Montesquieu’s Mes Pensées: Editor’s Introduction
The editor’s Introduction to Liberty Fund’s edition of Montesquieu’s Mes Pensées which also includes a bibliography of books by and about Montesquieu.
Montesquieu, My Thoughts (Mes Pensées). Introduction by Henry C. Clark
The following extract is part of a selection of chapters and extracts taken from books in the OLL collection. They have been chosen because of their special importance for understanding the principles of individual liberty, limited government, and the free market. Some of the extracts are from the books themselves and serve as a representative sample of that author’s ideas. Others are introductions written by the editors of the volume which contain important biographical information about the author and a discussion of their ideas. Links are provided to the book from which the extract was taken so the reader can pursue the subject in more depth if they are interested.
Other collections of material from the OLL which are useful places to begin exploring these ideas are the following:
- Quotations about Liberty and Power
- The Best of the OLL: An Anthology
- Forgotten Gems of Liberty
- Key Documents of Liberty
- Classics of Liberty
Source: Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, My Thoughts (Mes Pensées). Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Henry C. Clark (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012). .
Copyright: The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
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Table of Contents:
- Select Bibliography
- Primary Sources
- Complete Works of Montesquieu
- Individual Works by Montesquieu
- Translations of Montesquieu’s Works
- Secondary Sources
- Reference Works and Periodicals
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and of Montesquieu (1689–1755), was born into a noble family in southwestern France. After an early education at home and with the village schoolmaster, he was sent away to Juilly, an Oratorian school in Meaux, just outside of Paris, at the age of eleven. Returning to Bordeaux for legal studies, he seems again to have been in Paris for four years, from 1709 until 1713, to gain legal experience. In 1713, at the death of his father, he went back to Bordeaux and in 1715 married the well-to-do Huguenot Jeanne de Lartigue, with whom he would have a son, Jean-Baptiste (1716), and two daughters, Marie-Catherine (1717) and Marie-Josèphe-Denise (1727). When his uncle (also named Jean-Baptiste) died in 1716, Montesquieu inherited most of his fortune, including his office as president in the Parlement of Bordeaux, a magistracy possessing both judicial and administrative authority.
At about the same time (April 1716), he became a member of the provincial Academy of Bordeaux, where he conducted and observed scientific experiments, read and discussed essays on history and philosophy, and generally became an active member of the region’s intellectual life. In 1721 he published anonymously in Amsterdam the first of the three major works by which he is known today. He called Persian Letters “a sort of novel” and once described its principle of coherence as “a secret and, in some respects, hitherto unknown chain.”1 Using the literary device of the guileless foreign visitors, Montesquieu presented a wide-ranging and candid discussion of religion, politics, economics, history, manners, and morals. While the narrative structure did much to shape the French Enlightenment method of indirection that would later be developed by Voltaire and Diderot, Persian Letters was anchored by the story of Roxana, the Persian wife who struggles with the conflict between her desire to love her despotic and self-deluded master, Usbek, and her natural liberty.Edition: current; Page: [viii]
The spectacular success of this work—it went through several printings in its first year—made its author a sought-after companion in the salons of Paris, where he spent much time in the 1720s. He had the unusual experience of being elected to the French Academy (1727) mainly on the strength of a work that many found both light and of dubious orthodoxy. At the end of the decade, he traveled throughout Europe, including to Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and, notably, to England, where he spent a year and a half, becoming friends with Alexander Pope, the Tory leader Viscount Bolingbroke, and many others. It was then (1729–31) that he read the English political press, attended debates in Parliament, and otherwise became more familiar with the English political and constitutional system that he would one day do so much to define.
It was also now that Montesquieu seems to have conceived the idea of writing what would become the second of his major works, namely, the Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Published anonymously in Amsterdam in 1734 and revised for a 1748 edition, Considerations was one of the most influential interpretive studies of Roman history. The book is less a narrative history than an attempt, not unlike Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, to isolate analytically the factors conducive to Roman success and failure. Montesquieu saw Rome as an agrarian power, not a commercial one, and laid great emphasis upon conquest as the leitmotif of Roman experience. His explanation for Roman decline went beyond the standard narrative of the corruption of moral and civic virtue by Oriental luxury. Instead he provided the kind of deliberately complex, multilayered analysis—embracing laws, institutions, manners, and morals, even the intellectual influences of Epicureanism and Christianity—that he would develop further in The Spirit of the Laws (1748). It seems that Montesquieu conceived of his famous chapter on the English constitution (Laws, 11.6) as a twenty-fifth and final chapter in the Considerations—an idea he abandoned, apparently, when he witnessed the censorship in 1733 of Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, a work that criticized France by praising England. That chapter was going to underscore the fundamental difference Montesquieu saw between ancient and modern liberty. Where ancient liberty in its Roman guise hinged upon virtue and conquest, modern liberty rested more on commerce, communication, information, and the arts of peace. The contrast between conquest Edition: current; Page: [ix] and commerce, like that between ancients and moderns, would become a recurrent theme in his writings.
The Spirit of the Laws turned the author from a moderately important figure into one of the founders of modern thought. Exercising an influence often described as diffuse rather than focused, Montesquieu’s magnum opus has been detected at the birth of sociology, comparative legal studies, and, indeed, any social science involving the cross-cultural analysis of some or all of the factors isolated by the author at the beginning of his study—namely, the “physical aspect of the country,” the “way of life of the people,” the “degree of liberty that the constitution can sustain,” the people’s “religion,” “inclinations,” “wealth,” “number,” “commerce,” and “mores and manners,” and the relationships among the laws themselves.2
One of the most important avenues of his influence concerned constitutional theory; the principles of checks-and-balances and separation of powers are the best-known examples. According to one study, the American founders turned to Montesquieu more often than to any other source—four times as frequently as the second-most-cited figure (John Locke). But at the local level, too, his influence in areas such as criminal-justice reform was pervasive and fundamental. In France as well as in America, Montesquieu’s work had a more authoritative status in constitutional discussion throughout 1789 than that of Voltaire, Rousseau, Mably, or any other important figure.3 More broadly, he had a formative influence on the Scottish Enlightenment through his friendship with David Hume and in the writings of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and others. Even in China, he was one of a handful of Western figures—along with Mill, Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Jevons, and Adam Smith—who were translated into Chinese by Yan Fu in the first decade of the twentieth century in hopes of liberalizing and modernizing that vast country. In sum, there is no disputing Montesquieu’s central and durable place in enlightenment thought.
The work translated here, which Montesquieu called Mes Pensées, is a Edition: current; Page: [x] long series of handwritten notes that the author began compiling in bound notebooks around 1720—either in his own hand or with the help of private secretaries—and assiduously maintained until his death, with the idea of eventually working most of them into published form (pensée 1). Some contemporaries knew he was keeping such a collection, and a few of the entries found their way into print during the eighteenth century. But generally this treasure trove did not come to light until the twentieth century (see “A Note on the Text”). The pensées shed much light on the Montesquieu corpus. Sometimes they enable students of Montesquieu to trace the development of specific ideas over time. At other times, they directly illuminate the meaning of his published texts. And although some of the material will seem either familiar to those knowledgeable about his career or extraneous to the substance of his thought, the overall effect of the pensées is to offer a cornucopia of thought-provoking reflections on every conceivable topic.
Montesquieu warns at the beginning of the collection that he will not “answer for all the thoughts that are here” (pensée 3). This necessary precaution imposes a certain interpretive restraint, reminding us of the unfinished state of many of the entries and of the seriousness with which the author took the publication process. But the disclaimer also has varying applicability. Some of the items ended up being incorporated verbatim into his published works, especially Laws. Others are referred to elsewhere in the collection, indicating at least a certain level of authorial satisfaction. At the other end of the spectrum, some entries are signaled by Montesquieu himself for their inadequacy, with deletions or marginal notes of rejection. Between these two poles, there are some pensées that are reasonably straightforward and others so obscure and so lacking in context that it is difficult to know what to do with them. Specialists have struggled to find an adequate characterization of the project as a whole, describing it variously as an “intellectual laboratory,” a “writing crossroads,” or a “portfolio of portfolios.”4 The reader can expect to find in this volume tools and materials in every stage of the production process.
In pensée 1525, Montesquieu offers another observation that affects the way the reader approaches the collection. Discussing the art of printing Edition: current; Page: [xi] and its effect on the writing of history, he observes that “princes have made of this art the principal object of their administration; the censors they have set up direct all pens. In the past, one could speak the truth but did not speak it; today, one would like to speak it but cannot.” Throughout his career, Montesquieu had his own encounters with the French censorship apparatus, and one value of the pensées is the opportunity to sample some of the author’s more unvarnished thinking, especially on topics such as religion and current politics where the censors would have been particularly vigilant.
Montesquieu was a fussy editor of his own writings, one who left far more unfinished works than finished. Indeed it is difficult not to detect a note of personal defensiveness in pensée 1950, where he states that “An author who writes much regards himself as a giant and views those who write little as pygmies.” Montesquieu wrote much, but he published little—only a handful of substantial titles in his lifetime. In pensée 1631a, at the beginning of the third and final manuscript notebook of the pensées, he summarizes some of the wide variety of abortive projects covered in that notebook alone.
One of these unpublished works is a History of Jealousy, a work that evidently would have combined his interests as an observer of manners and morals with the critical approach to history that he would make famous in Laws. In this case, only deleted fragments are left to us (see especially pensées 483–509). In Treatise on Duties, on the other hand, what we seem to have are mostly polished sections of a work that Montesquieu abandoned before seeing it through to the press (see especially pensées 1251–61, 1263, and 1265–80). Of avowedly Ciceronian inspiration, the work resembles the De Officiis in its application of moral principles to the civic world. But it also provides suggestive reflections on the differences between ancients and moderns.
As a historian Montesquieu wanted to go far beyond his Roman foray in Considerations. In the very long pensée 1302, he provides an outline for a sweeping history of France. In other entries he occasionally elaborates on some of the historical questions preoccupying his contemporaries. In pensée 1184, for example, he comments on Boulainvilliers’s own history of France, and in pensée 1962 he offers an extended critique of Voltaire’s use of historical evidence in the contemporary controversy over Richelieu’s Political Testament.Edition: current; Page: [xii]
Montesquieu had planned a separate study of the long and important reign of Louis XIV (pensée 1306), who occupied the throne during all of his own formative years (he was twenty-six when the Sun King died). But of equal interest, perhaps, is his ill-fated history of the rather neglected French king Louis XI (r. 1461–83), to whom he appears to have attributed special significance. The remarkable story of how that manuscript seems to have been lost is told at pensée 1302, note 14, below. But in pensée 1302 itself, he begins his lengthy account of the Spider King’s reign with a ringing remark, “The death of Charles VII [in 1461] was the last day of French liberty.” Such a comment, so tantalizing for understanding Montesquieu’s view of liberty and of France, foreshadows Tocqueville’s later reflection that the middle of the fifteenth century saw “the period of transition from feudal freedom to absolute government.”5
Montesquieu’s general definitions of liberty are well known from books 11 and 12 of The Spirit of the Laws, but the pensées offer revealing insights into their evolution. For the concept of liberty is one of those that can be traced throughout the present volume. From his rather wry and skeptical treatment in pensée 32, an early entry, through his piecemeal development of the metaphor of the fish caught in the fishnet (pensées 434, 597, 828, 874, and 943), through his entry at pensée 751 entitled “Liberty”—which may be an early source of his famous definition of English constitutional liberty—Montesquieu’s engagement with the contested and ill-defined concept of liberty was variegated and persistent. Sometimes he found a clever salon-like witticism or a lapidary formula to express his views, as at pensées 577, 783, 784, and 1574. But in pensée 884, entitled “Political Liberty,” he expressly distinguishes his view from that of the “orators and poets,” indicating a preference for the more analytical approach for which he is known. In pensée 907, indeed, he refers to his evolving ideas as “my system on liberty.” He also offers interesting perspectives on the origins, consequences, or prospects for liberty throughout the volume—for example, in pensées 1630, 1735, and 1780, and in his important letter to the Englishman William Domville on the prospects for English liberty at pensée 1960.
More specifically redolent of Tocqueville’s later enterprise is Montesquieu’s discussion of the office of intendant, the royal agent given broad Edition: current; Page: [xiii] powers to implement the king’s will at the local level. Tocqueville would make the intendant a focal point of his sustained critique of centralization in the Old Regime French monarchy. Montesquieu, who never discusses the intendant in his published works and mentions that figure only in passing in his correspondence (usually with reference to specific individuals), presents some more-pointed general remarks about them here (at pensées 977, 1353, 1572, 1835, 1840, 1846, 1898, 2066, and 2099).
Relatedly, the question of whether Montesquieu had a normative preference for republics or monarchies has occurred to many readers of The Persian Letters, the Considerations, and The Spirit of the Laws, and the pensées again provide numerous insights on this question—see pensées 769, 1208, 1494, 1760, 1854, and 1891 for some examples. After the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, Madame de Staël would look back upon the eighteenth century and cite with approval what she called the “science of liberty” that it had developed; the present volume shows perhaps the leading “scientist of liberty” at work in his workshop.6
Other frequent topics of Montesquieu’s attention are economics and finance. Although he died just a couple of years before political economy was launched with the emergence of the Physiocrats, his numerous treatments in Persian Letters and Considerations, and especially his chapters 20–23 in The Spirit of the Laws, had a powerful influence on economic and financial discussion throughout the century. In the pensées, his remarks are sometimes in the vein of observations about current events (for example, pensées 17, 153, 169, and 249), sometimes they have a more normative or theoretical bent (see pensées 45, 146, 161, 178, and 246 for some samples), and on still other occasions he makes broad historical observations informed by his economic views (pensées 77, 86, 113, and 245 for a few examples). Montesquieu saw the “spirit of commerce” as distinctive of modernity and of modern liberty, an approach illuminated at numerous points in the pensées.
Mes Pensées also contains candid observations on topics such as life at court, the reign of Louis XIV and of the Regency after his death, or the place of women in modern societies. The art of the aphorist was highly valued in the social circles that Montesquieu frequented, especially in Paris, Edition: current; Page: [xiv] and his attempt to cultivate that art is on prominent display throughout the collection. Moral-psychological topics such as happiness, jealousy, vengeance, boredom, and courtship are frequent preoccupations. One moment he is offering alternative Persian letters; another, he is providing further ruminations about the challenge posed by Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s moral anthropology. And throughout, he presents wide-ranging strategic reflections on European power politics, past and present.
One of the noteworthy topics on which he expresses unusually frank views is religion, especially in its political dimension. The role of the Jesuits as royal advisors and mobilizers of Catholic opinion, to take one prominent example, was a durable feature of French life from the Counter-Reformation into the eighteenth century. The Society of Jesus became increasingly controversial as the century wore on, however, until they were expelled from one Catholic realm after another (Portugal, France, Spain, Naples, the Duchy of Parma, Austria, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) in the two decades after Montesquieu’s death. His comments on the Jesuits can be traced in this volume (see, for example, pensées 11, 55, 104, 180, 293, 394, 395, 453, 482, 544, 581, 715, 728, 730, 1038, 1223, 1301, 1302 n. 52, and 1959). Readers can also follow his thoughts about the bull Unigenitus, a papal edict of 1713 that began as a declaration of heresy against certain French Jansenists (that is, austere Augustinian critics of Jesuit laxity and royal pomp) but soon triggered a recurring dispute involving the Church hierarchy, the Jansenist-led parlementary magistrates, and the Crown. This imbroglio lasted through Montesquieu’s lifetime and beyond (see especially pensées 55, 215, 273, 426, 437, 764, 914, 1226, 2158, 2164, and 2247).
As is often the case with compendia of this sort, however, the true pleasure of reading it is the pleasure of discovery. Not unlike the more famous eponymous work by the seventeenth-century mathematician and religious thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–62), which Montesquieu owned, Montesquieu’s Mes Pensées often features paradoxical or unexpected observations about the condition of man in the world and in society that provide rich food for thought—not only for the author, as was its intention, but now for the reader as well. The Baron of La Brède was an inveterate observer of all around him, and this volume presents an essential window onto his energetic and creative mind, one of the formative minds of the eighteenth century and of the modern world.
The Persian Letters, trans. George R. Healy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 4.
The Spirit of the Laws, ed. Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), I.3, 9.
For the American scene, see Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Importance of European Writers in Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 189 (1984): 189–97. For the French situation, see Renato Galliani, “La Fortune de Montesquieu en 1789: un sondage” [Montesquieu’s fortunes in 1789: a poll], in Etudes sur Montesquieu, ed. R. Galliani and F. Loirette (Paris: Lettres modernes, 1981), 31–47.
The preface and essays by Carole Dornier and Carole Volpilhac-Auger in Revue Montesquieu 7 (2003–4) offer these characterizations.
See Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, ed. and intro. François Furet and Françoise Mélonio, trans. Alan S. Kahan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 2001), 1:368.
To list every work that was of importance to Montesquieu would be tantamount to duplicating the contents of his personal library, one of the largest and best-preserved of the eighteenth century. The purpose here is to provide only the most elementary orientation to Montesquieu’s life, his times, and his thought as manifested in Mes Pensées.