Penal law, criminal law

Jean Bart


1If “political freedom” is first of all the consequence of “a certain distribution of the three powers” laid out in the constitution, it equally resides “in safety [sûreté], or in the opinion one has of his safety”, just as necessarily, for the two elements are inseparable; if one of them fails, there is no freedom. Montesquieu develops this notion in book XII of L’Esprit des lois, and that is where, in particular, he takes up the problem of “criminal laws” (the term droit pénal [penal law] is introduced later), explaining that safety – today one would say security – “is never more under attack than in public or private accusations” (“n’est jamais plus attaquée que dans les accusations publiques ou privées”), which leads him to affirm that “the citizen’s freedom depends principally on the quality of the criminal laws” (“c’est […] de la bonté des lois criminelles que dépend principalement la liberté du citoyen”, EL, XII, 2). This quality [bonté] of penal legislation assumes both a redefinition of offenses and crimes, in the generic sense of the term, and an amelioration of the procedure followed to establish guilt. All this interests “humankind more than anything there is on earth” (“le genre humain plus qu’aucune chose qu’il y ait au monde”).

2Establishing a new “hierarchy of offenses […] in four categories according to an order of increasing gravity” (Binoche) against “religion”, against “morality”, against “peace” and against “the citizens’ safety”, Montesquieu already is tending, as Beccaria will do a little later, to “secularize the right to punish” (Porret), to detach from the notion of sin a breach of human law, in other words to distinguish between law and morality. Thus, a “simple sacrilege”, one which offends the Divinity (the capital letter, though not Montesquieu’s, is reproduced in the editions of his works) without harm to the public order, which can occur for example when religious ceremonies are troubled, ought not be subject to human law. “It is all between man and God” (“Tout s’y passe entre l’homme et Dieu […]”, EL, XII, 4), whom one must never seek to avenge. The same opinion is developed and clarified in Book XXV (“Of laws in their relation to the establishment of the religion of each country and its foreign policy” [“Des lois dans le rapport qu’elles ont avec l’établissement de la religion de chaque pays et sa police extérieure”]): the repressive legislation of the state is not only needless since religions have laws proper to themselves, it is above all as dangerous as ineffective; in the religious domain “history teaches us sufficiently that penal laws have never had any effect other than destruction” (“[…] l’histoire nous apprend assez que les lois pénales n’ont jamais eu d’effet que comme destruction”, EL, XXV, 12), and to denounce the wrongdoings of the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitors (EL, XXV, 13). The qualification of heresy is moreover very delicate; it should be made with the greatest prudence since it can be the cause of many injustices (EL, XII, 5). The same goes for magic, a crime “of which it could be proven that it does not exist” (“dont on pourrait prouver qu’il n’existe pas”, EL, XII, 6).

3From an affront to Divinity (divine lese majesty) to an affront to the sovereign (human lese majesty) the step is quickly taken. A great part of the developments in Book XII is relative to this crime of very ill-defined configuration and which, finally, englobes all sorts of doings of sometimes tenuous, or even non-existent, gravity, like simple words or thoughts, the pursuit of which could lead to despotism.

4Less uncertain are affronts to morality, in particular crimes against nature, condemned by religion, morality, and law. Montesquieu avoids any indulgence with respect to them, but here again advises a certain circumspection: has the hidden character of such actions not led legislators to put too much faith in the testimony of children? “This was to open the door wide to calumny” (“C’était ouvrir une porte bien large à la calomnie”, EL, XII, 6)! Has the remark founded on a quotation of Procopius concerning Justinian’s legislation not acquired a painful currency in this beginning of the 21st century? Usually, affronts to morality result from flaws in education of social organization, which it suffices to correct so that “gentle, amiable, charming” nature, which “has liberally bestowed its pleasures” (“douce, aimable, charmante [… qui] a répandu les plaisirs d’une main libérale”, ibid.), can reclaim its rights. There are however facts of a sexual nature, like kidnaping or rape, where the gravity comes from the affront to public safety, which permits Montesquieu, concerned to maintain authority in the family, to classify them in his fourth, and more severely punished, category.

5The third groups the crimes “that shock citizens’ tranquility”, in other words that are affronts to public order, but they are restricted “to things that contain a simple “lésion de police” (EL, XII, 4). The fourth, more voluminous, contains all the threats or affronts directed against persons and property, from murder to simply larceny. As Bertrand Binoche (p. 273) remarks, this class “owes its coherence to the Lockian concept of property”, property of one’s own body, of the fruits of one’s labor. We recognize in it one of the foundations of liberal thought. The variety of the numerous offenses that place safety in danger, to different degrees lead nevertheless to fashioning the sentences in function of the gravity of the affront which is brought against it.

6Montesquieu thus establishes a scale of sentences that allows adaptation of the sanction to the infraction committed, establishment of a proportion between the two, which causes to disappear both the fantasies of a cruel despot and the free choice of the judge, arbitrariness in the language of the time: “It is the triumph of liberty when the criminal laws draw each sentence from the particular nature of the crime. All arbitrariness ends; the sentence does not come down from the legislator’s whim, but from the nature of the thing” (“C’est le triomphe de la liberté, lorsque les lois criminelles tirent chaque peine de la nature particulière du crime. Tout l’arbitraire cesse ; la peine ne descend point du caprice du législateur, mais de la nature de la chose […]”, EL, XII, 4). For example, it is necessary to distinguish different types of theft according to the circumstances and modalities of the taking of property: it is contrary to freedom and “a great shame among us to inflict the same punishment [death] on the highway robber and the man who robs and kills; it is clear that, for public safety, there needs to be some difference in the sentence” (“c’est un grand mal parmi nous de faire subir la même peine [la mort] à celui qui vole sur un grand chemin et à celui qui vole et assassine ; il est visible que, pour la sûreté publique, il faudrait mettre quelque différence dans la peine”, EL, VI, 16). And what is there to say about domestic theft equally subject to capital punishment in France, according to a royal declaration of 1724?

7To proportionality or, as Montesquieu puts it, to “harmony”, is thus added the moderation of penalties, insofar as their severity “is more suited to despotic government, the principle of which is terror, than to the monarchy and the republic whose motivation is honor and virtue” (“convient mieux au gouvernement despotique, dont le principe est la terreur, qu’à la monarchie et à la république qui ont pour ressort l’honneur et la vertu”, EL, VI, 9). Usbek had already explained to Rhedi that under a “mild government”, the people is entirely as submissive as under a “severe government”; the former is therefore more in conformity with reason than the latter since it achieves the same result “at less cost” (à moindres frais): “in a state more or less cruel punishments do not make the laws better obeyed. In countries where punishments are moderate they are feared as in those where they are tyrannical and horrible” (“dans un État les peines plus ou moins cruelles ne font pas que l’on obéisse plus aux lois. Dans les pays où les châtiments sont modérés, on les craint comme dans ceux où ils sont tyranniques et affreux”, LP, 78 [80]). The punishment of a crime must always be dissuasive, however, so as to show the interest one has in not committing it, and today, the advised moderation may appear, detached from its context, entirely relative. Are the sentences specified for the guilty of the fourth class not qualified as “torture”(EL, XII, 4)? Are they not understood as “a sort of lex talionis that causes society to refuse the safety of a citizen who has deprived, or wished to deprive, another of it” (“une espèce de talion qui a fait que la société refuse la sûreté a un citoyen qui en a privé, ou qui a voulu en priver un autre”, ibid.)? Modern criticism attempts to explain the sequel to this sentence: “This punishment [retaliation] is based on the nature of the thing, drawn from reason and the sources of good and evil” (“Cette peine [du talion] est tirée de la nature de la chose, puisée dans la raison et dans les sources du bien et du mal”), by the distinction of two types of retaliation or proportionality (Binoche, 1998), or yet by the opposition between primitive reason and human reason (Courtois, 1999); still the death penalty, qualified as a “remedy for a social disease” (EL, ibid.) must punish the man who has made an attempt, or tried to, on another man’s life. As for attempts on the property of goods, Montesquieu allows that the punishment be capital in certain circumstances, but he recognizes that it would be preferable, by virtue of the lex talionis principle, for the thief to be punished by the loss of his own property, which would be possible if fortunes were equal. “But since it is those who have no property who more willingly attack that of others, corporal punishment has had to take the place of pecuniary punishment” (“Mais comme ce sont ceux qui n’ont point de biens qui attaquent plus volontiers celui des autres, il a fallu que la peine corporelle suppléât à la pécuniaire”), and the author adds straightforwardly: “All that I am saying is drawn from nature, and is very favorable to the citizen’s freedom” (“Tout ce que je dis est puisé dans la nature, et est très favorable à la liberté du citoyen”, ibid.).

8Resulting from a definition of offenses and the proportional fixation of punishments, this freedom still requires that the guilt of the accused be established as the outcome of a procedure devoid of any archaism. For the same reason as that of basic rules of penal law, the rationale of “criminal inquiry” is obligatory. No more in this domain than elsewhere does Montesquieu elaborate a general plan of reform. Taking his inspiration from the models of Roman antiquity and the English Constitution, he simply derives here and there a few principles. First the adoption of an oral and public accusatory procedure, which must take the place of the secret and inhuman intelligence characteristic of the Inquisition, “that intolerable tribunal” which, “set up by Christian monks on the idea of the tribunal of penitence, is contrary to all good order” (“formé par les moines chrétiens sur l’idée du tribunal de la pénitence, est contraire à toute bonne police”, EL, XXVI, 15). As law, procedure must thus be laicized, all the easier to do that there exists in the French realm a public ministry instituted in each jurisdiction to pursue all crimes, “so that the function of informants is unknown here” (“de sorte que la fonction des délateurs est inconnue parmi nous”, EL, VI, 8).

9Another prescribed renunciation, that of the “question” or torture, above all because it is not useful. England, “a very well-ordered nation” (“nation très bien policée”), had suppressed it with no detriment, which proves that it is “not recessary by nature” (EL, VI, 17). Montesquieu nonetheless remains discreet on the subject: “So many people and so many fine minds have written against this practice, that I dare not speak after them” (“Tant de gens et tant de beaux génies ont écrit contre cette pratique, que je n’ose parler après eux”), he concedes, while recognizing that it would perhaps be appropriate to certain situations; however the demonstration is not pursued and the very brief chapter devoted to torture ends by this touching confession: “But I hear the voice of nature calling against me” (“Mais j’entends la voix de la nature qui crie contre moi”)!

10England is also a reference with respect to the configuration of criminal jurisdictions. Montesquieu’s preference is for the judgment of penal cases by jurors chosen among “persons drawn from the body of the people”, without a permanent tribunal being constituted. “In this way, the power to judge, so awesome among men, not being attached to a certain state, nor to a certain profession, becomes, so to speak, invisible and nul” (“De cette façon, la puissance de juger, si terrible parmi les hommes, n’étant attachée ni à un certain état, ni à une certaine profession, devient, pour ainsi dire, invisible et nulle”, EL, XI, 6).

11Ultimately we understand why the author of L’Esprit des lois is universally categorized among reformers of the right to punish, a precurser of Beccaria, and inspiration to the French Constituents when they would seek to create new judicial institutions as well as to codify the system of crimes and punishments.


Jean Graven, “Montesquieu et le droit pénal”, dans La Pensée politique et constitutionnelle de Montesquieu: bicentenaire de “L’Esprit des Lois” 1748-1948, Paris: Recueil Sirey, 1952, p. 209-254.

Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à “De l’esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: PUF, 1998.

Jean-Patrice Courtois, Inflexions de la rationalité dans “L’Esprit des lois”, Paris: PUF, 1999.

Michel Porret, Beccaria: le droit de punir, Paris: Michalon, “Le bien commun”, 2003.

Francine Markovits, “Montesquieu et la peine de mort”, Corpus, revue de philosophie 62 (2012/1), La Peine de mort, Luigi Delia et Fabrice Hoarau dir., p. 107-133.

Bibliographical reference

Bart Jean , « Penal law, criminal law », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :