Filangieri, Gaetano

Philippe Audegean


1Born the younger son of a family of Neapolitan aristocracy, Filangieri (1753-1788) began a military career and a career as man of the court which left him free to seek instruction, notably from Genovesi whose economy courses he frequented. He joined the English-rite freemasonry. It was in 1780 that he published the first two volumes of La Science de la législation. Numerous reformers and publicists took in interest in this work. Benjamin Franklin carried on a significant correspondence with him and used his ideas in drafting the penal laws of Pennsylvania. Dispensed from any service at court, Filangieri withdrew onto his lands and devoted himself to writing. In 1783 appeared the third and fourth volumes of the Science, of which the fifth and last volume, never completed, appeared only after the author’s death.

2In Naples, the years preceding the French Revolution were marked by a great renewal of political thought. The echo of a revolution on American land renewed hopes for change of which Filangiera exposed the legislative foundations: the two thousand pages of La Science de la législation precisely trace a systematic plan of general reform of the laws. Greeted throughout late-Enlightenment Europe as a synthesis of republicanism and modern natural law, the work was harshly criticized by Benjamin Constant (Commentaire sur l’ouvrage de Filangieri, 1822-1824), before falling into a long and no doubt unjustified oblivion.

3Although La Science de la législation borrows numerous developments from L’Esprit des lois, Filangieri constantly defines his own enterprise by the distance taken from Montesquieu. This distance depends on a philosophical criticism exposed in book I of the Science, devoted to the “general rules of legislative science”. Filangieri bases his treatise on a distinction inspired by Montesquieu (L’Esprit des lois, I, 3), but turned against him. To be sure, the “relative goodness” of laws denotes their adequacy to the natural and moral conditions proper to a given people (Science I, 5). But this criterion has to be subordinated to that of their “absolute goodness”, previously exposed by Filangieri (I, 4), which denotes their adequacy to timeless and placeless principles of universal reason and natural laws. Thus, contrary to Genovesi and Ferdinando Galiani, who denounce in Montesquieu a dissimulated intention to accuse the existing monarchies of despotism, and reproach him for drawing general rules from particular cases, Filangieri reproaches him for reasoning on fact and not on right. To the criticism directed at Montesquieu by Galiani: “in writing about the art of governing, one must speak of things as they are and not as one might wish they were” (De la monnaie, notes to the second edition [1780], XXXI, p. 625), Filangieri thus opposes his: Montesquieu “tries to discover the reason of what has been done and I am trying to deduce the rules of what ought to be done” (Science, I, “Plan raisonné de l’ouvrage”).

4Armed with this methodological postulate, Filangieri refuses the republic-monarchy-despotism triad, to which he prefers the traditional classification democracy-aristocracy-monarchy (Science, I, 10; see also, in the following chapter, the critique of the mixed form practiced in England). These regimes denote the sole republics, or legitimate governments, and thus exclude despotic forms. In a similar design, Filangieri, following Helvétius, reduces to one the number of the principles of government: the passion that determines the citizen to act is always love of power, the effects alone of which are differentiated according to the nature of the government (ibid., I, 12). Filangieri finally repeats the critique which had become traditional of the excessive influence attributed to the climate (ibid., I, 14). Indeed only these choices make it possible, according to him, to show that a good government, acting on a unique and universal anthropological basis, and whatever the natural milieu in which it must act, can always make justice prevail.

5Finally, Filangieri show himself very severe with respect to the flattering description given by Montesquieu of the role played in a monarchy by the intermediary powers or bodies. His denunciation of feudal privileges provides the guiding thread of books II and III of Science, successively devoted to the “political and economic laws” and to the “criminal laws”. In Naples, the Bourbon monarchy was able to do nothing against the abusive jurisdictional and fiscal privileges of the feudal barons, who had been able to invoke L’Esprit des lois to celebrate their anti-despotic function. It is thus also against them that Filangieri denounces the conservative and corporatist character of L’Esprit des lois and that, when it comes to the division of powers, he situates himself distinctly in the tradition of Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau against Locke, Bolingbroke and Montesquieu: “in every kind of government authority must be balanced, but not divided” (Science, III, 18).

6As Vincenzo Ferrone has shown, from Montesquieu to Filangieri the whole space of rationality is displaced: the discovery of the historical dimension of nature damages a Newtonian model that is still fixist, and liberates a new universe that is a universe of the possibles. The political order also then finds itself susceptible to deep transformations.


Gaetano Filangieri, La Scienza della legislazione [1780-1791], Mariano del Friuli: Edizioni della Laguna and Venice: Centro di Studi sull’Illuminismo europeo, 7 vols., 2003-2004.

Ferdinando Galiani, De la monnaie [1751], ed. A. Tiran, trans. coordinated by Anne Machet, Paris: Economica, 2005.

Sergio Cotta, “Montesquieu et Filangieri: notes sur la fortune de Montesquieu au xviii e siècle”, Revue internationale de philosophie, 33-34 (1955), pp. 387-400.

Rosario Romeo, “Illuministi meridionali: dal Genovesi ai patrioti della Repubblica partenopea”, La Cultura illuministica in Italia, ed. Mario Fubini, Turin: Edizioni Radiotelevisione Italiana, 1957, pp. 177-178; 2nd ed., 1964, pp. 194-196.

Paola Berselli Ambri, L’Opera di Montesquieu nel Settecento italiano, Florence: Olschki, 1960, p. 156-157.

Giuseppe Galasso, “Filangieri tra Montesquieu e Constant”, La Filosofia in soccorso dei governi: la cultura napoletana del Settecento, Naples: Guida, 1989, pp. 453-484.

Francesco Gentile, “Il destino dell’uomo europeo: Montesquieu e Filangieri a confronto”, Gaetano Filangieri e l’Illuminismo europeo, Naples: Guida, 1991, pp. 403-420.

Piero Venturelli, « Considerazioni sui lettori di Montesquieu (XVIII-XX secolo) »,, 1 (1999).

Vincenzo Ferrone, La Società giusta ed equa. Repubblicanesimo e diritti dell’uomo in Gaetano Filangieri, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2003, Part 1, ch. 3 (“Contro Montesquieu e il costituzionalismo cetuale: la denuncia del ‘mostro feudale’ et della ‘monarchia temperata’”, pp. 49-74 (consult the index as well).

Luca Verri, « Legge, potere, diritto. Riflessi montesquieuiani nel pensiero di Gaetano Filangieri », Montesquieu e i suoi interpreti, Domenico Felice dir., Pise: ETS, 2005, vol. I, p. 357-375.

Philippe Audegean, « La critique des corps intermédiaires à Milan et à Naples. “Distinguer mes pas des siens” », Débats et polémiques autour de L’Esprit des lois, C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques 35 (2012), p. 61-71.

Bibliographical reference

Audegean Philippe , « Filangieri, Gaetano », dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :