My thoughts

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger


1 Mes pensées [‘My thoughts’], is not a work of Montesquieu, but a collection of “reflections” in three volumes (the original subdivision), preserved at La Brède then at the municipal library of Bordeaux, which bought it in 1939. The description of the manuscript, due to Henri Barckhausen, was integrally reproduced by the Masson edition (Nagel, t. II, 1953, p. XLVI-XLVI), then by Louis Desgraves’s Inventaire des manuscrits de Montesquieu conservés à la bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux of (Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 285-287). This manuscript, partially in Montesquieu’s hand, part by his secretaries, bears marks of interventions (numberings, annotations) due to successive editors.

2It had been published partially, or rather fragmentarily, beginning in the 18th century. The first integral publication (still with the omission of a few passages) took place in 1899-1901 (2 vols.), “by baron Gaston de Montesquieu”, under the aegis of Bibliophiles de Guyenne (Pensées et fragments inédits, Bordeaux: G. Gounouilhou); its real scientific editor was Henri Barckhausen, who assigned to each textual unity a numbering obviously necessary for the purpose of publication (Montesquieu’s own on the manuscript ran only up to no. 43), but its arbitrariness is often patent: for if Montesquieu or his secretary sometimes puts a sign to separate two perfectly distinct elements, this is far from being always the case, and the editor considered as distinct passages that were not necessarily so; but especially this “chronological” numbering was overlain with another, for he was presenting the text thematically (“methodically”), in ten sections (The author; Completed works; Fragments of projected works; Science and industry; Letters and arts; Psychology; History; Political education and economy; Philosophy; Religion). It is this second numbering and this order that several editions have followed which were content to reproduce the work of Barckhausen: Roger Caillois’s “Pléiade” edition (Gallimard, 1949-1951), which moreover fragments the collection by following each of Montesquieu’s works with the corresponding “dossier” from within the Pensées, and the “Intégrale” edition of Daniel Oster (Seuil, 1964).

3The great sale of Montesquieu manuscripts in 1939 revived interest in the Pensées: in 1941 Bernard Grasset published some extracts under the title Cahiers (1716-1755) (transcribed by André Masson). This work was one of the best-sellers of the year 1941, at a time when the book trade was becoming flourishing in France (eighteen thousand copies sold in six months), and was to play a decisive role in the success of Montesquieu in the 1940s (Volpilhac-Auger 2011, ch. 13, “Bleu”). The attention of Grasset (whose closeness to the occupation authorities is known) might have been stimulated by numerous passages unfavorable to England – this remains to be proven (Fouché, p. 229 and 239). The Barckhausen edition had remained confidential: a search of the Catalogue Collectif de France turns up just a dozen copies – that is at least a sign; Grasset, p. XIII-XVII, to cast his own activity (which was one of vulgarization) in a favorable light, speaks of “the total negligence of the pseudo-editors of 1899”, even of the “clandestine Barckhausen edition”, which must be slightly nuanced by the remarks of André Masson, who cites the few studies that had taken account of them before 1940 (annex III, p. 298-299 of the same work).

4But after the war, André Masson, former curator of the Bordeaux library, found himself at the head of an enterprise of very different scope, which opened the way for a “modern” edition of the Pensées, in the second volume of the Œuvres complètes (Nagel, 1953). Louis Desgraves there published the manuscript in its entirety, using Barckhausen’s chronological numbering, but especially respecting the order of the items of the manuscript; the spelling was harmonized and modernized (but also sometime “archaisized”); the cancellations or corrections, numerous on the manuscript, were sometimes pointed out. This edition was reproduced by the same editor for the “Bouquins” collection of Robert Laffont, with much more developed annotation, but wanting recourse to the manuscript: the errors of transcription are still numerous.

5The critical edition in the framework of the current Œuvres complètes (Lyon-Paris: ENS Éditions and Classiques Garnier) is in preparation. Besides taking care to present an annotation permitting complete illumination of the text and its placement relative to the thought of Montesquieu, it will be particularly attentive to all the details and characteristics of the manuscript.

What are the Pensées for?

6This is how Mes pensées are defined at the outset by Montesquieu: “a few reflections or isolated thoughts that I have not put into my works”, “ideas that I have not developed, or which I am keeping to think about them when I can” (“quelques réflexions ou pensées détachées que je n’ai pas mises dans mes ouvrages”, “idées que je n’ai point approfondies, et que je garde pour y penser dans l’occasion”, Pensées, nos. 1 and 2). An immense réservoir of ideas or formulas that have not yet found their application, characterized by its unity as well as its diversity, in which an idea in movement and a writing which is seeking its path are trying things out, but also a repository taking in the “cuts” of an abandoned work or unused passages of an incompleted work; the three volumes of the Pensées offer all that, modulating it according to their own chronology, the third especially (subsequent to 1748) illustrating the last category, and presenting at its outset a sort of “table of contents” of these “cuts”. A mirror of the work in the process of being constructed, but a distorting mirror, which must be used methodically, distinguishing carefully this chronology, such as it appears thanks to a few internal more or less explicit indications: thus, at the very beginning of the first volume (no. 17), a long note on English trade and the relations between European nations is dated “this 7 May 1727”, which allows us to assign a point of departure, but without any certainty that this passage was not recopied later. But above all we must depend on the identification of the secretaries’ hands: one passage will be taken for L’Esprit des lois, another on the contrary will be eluded. Thus we can deduce approximately that the essence of the first volume (nos. 1-860) was transcribed before 1734 (which does not rule out an earlier draft), the second (nos. 861-1631) between 1734 and 1750, the third (nos.1631bis-2251) up to Montesquieu’s death (1755). Several fragments of manuscripts have been numbered and edited afterwards, sometimes without much justification (nos. 2252-2266). But we will take note that in the hundreds of leaves already used, a secretary of Montesquieu himself might have found a blank space and add a few lines later on; only a critical edition will allow us to refine and guarantee this chronology. And especially we will carefully distinguish the date of transcription (the only one we can observe by the identification of secretaries) and the date of drafting, exceptionally noted, and which most of the time remains inaccessible to us – even if it is sometimes possible to situate it fairly precisely.

7Un tableau permet de présenter de manière simplifiée les dates de transcription:

1-323 1727-1731 (secretary D)
324-760 1731-1734 (Montesquieu copy)
761-1341 1734-1739 (secretary E)
1400-1600 1739-1747 (secretaries F, H, I, K, L)
1601-2160 1748-1751 (secretaries P et Q)
2161-2182 1751-1754 (secretaries R, S, V)
2183-2201 1748-1751 (secretaries P et Q)
2229-2251 1751-1754 (secretaries R, S, V)

8The chronology is all the more important that it enables us to answer certain questions: did Montesquieu keep a sort of “log” of his reflections, noting day by day what struck him or what he did not have time to develop? Can we read in them the preoccupations of the man who was in the process of writing the masterwork, and whose reflection would be inscribed on two levels, that of the published work, and that of the private collection? The very appearance of the manuscript and the study of the different hands enables us to challenge this idea. Dozens of pages seem to unfold under the sign of uniformity, with no change of handwriting or ink from one paragraph to the next; signs of dictation being few in number, even exceptional: the sign of a continuous transcription, done at leisure, no doubt based on cards examples of which have moreover been found in the collection at La Brède. For greater security, Montesquieu recopied several times the first few words of a passage, and maybe the whole series; he proceeds by “waves”, giving his secretaries cards to transcribe which he has doubtless regrouped into already-constituted dossiers, whence the impression of homogeneity in certain series. Moreover, the secretaries who worked the most on the Pensées are those who appear the least in the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois, that is from 1739 to 1747, and even those who do not appear in any major manuscript. We do find there (in addition to Montesquieu’s own hand) especially the intervention of secretaries D and E (respectively until 1731, and from 1734 to the beginning of 1739), then we go to the “fallout” of L’Esprit des lois with secretaries P and Q (respectively 1748-1750 and 1750-1751). To the secretaries who appear in L’Esprit des lois, thus for a nine-year period, we owe only sixty articles. The collection, more than half of which is transcribed before the summer of 1739, progressed very little between 1739 and 1747; it then fills with what could not be included in L’Esprit des lois and elsewhere.

9This allows us to understand how Montesquieu proceeded to constitute this collection which, curiously, seems to bear a double title: “my reflections”, when he is having a card copied (“put in my reflections” is found on several documents of this type), “my thoughts” when he refers to the triple collection, giving with precision the reference to the volume and leaf (recto or verso): he then refers to a perfectly constituted whole. Or is it a negligible imprecision? In fact this double title seems indeed to refer back to two different states, and thus to two distinct entities. First filed in the “Reflections”, these could then be recopied in one of the volumes bearing the title “My thoughts”, as indicated by the only one on which the original binding subsists. Nothing indicates that the regrouped cards in the “Reflections” dossier have been destroyed as he went; we even have proof to the contrary, with the indication placed by a secretary of 1749-1750 on a group of cards and former chapters of L’Esprit des lois: “There are very good things here on trade that could perhaps be used for an essay; otherwise put back in my reflections” (“Il y a ici de très bonnes choses sur le commerce qui pourront peut-être servir à une dissertation; sinon, remettre dans mes réflexions”, OC, t. IV, p. 835; my italics). These “Reflections” could even present themselves in a very different manner from that which characterizes Mes pensées: “This can be used in a separate work, or else put it in my reflections extracted” (OC, t. IV, p. 765, my italics). The “Reflections” were to preserve the original, doubtless classified thematically, and the Pensées – perhaps – the copy.

10Should we see in this the sign of his Oratorian upbringing, which encouraged the assembly of thematic dossiers (Henri Roddier)? Like everything that relates the very specific practice of Montesquieu to earlier pattrerns (like the assembly of methodical extracts or collections of commonplaces, coming from the humanist tradition as renewed in the seventeenth century), this interpretation has the drawback of being based on misunderstanding of the manuscript, and instituting as “method” or even as a school of thought something that arises sometimes from simple good sense: Montesquieu certainly had dossiers distinguished by themes (who would not?), but as we shall see in the course of this article, if he had made a method of it the Pensées would have been quite different.

11Did Montesquieu not have double use of them, in Paris and in the Bordeaux region, if he did not want to have all his documentation shipped with him each time? We can note indeed that none of the secretaries of the Pensées worked exclusively in Aquitaine, and even that some worked exclusively in Paris – which is disturbing, to say the least. We cannot conclude from that the volume of Pensées was exclusively Parisian, and even less that the dossier “Mes Réflexions” was Bordelais. But we will leave that possibility open.

What do the Pensées say?

12We thus are dealing with over two thousand articles – we will prefer this term, neutral, rather than fragments, which supposed the existence of a “whole”, past, future or supposed: if in many cases a passage of the Pensées found or would find use which thereby designates it as part of a whole, if many are self-designated as fragments, we cannot systematically either suppose this relationship to the whole. And to assign a destination, even fictive, to a formula or a reflection has little sense when we have just a remark or a simple note written down so as not to be forgotten and to enrich what will become, really, a fragment, a chapter, a book. These articles thus run from one line or one paragraph to several dozen pages (for example no. 1302, on the history of France) and deal with the widest range of subjects, the reading of which offers the additional pleasure of surprise. Personal or literary judgments elaborated in salons or in the silence of the library, moral reflections, philosophical hypotheses, historical or economic remarks, political reasoning, anecdotes… What does one not find in the Pensées? Humor? “It hasn’t been two hundred years since French ladies took a fancy to underwear. They quickly got rid of that obstacle.” (“Il n’y a pas deux cents ans que les femmes françaises s’avisèrent de prendre des caleçons. Elles se défirent bientôt de cet obstacle.”, no. 59). A hint of cynicism, or an underlying indulgence? “All husbands are ugly” (no. 2075). Acidity? “A corrupt monarchy is not a state, it is a court” (“Une monarchie corrompue, ce n’est pas un État, c’est une cour”, no. 1422). A formula that hits the bull’s-eye? “[T]he czar [Peter the Great] was not great; he was enormous” (“[…] le czar [Pierre le Grand] n’était pas grand; il était énorme”, no. 1373). Material for future erudition? “Saavedra, Corona gothica. Voir ce livre.” Morality in the form of maxims? “Avarice. It is so stupid it doesn’t even know how to count” (“L’avarice. Elle est si sotte qu’elle ne sait même pas compter”, no. 1200). History, certainly: “The Roman shoe, inconvenient, was the cause of great roads of paving stones” (“La chaussure des Romains, incommode, fut cause des grands chemins de pierre carrée”, no. 1516); but also: “Establishment of the power of Rome, in other words the longest conspiracy ever made against the entire world” (“Établissement de la puissance de Rome, c’est-à-dire de la plus longue conjuration qui ait jamais été faite contre l’univers”, no. 1483). And philosophy, of course: “What M. Van Dale says of the knavery of priests on oracles does not seem to me at all proven” (“Ce que M. Van Dale dit de la friponnerie des prêtres sur les oracles ne me paraît nullement prouvé […]”, no. 836). A literary esthetic that finds in the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns a means of asserting itself in a personal way (Martin 2004), a refusal of the “atheist” temptation (Casabianca 2004), a questioning of metaphysics (Spector 2004), an approach to economic problems different from what is found in L’Esprit des lois (Larrère 2004). Always a personal point of view, often paradoxical, that tests itself out in writing and sometimes pushes to its limits – evinced only by a marginal note suggesting reticence or doubt, and inciting the reader to prudence.

13But what else? “We can consider God as a monarch who has several nations in his empire; they all come to bear him their tribute, and each speaks to him in its language.” (nos. 1454 et 1699). This passage, which the Catholic Church could not support, figures twice in the Pensées; it was first transcribed in 1741-1742, then again in 1748-1750 – but it is not by inadvertance. In the first case, it is before its appearance in the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois (XXV, 8; OC, t. IV, p. 692); in the second, it is after its disappearance from the published version, no doubt for reasons of prudence. Thus first appears to us the desire not to lose such a brilliant formula, a successful image; but beyond is affirmed the concern to retain the very essence of toleration, capable of borrowing a biblical image to make its point, to speak the language of religion itself. Who however could have heard it, as long as the Pensées have not been opened to the public? Which indicates the ambiguity of this collection.

The meaning(s) of the collection

14The collection of Pensées is characterized by the diversity of its material, but also by the complexity of its finality/-ies. To be sure one can read in them, as Bernard Grasset, who was at the origin of the (re)discovery of the Pensées, liked to think, “the man” himself, in his simplicity, but also the moralist stripped of his grandeur and reputation as a thinker. In fact, we find his “portrait” there:

“I know myself quite well.
“I have almost never had any worries, and even less any boredom.
“My machine is so fortunately constructed that I am struck sharply enough by all objects so they can give me pleasure, not enough for them to give me pain.”(“Je me connais assez bien.
¶Je n’ai presque jamais eu de chagrin, et encore moins d’ennui.
¶Ma machine est si heureusement construite que je suis frappé par tous les objets, assez vivement pour qu’ils puissent me donner du plaisir, pas assez pour me donner de la peine.», no. 213).

15But we would be mistaken to see here an intimate journal (even in the form of a ‘book of reason’, Grasset, p. XXIII), a writing of the “inner self” (for intérieur) or even a form of autobiography: when Montesquieu writes: “when I became blind, I understood first that I would know how to be blind” (“quand je devins aveugle, je compris d’abord que je saurais être aveugle”, no. 1675), he is not talking about his experience – the transcription is prior to 1750, and Montesquieu, whose eyesight was certainly deficient, would still be able to write on his deathbed, in 1755. But then he writes “on happiness”, and he knows how much first-person utterance can enrich a moral perspective (Volpilhac-Auger 2005, p. 198). The problem is raised in even sharper fashion for the “letters” or supposed letters – at least they figure under that label (nos. 1024-1049), notably the love letters of which it is hard to see why they would have been recopied into the Pensées, in other words exposed to the eyes of his successive secretaries. The texts of the Pensées were destined to be taken up again, rethought, developed, etc.; the one given in article 1048 (which ends with: “I have told you a million times that I love you madly. I always think I have not told you often enough, and would like to die telling you so” [“Je t’ai dit un million de fois que je t’aime avec fureur. Je crois toujours ne te l’avoir pas assez dit, et je voudrais mourir en te le disant”]) much resembles a text that could be used in a novel. The comparison with another letter, this time real, addressed to Princess Trivulzio (OC, t. XVIII, no. 325, 19 October 1728), is eloquent, so different is it from the other letter: the one in the Pensées, overladen with hyperboles, anaphoras, binary structures, and ornamented with a mythological reference, is much better crafted than the letter to Princess Trivulzio. (“I remained two days in an inn near Lago Maggiore without being able either to advance or go back. Finally I saw those famous islands, and was enchanted by them […]. I am now at Novarra kept here by the rain” [“J’ai demeuré deux jours dans une auberge auprès du lac Majeur sans pouvoir ni avancer ni reculer. Enfin j’ai vu ces îles si renommées, j’en ai été enchanté […] Je suis à présent à Novarre retenu par la pluie.”]). To consider the Pensées as genuine letters is a debatable choice; certainly the biographer will find useful things there, since it makes it possible to fill out the dossier of Montesquieu’s loves; but the basic reasoning is fragile.

16In another genre, the same reservations apply to another type of letters, illustrated by an article (no. 2023) that bears all the characteristics of a genuine letter: addressee, date, provenance (to the Baron de Stein, Amsterdam, 20 October 1729). But was it sent? Was it even intended to be? It is supposed to have been written three days after another letter to the same person (OC, t. XVIII, no. 352, 17 October); Montesquieu is in Amsterdam, Stein in Wolfenbüttel; is not three days much too quick for an exchange of letters? But above all, could Montesquieu address to a foreign minister such judgments on Louis XIV and French politics, even if he had complete confidence in him? Finally, it does not at all resemble the real letters written by Montesquieu (see for example ibid.): it is composed in paragraphs (Montesquieu almost never introduces any in his letters, however long); it is assertive, without any reference to the opinion or situation of the addressee, which is also contrary to Montesquieu’s practice (and to good education). It is more like a short treatise on politics; it is to be compared with the ideas that were to be found in Romains (XXIII, note c, OC, t. II, p. 280) or in Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle. It is in fact a sort of complement to letter no. 352, but which in no case could be addressed to its supposed recipient. It could also be a trial (or a residue) of an attempt of Montesquieu’s to put his travel notes into shape (see Montesquieu’s letter to Guasco on 8 December 1754, note c: “He hesitated as to whether he would reduce the memoirs of his travels in the form of letters or as a simple narrative” [“Il hésitait s’il réduirait les mémoires de ses voyages en forme de lettres ou en simple récit”]). So one would hesitate to consider as “real letter” everything that borrows that form, and especially to attribute to Montesquieu all the passages where he says I; so it will not be possible to read for themselves these texts to which we will thus restore their full literary or political value.

17We are on more solid ground when we note the innumerable marks of subjectivity or self-quotations (“I used to say…”: see Dornier, 2004) where Montesquieu picks up bits of information, formulas, remarks (he also sometimes restores them to their true author); he doesn’t want anything to be lost – but is it really in order to re-use them some day, or for his personal satisfaction? We are struck by the small number of passages thus subjectively marked which he re-uses. Just as often he comments on judgments – only a careful examination of the manuscript allows one to distinguish personal commentary, designated by an asterisk, from the utterance of different origin (Volpilhac-Auger, 2004), which the current edition of Œuvres complètes will be the first to make apparent; thus, the numerous cases where the formula c’est que [‘that is because’] introduces the utterance which alone is Montesquieu’s, the sign of a critical distanciation: “In Athens, murum ascendere non licebat [‘it was not permitted to climb over the wall’] on pain of death. *That was rather an idea of injury than of danger: for, as Marcellinus says […]” (no. 2190). Without being aware of this distinction, one risks missing the real reason for the presence of certain series (notable nos. 1756-1813, but there are others); thus we could offer as example above all from article no. 1791, taken from Plutarch, the anecdotal aspect: “Old Denys married two women at the same time: one Locrian and the other Syracusan […]; the son of the latter married his sister. *So it was not only the Athenians who married two wives, and among whom brothers married their sisters.” (“Le vieux Denys épousa deux femmes en même temps: l’une, locrienne, et l’autre, syracusienne […] le fils de celle-ci épousa sa sœur. *Ce n’était donc pas les Athéniens seuls qui épousassent deux femmes, et chez qui les frères épousassent leurs sœurs.”) The asterisk designates the reason for which the fact was retained: a prolongation of the reflection treated in L’Esprit des lois, V, 19, where marriages with a consanguin sister in Athens are examined.

18The link with the works is incontestably the richest perspective: not only, as we have said, because the Pensées collect what could not be used in one work or another, but also because Montesquieu re-uses what he finds there, witness many passages in which one secretary, whose activity is attested from 1741 to 1742 (secretary H), writes in the margin: “placed in the Laws”. We can thus compare the different versions of a redaction that may vary because Montesquieu always felt the need to correct, but also because perhaps, in the course of these multiple recopyings, the secretary or secretaries proved negligent: thus, in the passage already mentioned from L’Esprit des lois (XXV, 8), the second copy (no. 1699) in fact reads: “We can consider God as a monarch who has several nations in his empire; they all bring him their tribute, and each person [and not each nation] speaks to him in his language.” (“Nous pouvons considérer Dieu comme un monarque qui a plusieurs nations dans son empire; elles viennent toutes lui porter leur tribut, et chacun lui parle sa langue.”) A simple error, but which could not have been detected if we did not have at our disposal both a first version in the Pensées and that of the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois. But we must not for this reason indulge in Pyrrhonism: the Pensées are most often the most reliable witness of what Montesquieu kept before him, for reasons of prudence; that is the case with the “unhappy” end of Lysimaque (no. 2161), in contrast to the published work which presented the idyllic vision of a prince in harmony with his subjects (see OC, t. IX, p. 414-415); but also, in many other cases, we will read very simply what could not be included, for various reasons, in the completed work.

19We are far at this point from having drawn all the lessons from the manuscript of the Pensées, and especially from such a mine of documentation, which illuminates the genesis as well as the development of Montesquieu’s work, and also his methods of work and reflection. In the absence of any context, of any chronological indication, the annotation sometimes poses fearsome problems. The new edition must in this respect constitute decisive progress.



Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux, Ms 1866 /1-3. (Accessible on-line)


Pensées et fragments inédits de Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Gounouilhou, 1899-1901, ed. Henri Barckhausen.

Pensées, in Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, André Masson dir., t. II, 1953 (ed. Louis Desgraves).

Pensées. Le Spicilège, Paris: Robert Laffont, “Bouquins”, 1991 (ed. Louis Desgraves).

Pensées (selections), Gallimard, Folio Classiques, 2014 (ed. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger).


My Thoughts, by Henry C. Clark, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012.


Henri Roddier, « De la composition de L'Esprit des lois. Montesquieu et les Oratoriens de Juilly », Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 52 (1952), p. 439-450.

Pascal Fouché, L’Édition française sous l’Occupation (1940-1944), Paris: Éditions de l’IMEC, 1987.

Revue Montesquieu 7 (2004), special issue on the Pensées, Carole Dornier dir.
The following articles are of special interest:
- Catherine Larrère, “Commerce et finances dans les Pensées: questions de méthode” , p. 41-56;
- Christophe Martin, “Une apologétique ‘moderne’ des Anciens: la Querelle dans les Pensées”, p. 67-83;
- Céline Spector, “Montesquieu et la métaphysique dans les Pensées”, p. 113-134;
- Denis de Casabianca, “Des objections sans réponse? À propos de la tentation matérialiste de Montesquieu dans les Pensées”, p. 135-156.

C. Volpilhac-Auger, “Une nouvelle‘chaîne secrète’ de L’Esprit des lois: l’histoire du texte”, in Montesquieu en 2005, ed. C. Volpilhac-Auger, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2005:05, p.83-216; largely reproduced in OC, t. III, p. ix-cxlvii.

— with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil, Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2011.

— “Le chantier ou le miroir? Éditer les Pensées de Montesquieu”, Dix-Huitième Siècle 45, 2013.