The Spirit of the Laws  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Spirit of Laws (French: L'esprit des lois) is a treatise on political theory first published anonymously by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu in 1748 with the help of Claudine Guérin de Tencin. Originally published anonymously partly because Montesquieu's works were subject to censorship, its influence outside of France was aided by its rapid translation into other languages. In 1750 Thomas Nugent published the first English translation. In 1751 the Catholic Church added L'esprit des loix to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books"). Yet Montesquieu's political treatise had an enormous influence on the work of many others, most notably: Catherine the Great, who produced Nakaz (Instruction); the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution; and Alexis de Tocqueville, who applied Montesquieu's methods to a study of American society, in Democracy in America.

Montesquieu spent nearly twenty years researching and writing L'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), covering a wide range of topics in politics, the law, sociology, and anthropology and providing more than 3,000 citations. In this political treatise Montesquieu advocates constitutionalism and the separation of powers, the abolition of slavery, the preservation of civil liberties and the rule of law, and the idea that political and legal institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical character of each particular community.

Climate, culture, and society

The third major contribution of De l'esprit des lois was to the field of political sociology, which Montesquieu is often credited with more or less inventing. The bulk of the treatise, in fact, concerns how geography and climate interact with particular cultures to produce the "spirit" of a people. This spirit, in turn, inclines that people toward certain sorts of political and social institutions, and away from others. Later writers often caricatured Montesquieu's theory by suggesting that he claimed to explain legal variation simply by the distance of a community from the equator.

While the analysis in De l'esprit des lois is much more subtle than these later writers perceive, many of his specific claims appear foolish to modern readers. Nevertheless, his approach to politics from a naturalistic or scientific point of view proved very influential, directly or indirectly inspiring modern fields of political science, sociology, and anthropology.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Spirit of the Laws" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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