Céline Spector


1When he evokes the object of L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu asserts that his work “embraces all the institutions that are accepted among men, since the author distinguishes these institutions, examines those that are best suited to society and to each society” (“embrasse toutes les institutions qui sont reçues parmi les hommes ; puisque l’auteur distingue ces institutions ; qu’il examine celles qui conviennent le plus à la société, et à chaque société”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part II, « Idée générale », OC, t. VII, p. 87). How are we to understand, however, the meaning of these “societies” to which political institutions must be suited? Does not the very project of rational analysis of the diversity of societies, of a search for the physical and moral causes that prevail at their formation and their evolution, lead to a distinction between state and society? To be sure, this dissociation is recent: from the translations of Aristotle to the contractualist theories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, civil society is identified with political society, with the state. However, the project of L’Esprit des lois opens onto the study of societies considered as totalities, the government being only one of its elements.

State and society: eclipse of the contract

2From the outset, book I of L’Esprit des lois identifies society with the political and civil state, governed by laws. Montesquieu goes beyond Rica’s irony relative to the quest for the origin of societies (LP, 91 [94]), and proposes his own version of the state of nature prior to the existence of societies. The existence of an original disposition to sociability is thus asserted against Hobbes. The union between men derives from a “desire to live in society” and is not threatened by the desire of domination, which develops only with competition for social advantages: “It is only when society is formed that individuals, amongst abundance and peace, having at every moment the opportunity to feel the superiority of their minds or talents, seek to turn in their favor the principal advantages of that society […]. It is only by the establishment of societies that they can abuse each other and become stronger; earlier than that, they are all equal. If they establish societies, it is from a principle of justice. So that they had” (“Ce n’est que lorsque la société est formée que les particuliers, dans l’abondance et la paix, ayant à tous les instants occasion de sentir la supériorité de leur esprit ou de leurs talents, cherchent à tourner en leur faveur les principaux avantages de cette société […] Ce n’est que par l’établissement des sociétés qu’ils abusent les uns des autres et deviennent les plus forts ; avant cela, ils sont tous égaux. S’ils établissent les sociétés, c’est par un principe de justice. Ils l’avoient donc”, Pensées, no. 1266 ; see EL, I, 2). Once original equality was abolished, the state of war was introduced among individuals who desire to appropriate to themselves the “advantages of society”, and the institution of the state and law becomes necessary: “A society cannot subsist without a government” (“Une société ne saurait subsister sans un gouvernement”, I, 3 ; see VIII, 13). The protection of persons and property makes political and civil law, beyond the laws of nature, indispensable: “[…] all that can have been settled only by society, and consequently by political or civil laws” (“[…] tout cela ne peut avoir été réglé que par la société, et par conséquent par des lois politiques ou civiles”, XXVI, 6; see XXVI, 1; XXIX, 13). The state, in this sense, is “a society where there are laws” (XI, 3), equivalent to the “government” or to the “political body”; conversely, “the society is the union of men, and not the men; the citizen may perish, and man remain” (“la société est l’union des hommes, et non pas les hommes ; le citoyen peut périr, et l’homme rester”, X, 3). The association of men can be reproduced at the level of societies: a confederation is nothing other than a “society of societies” (IX, 1).

3Society thus seems to be founded on the utility and the implicit consent of its members. Thus Usbek re-examines the condemnation of suicide: “Why should I have to work for a society to which I consent no longer to belong? Or hold to a convention that was made without me despite myself? Society is founded on mutual advantage. But when it becomes onerous to me, what prevents my giving it up?” (“Pourquoi veut-on que je travaille pour une société dont je consens de n’être plus ? que je tienne, malgré moi, une convention qui s’est faite sans moi ? La société est fondée sur un avantage mutuel. Mais lorsqu’elle me devient onéreuse, qui m’empêche d’y renoncer ?”, LP, 74 [76]). Again in L’Esprit des lois, society is indissociable from certain contractual engagements: if it is necessary that the judgments of tribunals be in conformity with a precise text of law, that is because otherwise “we would live in society without knowing precisely the engagements we contract thereby” (“on vivrait dans la société sans savoir précisément les engagements que l’on y contracte”, XI, 6). Exceptionally, Montesquieu himself alludes to a form of social contract that allows us to pass from men’s natural interdependency to political subordination, freedom under law assuring the coexistence of freedoms and the protection of private property: “As men have given up their natural independence to live under political laws, they have given up the natural community of property to live under civil laws. These first laws provide them with freedom, the second ones with property” (“Comme les hommes ont renoncé à leur indépendance naturelle pour vivre sous des lois politiques, ils ont renoncé à la communauté naturelle des biens pour vivre sous des lois civiles. Ces premières lois leur acquièrent la liberté, les secondes, la propriété”, XXVI, 15).

4In this context, what justifies the death penalty (the utility from which the criminal has benefited thanks to the protection of the law) cannot justify slavery: the slave is indeed a man rejected by society, whose life is no longer protected by law and who, seeing “a happy society of which he is not even part”, risks becoming one of the “natural enemies of society” (XV, 13). The law of slavery has never been of use to the slave: “it is in every case against him, without ever being for him; which is contrary to the fundamental principle of all societies” (“elle est dans tous les cas contre lui, sans jamais être pour lui ; ce qui est contraire au principe fondamental de toutes les sociétés”, XV, 2 ; Pensées, no. 174).

5Nevertheless, this voluntaristic vision of the relation between individual and society must not hide the “eclipse of the contract” in Montesquieu’s work (Binoche, 1995). No doubt he occasionally mentions various conventions; but their modalities are contingent: they are “all good, since they were the will of the contracting parties” (“toutes bonnes, puisqu’elles étaient la volonté des parties contractantes”, Pensées, no. 1267, transcribed between 1734 and 1739). The contract appears neutralized in this originary pluralisation; the origin is no longer given a founding status, and the reference to these conventions disappears from the corresponding text of L’Esprit des lois (I, 3, transcribed in 1741-1742, according to the manuscript, OC, t. III, p. 10). The contractualist schema is therefore no longer at the heart of the theory of society elaborated by Montesquieu. Now this “eclipse” of the contract makes it possible to open a new space for political science: not that of the foundation of sovereignty, but that of the study of specific societies and governments. The initial identification of society and the state seems itself called into question in book XVIII of L’Esprit des lois where the evocation of the genesis of law makes it possible to envisage the existence of a viable society prior to the state. Savage and barbarous peoples characterized by their mode of subsistence (hunting and gathering, breeding) regulate themselves by mores rather than by laws, and by the authority of the elders rather than by government; only farming peoples, then merchants, bring about the necessity of law (XVIII, 13-14). Before Ferguson, Smith, Millar and many others, Montesquieu thus sketches out a genesis of civil society of which the organized society is simply the final phase. Montesquieu substitutes, for the contractual logic that conceives the founding break and the advent of the artifice of state, the gradual evolution of needs and passions that lead to the instauration of an arbiter of disputes relative to property.

The theory of moderation: adaptation of the legislator to the general spirit of peoples

6In this regard, reflection on the regulation of the social pursues, in book XIX of L’Esprit des lois, that of its institution: power and law are but one of the components of the “general spirit” of nations. The concept of general spirit allows one to envisage societies as totalities resulting from a compatibility between physical and moral causes. The importance of regulation by manners and mores, as distinct from regulation by laws, reveals the existence of an infra-juridical normativity which the legislator must take into account and which he cannot oppose without risk of tyranny (XIX, 12-16). Thus appears the necessity, in moderate states, of an adaptation of power and law to society. Society is a “nation” of which the principle of coherence and unity is no longer exclusively sovereignty nor law: “It is for the legislator to follow the spirit of the nation, when it is not contrary to the principles of government; for we do nothing better than what we do freely and following our natural genius” (“C’est au législateur à suivre l’esprit de la nation, lorsqu’il n’est pas contraire aux principes du gouvernement ; car nous ne faisons rien de mieux que ce que nous faisons librement, et en suivant notre génie naturel”, XIX, 5). To voluntary legislative contractualism that risks leading to authoritarianism (and thus to despotism) Montesquieu opposes the consistency of a civil society the general spirit of which must be used to advantage, which is best achieved when the legislator grants the most possible freedom to manners and mores.

7The distinction between state and society thus does not lead to their opposition, but to the theory of their interaction. If the mores and manners of a society contribute to the common welfare, the legislator must not impose on it a religious and moral order (XIX, 6). The model of the Stoics, endowed with a constant will to exercise “social duties” without enjoying its benefits, remains exceptional: “Born for society, they all thought their destiny was to work for it” (“Nés pour la société, ils croyaient tous que leur destin était de travailler pour elle”, XXIV, 10). But that state of fact is not necessarily to be deplored: society is an order that can be preserved in the absence of virtue (Christian, moral or even political). Whereas the republic can be maintained only by the love of the laws and the fatherland, as despotism by fear, monarchy can prosper despite immoral conduct on the part of its subjects (III, 5-7; IV, 2). In monarchies, law associated with honor suffices for society’s subsistence; in the event of compromised security, society must be defended by excising its enemy (see VI, 16, XII, 4-5, XXVI, 24, XXX, 19-20). And so in England, where the absence of virtue linked to the surge of the economy does not prevent society from prospering: there again, private vices contribute to public virtues (XIX, 27; see XIX, 11). L’Esprit des lois thus distinguishes different figures of the social bond and different forms of relations between power and society. In despotic states, where no true society exists (“In despotic states, every house is a separate empire”, IV, 3), but also in republics, where the civil society is absorbed into the state, power can go against the nature of man. That the law must sometimes sacrifice the man to the citizen must no doubt be deplored as a “misfortune of the human condition”: “That is because legislators legislate more about society than about the citizen, and about the citizen than about man” (“C’est que les législateurs statuent plus sur la société que sur le citoyen, et sur le citoyen que sur l’homme”, XXVII). But in monarchies, thanks to honor, “it happens that each man tends to the common good, while thinking he is tending to his own interests” (“il se trouve que chacun va au bien commun, croyant aller à ses intérêts particuliers”, III, 7). Society, in this sense, ceases to be a community within which men subordinate themselves to the Whole of which they are members: it becomes the mechanism of harmonization of individual interests. This society can henceforth witness the flowering of the activities of an economy of abundance, constitutive of the power of the state (VII, 4; XX, 4). Associating luxury and civility, development of the arts and refinement of taste, it is finally the locus of deployment of the civilization of mores. In the third part of L’Esprit des lois, society thus comes to designate company chosen in view of sociability, where the civilizing role of women plays a preeminent part (XVI, 10-11; XIX, 8, 27; see LP, 85 [87]).

8Seen in this way, the relations between religion and society need to be reconsidered. If religion can contribute to the moralization of men (it is, even if false, the “best guarantor men have of men’s probity”, XXIV, 8), and if its social utility is confirmed when it subordinates itself to the political principles, its dogmas must not govern society. Since there exist goods proper to the society, the religions must be subordinate to them (XXIV, 1). Law must not impose precepts with an eye to a perfect life: by trying to force celibacy, “the legislator wearied himself, he wearied society, to make men perform by precept what those who love perfection would have performed as counsel” (“le législateur se fatigua, il fatigua la société, pour faire exécuter aux hommes par précepte, ce que ceux qui aiment la perfection auraient exécuté comme conseil” (XXIV, 7). The distinction of normative regimes is essential: “The object of laws of perfection drawn from religion is rather the goodness of the man who observes them than that of the society in which they are observed; the object of civil laws, on the contrary, is rather the moral goodness of men in general than that of individuals. Thus, however respectable the ideas that arise directly from religion are, they ought not always to serve as the principle of civil laws, because the latter have another one, which is the general good of the society” (“Les lois de perfection tirées de la religion ont plus pour objet la bonté de l’homme qui les observe, que celle de la société dans laquelle elles sont observées ; les lois civiles, au contraire, ont plus pour objet la bonté morale des hommes en général que celle des individus. Ainsi, quelque respectables que soient les idées qui naissent immédiatement de la religion, elles ne doivent pas toujours servir de principe aux lois civiles, parce que celles-ci en ont un autre, qui est le bien général de la société”, XXVI, 9). The social ends (utility, notably economic) take precedence over the quest for salvation: “Men being made for self-preservation, to feed and clothe themselves, and perform all the actions of society, religion ought not to give them too contemplative a life” (“Les hommes étant faits pour se conserver, pour se nourrir, pour se vêtir, et faire toutes les actions de la société, la religion ne doit pas leur donner une vie trop contemplative”, XXIV, 11). Dogmas themselves ought to be evaluated not from the standpoint of their truth, but of their social utility, their relationship to “the principles of society” (XXIV, 19).

The sociological interpretation Montesquieu

9In the movement of conceptualizing society toward secularization and autonomization, L’Esprit des lois thus plays a determining role. For Auguste Comte, Montesquieu is the pioneer who was able to “instill the positive spirit into the domain of political ideas” (“[faire] pénétrer l’esprit positif dans le domaine des idées politiques”) by conceiving political and social phenomena “as subject to invariable natural laws just as much as all other phenomena of every kind” (“comme aussi nécessairement assujettis à d’invariables lois naturelles que tous les autres phénomènes quelconques”. But this praise is accompanied in Comte by a reservation: the work does not really keep its promises; instead it presents a “sterile accumulation of these facts, indifferently borrowed, often without any philosophical criticism, from the most opposed states of civilization”, which “appears to repulse directly any thought of a genuine scientific progression” (“stérile accumulation de ces faits, indifféremment empruntés, souvent sans aucune critique philosophique, aux états de civilisation les plus opposés […] paraît directement repousser toute idée d’un véritable enchaînement scientifique”, Cours de philosophie positive, lesson 47, p. 193 and 196). Montesquieu is thus counted as a precursor of sociology insofar as he found a way to identify the rational laws that prevail at the organization and imbrication of human societies in their singularity, but he was unable to go beyond this static explanation of societies and their causes: he was unable, in a word, to grasp the importance of social dynamics and progress.

10For this reason, it is understandable that Montesquieu interested the first sociologists who sought to confer letters of nobility on their discipline. According to Durkheim, L’Esprit des lois offers the first scientific formulation of a sociological typology. Montesquieu does not only reorient the classifications of governments about which political philosophy has been theorizing since Plato and Aristotle; he surpasses the traditional approach in terms of the organization of state powers: the three types of regimes do not differ only in the number of those who govern and the mode in which power is exercised, but by the nature of whole societies, in other words by the number, disposition and cohesion of their elements – what Durkheim places at the foundation of “social morphology”. The republic exists primarily in the small ancient city-states, monarchy in the modern European states of moderate territory; despotism finds its privileged terrain in Oriental countries which occupy vast territories. Finally, the members of these various societies are not disposed according to the same ordering, nor united amongst themselves by the same social bonds. Durkheim does not hesitate to relate the distinction he proposes between mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity to the republic/monarchy dyad: opposed to the solidarity that derives from resemblances amongst equals, where the preservation of the state depends on the superposition between individual and collective consciences (virtue) is the solidarity that comes from functional differences among men (Karsenti, 2002). Montesquieu, theoretician of societies rather than of powers? That is how Raymond Aron justifies his choice in placing the philosopher in the first rank of “stages of sociological thought”: “I began with Montesquieu […] because the author of L’Esprit des lois can be considered a political philosopher at the same time as a sociologist. He continues to analyze and compare political regimes in the manner of the classical philosophers; at the same time he strives to grasp every sector of the social whole and identify the multiple relationships among variables” (“J’ai commencé par Montesquieu […] parce que l’auteur de l’Esprit des lois peut être tenu pour philosophe politique en même temps que sociologue. Il continue d’analyser et de comparer les régimes politiques à la manière des philosophes classiques ; en même temps il s’efforce de saisir tous les secteurs du tout social et de dégager les relations multiples entre les variables”, p. 18). Unlike what takes place in Durkheim, Montesquieu is here included in a comprehensive sociology, which distinguishes two approaches to society: through types (in the Weberian sense of ideal-type) and through physical and moral causes that act on them. This description and explanation of the diversity of societies is henceforth substituted for any essentialist and universalist approach to the nature of man (Manent, 1995).


Émile Durkheim, “La contribution de Montesquieu à la constitution de la science sociale”, in Montesquieu et Rousseau, précurseurs de la sociologie (1892), Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1966.

Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, in Œuvres complètes, t. IV, Paris, 1893, reprint Paris: Anthropos, 1969.

Sergio Cotta, Montesquieu e la scienza della societa, Turin: Ramella, 1953.

Raymond Aron, Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique, Paris: Gallimard, 1967, chapter i.

Charles Taylor, “Civil Society in the Western Tradition”, in The Notion of Tolerance and Human Rights: Essays in Honor of Raymond Klibansky, Ethel Groffier et Michel Paradis ed., Toronto: Carleton University Press, 1991, p. 117-134.

Daniel Gordon, Citizens without Sovereignty, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Pierre Manent, La Cité de l’homme (1995), Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1997, chap. i-ii.

Bertrand Binoche, “Montesquieu et la crise de la rationalité historique”, Revue germanique internationale 3 (1995), p. 31-53.

Melvin Richter, “Montesquieu and the Concept of Civil Society”, The European Legacy 3 (1998), p. 33-44.

Catherine Larrère, “Le civique et le civil: de la citoyenneté chez Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 3 (1999), p. 41-61.

Bruno Karsenti, “Politique de la science sociale: la lecture durkheimienne de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 6 (2002), p. 33-55.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu. Pouvoirs, richesses et sociétés, Paris: PUF, 2004 (reissue Hermann, 2011).