what they found providing some light relief. It focused particularly on a subject dear to his heart, the differences between European and non-European societies, to suggest that virtue and self-knowledge are elusive.
His other major work, The Spirit of the Laws, sets out explanations of human society and its laws. He suggests that the laws and social institutions are created by fallible human beings who are victims of ‘ignorance and error’, shaped by ‘a thousand impetuous passions.’ He suggests that laws should be adapted ‘to the people for whom they are framed’ and shaped by the religion of the inhabitants, their inclinations, commerce, manners and customs.
Montesquieu opined that there were three types of governments – despotisms, monarchies and republican governments. The latter having two forms, democratic and autocratic. He analyses the merits and issues of each
This thinking informed the liberal political theorists not just in France, but also in the creation of the United States of America.