1Montesquieu’s relations with the French Academy got off to a poor start: in the Persian Letters he painted a highly ironic portrait of the Academicians who “have no other function than to prattle endlessly” and have lost all critical sense because “eulogy more or less naturally assumes a place in their endless chatter” (letter 71). Thus, when Sacy died in October 1727, freeing a seat, it appeared most imprudent for Montesquieu to dare put himself forward: aside from The Temple of Gnidus, held to be highly licentious, practically the only thing he had written was this novel, which contained these few sentences that were scarcely kind to the honorable company, but even more seriously, attacks on the king and the pope, not to mention passages judged too sensual in their orientalism. To be sure the work appeared anonymously, but he could not deny it, since it was his only literary achievement. His position as a provincial was also a handicap, even though he had just sold the commission which tied him to Bordeaux.
2The first meeting of the Academy, on 11 December 1727, failed to make a quorum and therefore to decide the question. It was rumored, moreover, that Fleury and the king were hostile to his election. Montesquieu elected then to seek an audience with Fleury himself (Voltaire’s thesis, expounded in the “Catalogue of writers” appended to Le Siècle de Louis XIV, according to which he had an expurgated edition of the Persian Letters specially prepared, seems fanciful). Following this audience, the minister is said to have read the novel and thought well of it. In any event, after that he expressed no further opposition. Montesquieu also benefited) from the support of Mme de Lambert. The following week, on 18 December, he was elected. Montesquieu, who had inscribed some notes on an Album of Academy Speeches (Recueil de haranges de l’Académie) conserved at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux (Catalogue, no 1813 ; OC, t. XVII), delivered his inaugural oration on 24 January 1728, which D’Alembert was to call “one of the best ever delivered on such an occasion ; his merit was all the greater that newly elected members, constrained until then by conventional formulas and praise to which a sort of prescription obliged them, had not yet dared break out of that circle to treat other subjects, or had not at least thought of bringing them into it; in this very state of constraint, he had the merit of succeeding. We could recognize in the many turns that sparkle in his speech, the writer who is thinking only of the portrait of the Cardinal de Richelieu […].” (Éloge de Montesquieu, at the beginning of t. V of the Encyclopédie, 1755) He attended two sessions, then left on a trip and did not return to Paris for three years: he had obtained the literary and Parisian recognition he sought.
3Each time he came to Paris, he attended a few sessions and thus placated his colleagues. He made sure he presented to them the Considerations on the Romans in August 1734. When he was elected director in April 1739 and again in 1753, he was more regular during these terms of office.
4Montesquieu addressed the assembly on several electoral occasions with varying results. Thus he worked for the election of his friend Mairan, then that of Maupertuis who, later, would in turn provide him access to the Academy of Berlin (1747). When Voltaire was elected in 1746, he was absent, and it was at the election of Duclos the same year that the two writers crossed paths for the first time at the Academy.
5His presence was more episodic in his late years, as he was more absorbed by various occupations. He tried once more, but in vain, to get his friend Piron elected, in 1753; it is he who, as general director of the Academy, was to go to Versailles to settle the delicate matter.
Discours de réception à l’Académie française, OC, t. IX, 2006, Œuvres et écrits divers II, p. 9-15.
Louis Desgraves, “Montesquieu et l’Académie française”, Revue historique de Bordeaux, VI, 1957, pp. 201-217; re-issued in Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu. L’œuvre et la vie, Bordeaux, L’Esprit du temps, 1994, p. 39-60.
Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography, Oxford University Press, 1961.
Pierre Rétat, introduction to the Discours de réception à l’Académie française, in OC, t. IX, 2006, pp. 3-8.