Céline Spector


1Durkheim devoted to Montesquieu his Latin thesis in 1892, translated by F. Alengry under the title Quid Secundatus politicæ scientiæ instituendæ contulerit as Montesquieu: sa part dans la fondation des sciences politiques (Revue d’histoire politique et constitutionnelle, July-September 1937), then by Armand Cuvillier as La Contribution de Montesquieu à la constitution de la science sociale, in a volume entitled Montesquieu et Rousseau précurseurs de la sociologie (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1953). This terminological uncertainty brings out what is at stake in reading Durkheim: to what degree did Montesquieu realize this passage from philosophy or “political sciences” to social sciences?

2Following Comte (Cours de philosophie positive, lesson no. 47), Durkheim could place the philosopher among the “precursors” of sociology only by questioning him according to his own conceptualization. Far from limiting himself to identifying a few founding theses in L’Esprit des lois, his interpretation, contemporary with La Division du travail social, is characterized by an effort at systematic reconstruction (Karsenti, 2002). Montesquieu is read in the perspective of a progressive emergence of sociology beginning with political philosophy considered as art rather than as science. First from the point of view of the object: because the laws he sets out to explain touch upon social life in its entirety, the philosopher approached society in all its aspects (family, religion, morality, economy), so he wrote an authentic treatise bearing on the whole of social facts. To be sure, his empirical information remained incomplete and sometimes faulty, but “no one before him had gone so far in the path that led his successors to true social science; no one had so clearly discerned the conditions necessary to the establishment of that science.”

3It is therefore to the identification of the conditions of the constitution of sociology as a science that Durkheim first proceeds, in order to see to what degree Montesquieu made it possible. In the first place, L’Esprit des lois tried to identify general causes acting on human societies, approaching social life as a fact available for observation and explanation. Not only did the work not approach social things as an object available to the observer, it also considered them as distinct from that dealt with by other sciences. In the following chapter, Durkheim begins with this essential gesture in the constitution of social science: the classification of societies by species or types. Whereas most political philosophers would have been content, in their typology of governments, with seeking the best regime, Montesquieu had noted the irreducible diversity of customs, which called for a plurality of laws adapted to the proper nature of each type of society. If the philosopher did not limit himself to describing and explaining institutions, his judgments of value are determined by singular norms that derive from “the nature of things”.

4In Durkheim’s interpretation, the classification of the first books of L’Esprit des lois is therefore not interpreted as a simple political typology but also as a social typology: the three forms of societies (republican, monarchical, despotic) differ not only in the number of governors and the mode of exercise of power but in their entire nature; they are not deduced from an a priori principle but formed by the comparison of societies discovered through history and traveler’s narratives… So it is necessary to understand what peoples are designated by the governments (Greco-Roman cities of Antiquity, the great peoples of modern Europe, oriental nations). Montesquieu tried to conceive the differentiated nature of societies, insomuch as they differ in number, the disposition and cohesion of their elements – what Durkheim places at the basis of “social morphology”. In democracy first, a regime in which property is distributed in egalitarian fashion, the citizens are devoted to the pursuit of the common interest; in places where men’s life and activity are similar, the society functions by realizing the unity of wills around the country. It is this union of wills that Montesquieu would call political virtue: in conditions of equality and frugality, the individual interest has nothing to feed on and the “social soul”, the awareness of belonging to the community, naturally takes precedence in men’s minds. In monarchy on the other hand, public and private functions are shared among the different orders. In this passage, Durkheim does not hesitate to impose on L’Esprit des lois the problematic of La Division du travail social: the division of labor, absent from republics, characterizes, according to him, monarchical society. For the monarchy to distinguish itself from despotism, it must include constituted orders (what Montesquieu calls “intermediate powers”) that limit the power of a single individual by leading him to the respect of laws. Thus the distribution of power is assimilated by Durkheim to a division of labor. The conclusion might appear surprising: monarchical society might be compared to a living being the elements of which, in function of their nature, fill different functions.

5The interest of Montesquieu’s political philosophy for nascent sociology appears in this way: the philosopher was able to distinguish two forms of radically different society, subsisting thanks to distinct forms of solidarity, the one mechanical, the other organic. Durkheim thus reinterprets the theory of governmental “principle” in terms of “social bond”. Whereas in the republic equality and frugality gives rise to a social bond based on resemblance (homogeneity of desires and types of life, common aspiration to the common good), the inequality of conditions in the monarchical regime occasions a solidarity based on difference: the hierarchy stimulates ambitions in function of honors, wealth and power, so that the members of society turn away from common interest to the benefit of their individual interest. Under monarchy, each order has in view not the country (the social whole) but only the part (the restricted domain of social life where its function is realized). The cohesion of the elements thus arises from their very diversity and inequality – the ambition that sets the orders and individuals in motion, inciting them, at the same time, to acquit themselves well of their function. Such is then the characterization of honor, the principle of monarchy. Thanks to it, men pursue the common good without so knowing or intending, in the absence of virtue: “It happens that each individual works toward the common good, believing he is working for his own particular interests” (III, 7).

6However, this reading leaves in the shadow the category which uses L’Esprit des lois as the foil. Durkheim leaves aside the analysis of despotism, which he curiously justifies by the fact that Montesquieu had taken “fewer pains to describe it”. Thus the sociologist limits himself to recalling that the principle of social life, in despotic states, can be neither virtue (since the people is unaware of community matters), nor honor (since there is no stable difference of condition). Men here are “attached” to society only because they follow without resistance and out of fear of the prince’s will.

7In the last analysis, Durkheim thus challenges the objection that Montesquieu has simply distinguished societies by means of their form of government – the essential property from which others derive. The important point is elsewhere: L’Esprit des lois highlights the differences of law and custom, of religious, economic, social and family life. In a word, if Montesquieu is a theoretician of power, he has also become a theoretician of societies.

The legality of social phenomena

8The interest which Durkheim shows in Montesquieu’s work is not, however, confined to the classification of societies. In chapter IV of his study (“To what extent did Montesquieu think there exist determined laws of social things”), the sociologist praises the philosopher for having seen that “social facts, and principally those of which he specially speaks, which is to say the laws, obey a determined order and are consequently subject to rational interpretation”. Montesquieu sought to identify the order subtending the diversity of laws and mores, to rationalize the variety by determining the reasons behind customs, however varied they may be. Not limiting himself to showing that laws depend on the form of societies, he attempted to lay out the causes on which the forms themselves of societies depend. Reflection must then turn to the new and paradoxical definition of law which Montesquieu proposes. Does this definition allow us to envisage human institutions and actions as subject to laws – and should that be? Are they the same laws as those that govern nature? The question entails the existence of a “social physics”: it is to learn to what degree the domain of culture can be explained in the same manner as that of nature. The correlative question is that of the anthropological bases of the new science: can one found a science of the social without allowing the principle of universal necessity – without abolishing all freedom of will in mankind? If he does not take on this delicate question of freedom, Durkheim does depend on the liminal definition of laws as “necessary relations that derive from the nature of things” (I, 1) to credit Montesquieu with a break with legicentrist illusion. If sociology, to call itself science, must free itself from the political as normative, autonomous instance, and envisage the laws that regulate societies in their continuity – the laws conceived as regularities or relations – and the positive laws that emanate from the legislator, L’Esprit des lois would precisely have instigated this continuity, in liminal fashion, between the two meanings of law.

9Here however appears a difficulty, perhaps insurmountable: how indeed can the role confered on the legislator be reconciled with the possibility of making Montesquieu into one of the founders of social science? In L’Esprit des lois, laws must be related to a people’s physical and moral characteristics. The legislator’s role remains essential, since it falls to him to put into practice that congruity which does not exist necessarily, by nature. As the sociologist himself observes, the personage of the legislator appears here as the indispensable artisan of laws. There even exist societies in which not only the laws, but religion and mores can be shaped by the political, as in Sparta or China (XIX, 16-19). Such is the reason for which Durkheim reproaches Montesquieu for not having gone far enough in his critique of political volunteerism: Montesquieu did not realize that “the laws do not differ in nature from mores, but on the contrary derive therefrom since they are nothing more than the mores better defined” – that mores are the laws’ efficient causes, and not their final causes.

On Montesquieu’s method

10All the same, this divergence does not lead Durkheim to re-situate Montesquieu within classical political philosophy. The philosopher’s method is distinguished from that of his predecessors who principally made use of deduction, starting with a general notion of man so as to deduce the form of state that suits him. L’Esprit des lois then had the merit of substituting for this abstract method, vehicle of a bad universalism, the experimental method imported into the heart of social physics (ch. V). Having understood that it is impossible to experiment with societies, Montesquieu had recourse to comparative law and history – even if the “facts” often merely confirm a deduction made from principles. By virtue of this method, L’Esprit des lois did not separate law from morality, religion, economy, nor above all from the form of society that extends its influence to all social features. All these facts, however different, express the life of a single and selfsame society (its “general spirit”, even if the sociologist does not have recourse to this concept, which is nevertheless central); they correspond to the various organs of the same “social organism” – the organic metaphor and the analogy with the living being superimposed on Montesquieu’s text (Casabianca, 2008).

11In conclusion, Durkheim thus summarizes Montesquieu’s two principal contributions from the standpoint of the formation of sociology as a science: it is in his work that, for the first time, the fundamental principles of social science are established. Not only did the philosopher understand that social things are the object of science, but he contributed to establishing the indispensable notions for its constitution: the notion of type and the notion of law. It is no doubt wrongly that L’Esprit des lois makes social forms result from forms of government and considers one of the types (despotism) as an “abnormal” phenomenon (which according to Durkheim is incompatible with the nature of a type that possesses its own perfection, considering the conditions of the time and place to which it corresponds). Furthermore, in Durkheim’s eyes, Montesquieu conceived the laws of the social in a still unclear manner: they do not express how the nature of society engenders the social institutions, but the institutions that the nature of society requires, as if their efficient cause were to be sought in the legislator’s will, as if ill-instituted society had the ability to deviate from the laws of its nature. Such is thus Durkheim’s last word: social science after Montesquieu must assume the task of dispelling this equivocation. Sociology must establish that the laws of societies are not different from those that govern the rest of nature – this was to be the contribution of Auguste Comte to the progress of “science”.

12It remains true that this interpretation of L’Esprit des lois calls for an inquiry into method. Conscious (as was Durkheim himself) that its author never refuses to judge, even to condemn certain existing institutions in the name of universal principles, Raymond Aron was to propose a more nuanced reading: Montesquieu as the founder of a comprehensive sociology and not a causal one, which the Weberian ideal-type allows us to learn. It must be added that his project was not to identify the laws that permit the disinterested elaboration of a social physics: it was rather a matter of when and how to correct the law or to act opportunely on practices. Does L’Esprit des lois not propose rules and maxims for the legislator, exposing a knowledge of political “good” and “evil” that is irreducible to a science of law (Pensées, no. 1940)?


Raymond Aron, Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique, Paris: Gallimard, 1967, ch. 1.

Claudia Stancati, “Illuminismo e sociologia: Durkheim interprete di Montesquieu e Rousseau”, Rivista internazionale di filosofia del diritto, IV serie, LV, 1978, p. 366-374.

Denis de Casabianca, Le Sens de l’esprit, les sciences et les arts: formation du regard dans “L’Esprit des lois”, thesis, Aix-Marseille I, 2002, esp. t. II, p. 435-444: “L’analogie biologique chez Durkheim, lecteur de Montesquieu”.

Bruno Karsenti, “Politique de la science sociale: la lecture durkheimienne de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 6 (2002), p. 33-55. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article328

Carl Borghero, “Durkheim lettore di Montesquieu”, Montesquieu e i suoi interpreti, Domenico Felice (ed.), Pisa: ETS, 2005, p. 671-711.

Denis de Casabianca, Montesquieu. De l’étude des sciences à l’esprit des lois, Paris: Champion, 2008.