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  The Spirit of Laws Back Cover

Description of Carrithers edition of The Spirit of Laws by Montesquieu

Like such works as Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s Discourses, and Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws is an enduring classic of social and political theory deserving a fresh reading every generation. The modern reader, however, is likely to find a work that ran to over a thousand pages in its two-volume first edition overwhelming. Montesquieu himself remarked in one of his Pensées: “What good would it do me to have made reflections during the course of twenty years, if I had neglected to make the first one of all: that life is short?  I haven’t even time to abridge what I have done.”  Presented here, therefore, is the first English-language compendium of The Spirit of Laws together with the first English translation of the posthumously published treatise containing the physiological theory underlying Montesquieu’s theory of climate.
The text is Thomas Nugent’s classic 1750 translation of the 1748 first edition. Each book of The Spirit of Laws is preceded by a brief synopsis of its content. The notes to the volume summarize Jesuit and Jansenist censures of the work, call attention to selected textual variants in the manuscript copy of L’Esprit des lois, and cite important substantive changes made by Montesquieu after 1748, many of which have never before been published in English.

The editor’s substantial 88-page introduction, drawing frequently upon Montesquieu’s untranslated Pensées, surveys his diverse contributions to social and political theory, challenges the myths of Montesquieu’s pure Baconian empiricism and his climatological determinism, and suggests that in his use of the concept of the “general spirit” of a society Montesquieu anticipated the functionalism of nineteenth and twentieth-century sociological theory. Montesquieu’s “An Essay on Causes Affecting Minds and Characters” (1736-1743) is presented in an English translation by the editor and is carefully analyzed as providing not only the physiological ground work of Montesquieu’s theory of climate but also as evidence that Montesquieu accepted traditional sceptical arguments regarding the subjective nature of sense perception epistemology.

The four Appendices to the volume identify the passages of The Spirit to Laws censured by Montesquieu’s ecclesiastical critics, provide a bibliography of the travel books read by Montesquieu to inform his judgments of non-Western societies and governments, discuss the usefulness of the sole extant manuscript copy of The Spirit of Laws for dating the various parts of the work, and present the brief explanatory essay on political virtue added to the posthumous edition of 1757.

Appraisals of the Volume

“Montesquieu studies have flourished for some time, and David Wallace Carrithers’ work is a noteworthy addition to such investigations….Carrithers has been painstaking in his textual scholarship….This book is the result of meticulous research and careful reflection.”  David Young, American Historical Review

“This compendium accomplishes what no other English-language edition has done to date.  We have the most important passages from Montesquieu in Nugent’s rendering, with synopses and explanatory introductions to each section provided by the editor, as well as the scholarly tools necessary to trace those textual modifications Montesquieu had in mind to use in a second edition of De l’esprit des lois….Professor Carrithers should be commended for a well-wrought work of general interest that is also useful as a scholarly tool.”  James F. jones, Jr., French Review

“The introduction is balanced, being remarkably free from the influence of the various modish interpretations of Montesquieu which have been current in recent years, and yet based on a sound knowledge of recent scholarship.” M.H. Waddicor, French Studies


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