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AN EULOGIUM ON PRESIDENT MONTESQUIEU, BY MONSIEUR D’ALEMBERT. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 1 The Spirit of Laws 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 1.
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AN EULOGIUM ON PRESIDENT MONTESQUIEU, BY MONSIEUR D’ALEMBERT.
THE interest which good citizens are pleased to take in the Encyclopedia, and the great number of men of letters, who consecrate their labours to it, seem to permit us to regard this work as one of the most proper monuments, to preserve the grateful sentiments of our country, and that respect which is due to the memory of those celebrated men who have done it honour. Persuaded, however, that M. de Montesquieu had a title to expect other panegyrists, and that the public grief deserved to be described by more eloquent pens, we would have concealed within our own breasts our just concern, and respect for his memory; but the acknowledgement of what we owe him we hold too dear to permit us to leave the care of it to others. While a benefactor to mankind by his writings, he also condescended to be so to this work, and our gratitude pretends to no more but only to trace out a few lines at the foot of his statue.
Charles de Secondat, baron of La Brede and of Montesquieu, late president à mortier of the parliament of Bourdeaux, member of the French academy of sciences and belles lettres of Prussia, and of the Royal Society of London, was born at the castle of La Brede, near Bourdeaux, the 18th of January, 1689, of a noble family of Guyenne. His great great grandfather, John de Secondat, steward of the household to Henry the Second, king of Navarre, and afterwards to Jane, daughter of that king, who married Antony of Bourbon, purchased the estate of Montesquieu for the sum of 10,000 livres, which this princess gave him by an authentic deed, as a reward for his probity and services.
Henry the Third, king of Navarre, afterwards Henry the Fourth, king of France, erected the lands of Montesquieu into a barony, in favour of Jacob de Secondat, son of John, first one of the gentlemen in ordinary of the bedchamber to this prince, and ofterwards colonel of the regiment of Chatillon. John Gaston de Secondat, his second son, having married a daughter of the first president of the parliament of Bourdeaux, purchased the office of president à mortier in this society. He had several children; one of whom entered into the service, distinguished himself in it, and quitted it very early in life. This was the father of Charles de Secondat, author of the Spirit of Laws. These particulars may perhaps appear misplaced at the beginning of the eloge of a philosopher whose name stands so little in need of ancestors; but let us not envy their memory that eclat which this name reflects upon it.
The early marks of his genius, a presage sometimes so deceitful, was not so in Charles de Secondat: he discovered very soon what he one day would be, and his father employed all his attention to cultivate this rising genius, the object of his hope and of his tenderness. At the age of twenty, young Montesquieu already prepared materials for the Spirit of Laws, by a well-digested extract from those immense volumes which compose the body of the civil law: thus heretofore Newton laid, in his early youth, the foundation of works which have rendered him immortal. The study of jurisprudence, however, though less dry to M. de Montesquieu than to the most part of those who apply to it, because he studied it as a philosopher, was not sufficient for the extent and activity of his genius. He enquired deeply, at the same time, into subjects still more important and more delicate,* and discussed them in silence, with that wisdom, with that decency, and with that equity, which he has since discovered in his works.
A brother of his father, president à mortier of the parliament of Bourdeaux, an able judge and virtuous citizen, the oracle of his own society and of his province, having lost an only son, and wanting to preserve, in his own corps, that elevated spirit which he had endeavoured to infuse into it, left his fortune and his office to M. de Montesquieu. He had been one of the counsellors of the parliament of Bourdeaux since the 24th of February, 1714, and was received president à mortier the 13th of July, 1716.
Some years after, in 1722, during the king’s minority, his society employed him to present remonstrances upon occasion of a new impost. Placed between the throne and the people, he filled, like a respectful subject and courageous magistrate, the employment, so noble, and so little envied, of making the cries of the unfortunate reach the sovereign: the public misery, represented with as much address as force of argument, obtained that justice which it demanded. This success, it is true, much more unfortunately for the stare than for him, was of as short continuance as if it had been unjust. Scarce had the voice of the people ceased to be heard, but the impost, which had been suppressed, was replaced by another: but the good citizen had done his duty.
He was received the 3d of April, 1716, into the academy of Bourdeaux, which was then only beginning. A taste for music, and for works of pure entertainment, had at first assembled together the members who composed it. M. de Montesquieu believed, with reason, that the rising ardour and talents of his friends might be employed with still greater advantage in physical subjects. He was persuaded that nature, so worthy of being beheld every where, found also, in all places, eyes worthy of viewing her; that, on the contrary, works of taste not admitting of mediocrity, and the metropolis being the center of men of abilities and opportunities of improvement in this way, it was too difficult to gather together, at a distance from it, a sufficient number of distinguished writers. He looked upon the societies for belles lettres, so strangely multiplied in our provinces, as a kind, or rather as a shadow, of literary luxury, which is of prejudice to real opulence, without even presenting us with the appearance of it. Luckily the duke de la Force, by a prize which he had just founded at Bourdeaux, seconded these rational and just designs. It was judged that an experiment properly made would be preferable to a weak discourse or a bad poem; and Bourdeaux got an academy of sciences.
M. de Montesquieu, not at all eager to shew himself to the public, seemed, according to the expression of a great genius, to wait for an age ripe for writing. It was not till 1721, that is to say, at 32 years of age, that he published the Persian Letters. The Siamois, and the serious and comic amusements, might have furnished him with the idea of it; but he excelled his model. The description of oriental manners, real or supposed, of the pride and phlegm of Asiatic love, is but the smallest object of these letters; it only serves, so to speak, as a pretence for a delicate satire upon our manners, and for treating of several important subjects, which the author went to the bottom of, while he only appeared to glance at them. In this kind of moving picture, Usbec chiefly exposes, with as much genteel easiness as energy, whatever amongst us most struck his penetrating eyes: our way of treating the most silly things seriously, and of turning the most important into a joke; our conversations which are so blustering and so frivolous; our impatience even in the midst of pleasure itself; our prejudices and our actions perpetually in contradiction with our understandings; so much love of glory joined with so much respect for the idol of court-favour; our courtiers so mean and so vain; our exterior politeness to, and our real contempt of, strangers, or our affected regard for them; the fantasticness of our tastes, than which there is nothing lower but the eagerness of all Europe to adopt them; our barbarous disdain for the two most respectable occupations of a citizen, commerce and magistracy; our literary disputes, so keen and so useless; our rage for writing before we think, and for judging before we understand. To this picture, which is lively, but without malice, he opposes, in the apologue of the Troglodytes, the description of a virtuous people, become wise by misfortunes: a piece worthy of the portico. In another place, he represents philosophy, which had been a long time smothered, appearing all of a sudden, regaining, by a rapid progress, the time which he had lost; penetrating even amongst the Russians at the voice of a genius which invites her; while, among other people of Europe, superstition, like a thick atmosphere, prevents that light, which surrounds them on all hands, from reaching them. In fine, by the principles which he has established concerning the nature of ancient and modern government, he presents us with the bud of those bright ideas which have been since developed by the author in his great work.
These different subjects, deprived at present of the graces of novelty, which they had when the Persian Letters first appeared, will for ever preserve the merit of that original character which the author has had the art to give them; a merit by so much the more real, that in this case it proceeds alone from the genius of the writer, and not from that foreign veil with which he covered himself; for Usbec acquired, during his abode in France, not only so perfect a knowledge of our morals, but even so strong a tincture of our manners, that his style makes us often forget his country. This small defect in point of probability was perhaps not without design and address: when he was exposing our follies and vices, he wanted without doubt also to do justice to our advantages. He was fully conscious of the insipidity of a direct panegyric: he has more delicately praised us, by so often assuming our own air to satirize us more agreeably.
Notwithstanding the success of this work, M. de Montesquieu did not openly declare himself the author of it. Perhaps he thought that by this means he would more easily escape that literary satire, which spares anonymous writings the more willingly, because it is always the person, and not the work, which is the aim of its darts. Perhaps he was afraid of being attacked on account of the pretended contrast of the Persian Letters with the gravity of his office; a sort of reproach, said he, which critics never fail to make, because it requires no effort of genius. But his secret was discovered, and the public already pointed him out to the French academy. The event demonstrated how prudent M. de Montesquieu’s silence had been. Ufbec expresses himself sometimes freely enough, not concerning the fundamentals of Christianity, but about matters which too many people affect to confound with Christianity itself; about the spirit of persecution with which so many Christians have been animated; about the temporal usurpation of ecclesiastic power; about the excessive multiplication of monasteries, which deprive the state of subjects, without giving worshippers to God; about some opinions which have in vain been attempted to be established as principles; about our religious disputes, always violent and always fatal. If he appears any where to touch upon more delicate questions, and which more nearly interest the Christian religion, his reflections, weighed with justice, are in fact very favourable to revelation; because he only shews how little human reason, left to itself, knows concerning these subjects. In a word, among the genuine letters of M. de Montesquieu the foreign printer had inserted some by another hand; and they ought at least, before the author was condemned, to have distinguished which properly belonged to him. Without regard to these considerations, on the one hand, hatred under the name of zeal, and, on the other, zeal without discernment or understanding, rose and united themselves against the Persian Letters. Informers, a species of men dangerous and base, which even in a wise government are unfortunately sometimes listened to, alarmed, by an unfaithful extract, the piety of the ministry. M. de Montesquieu, by the advice of his friends, supported by the public voice, having offered himself for that place in the French academy vacant by the death of M. de Sacy, the minister wrote a letter to the academy, that his majesty would never agree to the election of the author of the Persian Letters; that he had not read the book; but that persons in whom he placed confidence had informed him of their poisonous and dangerous tendency. M. de Montesquieu perceived what a stroke such an accusation might be to his person, his family, and the tranquility of his life. He neither put so high a price upon literary honours, either keenly to seek them, or to affect to disdain them when they came in his way, nor, in a word, to regard the simple want of them as a misfortune: but a perpetual exclusion, and especially the motives of that exclusion, appeared to him to be an injury. He saw the minister; declared to him that, for particular reasons, he did not own the Persian Letters; but that he would be still farther from disowning a work for which he believed he had no reason to blush; and that he ought to be judged after a reading, and not upon an information. At last the minister did what he ought to have begun with; he read the book, loved the author, and learned to place his confidence better. The French academy was not deprived of one of its greatest ornaments, and France had the happiness to preserve a subject which superstition or calumny was ready to deprive her of; for M. de Montesquieu had declared to the government, that, after that kind of affront which they were about to put upon him, he would go among foreigners, who with open arms offered to receive him, in quest of that safety, that repose, and perhaps those rewards, which he might have hoped for in his own country. The nation would have deplored this loss, and the disgrace of it would notwithstanding have fallen upon it.
The late marshal d’Estrées, at that time director of the French academy, conducted himself upon this occasion like a virtuous courtier and a person of a truly elevated mind: he was neither afraid of abusing his credit nor of endangering it; he supported his friend and justified Socrates. This act of courage, so dear to learning, so worthy of being imitated at present, and so honourable to the memory of marshal d’Estrées, ought not to have been forgot in his panegyric.
M. de Montesquieu was received the 24th of January, 1728. His oration is one of the best which have been pronounced upon a like occasion: its merit is by so much the greater, that those who were to be received, till then confined by those forms and by those éloges which were in use, and to which a kind of prescription subjected them, had not as yet dared to step over this circle to treat of other subjects, or had not at least thought of comprehending them in it. Even in this state of constraint he had the happiness to succeed. Among several strokes with which his * oration shines, we may easily distinguish the deep-thinking writer by the single portrait of cardinal Richlieu, who taught France the secret of its strength, and Spain that of its weakness; who freed Germany from her chains and gave her new ones. We must admire monsieur de Montesquieu for having been able to overcome the difficulty of his subject, and we ought to pardon those who have not had the same success.
The new academician was by so much the more worthy of this title, that he had not long before renounced every other business to give himself entirely up to his genius and taste. However important the place which he occupied was, with whatever judgement and integrity he might have fulfilled its duties, he perceived that there were objects more worthy of employing his talents; that a citizen is accountable to his country and to mankind for all the good which he can do; and that he could be more useful to one and the other, by instructing them with his writings, than he could be by determining a few particular disputes in obscurity. All these reflections determined him to sell his office. He was no longer a magistrate, and was now only a man of letters.
But, to render himself useful by his works to different nations, it was necessary that he should know them: it was with this view that he undertook to travel; his aim was to examine every where the natural and moral world, to study the laws and constitution of every country; to visit the learned, the writers, the celebrated artists; every where to seek for those rare and singular geniuses whose conversation sometimes supplies the place of many years observation and residence. M. de Montesquieu might have said, like Democritus, “I have forgot nothing to instruct myself: I have quitted my country and travelled over the universe, the better to know truth; I have seen all the illustrious personages of my time.” But there was this difference between the French Democritus and him of Abdera, that the first travelled to instruct men, and the second to laugh at them.
He first went to Vienna, where he often saw the celebrated prince Eugene. This hero, so fatal to France, (to which he might have been so useful,) after having given a check to the fortune of Lewis XIV. and humbled the Ottoman pride, lived during the peace without pomp, loving and cultivating letters in a court, where they are little honoured, and setting an example to his masters how they should protect them. M. de Montesquieu thought that he could discover in his conversation some remains of affection for his ancient country. Prince Eugene especially discovered it, as much as an enemy could, when he talked of the fatal consequences of that intestine division which has so long troubled the church of France: the statesman foresaw its duration and effects, and foretold it like a philosopher.’
M. de Montesquieu left Vienna to visit Hungary, an opulent and fertile country, inhabited by a haughty and generous nation, the scourge of its tyrants and the support of its sovereigns. As few persons know this country well, he has written with care this part of his travels.
From Germany he went to Italy: he saw at Venice the famous Mr. Law, who had nothing remaining of his grandeur but projects fortunately destined to die away in his own head, and a diamond which he pawned to play at games of hazard. One day the conversation turned on the famous system which Law had invented; an epoch of so many calamities and so many great fortunes, and especially of a remarkable corruption in our morals. As the parliament of Paris, the immediate depository of the laws during a minority, had made some resistance to the Scotch minister on this occasion, M. de Montesquieu asked him why he had never tried to overcome this resistance by a method almost always infallible in England, by the grand mover of human actions, in a word, by money. These are not, answered Law, geniuses so ardent and so generous as my countrymen, but they are much more incorruplible. We shall add, without any prejudice of national vanity, that a society, which is free for some short limited time, ought to resist corruption more than one which is always so: the first, when it sells its liberty, loses it; the second, so to speak, only lends it, and exercises it even when it is doing so. Thus the circumstances and nature of government give rise to the vices and virtues of nations.
Another person, no less famous, whom M. de Montesquieu saw still oftener at Venice, was count de Bonneval. This man, so known by his adventures, which were not yet at an end, and flattered with conversing with so good a judge, and one so worthy of hearing them, often related to him the remarkable circumstances of his life, recited the military actions in which he had been engaged, and drew the characters of those generals and ministers whom he had known. M. de Montesquieu often recalled to mind these conversations, and related different strokes of them to his friends.
He went from Venice to Rome. In this ancient capital of the world, which is still so in some respects, he applied himself chiefly to examine that which distinguishes it most at present; the works of Raphael, of Titian, and of Michael Angelo. He had not made a particular study of the fine arts, but that expression, which shines in the master-pieces of this kind, infallibly strikes every man of genius. Accustomed to study nature, he knew her again when well imitated, as a like portrait strikes all those who are familiarly acquainted with the original. Those productions of art must indeed be wretched whose whole beauty is only discernible by artists.
After having travelled over Italy, M. de Montesquieu came to Switzerland. He carefully examined those vast countries which are watered by the Rhine. There was nothing more for him to see in Germany, for Frederic did not yet reign. He stopped afterwards some time in the United Provinces, an admirable monument what human industry animated by a love of liberty can do. At last he went to England, where he staid three years. Worthy of visiting and entertaining the greatest of men, he had nothing to regret but that he had not made this voyage sooner. Newton and Locke were dead. But he had often the honour of paying his respects to their protectress, the celebrated queen of England, who cultivated philosophy upon a throne, and who properly esteemed and valued M. de Montesquieu. He was no less well received by the nation, which, however, was not obliged to follow the example of its superiors on this occasion. He formed at London intimate friendships with men accustomed to think, and to prepare themselves for great actions by profound studies; with them he instructed himself in the nature of the government, and attained to a thorough knowledge of it. We speak here after the public testimonies which have been given him by the English themselves, so jealous of our advantages, and so little disposed to acknowledge any superiority in us.
As he had examined nothing either with the prejudice of an enthusiast or the austerity of a cynic, he brought back from his travels neither a saucy disdain for foreigners nor a still more misplaced contempt for his own country. It was the result of his observations, that Germany was made to travel in, Italy to sojourn in, England to think in, and France to live in.
After his return to his own country, M. de Montesquieu retired for two years to his estate of La Brede He there enjoyed in peace that solitude which our having viewed the tumult and hurry of the world serves to render more agreeable. He lived with himself, after having so long lived in a different way; and, what interests us most, he put the last hand to his work On the Cause of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, which appeared in 1734.
Empires, like men, must encrease, decay, and be extinguished. But this necessary revolution has often hidden causes, which the veil of time conceals from us, and which mystery, or their apparent minuteness, has even sometimes hid from the eyes of contemporaries.
Nothing in this respect resembles modern history more than ancient history. That of the Romans, however, deserves, in this respect, to be made an exception of; it presents us with a rational policy, a connected system of aggrandizement, which does not permit us to attribute the fortune of this people to obscure and inferior springs. The causes of the Roman grandeur may then be found in history, and it is the business of the philosopher to discover them. Besides, there are no systems in this study as in that of physic; these are almost always overthrown, because one new and unforeseen experiment can overturn them in an instant: on the contrary, when we carefully collect the facts which the ancient history of a country transmits to us, if we do not always gather together all the materials which we can desire, we can at least hope one day to have more of them. A careful study of history, a study so important and so difficult, consists in combining in the most perfect manner these defective materials: such would be the merit of an architect, who, from some curious learned remains, should trace, in the most probable manner, the plan of an ancient edifice; supplying, by genius and happy conjectures, what was wanting in those unformed and mutilated ruins.
It is in this point of view that we ought to consider the work of M. de Montesquieu. He finds the causes of the grandeur of the Romans in that love of liberty, of labour, and of their country, which was instilled into them during their infancy; in those intestine divisions which gave an activity to their genius, and which ceased immediately upon the appearance of an enemy; in that constancy after misfortunes, which never despaired of the republic; in that principle they adhered to of never making peace but after victories; in the honour of a triumph, which was a subject of emulation among the generals; in that protection which they granted to those people who rebelled against their kings; in the excellent policy of permitting the conquered to preserve their religion and customs; and that of never having two enemies upon their hands at once, and of bearing every thing of the one till they had destroyed the other. He finds the causes of their declension in the aggrandizement of the state itself: in those distant wars, which, obliging the citizens to be too long absent, made them insensibly lose their republican spirit; in the privilege of being citizens of Rome, granted to so many nations, which made the Roman people at last become a sort of many headed monster; in the corruption introduced by the luxury of Asia; in the proscriptions of Sylla, which debased the genius of the nation, and prepared it for slavery; in that necessity which the Romans found themselves in, of having a master while their liberty was become burthensome to them; in that necessity they were obliged to of changing their maxims when they changed their government; in that series of monsters who reigned, almost without interruption, from Tiberius to Nerva, and from Commodus to Constantine; in a word, in the translation and division of the empire, which perished first in the West by the power of barbarians, and which, after having languished several ages in the East, under weak or cruel emperors, insensibly died away, like those rivers which disappear in the sands.
A very small volume was enough for M. de Montesquieu, to explain and unfold so interesting and vast a picture. As the author did not insist upon the detail, and only seized on the most fruitful branches of his subject, he has been able to include, in a very small space, a vast number of objects distinctly perceived, and rapidly presented, without fariguing the reader. While he points out a great deal to us, he leaves us still more to reflect upon; and he might have intitled his book, A Roman History for the Use of Statesmen and Philosophers.
Whatever reputation M. de Montesquieu had acquired by this last work, and by those which had preceded it, he had only cleared the way for a far grander undertaking, for that which ought to immortalize his name, and render it respectable to future ages. He had long ago formed the design, and had meditated for twenty years upon the execution of it; or to speak more properly, his whole life had been a perpetual meditation upon it. He had first made himself in some respect a stranger in his own country, better to understand it at last: he had afterwards travelled over all Europe, and profoundly studied the different people who inhabit it. The famous island, which glories so much in her laws, and which makes so bad a use of them, had been to him, in his long tour, what the isle of Crete had formerly been to Lycurgus, a school where he had known well how to instruct himself without approving every thing: in a word, he had, if we may so speak, examined and judged those celebrated nations and men who only exist at present in the annals of the world. It was thus that he attained by degrees to the noblest title which a wise man can deserve, that of legislator of nations.
If he was animated by the importance of his subject, he was at the same time terrified by its extensiveness; he abandoned it, and returned to it again at several intervals. He felt, more than once, as he himself owns, his paternal hands fail him. At last, encouraged by his friends, he collected all his strength, and published The Spirit of Laws.
In this important work, M. de Montesquieu, without insisting, after the example of those who preceded him, upon metaphysical discussions relative to the nature of man, supposed in an abstract state; without confining himself, like others, to consider certain people in certain particular relations or circumstances, takes a view of the inhabitants of the world in the actual state in which they are, and in all the relations which they can stand in to one another. The most part of other writers in this way are almost always either simple moralists, or simple lawyers, or even sometimes simple theologists. As for him, a citizen of all countries, and of all nations, he is less employed about what our duty requires of us, than about the means by which we can be obliged to fulfil it; about the metaphysical perfection of laws, than about that which human nature renders man capable of; about laws which have been made, than about those which ought to have been made; about the laws of a particular people, than about those of all nations. Thus, when comparing himself to those who have run before him in this noble and grand career, he might say, with Correggio when he had seen the works of his rivals, And I also, I am a painter.
Filled and penetrated with his subject, the author of the Spirit of Laws comprehends in it so great a number of materials, and treats them with such brevity and depth, that an affiduous and studious reading of it can make us alone perceive the merit of this book. This will especially serve, we venture to say, to make that pretended want of method, with which some readers have accused M. de Montesquieu, disappear; an advantage which they ought not slightly to have accused him of having neglected in a philosophical subject, and in a work of twenty years. Real want of order ought to be distinguished from that which is only apparent. Disorder is when the analogy and connection of ideas are not observed; when conclusions are set up as principles, or precede them; when the reader, after innumerable windings, finds himself at the point whence he set out. Apparent disorder is when the author, putting in their true place the ideas which he makes use of, leaves it to the readers to supply the intermediate ones; and it is thus that M. de Montesquieu believed that he might and ought to make use of them in a book designed for men who thought, whose genius ought to supply voluntary and reasonable omissions.
The order which is perceivable in the grand divisions of the Spirit of Laws takes place no less in the smaller details: we believe that, the more profoundly the work is studied, the more one will be convinced of it. Faithful to his general divisions, the author refers to each those objects which belong to it exclusively; and, with respect to those which, by different branches, belong to several subjects at once, he has placed, under each division, that branch which properly belongs to it. By this we easily perceive, and without confusion, the influence which the different parts of the subject have upon each other; as, in a tree or system of human knowledge well understood, we may perceive the mutual relation of sciences and arts. This comparison is by so much the more just, that it is the same thing with respect to a plan which we may form to ourselves for examining laws philosophically, as of that order which may be observed in a tree comprehending all the sciences: there will always remain something arbitrary in it; and all that can be required of an author is, that he follow strictly, without deviating from it, that system which he has once formed to himself.
We may say of that obscurity, which is allowable in such a work, the same thing as of want of order. What may be obscure for vulgar readers is not so for those whom the author had in his view. Besides, obscurity which is voluntary is not properly obscurity. M. de Montesquieu being sometimes obliged to present to us truths of great importance, the absolute and direct avowal of which might have shocked without doing any good, has had the prudence to cover them; and, by this innocent artifice, he has concealed them from those to whom they might have been hurtful, without making them lost to men of sagacity.
Among those works which have sometimes furnished him with assistance, and sometimes with clearer views for his own, we may perceive that he has especially profited from two historians who have thought the most, Tacitus and Plutarch: but, though a philosopher who has read these two authors might have dispensed with a great many others, he did not believe that he ought to neglect or disdain any thing in this way that could be of use to his subject. That reading which we must suppose necessary for the Spirit of Laws is immense; and the rational use which the author has made of such a prodigious multitude of materials will appear still more surprising, when it is known that he was almost entirely deprived of sight, and obliged to have recourse to eyes not his own; this prodigious reading contributes not only to the utility, but to the agreeableness, of the work, Without derogating from the majesty of his subject, M. de Montesquieu has known how to soften its austerity, and procure the reader some moments of repose, whether by facts which are singular and little known, or by delicate allusions, or by those strong and brilliant touches of the pencil, which paint, by one stroke, nations and men.
In a word, (for we will not here play the part of Homer’s commentators,) there are, without doubt, faults in the Spirit of Laws, as there are in every work of genius whose author first dared to clear out for himself a new rout. M. de Montesquieu has been amongst us, for the study of laws, what Descartes was for that of philosophy: he often instructs us, and is sometimes mistaken; and, even when he mistakes, he instructs those who know how to read him. The last edition of his works demonstrates, by the corrections and additions which he has made, that, if he has now and then made a slip, he has been able to find it out, and to rise again. By this he will acquire, at least, a title to a new examination, in those places where he was not of the same opinion with his censurers: perhaps, indeed, what he imagined stood most in need of correction has entirely escaped them; so blind commonly is the inclination to do hurt.
But that which is within the reach of all the world is the Spirit of Laws; that which ought to render the author dear to all nations, that which would serve to cover far greater faults than are in it, is that spirit of patriotism which dictated it. The love of the public good, a desire of seeing men happy, discovers itself in it every where; and, had it no other merit but this, which is so rare and so valuable, it would be worthy, on this account alone, to be read by nations and kings. We already perceive, by happy experience, that the fruits of this work are not confined to useless sentiments in the minds of its readers. Though M. de Montesquieu survived the publication of the Spirit of Laws but a short while, he had the satisfaction in some measure to foresee those effects which it begins to produce amongst us; the natural love of Frenchmen for their country turned towards its true object; that taste for commerce, for agriculture, and for useful arts, which insensibly spreads itself in our nation; that general knowledge of the principles of government, which renders people more attached to that which they ought to love. Those who have so indecently attacked this work, perhaps, owe more to it than they imagine. Ingratitude, besides, is the smallest reproach which we have to make to them. It is not without regret, and without blushing for the age we live in, that we proceed to expose them; but this history is of too much consequence to the glory of M. de Montesquieu, and advantage to philosophy, to be passed over in silence. May that reproach, which at last covers his enemies, be of use to them!
Scarce had the Spirit of Laws appeared, but it was eagerly sought after on account of the reputation of its author: but, though M. de Montesquieu had written for the good of the people, he ought not to have had the vulgar for his judge. The depth of his subject was a necessary consequence of its importance. However, the strokes which were scattered up and down the work, and which would have been displaced if they had not arisen naturally from the subject, made too many people believe that it was written for them. People sought for an agreeable book, and they only found an useful one; the whole scheme and particular details of which they could not comprehend without some attention. The Spirit of Laws was treated with a deal of light wit; even the title of it was made a subject of pleasantry: in a word, one of the finest literary monuments which our nation ever produced was at first regarded by it with much indifference. It was requisite that the true judges should have time to read it: they very soon correct the errors of the multitude, always ready to change its opinion. That part of the public which teaches dictated to that which listens, to hear how it ought to think and speak; and the suffrages of men of abilities, joined to the echoes which repeated them, formed only one voice over all Europe.
It was then that the open and secret enemies of letters and philosophy (for there are of both kinds) united their darts against this work. Hence that multitude of pamphlets which were aimed against him from all parts, and which we shall not draw out from that oblivion in which they have sunk. If those authors had not taken proper measures to be unknown to posterity, it might be believed that the Spirit of Laws was written amidst a nation of barbarians.
M. de Montesquieu easily despised the dark criticisms of those weak authors who (whether out of a jealousy which they had no title to have, or to satisfy the public ill-nature, which loves satire and contempt) outrageously attack what they cannot attain to; and, more odious on account of the ill which they want to do, than formidable for that which they actually do, do not succeed even in this kind of writing, the facility of which, as well as its object, renders equally mean. He placed works of this kind on the same level with those weekly newspapers of Europe, the encomiums of which have no authority, and their darts no effect; which indolent readers run over without giving credit to, and in which sovereigns are insulted without knowing it, or without deigning to revenge it. But he was not equally indifferent about those principles of irreligion which they accused him of having propagated in the Spirit of Laws. By despising such reproaches he would have believed that he deserved them, and the importance of the object made him shut his eyes at the real meanness of his adversaries. Those men, who really want zeal as much as they are eager to make it appear that they have it, afraid of that light which letters diffuse, not to the prejudice of religion, but to their own disadvantage, took different ways of attacking him; some, by a stratagem which was as puerile as pusillanimous, had written to himself; others, after having attacked him under the mask of anonymous writers, had afterwards fallen by the ears among themselves. M. de Montesquieu, though he was very jealous of confounding them with each other, did not think it proper to lose time, which was precious, in combating them one after another; he contented himself with making an example of him who had most signalized himself by his extravagance. It was the author of an anonymous and periodical paper, who imagined that he had a title to succeed Pascal, because he has succeeded to his opinions; a panegyrist of works which nobody reads, and an apologist of miracles which the secular power put an end to whenever it wanted to do it; who calls the little interest, which people of letters take in his quarrels, impious and scandalous; and hath, by an address worthy of him, alienated from himself that part of the nation whose affections he ought chiefly to have endeavoured to keep. The strokes of this formidable champion were worthy of those views which inspired him: he accused M. de Montesquieu of Spinosism and deism (two imputations which are incompatible); of having followed the system of Pope (of which there is not a word in his works); of having quoted Plutarch, who is not a Christian author; of not having spoken of original sin and of grace. In a word, he pretended that the Spirit of Laws was a production of the constitution Unigenitus; an idea which we may perhaps be suspected of fathering on the critic out of derision. Those who have known M. de Montesquieu, and who understand his work and that of Clement XI. may judge, by this accusation, of the rest.
The unsuccessfulness of this writer ought greatly to discourage him: he wanted to attack a wise man in that place which is most sensible to every good citizen; but he only procured him an addition of glory as a man of letters: the Defence of the Spirit of Laws appeared. This work, on account of that moderation, that truth, that delicacy of ridicule which abound in it, ought to be regarded as a model-in this way. M. de Montesquieu, charged by his adversary with atrocious imputations, might easily have rendered him odious; he did better, he made him ridiculous. If we are beholden to an aggressor for that good which he has done us without wanting to do it, we owe him eternal thanks for having procured us this master-piece. But what adds still more to the merit of this precious little piece is this, that the author, without thinking of it, has there drawn a picture of himself; those who knew him think they hear him; and posterity will be convinced, when reading his Defence, that his conversation was not inferior to his writings; an encomium which few great men have deserved.
Another circumstance gave him plainly the advantage in this dispute. The critic, who, as a proof of his attachment to religion, attacks its ministers, loudly accused the clergy of France, and especially the faculty of theology, of indifference for the cause of God, because they did not authentically proscribe so pernicious a work. The faculty had a title to despise the reproach of a nameless writer, but religion was in the question; a commendable delicacy made it resolve to examine the Spirit of Laws. Though it has been employed about it several years, it has not yet pronounced any thing; and, if some slight inadvertencies, which are almost inevitable in so vast a career, should have escaped M. de Montesquieu, the long and scrupulous attention, which they would have required from the most enlightened body of the church, might prove at least how excusable they are; but this body, full of prudence, will do nothing rashly in so important an affair. It knows the grounds of reason and of faith; it knows that the work of a man of letters ought no to be examined like that of a theologist; that the bad consequences, which odious interpretations may draw from a proposition, do not render the proposition blameable in itself; that besides we live in an unlucky age, in which the interests of religion have need of being delicately managed; and that it may do hurt to weak people to throw an ill-timed suspicion of incredulity upon geniuses of the first rank; that, in a word, in spite of this unjust accusation, M. de Montesquieu was always esteemed, visited, and well received, by the greatest and most respectable characters in the church. Would he have preserved among men of worth that esteem which he enjoyed if they had regarded him as a dangerous writer?
While insects plagued him in his own country England erected a monument to his glory. In 1752, M. d’Assier, celebrated for the medals which he has struck in honour of several illustrious men, came from London to Paris to strike one of him. M. de la Tour, an artist of such superior talents, and so respectable for his disinterestedness and greatness of mind, had ardently desired to give a new lustre to his pencil, by transmitting to posterity the portrait of the author of the Spirit of Laws; he only wanted the satisfaction of painting him; and he deserved, like Apelles, that this honour should be reserved for him: but M. de Montesquieu, as sparing of M. de la Tour’s time as he himself was free of it, constantly and politely refused his pressing solicitations. M. d’Assier at first bore with such difficulties. ‘Do you believe,’ said he at last to M. de Montesquieu, ‘that there is not as much pride in refusing my offer as in accepting of it?’ Overcome by his pleasantry, he permitted M. d’Assier to do whatever he would.
The author of the Spirit of Laws, in fine, was peaceably enjoying his glory, when he fell sick at the beginning of February: his health, naturally delicate, began to decay for some time past, by the slow and almost infallible effect of deep study; by the uneasiness which they had endeavoured to give him on account of his work; in a word, by that kind of life which he was obliged to lead at Paris, which he felt to be fatal to him. But the eagerness with which his company was sought after was too keen not to be sometimes indiscreet; they would, without perceiving it, enjoy him at the expence of himself. Scarce had the news of the danger which he was in spread abroad, but it became the object of the conversation and anxiety of the public. His house was never empty of persons of all ranks who came to enquire about his health, some out of real affection, others to have the appearance of it or to follow the crowd. His majesty, penetrated with the loss which his kingdom was about to sustain, enquired about him several times; a testimony of goodness and justice which does equal honour to the monarch and the subject. M. de Montesquieu’s end was not unworthy of his life. Oppressed with cruel pains, far from a family that was dear to him, and which had not the comfort of closing his eyes, surrounded by some friends and a great crowd of spectators, he preserved to his last moments a calmness and tranquility of soul. In a word, after having performed with decency every duty, full of confidence in the Eternal Being whom he was about to be re-united with, he died with the tranquility of a man of worth, who had never consecrated his talents but to the improvement of virtue and humanity. France and Europe lost him the 10th of February, 1755, aged sixty-six.
All the public news-papers published this event as a misfortune. We may apply to M. de Montesquieu what was formerly said of an illustrious Roman; that nobody, when told of his death, shewed any joy at it; that nobody even forgot him when he was no more. Foreigners were eager to demonstrate their regrets: my lord Chesterfield, whom it is enough to name, caused to be published in one of the public London papers an article to his honour, an article worthy of the one and of the other; it is the portrait of Anaxagoras drawn by Pericles* . The royal academy of sciences and belles lettres of Prussia, though it is not its custom to pronounce the éloge of foreign members, thought itself bound to do him an honour which it had not before done to any one but the illustrious John Bernouilli. M. de Maupertuis, notwithstanding he was at that time indisposed, performed himself this last duty to his friend, and would not permit an office so dear and so melancholy to fall to the share of any other person. To so many honourable suffrages in favour of M. de Montesquieu, we believe we may add, without indiscretion, those praises which were given him, in presence of one of us, by that very monarch to whom this celebrated academy owes its lustre, a prince made to feel those losses which Philosophy sustains, and at the same time to comfort her.
The seventeenth of February, the French academy, according to custom, performed a solemn service for him, at which, notwithstanding the rigour of the season, almost all the learned men of this body, who were not absent from Paris, thought it their duty to assist. They ought, at this melancholy ceremony, to have placed the Spirit of Laws upon his coffin, as heretofore they exposed, opposite to that of Raphael, his last picture of the transfiguration. This simple and affecting ornament would have been a fine funeral oration.
Hitherto we have only considered M. de Montesquieu as a writer and philosopher; it would be to rob him of the half of his glory, to pass over in silence his agreeable personal qualities.
He had, in company, a sweetness and gaiety of temper always the same. His conversation was spirited, agreeable, and instructive, by the great number of men and of nations whom he had known. It was, like his stile, concise, full of wit and sallies, without gall, and without satire. Nobody told a story in a more lively manner, more readily, or with more grace and less affectation; he knew that the conclusion of an agreeable story is always the point in view, he therefore made dispatch to come at it, and produced the effect without having long promised it.
His frequent absence of mind only rendered him more amiable: he always awoke from it by some unexpected stroke which re-animated the languishing conversation; besides, these were never either frolicsome, shocking, or troublesome. The fire of his genius, the great number of ideas with which it was furnished, gave rise to them; but this never happened in the midde of an interesting or serious conversation; the desire of pleasing those, in whose company he was, made him attentive to them without affectation and without constraint.
The agreeableness of his conversation not only resembled his character and his genius, but even that kind of method which he observed in his study. Though capable of deep and long-continued meditation, he never exhausted his strength, he always left off application before he felt the least symptom of fatigue* .
He was sensible to glory, but he did not wish to attain it but by deserving it. He never endeavoured to augment his own by those underhand practices, by those dark and shameful methods, which dishonour the character of the man without adding to that of the author.
Worthy of every distinction and of every reward, he asked nothing, and he was not surprised that he was forgot; but he has adventured, even in delicate circumstances, to protect at court men of letters, who were persecuted, celebrated, and unfortunate, and has obtained favours for them.
Though he lived with the great, whether out of necessity, or propriety, or taste, their company was not necessary to his happiness. He retired whenever he could to his estate in the country; he there again with joy met his philosophy, his books, and his repose. Surrounded, at his leisure hours, with country people, after having studied man, in the commerce of the world, and in the history of nations, he studied him also in those simple people whom nature alone has instructed, and he could from them learn something: he conversed chearfully with them; he endeavoured, like Socrates, to find out their genius; he appeared as happy, when conversing with them, as in the most brilliant assemblies, especially when he made up their differences, and comforted them under their distress by his beneficence.
Nothing does greater honour to his memory than the method in which he lived, which some people have pretended to blame as extravagant, in a proud and avaricious age, extremely unfit to find out, and still less to feel, the real benevolent motives of it.
M. de Montesquieu would neither make encroachments upon the fortune of his family, by those supplies which he gave the unfortunate, nor by those considerable expences which his long tour of travelling, the weakness of his sight, and the printing of his works, had exposed him to. He transmitted to his children, without diminution or augmentation, the estate which he received from his ancestors; he added nothing to it but the glory of his name, and the example of his life. He had married, in 1715, dame Jane de Lartigue, daughter of Peter de Lartigue, lieutenant-colonel of the regiment of Molevrier: he had two daughters and one son by her, who, by his character, his morals, and his works, has shewn himself worthy of such a father.
Those who love truth and their country will not be displeased to find some of his maxims here. He thought,
That every part of the state ought to be equally subject to the laws; but that the privileges of every part of the state ought to be respected when their effects have nothing contrary to that natural right which obliges every citizen equally to concur to the public good: that ancient possession was in this kind the first of titles, and the most inviolable of rights, which it was always unjust, and sometimes dangerous, to want to shake.
That magistrates, in all circumstances, and notwithstanding whatever advantage it might be to their own body, ought never to be any thing but magistrates without partiality and without passion, like the laws which absolve and punish without love and hatred.
In a word, he said, upon occasion of those ecclesiastical disputes which have so much employed the Greek emperors and Christians, that theological disputes, when they are not confined to the schools, infallibly dishonour a nation in the eyes of its neighbours: in fact, the contempt, in which wise men hold those quarrels, does not vindicate the character of their country; because, sages making every where the least noise, and being the smallest number, it is never from them that the nation is judged of.
The importance of those works, which we have had occasion to mention in this panegyric, has made us pass over in silence less considerable ones, which served as a relaxation to our author, and which, in any other person, would have merited an encomium. The most remarkable of them is the Temple of Gnidus, which was very soon published after the Persian Letters. M. de Montesquieu, after having been Horace, Theophrastus, and Lucian, in those, was an Ovid and Anacreon in this new essay. It is no more the despotic love of the East which he proposes to paint, it is the delicacy and simplicity of pastoral love, such as it is in an unexperienced heart which the commerce of the world has not yet corrupted. The author, fearing, perhaps, that a picture so opposite to our manners should appear too languid and uniform, has endeavoured to animate it by the most agreeable images. He transports the reader into inchanted scenes, the view of which, to say the truth, little interests the lover in his happiest moments, but the description of which still flatters the imagination, when the passions are gratified. Inspired by his subject, he hath adorned his prose with that animated, figurative, and poetic, stile, which the romance of Telemachus gave the first example of amongst us. We do not know why some censurers of the temple of Gnidus have said upon this occasion, that it ought to have been written in verse. The poetic stile, if we understand, as we ought by this word, a stile full of warmth and images, does not stand in need of the uniform march and cadency of versification to be agreeable; but, if we only make this stile to consist in a diction loaded with needless epithets, in the cold and trivial descriptions of the wings and quiver of love, and of such objects, versification will add nothing to the merit of these beaten ornaments; in vain will we look for the life and spirit of it. However this be, the temple of Gnidus being a sort of poem in prose, it belongs to our celebrated writers to determine the rank which it ought to hold: it is worthy of such judges.
We believe, at least, the descriptions in this work may with success stand one of the principal tests of poetic descriptions, that of being represented on canvass. But what we ought chiefly to observe in the temple of Gnidus is, that Anacreon himself is always the observer and the philosopher there. In the fourth canto the author appears to describe the manners of the Cyberites, and it may easily be perceived that these are our own manners. The preface especially bears the mark of the author of the Persian Letters. When he represents the Temple of Gnidus as a translation from a Greek manuscript, a piece of wit which has been so much disfigured since by bad imitators, he takes occasion to paint by one stroke of his pen the folly of critics and the pedantry of translators. He concludes with these words, which deserve to be repeated: ‘If serious people require some other work of me of a less frivolous nature, I can easily satisfy them; I have been labouring thirty years at a work of twelve pages, which will contain all that we know of metaphysics, politics, and morality; and all that the greatest authors have forgot in the volumes which they have published on these sciences.’
We look upon that particular interest which M. de Montesquieu took in the Encyclopædia, as one of the most honourable rewards of our labour; this work, till the present time, has only been supported by the courage and emulation of its authors. All men of letters ought, as he thought, eagerly to concur in the execution of this most useful undertaking. He gave an example of it, with M. de Voltaire, and several other celebrated writers. Perhaps the opposition which this work has met with, and which reminded him of what had happened to himself, interested him the more in our favour. Perhaps he was sensible, without perceiving it, of that justice which we dared to do him in the first volume of the Encyclopædia, when nobody as yet ventured to say a word in his defence. He prepared for us an article upon taste, which has been found imperfect among his papers. We shall give it to the public in that condition, and treat it with the same respect that antiquity formerly shewed to the last words of Seneca. Death prevented him from giving us any farther marks of his beneficence; and, joining our own griefs with those of all Europe, we might write on his tomb,
Finis vitæ ejus nobis luctuosus, patriæ tristis, extraneis etiam ignotisque non sine cura fuit.
Tacit. in Agric.
[* ]It was a work in the form of letters, the purpose of which was to prove that the idolatry of most of the pagans did not appear to deserve eternal damnation.
[* ]See vol. iv. p. 115.
[* ]See this encomium in English, as we read it in the paper called the Evening Post. “On the 10th of this month died at Paris, universally and sincerely regretted, Charles Secondat, baron of Montesquieu, and president à mortier of the parliament of Bourdeaux. His virtues did honour to human nature, his writings justice. A friend to mankind, he asserted their undoubted and unalienated rights, with freedom, even in his own country, whose prejudices in matters of religion and government (we must remember it is an Englishman who speaks) he had long lamented, and endeavoured (not without some success) to remove. He well knew and justly admired the happy constitution of this country, where fixed and known laws equally restrain monarchy from tyranny, and liberty from licentiousness. His works will illustrate his name, and survive him, as long as right reason, moral obligation, and the true Spirit of Laws, shall be understood, respected, and maintained.”
[* ]The author of the anonymous and periodical paper, which we mentioned above, pretends to find a manifest contradiction between what we say here and that which we had said before, that M. de Montesquieu’s health was impaired by the slow and almost infallible effect of deep study. But why, when he was comparing the two places, has he suppressed these words, slow and almost infallible, which he had under his eyes? It is evidently because he perceived, that an effect, which is slow, is not a bit less real for not being felt immediately; and than, consequently, these words destroy that appearance of contradiction which he pretends to point out. Such is the fidelity of this author in trifles, and for a stronger reason in more serious matters.