Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE GENERAL IDEA. - Complete Works, vol. 4 Familiar Letters; Miscellaneous Pieces; The Temple of Gnidus; A Defence of the Spirit of Laws
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THE GENERAL IDEA. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 4 Familiar Letters; Miscellaneous Pieces; The Temple of Gnidus; A Defence of the Spirit of Laws 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 4.
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THE GENERAL IDEA.
I HAVE already cleared the Author of The Spirit of Laws from the two general reproaches that have been cast upon him: but there are still some particular imputations, to which it is necessary for me to reply. But to throw the greater light on what I have said, and on what will be hereafter added, I shall explain what has given room, or served as a pretence for making invectives.
Men of the best sense in the several countries of Europe, men of the greatest learning, and most distinguished for their wisdom, have considered The Spirit of Laws as an useful work: they have thought that the morals, in which it abounds, are pure; that the principles it contains are just, and that it is proper to form worthy members of society; that the Author there destroys pernicious opinions, and encourages those that are good.
On the other hand, here is a man who treats it as a dangerous book, and makes it the subject of the most outrageous invectives. This requires some explications.
So far from having understood the particular passages on which he has spent his criticism, he has not even discovered what is the subject of which the Author treats. Thus vainly beating the air, and fighting against the wind, he has gained triumphs of the same kind: he has wrote a good criticism on the book he had in his head; but has not wrote a critique on that of the Author. But how was it possible for him thus to mistake both the subject and design of a book placed before his eyes? Persons of sense see at the first glance, that the objects of this work are the Laws, the various customs, and manners, of all the nations on earth. It may be said, that the subject is of prodigious extent, as it comprehends all the institutions received among mankind; as these institutions are distinguished by the Author, who examines those that are most agreeable to society in general, and to each society in particular; and as he searches into their origin, discovers their physical and moral causes; examines those which have any intrinsic goodness, and those that have none; of two pernicious practices, he enquires which is most, and which least pernicious; and treats of those that in some respects may have a good effect, and a bad one in others. He has imagined that these researches would be useful, because judgment and good sense consist in knowing the shades of things.
Now in a subject of such extent, it became necessary to treat of religion: for there being but one true religion, and an infinite number of others that are false; one religion sent from heaven, and an infinity of others that had their birth on this globe: he could regard the false religions only as human institutions; and therefore was obliged to examine them, as well as all the other institutions of human origin. But as to the Christian religion, he had nothing to do but to pay it his adorations as being divine. He did not think himself obliged to treat of that religion: because he considered it, as in its own nature not subject to his examination, so that when he has mentioned it, it has never been done to introduce it into the plan of his work, but only to pay it the tribute of respect and love due to it from all Christians; and that in the comparisons he might draw between that religion and the others, he might make it triumph over them all. This is visible throughout the whole work: but the Author has particularly explained himself at the beginning of book xxiv. the first of the two books that treat of religion. He begins thus: “As amidst the several degrees of darkness, we may form a judgment of those which are the least thick, and, among precipices, which are the least deep; so we may search among false religions for those that are most conformable to the welfare of the society; for those which, though they have not the effect of leading men to the felicity of the other life, may contribute most to their happiness in this.
“I shall therefore only examine the several religions in the world, in relation to the good they produce in civil society; whether I speak of that which has its root in heaven, or of those which spring from the earth.”
The Author therefore, regarding human religions only as human institutions, was in the right to treat of them, because they necessarily entered into his plan. He did not go out of his way to seek for them; but they came in search of him. And as to the Christian religion, he has only mentioned it occasionally; because, in its own nature, it could not be modified, mitigated, and corrected, and therefore did not enter into the plan he had proposed.
What has he done then to give so full a scope to declamation, and to open so wide a door to invective? The Author has been considered as if, after the example of M. Abbadie, he had resolved to write a treatise on the Christian religion; he has been attacked, as if his two books on religion were two treatises on Christian divinity. He has been charged, as if speaking of any religion whatsoever that had no relation to the Christian, it had been his business to examine it according to the doctrines and precepts of Christianity. He has been judged, as if he had undertaken, in his two books, to form an establishment in behalf of the Christians, and to preach the doctrines of Christianity to Mahometans and Idolaters. Whenever he has mentioned religion in general, whenever he has used the word religion, it is said, This is the Christian religion. Whenever he has compared the religious rites of any nation whatsoever, and has said, that some of these rites were more conformable to the political government of the country, than others; it is said, You then approve them, and abandon the Christian faith. When he has mentioned any people who have not embraced Christianity, or who lived before the coming of Christ, it is said, You then do not acknowledge the Christian moral. When he has examined, in a political writer, any custom whatsoever, it is said, Was this the doctrine of Christianity you ought to have inculcated? You say, that you are a Civilian; and I will make you a Divine in spite of yourself. You in some places say some very fine things in favour of the Christian religion; but you only say them to conceal yourself: for I know your heart, and read your thoughts. It is true, I do not understand your book; it is of no consequence whether I have penetrated rightly, or not, into the view with which it was written: but I dive to the bottom of your thoughts. I do not know a word you say: but I understand very well what you think. Let us enter now into the subject.