1Montesquieu showed great interest in the person of Philippe d’Orléans, the Regent (1674-1723). Nothing attests that he knew him in 1722, when he represented the interests of Bordeaux in Paris; but in December 1715 he sent him a Mémoire sur les dettes de l’État (OC, t. VIII, p. 43-64) in response to a circular letter of October in which Philippe d’Orléans made an appeal for help in resolving the financial crisis that was suffocating the state. After the final years of a reign that had especially seen the development of the French king’s autocratic power, with no hope of reform, such an initiative could have delighted a young magistrate concerned with his country’s interests – witness his immediate reaction. Besides, Montesquieu’s correspondence shows a certain admiration for the prince who was not yet cracking down of the satirist Lagrange-Chancel (OC, t. XVIII, letter 63, 1 January 1724; see also Pensées, no. 29), which did not prevent his showing himself harsh on the Regency (“a succession of failed projects and independent ideas; witticisms that pass for systems, a shapeless mixture of weakness and authority; all the weight without the gravity of the ministry; a commander always too stiff or too cowardly” (“une succession de projets manqués et d’idées indépendantes, des saillies mises en air de système, un mélange informe de faiblesse et d’autorité, toute la pesanteur sans la gravité du ministère, un commandement toujours trop raide ou trop lâche […]”, Pensées, no. 1613; see also no. 1306) or for the man: “he conducted himself with a witticism, and one governed him with a witticism” (“il se conduisait par un bon mot, et on le gouvernait par un bon mot”, Pensées, no. 800; see also no. 1018), which he summarizes by another witticism: “he was undefinable; he can only be defined by not defining him” (“il était indéfinissable; on ne peut le définir qu’en ne le définissant pas”, Pensées, no. 1396).
2Montesquieu tries to resolve this paradox in the five Lettres de Xénocrate à Phérès, which date from 1723-1724. There he represents the Regent under the name of Alcamène (the Pensées refer to him as “Pisistrate”, no. 173). The portrait is more psychological than political, and shows the features already evoked above: vivacity going as far as versatility, as taste for witticisms and clever comebacks, “sublime mind that makes for great virtues and great crimes” – and in fact in the Spicilège he mentions the “plot” with Stanhope at the time of the War of Spanish Succession (no. 476), although in the sketch of the Éloge de Berwick he defends his military valor (see also Xénocrate à Phérès, Letter 4). Montesquieu does not dwell on his reputation for debauchery: he could “lose his reason, and never his secrecy” (Letter 2), which accords with the testimony of Saint-Simon. In Montesquieu’s eyes, it is more important to consider that he had the qualities of great princes, and notably clemency (Letter 1: “Alcamène likes to pardon, you would say he finds peace in the soul of his enemies; clemency is so natural to him that he almost believes it is always up to him to feel it and for others to receive it” [“Alcamène aime à pardonner, vous diriez qu’il trouve la paix dans l’âme de ses ennemis; la clémence lui est si naturelle qu’il croit presque que c’est toujours à lui à la ressentir et aux autres à la recevoir”]). But above all he applied himself to relieving the ills caused by the previous regime (as was suggested by the appeal on the debts of state) and was loved by his people (Letter 5). He represented in a way “an anti-Louis XIV, the model of the anti-despote” (Jean Ehrard), whose discourse Montesquieu reproduces: “to the Parlement at its first session” (Spicilège, no. 278) which the Persian Letters echo (Letter 89 , where the reëstablishment of the right of remonstrance is also mentioned). The portrait is thus extremely favorable, especially for the earliest period of the Regency: if in 1734, after a visit to Saint-Simon, Montesquieu speaks of the Councils as a “bedlam” (“une pétaudière” Spicilège, no. 657), in 1721 the Persian Letters acknowledge the Polysynodie (1715 to September 1718): “this ministry is perhaps the one that has governed France with the most good sense: it did not last long, nor did the good it did” (“ce ministère est peut-être celui de tous qui a gouverné la France avec plus de sens: la durée en fut courte aussi bien que celle du bien qu’il en produisit”, Lettre 132 ).
3We notice especially that it was in examining the Regency that Montesquieu learned to reason about politics, and to break with the traditional view of what was then, precisely, called politics, or art of foreseeing. Indeed Philippe d’Orléans was able to undo all of the calculations of the most crafty minds: “his witticisms are his principles; what they contemplate, he finds; a moment gives him all they have reflected on” (“ses saillies sont ses principes; ce qu’ils méditent, il le rencontre; un instant lui donne tout ce qu’ils ont réfléchi”, Xénocrate to Phérès, Lettre 1). Wit has become the principle of government, sending Machiavellianism to the scrapheap like the hardened principles to which Louis XIV held as he grew old.
4But is was also the Regent who gave all the power to the infamous Dubois: “at first he was regarded with scorn by the Regent, and then without passing through consideration he obtained confidence. Proud to be privy to his secrets, he made bold demands and obtained them. Soon Alcamène weary of his command put his sovereign power into his hands” (“il en fut regardé d’abord avec mépris, et ensuite, sans avoir passé par la considération, il obtint la confiance. Fier d’avoir eu part à ses secrets, il fit des demandes téméraires et les obtint. Bientôt Alcamène, lassé du commandement, remit dans ses mains la souveraine puissance”, Xénocrate à Phérès, Letter 3). His detestation of the cardinal-minister, Montesquieu joins Saint-Simon and many aristocrats of his time, who had nothing but scorn for the lowborn favorite (see also Pensées, no. 173, and Spicilège, no. 743). And especially, the great affair of the Regency was the System of John Law (Xénocrate à Phérès, Letter 3), which caused genuine social upheaval echoed in the Persian Letters, but also throughout Montesquieu’s work. The way the prince allowed the Scotsman to take over finance, and speculators (including the highest nobility) resort to the worst practices, could only provoke in Montesquieu the sharpest criticism (LP, 138 ; see also Spicilège, no. 615, copied after 1734), even if he relieves the Regent of any suspicion of self-enrichment: “the vices of small souls were not the vices of Alcamène” (“les vices des petites âmes n’étaient pas les vices d’Alcamène”, Xénocrate à Phérès, Letter 5).
5Is it the final word that “the regency of the Duc d’Orléans was a fine show” (“la régence du duc d’Orléans était un beau spectacle”, Pensées, no. 2132, copied after 1750)? Sure an “somewhat enigmatic” formula, in which one can read, rather than late regret for the Polysynodie, “the beauty […] of a conjuncture in which one could fear all for public peace and which brought […] no violence” (“la beauté […] d’une conjoncture dont on pouvait tout craindre pour la paix publique et qui n’entraîna […] aucune violence”), unlike the Fronde (Jean Ehrard). But this remark figures in a short series (Pensées, nos. 2131-2134) with perhaps a different ambition: it is mostly about “representation”, and the power of appearance. It was indeed a “show” the duke gave, unlike any other, for which only the antique garb of the Lettres de Xénocrate à Phérès could give an account: “Let us remember that what we have seen in the minority of a great European prince, one can say that there was never such a singular government and that the extraordinary reigned from the first day to the last” (“Rappelons-nous ce que nous avons vu dans la minorité d’un grand prince de l’Europe, on peut dire qu’il n’y eut jamais de gouvernement plus singulier et que l’extraordinaire y a régné depuis le premier jour jusqu’au dernier […]”, De la politique, 1725, OC, t. VIII, p. 514).
Montesquieu, Lettres de Xénocrate à Phérès, OC, t. VIII, 2003, p. 291-306.
Jean Ehrard, “Montesquieu, Saint-Simon et la Régence”, Cahiers Saint-Simon 19 (1991), reprinted under the title “La Régence” in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, p. 109-120.
Jean Bart, “Le réveil des prétentions parlementaires à la mort de Louis XIV”, Cahiers Saint-Simon 27 (1999), p. 39-36.
Régine Jomand-Baudry, “Le Kam d’Anserol et autres variations allégoriques”, in Le Régent entre fable et histoire, Denis Reynaud and Chantal Thomas dir., Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003, p. 121-131.