Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bréde et de la Montesquieu, was a French political and social philosopher, jurist, satirist, and the first of the great French men of letters of the Enlightenment. Born at La Bréde near Bordeaux, Montesquieu was reared until the age of three by a peasant family, like Montaigne [q.v.], in order that he might acquire an understanding of the lower classes. In 1696, his mother died, leaving him the barony of La Bréde at age seven. He left for school in 1700, attending the Collège de Juilly and later the University of Bordeaux, where he studied law to become an advocate in 1708. In 1716, his uncle Jean-Baptiste died, leaving him the barony of Montesquieu and the deputy presidency of the Bordeaux Parliament, a position of some honor. In 1721, he published The Persian Letters, a satire of European (French) customs and society that made him famous.
After 10 years of service, Montesquieu sold his political office and, in 1728, left for a three-year tour of Europe and England that had a great effect on his political and aesthetic sensibilities. By 1734, he finished his Consideration of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. In this work, which exhibits his uniquely secular approach to history, Montesquieu argued that Rome’s greatness was due to its adaptable institutions and martial values. In 1748, he published anonymously his best-known work, The Spirit of the Laws, a major and influential work of political theory. This work, among other things, outlined a classification of the different types of government—its notion of a separation of governmental powers, which Montesquieu derived from his observations of English government, influenced the Constitution of the United States—and examined the fundamental relationships that underlie the laws of a civilized society. Montesquieu declared history as the basis for human activity and viewed religion as a social phenomenon rather than an underlying force. In this respect, Montesquieu sought to establish a social science of man comparable to the natural sciences. He was committed to liberty as the key ingredient in a well-functioning civil society.
In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu employs a character drawn from a different society to criticize the usual arguments used against suicide in the Christian European west. In Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, he addresses self-love and altruism, in effect lamenting the suicide of Cato; and in the brief passage provided here from The Spirit of the Laws, he differentiates between the “educated” socially conditioned, principled suicides of the Roman Stoics and the “unaccountable” suicides of the English, attributable primarily to mental illness.
Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bréde et de la Montesquieu: The Persian Letters, Letter 76, tr. C. J. Betts. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973. Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, Ch. XII, pp. 113-118, tr. David Lowenthal. New York: Free Press, 1965. Available from the Constitution Society. The Spirit of the Laws, Book XIV, Ch. 12, p. 107, Great Books of the Western World, vol. 38, tr. Thomas Nugent and revised by J. V. Prichard. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952. Available from the Constitution Society.
from THE PERSIAN LETTERS
Letter 76: Usbek to his friend Ibben, at Smyrna
In Europe the law treats suicides with the utmost ferocity. They are put to death for a second time, so to speak; their bodies are dragged in disgrace through the streets and branded, to denote infamy, and their goods are confiscated.
It seems to me, Ibben, that these laws are very unjust. When I am overcome by anguish, poverty, or humiliation, why must I be prevented from putting an end to my troubles, and harshly deprived of the remedy which lies in my power?
Why am I required to work for a society from which I consent to be excluded, and to submit against my will to a convention which was made without my participation? Society is based on mutual advantage, but when I find it onerous what is to prevent me renouncing it? Life was given to me as favour, so I may abandon it when it is one no longer; when the cause disappears, the effect should disappear also.
Would the king want me to be subject to him when I derive no advantages from being a subject? Can my fellow-citizens be so unfair as to drive me to despair for their conveniences? Is God to be different from every other benefactor, and is it his will that I should be condemned to accept favours which make me wretched?
I am obliged to obey the law so long as I continue to live under its authority, but when I no longer do so does it still apply to me?
But, it will be said, you are disturbing the providential order. God united your soul to your body, and you are separating them; you are therefore going against his intentions, and resisting him.
What does that imply? Am I disturbing the order of Providence when I modify the arrangement of matter and turn a sphere into a cube, when it had been given its spherical shape by the first laws of motion, that is to say the laws of creation and conservation? Of courts not: I am merely exercising a right which I have been given; and in this sense I could disrupt the whole of nature at will, and it would be impossible to say that I am opposing Providence.
When my soul is separated from my body, will the universe be less orderly or less well arranged? Do you believe that the new synthesis will be less perfect, or less dependent on general laws, or that the world will have lost anything by it? The works of God will be any the less great, or rather less immense? When my body has been turned into a grain of wheat, or a worm, or a piece of turf, do you think that these products of nature are less worthy of her? Or that when my soul has been purged of every terrestrial ingredient it will be less exalted?
All such ideas, my dear Ibben, originate in our pride alone. We do not realize our littleness, and in spite of everything we want to count for something in the universe, play a part, be a person of importance. We imagine that the annihilation of a being as perfect as ourselves would detract from nature as a whole, and we cannot conceive that one man more or less in the world, and indeed the whole of mankind a hundred million heads like ours, are only a minute, intangible speck, which God perceives simply because of the immensity of his knowledge.
From Paris, the 15th of the moon of Saphar, 1715
from CONSIDERATION OF THE CAUSES OF THE GREATNESS OF THE ROMANS AND THEIR DECLINE
. . .Almost all ventures are spoiled by the fact that those who undertake them usually seek—in addition to the main objective—certain small, personal successes which flatter their self-love and give them self-satisfaction.
I believe that if Cato had preserved himself for the republic, he would have given a completely different turn to events. Cicero’s talents admirably suited him for a secondary role, but he was not fit for the main one. His genius was superb, but his soul was often common. With Cicero, virtue was the accessory, with Cato, glory. Cicero always thought of himself first, Cato always forgot about himself. The latter wanted to save the republic for its own sake, the former in order to boast of it. . . .
Brutus and Cassius killed themselves with inexcusable precipitation, and we cannot read this chapter in their lives without pitying the republic which was thus abandoned. Cato had killed himself at the end of the tragedy; these began it, in a sense, by their death.
Several reasons can be given for this practice of committing suicide that was so common among the Romans: the advances of the Stoic sect, which encouraged it; the establishment of triumphs and slavery, which made many great men think they must not survive a defeat; the advantage those accused of some crime gained by bringing death upon themselves, rather than submitting to a judgment whereby their memory would be tarnished and their property confiscated; a kind of point of honor, more reasonable, perhaps, than that which today leads us to slaughter our friend for a gesture or word; finally, a great opportunity for heroism, each man putting an end to the part he played in the world wherever he wished.
We could add to these a great facility in executing the deed. When the soul is completely occupied with the action it is about to perform, with the motive determining it, with the peril it is going to avoid, it does not really see death, for passion makes us feel but never see.
Self-love, the love of our own preservation, is transformed in so many ways, and acts by such contrary principles, that it leads us to sacrifice our being for the love of our being. And such is the value we set on ourselves that we consent to cease living because of a natural and obscure instinct that makes us love ourselves more than our very life. It is certain that men have become less free, less courageous, less disposed to great enterprises than they were when, by means of this power which one assumed, one could at any moment escape from every other power.
from THE SPIRIT OF LAWS
Of the Laws against Suicides. We do not find in history that the Romans ever killed themselves without a cause; but the English are apt to commit suicide most unaccountably; they destroy themselves even in the bosom of happiness. This action among the Romans was the effect of education, being connected with their principles and customs; among the English it is the consequence of a distemper, being connected with the physical state of the machine, and independent of every other cause.
In all probability it is a defect of the filtration of the nervous juice: the machine, whose motive faculties are often unexerted, is weary of itself; the soul feels no pain, but a certain uneasiness in existing. Pain is a local sensation, which leads us to the desire of seeing an end of it; the burden of life, which prompts us to the desire of ceasing to exist, is an evil confined to no particular part.
It is evident that the civil laws of some countries may have reasons for branding suicide with infamy: but in England it cannot be punished without punishing the effects of madness.