What Was Montesquieu's Aim in Writing the Spirit of the Laws?

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‘I ask a favour that I fear will not be granted; it is that one not judge by a moment's reading the work of twenty years, that one approve or condemn the book as a whole and not some few sentences. If one wants to seek the design of the author, one can find it only in the design of the work.' (Montesquieu 1989: preface)

The Spirit of the Laws took Montesquieu twenty years to write and was first published in Geneva in 1748. It was distributed freely, without the hindrance of censorship and deemed and instant success, despite negative feedback from friends to whom the manuscript was shown. After two years and twenty-two impressions made across Europe many critics arose of his work, however this merely added to the fame of the author. Despite his critics, Montesquieu knew he had created a worthy and original work of political theory expressed by the phrase of his last preface ‘an offspring made without a mother'. (Montesquieu 1989: preface) This suggests that Montesquieu intended to create a distinctive political theory which was unlike any of his predecessors. Although he quotes famous predecessors such as Plato and Aristotle, he treats them as sources of information rather than philosophical fundamentals.

The Spirit of the Laws was Montesquieu's last work and undeniably over the course of twenty years he implemented what Judith Shklar suggests as ‘his entire intellectual capital as a judge, scientist, novelist, historian, and traveller...' (Shklar 1987: 67) It is his work as a judge which probably proved to be the most significant in relation to The Spirit of the Laws as it is fundamentally about law. Despite the nature of the subject however, the book displays a more positive tone than his previous two books, Shklar suggests that this is the case as ‘Reason and knowledge could, after all, do a great deal to prevent corruption and injustice, and even to control the natural obstacles to human well-being.' (Shklar 1987: 68). Montesquieu's The Persian Letters...
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