Two Enlightenment philosophes: Montesquieu and Rousseau

Montesquieu and Rousseau were two of the philosophes during the  Enlightenment that had a profound impact on Europe and the world.   Although they came from different backgrounds, one a nobleman, the other a commoner, both were dissatisfied with the French kings' rule.  Typical of the philosophers seeking to apply science to social reform, they treated governments as conditional, and applied the "state of nature" versus "society" criterion to decide the type of government to be established.   Both also tried to find the scientific rules that govern the operation of governments.  

Because he decided that universal rules governing society manifested in the form of specific rules suited to specific countries, Montesquieu was sometimes called the father of modern anthropology.  His ideas about the English government directly influenced the U.S. constitution.  Rousseau's ideas would have a profound impact on the French Revolution, and his idea of sovereignty of the people not only influenced the U.S. government but also had a profound impact on the 20th century world, from Socialism to Nazism. 

1. Montesquieu (1689-1755)’s views on government

Montesquieu was one of the first of the Enlightenment philosophers to prescribe both universal and specific laws to individual societies and their governments. Misinterpreting the English government as made up of three separate parts (in reality in the English government, the legislative and judiciary were combined in the power of parliament), Montesquieu discussed both his most favorite form of government (separation of power, especially in a constitutional monarchy), and the different types of government that suited the specific situations of a country, i.e., its size, population, climate, soil, etc. 

2. What are Montesquieu's three types of government?


Small size, small population; moderate but not superb nor very extreme climate; not very fertile soil, country generally poor. 


Bigger than republic, but moderate size; bigger population than republic; climate favorable; fertile soil; richer than a republic. 


Huge size; sparse population. 

3. Why did Montesquieu classify governments the way he did?

4. What "universal rules" did Montesquieu apply to his discussion of government?

Human beings are selfish, (influence of Christianity, of Montesquieu, etc.) that is why the checks and balances system that he admired in the English system.

5. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and the search for a government that combines liberty and equality.

One of the most radical and controversial figures of the Enlightenment philosophers, Rousseau was a prolific writer, composer, and theorist on education. His the Social Contract had a tremendous influence on the later French Revolution (1789-95). His upbringing in Protestant small town Geneva where direct political participation was the norm colored his views on politics and government.  

In a way, Rousseau’s idea of government combined both his ideal based on his life experience in Geneva and a zeal to apply science to government.  

His ideal: direct participatory politics like in his home town Geneva. His assumption of society was also very much based on his Geneva experience. He believed that there were fundamental common interests in society, and every individual should submit themselves to this common interest, which is called the “general will” of the people. For those who do not voluntarily submit to this general will, they will be forced to do so. 

His scientific zeal came from his presumption of what government should obtain for people: freedom, that Rousseau claimed existed in the state of nature.  To him, the only way to maintain freedom in society was equality.  A good government, to him, was as neat as arithmetic: to achieve freedom and equality in society, each individual must surrender their individual rights and pool all their rights with the rest of society, generating a "general will" of the people from this common pool of all individual rights, after chopping off the too obvious deviations from the mean.  Obeying the general will, for each, was obeying himself.  In that sense, each individual was free, and equal with others.

6. The power of Rousseau's state based on the "general will" or sovereignty of the people

Only when people work for the common interest can they achieve real freedom from autocracy. For those who do not want to submit to the general will or common interest of the people, they will be “forced to be free.” The government that represents the general will cannot be questioned, because the general will cannot be wrong.  This conclusion would have a tremendous impact in the French Revolution (1789-1795).