Céline Spector


1Plato occupies a place in Montesquieu’s work that is central and marginal at the same time. Marginal from the standpoint of his metaphysics, which remains ill known and obscure, like the rest of Greek philosophy. If Aristotle and Plato alone are accessible, “Plato says almost nothing but words” (“Platon ne dit presque rien que des paroles”, Pensées, no. 291). The Ancients’ physics, morality and metaphysics are bad, since they did not know the difference between positive and relative qualities: “Plato and Socrates were wrong with their beautiful, their good, their foolish, their wise” (“Platon et Socrate se sont trompés avec leur beau, leur bon, leur fou, leur sage”, no. 799). Because the Ancients regarded as positive qualities all the relative qualities of our soul, “these dialogues where Plato has Socrates reason, these dialogues so admired by the Ancients, today are untenable, since they are based on a false philosophy” (“ces dialogues où Platon fait raisonner Socrate, ces dialogues si admirés des anciens, sont aujourd’hui insoutenables, parce qu’ils sont fondés sur une philosophie fausse”, Essai sur le goût, OC, t. IX, p. 487). Because of this prejudice which imbues Plato’s philosophy, “if you read this philosopher’s dialogues, you will find that they are just a fabric of sophisms made out of ignorance of this principle” (“si on lit les dialogues de ce philosophe, on trouvera qu’ils ne sont qu’un tissu de sophismes faits par l’ignorance de ce principe”, Pensées, no. 410).

2However, this severe criticism does not lead to the invalidation of all Platonism and one can wonder about Montesquieu’s strange judgment, coming after a critique of metaphysics: “We no longer understand the ancient systems. Plato’s is so beautiful that it is almost ours”… (“Nous n’entendons plus les anciens systèmes. Celui de Platon est si beau que c’est presque le nôtre”, no. 211). Plato is one of the four great “poets” alongside Montaigne, Malebranche and Shaftesbury (no. 1092), and Montesquieu’s admiration is for what raises him above his times (notably his firmness, no. 746). It remains that, except for a few pointed reflections on the status of the divine and intelligent principle at the origin of the world order (“The doctrine of an intelligent being was thus found by Plato only as a protection and defensive weapon against the calumny of [zealous pagans]” (“La doctrine d’un être intelligent n’a donc été trouvée par Platon que comme un préservatif et une arme défensive contre les calomnies des [païens zélés]”, no. 853) or on the contradiction concerning the banishment of poets from the city (nos. 1558 and 1766), Montesquieu was indeed interested in Plato as a political philosopher.

3In this respect, the author of L’Esprit des lois does not declare himself to be “among those who regard Plato’s republic as an ideal and purely imaginary thing, the realization of which would be impossible” (“du nombre de ceux qui regardent la république de Platon comme une chose idéale et purement imaginaire, et dont l’exécution serait impossible”), for the city of Lycurgus, which lasted longer than any other, seems just as difficult to realize (no. 1208). However “Lycurgus did all he could to make its citizens more warlike; Plato and Thomas Morus, better people” (“Lycurgue a fait tout ce qu’il a pu pour rendre ses citoyens plus guerriers ; Platon et Thomas Morus, plus honnêtes gens”, nos. 1248 and 1911). Even more, Plato, just as Aristotle, is a source of information on Greek laws and mores: “You have to reflect on Aristotle’s Politics and on Plato’s two Republics if you want to have a clear idea of Greek laws and mores. To look for them in the historians is as if we wanted to find ours by reading the wars of Louis XIV” (“Il faut réfléchir sur La Politique d’Aristote et sur les deux Républiques de Platon, si l’on veut avoir une juste idée des lois et des mœurs des Grecs. Les chercher dans leurs historiens, c’est comme si nous voulions trouver les nôtres en lisant les guerres de Louis XIV”, no. 1378). The allusion to the two Republics should not confuse us: it obviously means the Republic and the Laws, the only works mentioned in L’Esprit des lois, with no difference of status between the ideal city and the “second” city which looks at envisages men as they are. Thus Montesquieu asserts that “in Plato’s republic, luxury could be carefully calculated” by referring back to book V of the Laws (VII, 1). The philosopher in this way means to elaborate his theory of democracy on the basis of information furnished by Plato.

4Plato’s ideal city appears indeed repeated, like the constitution of Crete or Sparta, in a model of viable democracy, because of its very “singular institutions” destined to sustain virtue (“Plato, whose institutions are merely the perfection of the laws of Lycurgus” [“Platon, dont les institutions ne sont que la perfection des lois de Lycurgue”], EL, VII, 16 ; “The laws of Crete were the original of those of Lacedaemon, and those of Plato were a correction of them”, IV, 6 ; see XXIX, 9). Montesquieu insists on this in a letter to Charles Yorke: “[…] Plato only went to Sicily to make the world see that he was not only capable of giving laws to a republic, but also to govern it” (“[…] Platon n’alla en Sicile que pour faire voir à l’univers qu’il était non seulement capable de donner des lois à une république, mais de la gouverner”, 4 July 1752, OC, t. XXI, in press). Communal property does not itself appear utopian: “Those who want to create similar [democratic] institutions will establish the communal property of Plato’s Republic, the respect he required for the gods, the separation from strangers for the preservation of mores, and the city engaging in trade, but not the citizens” (“Ceux qui voudront faire des institutions pareilles [démocratiques] établiront la communauté de biens de la République de Platon, ce respect qu’il demandait pour les dieux, cette séparation d’avec les étrangers pour la conservation des mœurs, et la cité faisant le commerce, et non pas les citoyens”, IV, 6). Control of the family and marriages by the state also derives from a legitimate pretension, where love of the public good must surpass all others (XXIII, 7; XXIII, 17). However, like the laws of Minos or Lycurgus, those of Plato can only work in a small society of direct interaction where the citizens oversee each other and, in the absence of money, devote themselves to virtue (IV, 7), where “private” life depends on state control, where a homogeneity of desires and aspirations exists – everyone praising and judging ill of the same things.

5To those who want to establish a well-ordered democracy, Montesquieu thus advises following Plato’s recommendations respecting the use of property. He refers to books V and VIII of the Republic where the idolatry of wealth is seen as the origin of corruption, as well as book V of the Laws where the concrete measures are envisaged which the legislator must take in order to preserve philia between the citizens against the risks of sedition and discord (equal division of lands, control of wealth and of the stability of the population). Among the laws deemed necessary for the maintenance of the division of land, he evokes one that stipulates that a father of several children chooses one to succeed to his portion, and gives his other children up for adoption to someone who has none, so that the number of citizens will always be equal to the number of shares (V, 5-6). Other drastic dispositions intended to preserve, according to Plato, the ethos of the community and the just hierarchy of the ends are also invoked: restriction of births, submission of conquered peoples and, of course, the existence of a servile workforce devoted to agriculture and commerce (IV, 8); in a note, Montesquieu even adds that Plato, like Aristotle, wanted slaves to toil the land (see Lois, VII, 806c). For the same reasons – preventing the risk of corruption of mores, preserving virtue – trade, judged infamous and corrupting, must be forbidden in military republics (IV, 8 ; XX, 1 ; see Laws, book IV). Correspondingly, L’Esprit des lois convokes book XII of Laws which recommended strictly limiting exchanges with foreigners so as to keep citizens from experiencing the contingency of their institutions or introducing new ones. The preservation of the state presupposes the purity of mores and the preservation of old customs to the point that a change in music (in the arts) leads to indiscipline and, from there, to a modification of the very constitution of the state – which according to Montesquieu constitutes one of the “principles” of the politics of the Ancients. In book III of the Laws which repeats in substance book IV of the Republic (424b-d), the Athenian exposes the possible abuses of freedom in democracy: when poets introduced infractions to the musical rules, they would inculcate into the people the habit of breaking the laws and the boldness of thinking they could judge better than the men who are competent to do so. Then musical licence led to domestic and political licence, to the abandonment of respect for hierarchies of whatever kind (children/parents, wives/husbands, pupils/masters, young/old, slaves/masters, citizens/magistrates). It is this movement, also presented in book VIII of the Republic, which L’Esprit des lois in turn retraces when it qualifies as corruption of democracy what Plato envisaged as inherent in the very nature of democracy (III, 3; VIII, 2-3).

6Paradoxically, Plato, a great critic of democracy, is thus cited as a witness of the mores that Montesquieu qualifies as democratic (“When the Ancients wanted to speak of a people that had the greatest love of country, they cited the Cretans. Country, said Plato, a name so dear to the Cretans” [“Lorsque les Anciens voulaient parler d’un peuple qui avait le plus grand amour pour la patrie, ils citaient les Crétois. La patrie, disait Platon, nom si tendre aux Crétois”], VIII, 11), just as ancient institutions or laws (V, 5; VIII, 11; XV, 17; XXVI, 3; XXIX, 9; Pensées, no. 1890; Spicilège, no. 448). But he invites us especially to think about the articulation of the laws and mores (religion, morality) and the consequences of their corruption. Thus he makes it possible to illustrate the maxim that “when a people has good mores, the laws become simple”; the judicial use of the oath, which speeds up trials, can only be effective when belief in the gods is shared by the people (XIX, 22). Reflection on the relation of laws to kinds of life can also find material in book VIII of L’Esprit des lois, which Montesquieu quotes here in a footnote: “Plato says that in a city where there is no maritime trade, only half as many civil laws are required; and that is so true. Trade introduces in the same country different sorts of peoples, a great number of conventions, types of possessions and means of acquiring” (“Platon dit que dans une ville où il n’y a point de commerce maritime, il faut la moitié moins de lois civiles ; et cela est très vrai. Le commerce introduit dans le même pays différentes sortes de peuples, un grand nombre de conventions, d’espèces de biens et de manières d’acquérir”, XX, 18). Finally, the philosopher furnishes patent examples of legislative volunteerism: he makes manifest the adequacy of the Cretans’ institutions to the purpose of their constitution, which according to him is war (XXIX, 13). It is to the Laws (XII, 962d-e) that the reflection on the “object” of different states also refers; but where Plato privileged the constitution that has virtue as its object, Montesquieu comes to that which has political freedom as its object – England which, far from being an imaginary model, is present and visible (XI, 5-6).

7In this usage of Platonic references, Montesquieu consequently preserves his freedom of judgment. On one hand, he praises certain dispositions invoked (“Religion must not, under pretext of gifts, require from people what the necessities of the state have left them; and, as Plato says […] chaste and pious men must offer gifts that are like them” [“Il ne faut pas que la religion, sous prétexte de dons, exige des peuples ce que les nécessités de l’État leur ont laissé ; et, comme dit Platon […], des hommes chastes et pieux doivent offrir des dons qui leur ressemblent”], XXV, 7; see Laws, IV), the wisdom of certain laws (Pensées, no. 1748), and especially the principle of the preamble, which allows for persuasion rather than constraint: “It is an admirable thought of Plato’s [in note: République, book IX], that the laws are made to foreshadow the orders of reason to those who cannot receive it immediately from reason” (“C’est une pensée admirable de Platon, que les lois sont faites pour annoncer les ordres de la raison à ceux qui ne peuvent la recevoir immédiatement d’elle”, no. 1859). On religion, book X of the Laws does not just constitute a source: “Those are impious towards the gods, says Plato […], who deny their existence; or who grant it, but maintain that they do not concern themselves with things down here; or finally who think they can easily be appeased by sacrifices: three equally pernicious opinions.” Plato there says the most sensible thing that natural lights have ever said where religion is concerned” (“‘Ceux-là sont impies envers les dieux, dit Platon […], qui nient leur existence, ou qui l’accordent, mais soutiennent qu’ils ne se mêlent point des choses d’ici-bas ; ou enfin qui pensent qu’on les apaise aisément par des sacrifices : trois opinions également pernicieuses.’ Platon dit là tout ce que la lumière naturelle a jamais dit de plus sensé en matière de religion”, XXV, 7). Nevertheless, certain laws extolled by Plato are not simply relative to the circumstances, but inherently flawed: “Plato’s law [in note: book IX of EL], as I have said, would have us punish the man who killed himself, not to avoid ignominy, but out of weakness. That law was flawed, in that, in the sole case where a criminal could not be made to confess the motive for which he had acted, it would have the judge determine those motives” (“La loi de Platon [en note: Livre IX des Lois], comme j’ai dit, voulait qu’on punît celui qui se tuerait, non pas pour éviter l’ignominie, mais par faiblesse. Cette loi était vicieuse, en ce que dans le seul cas où l’on ne pouvait pas tirer du criminel l’aveu du motif qui l’avait fait agir, elle voulait que le juge se déterminât sur ces motifs”, XXIX, 16; see Laws, IX). For this reason, the author of the Republic is never imagined as an uncontested authority: “Plato tells us that the opinion of the underworld is very likely to weaken courage. It can weaken it, or it can add to it” (“Platon nous dit que l’opinion des enfers est très propre à amollir le courage. Cela peut en ôter; cela peut en donner”, Pensées, no. 1557). For one must take into account the prejudices of the philosopher-legislator, who cannot detach himself from opinions and passions to attain wisdom and impartiality; it is because “Plato was indignant at the tyranny of the people of Athens” that he forged his system (XXIX, 19).

8This refusal of the model of the philosopher-king or the nomothete capable of attaining the science of the Just in itself induces as a result a fundamental divergence between the two conceptions of the political art. On the one hand, the ideal city is henceforth confined in its conditions of existence, those of (uncorrupted) democracy – democracy which Montesquieu, in his own ideal-type, tempers by aristocratic procedures so as to avoid abuses of the people’s power (II, 2). The Platonic model, provided it can be unified, can therefore not survive among the moderns, whether with regard to aristocracy (which is no longer the government of the best but government by nobles) or to monarchy (“The Ancients, who did not know the distribution of the three powers in the government of a single man, could not have an accurate notion of monarchy” [“Les anciens, qui ne connaissaient pas la distribution des trois pouvoirs dans le gouvernement d’un seul, ne pouvaient se faire une idée juste de la monarchie”], XI, 9). The venality of offices, which Plato deemed contrary to the principle that the public functions should be exercised by competent men, is judged good in monarchies (V, 19). Now this relativism of institutions betrays a deep divergence: Montesquieu abandons the perspective of the best regime. To the unity of the regime of the most just is substituted a plurality of political goods, and the spirit of moderation which should characterize the legislator has to be determined in situ (XXVI, 2; XXIX, 1). It is no more imaginable to conceive of a hierarchy of regimes in function of their distance from a model of justice where each person is in his place for the greater good of all than it is possible to think of a hierarchy of ends and types of life that can have universal value. For this reason, while superposing the Platonic image of the sensuous tyrant tyrannized by his own desires and the Oriental image of the seraglio master (II, 5; see Republic, IX), L’Esprit des lois not only excludes the possibility of the “good tyrant”, sole able to found or refound the state (the despotism in which a single man governs without laws is intrinsically corrupt). Whereas Plato, like Aristotle, insisted on the virtue or vice of governors as much as on their political competence (the perverted or unjust forms being those where power is exercised in view of an individual’s interest, and not the common interest), Montesquieu no longer grants a central place to intentions, competences or the psychology of those who hold power. In L’Esprit des lois, the perfectionist optic (to make of virtue as excellence proper to man the very end of political life) is abandoned to the benefit of a reflection on the conditions of preservation of freedom defined as security in the face of the risks of arbitrariness and abuse of power. It remains that this substitution of a political negative (fleeing the political evil incarnated by despotism) for a positive search for the good life does not simply translate the division between Ancients and Moderns. Through its reflection on the multiplicity of situations to which the politician’s prudence must adapt, L’Esprit des lois remains closer to Aristotelian politics than to Platonic politics striving to attain unity and approach the best (Manin).


Bernard Manin, “Montesquieu et la politique moderne”, Cahiers de Philosophie politique, Reims, nos. 2-3, OUSIA, 1985, p. 197-229, reprinted in Lectures de “L’Esprit des lois”, Thierry Hoquet and Céline Spector ed., Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2004, p. 171-231.