Réflexions sur le caractère de quelques princes et sur quelques événements de leur vie

"Reflections on the character of certain princes"

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger


1The Reflections on the character of certain princes and on some events in their lives (such is the full title) are one of the numerous works which Montesquieu preserved in a dossier while recopying certain passages in the Pensées, for then indeterminate use (see nos. 1302, 610-611, 614-624). They testify to Montesquieu’s interest for history, conceived as a laboratory of the political, which is expressed in a work of the same period, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734). But they also show to what extent he was tempted by a history of France (even if he enlarged his horizon to other princes or to popes) that would allow the sounding of “characters”, in other words not to rely on the psychological causality traditionally utilized in history in the 17th and 18th centuries, but to relate an individual’s unity to more general causes. It is in fact the refutation of an interpretation that would privilege caprice or mood, or would overvalue the complexity of princes traditionally considered (often with admiration) as “political”, in other words as mastering all situations and manipulating adversaries and allies. Where one usually sees complexity and capacity for dissimulation (with Tiberius and Louis XI), Montesquieu detects only weakness and sees only the final failure of pitiful attempts to assure oneself unmitigated power. He thus condemns what his time called “politics”, an history based on the supposed return of identical situations and destined to supply precepts directly usable to deal with situations to come – this is what he was already doing in the opuscule De la politique (1725), the better to show that there exist genuine historical determinisms, based on general laws; but these serve to explain and understand the past, and not to foresee the future. If we want to understand a prince and especially what happened during his reign, we have to know the state of minds, and not let ourselves be deceived by comparisons more likely to obscure the subject than to illuminate it, like those who make of Philip II the disciple of the Roman emperor Tiberius, an anticipatory Machiavellian, whereas the Spaniard had compounded errors and blunders: “he possessed the mask of politics, and not the science of events” (“il avait le masque de la politique, et non pas la science des événements”, III).

2This work of about ten pages is presented for the most part in the form of parallels between princes, and is thus characterized by a discontinuity that is not foreign to the manner of Romans: Montesquieu refuses the traditional forms of the historical narrative, and to them prefers the indisputable analysis; the form of the “parallel”, eminently rhetorical when it is introduced into a narrative development, here constitutes a means of going deeper, while refuting too facile comparisons made from one to the other; one might even call them “anti-parallels”.

3Here is how it is composed: I: parallel between Charles XII, king of Sweden, and Charles the Bold; II: Tiberius and Louis XI; III: Philip II and Tiberius; IV: popes Paul III and Sixtus V; V: the duc de Mayenne during the wars of religion and in France and Cromwell; VI: Henri III, king of France, and Charles I, king of England. Article VII is entirely devoted to Henri III, but also to the “character of mind that prevailed at his court and the state which his nation was then in”; it is interesting to note that Montesquieu relies here essentially on Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique to reveal the king’s homosexuality (reputed to underlie the domination of his favorites), the supremacy of Catherine de’i Medici and of women, and an incapacity and awkwardness that made his subjects hate him. The man responsible for the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre is more soberly denounced than by Voltaire, but is nonetheless harshly judged.


The manuscript disappeared after 1957; it is known that it was in the author’s hand, which is a clue for dating it, as Montesquieu himself wrote little after 1734.

Mélanges inédits, Bordeaux: Gounouilhou, 1892, p. 171-189 (Henri Barckhausen ed.).

OC, t. IX, 2006, p. 43-65 (Sheila Mason and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed. ; the text follows the edition of 1892).