Céline Spector


1Some of Montesquieu’s most eloquent praise went to Fénelon, and more particularly to his Adventures of Telemachus (The Hague, 1705; Catalogue, no. 650). Qualified as the “divine work of this century”, with an “enchanting” style, Telemachus seemed inspired by Homer, even in its profusion of epithets (Pensées, nos. 115, 123). The enthusiasm aroused by the reading of that work, “a rival of the Odyssey”, has to do with the mixture of solidity and pleasure it provides. In this respect, the Moderns were wrong to find its morality “common”: Montesquieu calls it “high-minded”, while aware of Fénelon’s privileged design: the education of the Duke of Burgundy, in whom lay the hope for a new politics. Speaking to the heart and mind, his work is able to achieve the beautiful, the noble, the grave, the sweet and the tender, for which it is worthy of admiration and eternal gratitude (Extraits de lecture annotés sur Télémaque, OC, t. XVII, in press, ms 2526/2, written after 1750).

2On the esthetic level, Montesquieu in his Pensées proposes a judgment very close to Fénelon’s with respect to the beauty of the Homeric poem. The text of the Pensées (no. 108, inserted into the edition of 1783 of the Essay on Taste in the Œuvres posthumes, p. 178-179), is in this regard very close to the Lettre à l’Académie, in which Fénelon underscores the charm and “moral frugality” which Homer depicts (“nothing is as attaching as this life of the earliest men”, Lettre à l’Académie, X, 10, in Œuvres, t. II, J. Le Brun ed., Paris: Gallimard, 1997, p.1193). Like Fénelon, Montesquieu praises primitive simplicity: “What charms me in the earliest times is a certain simplicity of mores, a natural naïveté, which I find in it, and which is no longer present in the world (so far as I know) among any civilized people” (Pensées, no. 1607). It is again this touching frugality and this depiction of a golden age that come through in the portrayal of the virtuous Troglodytes: if utopia seems inspired by the description of the Patriarchs and Israelites provided by abbé Fleury in his Mœurs des Israélites et des chrétiens (Paris, 1681), that work also inspired the description given by Fénelon of the frugal peoples of Betica (LP, 10-12 Telemachus, book VII).

3Meanwhile, the homage rendered to one of the most resolute adversaries of absolutist politics is not equivalent to adhesion to his political moralism. On one hand, Montesquieu echoes certain themes dear to Fénelon, and more broadly the aristocratic opposition to Louis XIV. In his Lettre sur les occupations de l’Académie française or in the Examen de conscience des devoirs de la royauté [‘Letter of conscience on the duties of royalty’], Fénelon had called attention to the role of the parlements and invoked the necessity of limiting the monarch’s powers through fundamental laws and the respect of customs. Recourse to the history of the ancient French constitution allowed him to highlight the importance of feudal and parlementary power, as well as the consent of the nation to taxes. Nevertheless, Montesquieu does not subscribe to the overall program of the Tables de Chaulnes (1711), where Fénelon notably defends the establishment of provincial states and the periodical convocation of the Estates General, as well as the abolition of seigniorial justice – to which Montesquieu, precisely, objects (EL, II, 4; see Carcassonne). There remains a significant point in common: Fénelon indeed wants to temper “despotism, the cause of all our ills” (letter to the duc de Chevreuse, 4 August 1710). The monarch who thinks he can increase his power by removing any limit to his authority only makes it less secure. Already for the author of Telemachus, despotism founded on fear is the least durable regime of all: “Remember that the countries where the sovereign’s domination is the most absolute are the ones where the sovereigns are least powerful” (“Souvenez-vous que les pays où la domination du souverain est plus absolue sont ceux où les souverains sont moins puissants”, J.-L. Goré ed., Paris: Dunod, 1994, X, p. 349; see II, p.137; V, p. 196-197; XVII, p.526-530; compare with: LP, passim; EL, VIII, 6-7). Conquest, far from extending sovereign power, only places it in greater peril; true power is founded on agricultural and trading wealth as well as on the population, whenever taxes do not repress labor (X, p.324-325; p.343-350; XI, p.383; cf. LP, 78 (81); Romains and Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, passim; EL, VIII, 17).

4Therefore we should measure what separates Fénelon’s political moralism from the systematic understanding of law and mores proposed by Montesquieu. To be sure, as we have said, in the Persian Letters the allegory of the good Troglodytes stages an episode inspired by that of the peoples of Betica. The idea is to show that virtue and justice are necessary to the preservation of the community: “the interest of individuals is always to be found in the common interest” (LP, 12-13). However, in a larger community, the yoke of virtue seems too harsh and it appears easier to obey a prince and his laws, less rigid than mores (LP, 14). L’Esprit des lois, above all, breaks with the tradition of Mirrors of the Prince. His ambition is not to seek the “certain principles of justice, reason, and virtue” that found the wisdom of the art of governing much better than the quest of vain glory (Telemachus, XVIII, p. 553). In modern monarchies, the abuse of power should be rendered impossible by the institutions and not by the temperance of the monarch and the grandees; moderation exceeds the discipline of the desire of distinction and domination. In his theory of modern monarchy, Montesquieu therefore does not ratify Fénelon’s vision. One of the major reasons for this divergence has to do with Fénelon’s misconception of the modern – economic – form of power. The prosperity of the great monarchies would be endangered by the austere organization of Salente: “Most of the policy things he says about Salente are suitable only to the small Greek city that Salente was, and one should apply to a great monarchy only those about things that are suitable to a great monarchy” (Extraits de lecture annotés sur Télémaque, OC, t.III, p.707). Whereas the Adventures of Telemachus make of luxury the principal cause of the decadence of empires, the worst of moral evils, the source of all social, moral, economic, and political corruption (XVII, p.521-524), and propose praise of a frugality indissociable from the primacy accorded to agriculture (X, p.337-339), Montesquieu challenges “Christian agrarianism” (Roghkrug, 1965).

5To be sure, Montesquieu showed himself close to Fénelon in a fragment of his Prince, a work he abandoned: “is taking money needed for cultivating the land, to give it to those who will use it only to encourage the arts of luxury, not to impoverish the state?” (Pensées, no.1631). But in reality, Fénelon’s propositions apply only to republics, where the abundance of enjoyments turns minds away from the public interest (VII, 2-3): “Republics end up in luxury, monarchies in poverty” (EL, VII, 4; see XX, 4; LP, 103 [106]). Mandeville and Melon were right to count on the conversion of private vices into public virtues in the great inegalitarian societies; neither ambition nor vanity should be repressed when those passions give life to the government and lead it to prosperity (EL, IV, 2; XIX, 5-11; see Pensées, no. 5). The corruption which monarchy should fear is not that of virtue.


Fénelon, Œuvres, Jacques Le Brun ed., Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1997, 2 volumes.

Fénelon, Les aventures de Télémaque, Jeanne-Lydie Goré ed., Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994.

Albert Chérel, Fénelon au XVIIIe siècle en France, Paris, 1917 (Genève: Slatkine reprints, 1970), ch. XVII, p. 322-326.

Élie Carcassonne, Montesquieu et le problème de la Constitution française au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1927; Geneva: Slatkine reprints, 1970).

Jean Ehrard, L’Idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle (1963), re-issue Paris: Albin Michel, 1994, p. 577-583.

Lionel Rothkrug, Opposition to Louis XIV, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965, ch. V.

Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France, Princeton University Press, 1980, ch. XII.

Carole Dornier, annotation of The Temple de Gnide, OC, t. VIII, ed. Pierre Rétat, 2003, p. 389-420.

Christophe Martin, “‘L’esprit parleur’: Montesquieu lecteur de Homère, Virgile, Fénelon et quelques autres”, Montesquieu, œuvre ouverte? (1748-1755), Catherine Larrère ed., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, 2005, p. 271-291.