1Buffon and Montesquieu are two figures of the century. In 1748 appeared L’Esprit des lois, but also, in the Journal des savants, the project and outline of an Histoire naturelle of which the first volumes would be published the following year. 1748 is thus at the crossroads of research: the reception of each of these works and the debates they provoked leads one to a comparison of their authors. Yet we must distinguish the relation “constructed” a posteriori between these two “Enlightenment philosophers” , what Buffon might have read of Montesquieu, and the effective relations which the two men could have had.
2Montesquieu and Buffon were acquainted with each other. Opportunities to meet were not rare but they were not close friends. They had common friends, which would suggest gastronomical and philosophical encounters (see for example the letter from La Condamine on 14 February 1753); their respective provincial attachment also could have brought them together. Yet Montesquieu and Buffon did not frequent the same places in Paris. Ill at ease in worldly discussions (Roger, p. 297), Buffon did not like to frequent the learned society and was notable by his absence from the fashionable salons (Roger, p. 59). Montesquieu on the contrary was able to hold his own in conversation and was a regular at the salons of Mme Geoffrin and especially those of Mme Du Deffand and Mme de Tencin or the cercle des Brancas. Buffon went rather to visit Mme Dupin de Francueil (Roger, p. 57); Montesquieu frequented Mme Dupin, her mother-in-law, but L’Esprit des lois, not too kind to farmers-general and other traitants (financiers), sealed their falling-out, especially when Claude Dupin launched into a critique of the work (letter to Solar, 23 July 1749).
3Even if Buffon was not really in the philosophe party, the dispute with the Sorbonne in 1751 seemed to bring them together in a common combat. The fact that the two works were confronted with censure shows their innovative character and critical point of view about religious discourse, in politics or the sciences. Yet Buffon’s secret negotiations with the Sorbonne manifest a prudence that Montesquieu, more intense, and who really worked in the Défense de L’Esprit des lois, did not have (see Pierre Rétat’s introduction to the Défense, OC, t. VII, notably p. xviii-xx). The anecdote placed in Buffon’s mouth about a dialogue with Montesquieu over this conflict is both plausible and revelatory of the subsequent construction of a relationship between the two authors: “My first volumes appeared, he added, at the same time as L’Esprit des lois; M. Montesquieu and I were tormented by the Sorbonne; besides, we saw ourselves confronted with a flurry of criticism. The president was furious. How are you going to respond? he asked me. Nothing at all, sir; and he could not understand my restraint”
4 (“Mes premiers volumes parurent, ajoutait-il, en même temps que L’Esprit des lois : nous fûmes tourmentés par la Sorbonne, M. de Montesquieu et moi ; de plus, nous nous vîmes en butte au déchaînement de la critique. Le président était furieux. Qu’allez-vous répondre, me disait-il ? Rien du tout, président ; et il ne pouvait concevoir mon sang-froid.”, Hérault de Séchelles, Voyage à Montbard, in Buffon, p. 294). Finally, we must remember the confused circumstances of Buffon’s election to the Académie Française on 25 August 1753 (Roger, p. 282-283). Even if there are notes for a reception speech (Pensées, no. 2165, p. 639), it remains that Montesquieu supported Piron and not Buffon (letter to Madame de Pompadour. June 1753).
5When Montesquieu mentions the publication of the first three volumes of Histoire naturelle (letter to Monsignor Cerati, 11 November 1749) the judgment is favorable but reserved; he reveals more the echoes and debates which this publication had managed to provoke than an attentive reading of the work (Buffon’s works are to be found in the library of his Parisian residence: Catalogue, appendix 5, no. 16). Buffon was also said by Hérault de Séchelles to have declared that there were only five great men: Newton, Bacon, Leibniz, Montesquieu, and himself. The filiation needs examining, for in this list Montesquieu is the only one who is not a savant (scientist). It is impossible for Buffon to have read the Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle or the academic discourses, which were not published until well after Montesquieu’s death. Moreover, if Montesquieu can appear in certain respects as one of the “pioneers” of natural history (Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle, OC, t. VIII, p. 185-223), that should not conceal an essential difference of approach on questions relative to life (Casabianca 2008, p. 354-360).
6One can retrospectively compare the authors on the basis of their supposed “materialism”, but it should be observed that Montesquieu remains more a physiologist than a naturalist. It is therefore the reading of L’Esprit des lois which must have marked Buffon, but in what way could it interest the savant of the Histoire naturelle? The reception speech at the Académie Française (or Discours sur le style: Binet, p. 153-161) offers a first indication. The text rests on allusions: to his predecessor whose “eulogy” he gives while not mentioning his name (Roger, p. 283), and to Montesquieu, whose expressions relative to genius he borrows, while suggesting that the plan of L’Esprit des lois does not achieve the unity necessary to grasp “all the relations”: “Whenever the subject is vast or complex, it is quite rare that one can embrace it at a glance, or enter into the heart of it with a single, first thrust of genius; and it is rarer still for one after much reflection to have grasped all the relations” (“Pour peu que le sujet soit vaste ou compliqué, il est bien rare qu’on puisse l’embrasser d’un coup d’œil, ou le pénétrer en entier d’un seul et premier effort de génie ; et il est rare encore qu’après bien des réflexions on en saisisse tous les rapports”). The Premier Discours again echoes the preface of L’Esprit des lois: the question of how one looks at what one is studying, and how that study is developed in a work, is compared to the question of how the reader should view the book. Buffon doubtless had met and esteemed Montesquieu, but if he treats him sometimes as a master, it is mostly because he has read him as someone who enlightens.
7 La Visite à Buffon ou le Voyage à Montbard (1785) by Hérault de Séchelles stages the relation between our authors. The discussion with Buffon is to enlighten the visitor; it combines secrets and advice in an instructive perspective. If the figure of Buffon appears as exemplary for the Enlightenment, this is also because the text is careful to put into perspective with other figures of the century his own work and life. It is in this framework that the anecdote relative to the conflict with the Sorbonne is reported. The end of the text goes even farther: Hérault de Séchelles submits to Buffon a project of a work on legislation. Buffon immediately encourages him to suggest a plan (is that not what was lacking in L’Esprit des lois?) that would in part pick up on Montesquieu’s work. In the manner of Solon, one must see how “human reason could apply itself to something” (“la raison humaine pourrait avoir à s’exercer”). The examination of a “universal morality” and a “reform […] in the different laws of the globe” complements Montesquieu’s enterprise by assuring to it a universal basis and an approach more in keeping with the study of nature. Beyond the comparison, the dissimilarity between the authors and Buffon’s modernity are emphasized. Lucien Febvre, in La Terre et l’évolution humaine, no longer retains this opposition when he critiques Montesquieu’s “theory” of climates and valorizes Buffon’s naturalist approach, attentive to the “environment”. The historical efficacity of climate does not depend on his action on the psycho-physiological constitution of the isolated individual, as Montesquieu thought, but exerts definable causality in history only by the intermediary of its action on the natural environment in which man lives.
Buffon, Histoire naturelle, selection of texts and presentation by Jérôme Varloot, Paris : Gallimard, 1984.
Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford, 1961.
Jacques-Louis Binet and Jacques Roger, Un autre Buffon, Paris: Hermann, 1977.
Jacques Roger, Buffon, un philosophe au jardin du roi, Paris: Fayard, 1989.
Denis de Casabianca, Montesquieu. De l’étude des sciences à l’esprit des lois, Paris : Honoré Champion, 2008.