Céline Spector


1The Cardinal de Richelieu is the object, in Montesquieu’s work, of continual criticism. This “private man who had more ambition than all the monarchs in the world” presses kings and peoples into the service of his dominant passion and made the world into a theatre dedicated to manifesting his desire for grandeur, his vengeance or his hatred (Pensées, no. 1302). Montesquieu insists on his immoderate love for power and glory: Richelieu was jealous of Corneille to the point of “losing the taste for a great ministry that was to be admired for centuries to come” (“perdre le goût d’un grand ministère qui devait faire l’admiration des siècles à venir”, no. 857). He was, no doubt, a political genius who succeeded in eclipsing and dominating the monarch himself, even if his power extended over minds rather than hearts (nos. 1302, 1987). But the author of L’Esprit des lois could but criticize the partisan of absolute power and the artisan of despotism, one of the “two most evil [méchants] citizens France has had” (with Louvois, no. 1302). Machiavellian in the negotiations of treaties (no. 742), Richelieu had the art of making slaves and mistreating the great (nos. 1595, 299). This last point is obviously crucial. The paternity of the Political Testament was a litigious and difficult question; contested by Voltaire, it is affirmed in the Pensées (no. 1962), in a passage dated November 1749: Montesquieu specifies that, having learned of Voltaire’s allegations, he had at first suppressed the references to Richelieu in L’Esprit des lois, before abbé Dubos, whom he had consulted on this subject, affirmed to him that the work had been composed on the order of, and in conformity with the ideas of, Richelieu by a certain M. de Bourzeis (and another author not cited), which led him to re-establish the original text. According to Catherine Volpilhac-Auger (OC, t. 4), it is not possible for the moment to fix the time at which Montesquieu read the Testament, of which he owned two copies of the first edition (1688, in-12, Amsterdam; Catalogue, nos. 2430 et 2431 – note that the publisher was the Protestant bookseller Henry Desbordes; in 1734, the publisher of Romans was Jacques Desbordes). The edition published in 1740 in The Hague by abbé de Saint-Pierre was able to reinforce his interest while he was writing L’Esprit des lois. But it is certain that his doubts (inspired by Voltaire) date from 1742 at the latest: he then no longer dared write that Richelieu was indeed the author of the Testament. Finally, between spring 1743 and spring 1744, the discussion he must have had earlier with Dubos (who died in 1742) incited Montesquieu to change his mind and again attribute the Testament to Richelieu (Catherine Volpilhac-Auger). Montesquieu details the reasons that incline him to confirm the authenticity of this attribution, and concludes: “I say then that the Testament politique is by the Cardinal, because I find in it his character, his genius, his passions, his interests, his views, and even the prejudices of his station and the profession he had embraced” (“Je dis donc que le Testament politique est du Cardinal, parce que j’y trouve son caractère, son génie, ses passions, ses intérêts, ses vues, et jusqu’aux préjugés de son état et de la profession qu’il avait embrassée”).

2While recognizing that the Testament politique was “one of the best works we have of this genre”, Montesquieu could not follow the cardinal’s views (no.1962). L’Esprit des lois thus denounces Richelieu’s arbitrary practices: “It is essential that the words of the laws arouse in all men the same ideas. The Cardinal de Richelieu [in note: Testament politique] agreed that one could accuse a minister before the king; but he wanted the accuser to be punished if his evidence was not considerable: which would prevent anyone from saying any truth at all against him, since a considerable thing is entirely relative, and what is considerable for one person is not for another” (“Il est essentiel que les paroles des lois réveillent chez tous les hommes les mêmes idées. Le cardinal de Richelieu [en note : Testament politique] convenait que l’on pouvait accuser un ministre devant le roi ; mais il voulait que l’on fût puni si les choses qu’on prouvait n’étaient pas considérables : ce qui devait empêcher tout le monde de dire quelque vérité que ce fût contre lui, puisqu’une chose considérable est entièrement relative, et que ce qui est considérable pour quelqu’un ne l’est pas pour un autre”, XXIX, 16). By characterizing the “excellence” of monarchical government compared to the despotic, Montesquieu also stigmatizes the attempt at domestication of the nobility undertaken by the cardinal. In order to promote the limitation of royal power, one needs to show the sovereign that it is in his interest not to diminish the intermediary powers: their accommodations make it possible to keep seditions from turning into revolutions, while their wisdom serves as political rationality in the stead of the insight of the prince’s counselor. Whereas Richelieu, in the exercise of great public responsibilities, had recommended the subordination of the individual’s interest to the public interest (Testament politique, p. 210-215; 253-257; 397), Montesquieu therefore refuses the paradoxical alliance of angelism and Machiavellism: “The Cardinal de Richelieu, perhaps thinking that he had too greatly abased the orders of the state, has recourse, to sustain it, to the virtues of the prince and his ministers [in note: Testament politique]: and he requires so many things of them that in truth only an angel could have so much attention, insight, firmness, knowledge; and one can barely flatter oneself that, from now to the dissolution of monarchies, there can be such a prince and ministers” (“Le cardinal de Richelieu, pensant peut-être qu’il avait trop avili les ordres de l’État, a recours, pour le soutenir, aux vertus du prince et de ses ministres [en note : Testament politique] : et il exige d’eux tant de choses, qu’en vérité il n’y a qu’un ange qui puisse avoir tant d’attention, tant de lumières, tant de fermeté, tant de connaissances ; et on peut à peine se flatter que d’ici à la dissolution des monarchies, il puisse y avoir un prince et des ministres pareils”, V, 11). By distinguishing the perfect citizen of monarchies from the good man prized by religion or morality, L’Esprit des lois challenges this requirement of virtue that rather risks contributing to the advent of the despot. Is Richelieu to be played against himself? A note invokes the Testament politique to support the idea that were there a single honest man who escaped the corruption of the privileged classes, the monarch would certainly refuse to entrust a function to him: “Persons of low birth ought not to be employed, it is said there: they are too austere and too difficult” – which Montesquieu takes for a confirmation of the fact that virtue is not the principle of the monarchical government (III, 5). But the anecdote extracted from the Testament politique said something quite different: “A lowly birth rarely produces the abilities necessary for magistrates, and it is certain that the virtue of a person of good family has something more noble about him than one who is of small extraction. The minds of such persons are usually difficult to manipulate […]” (“Une basse naissance produit rarement les parties nécessaires aux magistrats, et il est certain que la vertu d’une personne de bon lieu a quelque chose de plus noble que celle qui se trouve en un homme de petite extraction. Les esprits de telles gens sont d’ordinaire difficiles à manier […]”, p. 150-151). By that, Richelieu in no way meant to maintain that the officers of the state can do without virtue. Describing the perfect counselor of state, Richelieu affirmed on the contrary the necessity of his probity: he must be a “good man” according to God and men, and be able to sacrifice his private interest to public interest when necessary. Voltaire would not fail to underscore Montesquieu’s bad faith: “Just read the words of this testament very falsely attributed to the Cardinal de Richelieu: ‘A lowly birth rarely produces the abilities necessary for magistrates, and it is certain that the virtue of a person of good family has something more noble about him than one who is of small extraction. The minds of such persons are usually difficult to manipulate, and many are of such prickly austerity that it is not only annoying but prejudicial […]’. It is clear from this passage, hardly worthy moreover of a great minister, which the author of the Testament which we have cited feared lest a magistrate of no parts or possessions lacked the nobility of soul to be incorruptible. It is thus vain to attest the testimony of a minister of France to prove that no virtue is required in France. The Cardinal de Richelieu, a tyrant when he met resistance, and evil because he had evil men to combat, could well, in a ministry which was nothing but an internecine war of grandeur against envy, detest the virtue that would have combatted his acts of violence; but it was impossible for him to write this, and whoever used his name could not (however ill-advised he sometimes is) be evil enough to make him say that there is no use for virtue” (Voltaire, Supplément au Siècle de Louis XIV (1753), part three, Œuvres historiques, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. 1272).

3In L’Esprit des lois, it is thus irony that especially contributes to demystifying the artisan of corruption of the monarchy. More generally, the confessional situation in Europe has changed and, from the standpoint of the alliances and diplomacy, “we must not revert to the old maxims of the Cardinal de Richelieu, because they are no longer admissible” (“il ne faut pas en revenir aux vieilles maximes du cardinal de Richelieu, parce qu’elles ne sont plus admissibles”, Voyages, p. 461).


Richelieu, Testament politique, Caen: Centre de philosophie politique et juridique de l’Université de Caen, 1985.

Mark Hulliung, Montesquieu and the Old Regime, Berkeleyxe "Berkeley": University of California Press, 1976, ch. 1.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu: pouvoirs, richesses et sociétés, Paris: PUF, 2004, p.104-105 (republished by Hermann, 2011).

Laurent Avezou, “Autour du Testament politique de Richelieu: à la recherche de l’auteur perdu (1688-1778)”, Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes 162 (2004), p. 421-453.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Le Testament politique attribué au cardinal de Richelieu”, OC, t. IV, 2008, Appendix 2.