Philip Stewart


1Friendship according to Montesquieu, “an engagement which does not require confirmation by words, vows, or outer manifestions” (“un engagement qui n’a besoin d’être confirmé par des paroles, des serments, ni des témoignages extérieurs”, Pensées, no. 1253), responds to a need of the heart. “I am a lover of friendship” (“Je suis amoureux de l’amitié”, Pensées, no. 1012, a passage crossed out), he wrote, and his correspondence shows the care and skill with which he cultivated it. The word recurs constantly in his writings, often accompanied by epithets such as tender, cherished or precious, and also associated with his respect, attachment, or esteem: “Your friendship is a possession that has long brought delight to my life, and still brings regrets” (“Votre amitié est un bien qui a fait longtemps les délices de ma vie, et qui en fait encore les regrets”, to Martin Folkes, 27 September 1742, letter 529); “I pray you, sir, ever to preserve for me your precious friendship; mine is yours to the death” (“Je vous prie, monsieur, de me conserver toujours votre précieuse amitié ; la mienne est à vous jusqu’à la mort”, to Domville, 22 July 1749 ; ibid., p. 1245). He proffers thanks for a favor received, a letter, a visit, as a sign of friendship; he often says he is honored by it. As Aspar says to Arsace, “everything is important in the eyes of friendship” (“tout est important devant l’amitié”, Arsace et Isménie, OC, t. IX, p. 324).

2At certain moments friendship is a sign of indulgence, even excessive indulgence: “You give great praise to L’Esprit des lois; I fear you are seeing it through the eyes of friendship” (“Vous faites un très grand éloge de L’Esprit des lois ; j’ai peur que vous ne le voyiez que par les yeux de l’amitié”, to Solar, 23 July 1749 ; OC, t. XX, 2021). To others on the contrary it may designate candor: “I pray you, my dear cousin, to believe that friendship alone could dictate this letter and that in the absence of that friendship you would never have received it” (“Je vous prie, mon cher cousin, de croire qu’il n’y a que l’amitié qui me dicte cette lettre et que sans cette amitié vous ne l’auriez pas reçue”, to Gratien de Secondat, 7 June 1749 ; ibid.); “But, as I have wished neither to praise nor to blame, approve or disapprove, but give an account of the present state of my mind […], and as friendship is bold in the face of friendship, I have not wished to constrain my style.” (“Mais, comme je n’ai voulu louer ni blâmer, approuver ni désapprouver, mais rendre compte de la situation actuelle de mon esprit […], que l’amitié est hardie devant l’amitié, je n’ai point voulu contraindre mon style”, to Durey de Meinières, 9 July 1753).

3Thus Montesquieu often asks to be criticized in the name of such friendship: “Please, for goodness’ sake, for friendship’s sake, send me your comments on L’Esprit des lois. Write and have written your objections and criticisms; send them all to me.” (“De grâce, par bonté, par amitié, envoyez-moi vos remarques sur l’Esprit des lois. Écrivez, faites écrire objections, critiques ; envoyez-moi tout cela”, to président Hénault, February 1749. ibid

4Yet it must be admitted that our friends can sometimes judge us a bit harshly; Montesquieu comments in Pensées (no. 308) that we are at times criticized or ridiculed by our own friends, and then the word takes on a more ironic meaning: “I used to say of tyrannical and presumptuous friends: ‘Love has compensations that friendship has not’” (“Je disais sur les amis tyranniques et avantageux : ‘L’amour a des dédommagements que l’amitié n’a pas’”, Pensées, no. 1067). But to such disabused observations it can be useful to oppose the remark of Rica, who finds in friendship “that good engagement of the heart which makes the sweetness of life here” (“ce doux engagement du cœur, qui fait ici la douceur de la vie”, LP, 32). A friendship can be crossed by disagreements without suffering from them, as Usbek indicates when he says of the peaceable Troglodytes: “They worked with common solicitude for the common interest; their only disputes were those to which a good and tender friendship gives rise” (“Ils travaillaient avec une sollicitude commune pour l’intérêt commun ; ils n’avaient de différends que ceux qu’une douce et tendre amitié faisait naître”, LP, 12). When his First Eunuch declares contrariwise that he has “really never known that engagement that is called friendship” (“guère jamais connu cet engagement qu’on appelle amitié”, LP, Supplementary Letter 1), it reveals thereby the depravation into which the inhuman violence of which he has been victim has plunged him.

5Thinking no doubt of Cicero’s De amicitia, Montesquieu devotes several paragraphs in his Pensées to the social meaning of friendship. The Romans in particular knew the bonds of friendship that cemented the social system, a virtue eroded since by modern despotism: “Citizens depended on citizens through all sorts of bonds: they were linked with their friends, their freedmen, their slaves, their children. Today, all this has been abolished, even paternal authority: every man is isolated. It seems that the natural effect of arbitrary authority is to privatize all interests” (“Les citoyens tenaient aux citoyens par toutes sortes de chaînes : on était lié avec ses amis, ses affranchis, ses esclaves, ses enfants. Aujourd’hui, tout est aboli jusqu’à la puissance paternelle : chaque homme est isolé. Il semble que l’effet naturel de la puissance arbitraire soit de particulariser tous les intérêts.”, Pensées, no. 1253).

6The word interests, which is not necessarily pejorative to Montesquieu, is so here, insofar as it denotes a truly narrow view, “base interest, which is really nothing but the animal instinct of all men” (“intérêt bas, qui n’est proprement que l’instinct animal de tous les hommes”) – which is reminiscent of the mean Troglodytes (LP, 11).

7The principal points are that (1) friendship always represents a choice, a preference given to certain persons because one cannot attach oneself to all, and (2) like all durable social relations, it is founded on a mutual advantage: “We strike a sort of contract for our common utility, which is just a reduction of the contract we have struck with society as a whole, and even seems, in a certain way, to be prejudicial to it.” (“Nous passons une espèce de contrat pour notre utilité commune, qui n’est qu’un retranchement de celui que nous avons passé avec la société entière, et semble même, en un certain sens, lui être préjudiciable”, Pensées, no. 1253). He thus recognizes a certain inherent tension between the friendship contract and the social contract.

Bibliographical reference

Stewart Philip , “Friendship”, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: