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The Ancien Regime and the need to print abroad

Title page of L’espirit des loix, printed in red and blackTitle page of L’espirit des loixUnder the Ancien Régime political and religious censorship was strict, with the result that practically every literary, philosophical or historical work of note to emanate from pre-Revolutionary France was either printed abroad or, if printed in France, was given a misleading imprint statement. 

Montesquieu’s works, like much of the oeuvre of Voltaire and Rousseau, were largely printed outside France, in either Holland or Switzerland.

L’esprit des lois, probably his most important work, was printed in Geneva, a centre of Protestant thinking, with no indication of its author’s identity.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) held up the English legal and parliamentary system as a model, implicitly contrasting it with the despotic nature of many European monarchies, and his ideas were to have a lasting influence on 18th century political thought and on the later revolutions in America and France.

He presented religion primarily as a social phenomenon, whose benefit or harm to society is unrelated to the truth of its doctrines.

Not surprisingly, the work was soon placed on the Index librorum prohibitorum, the list of proscribed books issued by the Roman Catholic Church. Equally unsurprisingly, this only served to increase the book’s popularity: it went through 22 revisions and reprintings in two years.

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