Denis de Casabianca


1With Book XIV, which opens on physiological considerations on organic exchanges, begins the third part of L’Esprit des lois; the inquiry seems relaunched in a new direction with the examination of the relations “which seem more particular” (EL, I, 3). These pages might be taken as a “theory of climates”, to be understood in the “scientific” perspective of the work, and the famous observation about the sheep’s tongue (EL, XIV, 2) would be the experimental basis for the examination of the physical factors that determine political organizations. A fragile basis, however, for a “modern scholar”, especially if one refers to Montesquieu’s probable sources on these climatic questions (Aristotle, Hippocrates, Huarte, Bodin). Study of the works bearing on the same question before L’Esprit des lois shows that Montesquieu’s originality comes from the fact that he extends the influence of climate to the all human institutions (religious, juridical, and political; see Ehrard, p. 691-736). It is this extension, and the general idea that “the empire of climate is the first of all empires” (EL, XIX, 14), in addition to the common idea of the influence of climate on the mind, that provoked the most virulent objections. The idea of “determinism” is perhaps but a distant echo of the first readings of the book, which was a naturalist materialism at work in book XIV, which accorded with the “Spinozism” of book I. To subject man absolutely to the climate is to admit a blind fatality, to reduce man to being but a soulless machine, and go against all the principles of religion… and make of religion itself a simple effect of climate. Only an “adherent of natural religion” could assert without a tremor that “it is the climate that gives good mores”! (Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, 9 October 1749, Mémoire de la critique, p. 141 ; OC, t. VII, p. 29). Montesquieu attempted to respond to these accusations (Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part two, OC, t. VII, p. 94-95). They raise the problem of the articulation of values and norms to these climatic considerations; if today the reduction of religion to the rank of moral factor no longer provokes the thunder of theologians, the naturalization of slavery or of despotism in certain regions of the world again bring out tensions of the same order.

2Before looking at the way the climatic notion is mobilized in L’Esprit des lois, we can point out in other texts the elements that form and structure it. While climate has primarily a geographic sense (see Pensées, no. 312), since it signifies an area situated between two parallels (with a sufficient distance to create a difference of one-half hour between them) and, more generally, a geographic region defined by its latitude, the nature of the elements that characterize it in Montesquieu leads one to give it the sense of a differentiated milieu in which the living body is placed. From this point of view, the geographic aspect is overlain with a qualitative approach of the locality, which is finalized by a praxis. Indeed, if we consider the numerous “physical” texts that examine these relations of living bodies with the climate (in the Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle, or in the form of notes in Mes pensées and the Spicilège), we observe that the physiological remarks are always oriented by a praxis: agronomy, arrangement of the area, medicine. It is not so much a matter of discerning a uniform theory of climate as being attentive to the multiple forms that plants, illnesses, mores, laws, etc., can assume according to location. Moreover, Montesquieu usually speaks of climates, or said climate, rather than of climate in general.

3According to Robert Shackleton (p. 235-238), we would find in the early works of Montesquieu no more than a general formulation of an influence of climate on oriental mores inspired by the reading of Chardin. This reading would not have led to investigation of other climes, and things go no further than this influence particular to Asia. In fact, Montesquieu’s interest for climatic questions is linked to medical and naturalist questions, as attests the Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle (1719). It is however true that beginning with the trip to Italy a growing interest is manifested in the influence of “the air” surfaces. If this attention is expressed on this occasion, in situ (see Denis de Casabianca, 2010), it is also because the readings which preceded the travels predisposed Montesquieu in this regard: one can note the importance of the Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (1719) of Dubos (discovered shortly before his departure) and the numerous guides or travel narratives which Montesquieu had at hand, all of which mention “the air of the Roman countryside”, a veritable “commonplace” of the travel literature. Montesquieu might also have found upon his return, in the work of John Arbuthnot, An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies (London, 1733), a systematic reflection on the effects of air in a fibril physiological framework very close to the one he used. Arbuthnot inscribes his work under the patronage of Hippocrates, whose research he wishes to renew by mobilizing what had been learned by the new physiology and making use of the new instruments of measurement. It was the new science that made it possible better to found an approach to the living by giving all their meaning to the precepts of medicine’s founder, and freeing them from the false forms of knowledge that came down from an ossifying tradition. The treatise Des airs, des eaux, des lieux [‘On air, water, places’] is therefore invoked to promote this new medicine.

4However, and in line with hippocratic teaching, climatic influence must not be examined in an aerial perspective. The presentation of L’Esprit des lois, in chapter 2 of Book XIV, could give the impression that Montesquieu only retains a simplistic schema, where the action of air alone is considered. Indeed, according to this passage, cold air tightens the body fibers and strengthens them, whereas hot air lengthens and weakens them. Beginning with an brief overview of the mode of internal functioning of the human machine, and of the way in which its workings play according to temperature variations, Montesquieu examines a whole series of moral effects. But in his mind, it is indeed the constituent elements of the “climatic situation” all together, and not merely the question of the variations in temperature, which matter. In accordance with the terms of the Hippocratic treatise, one must equally examine the nourishment (since it is essentially through this angle and that of respiration that organic exchanges with the milieu take place) – Arbuthnot also wrote An Essay Concerning the Nature of Aliments and the Choice of them according to the Different Constitutions of Human Bodies (London, 1731).

5But in fine, all the things that constitute the patient’s ethos are of interest to the doctor. Thus, if it is true that the notes from the Voyages bear essentially on the quality of the air in the places that Montesquieu visits, we find in other texts a whole series of indications which show that he is indeed attentive to everything that might influence moral characters. What Montesquieu has in mind in these considerations is not to miss the “differences”, as is revealed in the fragment on “the difference of geniuses” (Pensées, no. 2265): “The nature of the earth contributed a great deal to the difference of geniuses. Most of the provinces of France have, on the lower superficial level, a sort of chalk that is called marne, which is put on fields for fertilizer. This marne is full of volatile spirits, which enter our blood both by feeding thing that grow and by the food we eat, and by the air we breathe and is mixed with it. […] Now such volatiles, once in the air must produce some effect in it. This effect is a lightness, the French inconstancy and vivacity.” (“La nature de la terre contribue beaucoup à la différence des génies. La plupart des provinces de France ont, à la superficie inférieure, une espèce de craie blanche qu’on appelle la marne, dont on couvre les terres pour les fumer. Cette marne est pleine d’esprits volatils, qui entrent dans notre sang et par la nourriture des choses qui croissent et par les aliments dont nous nous nourrissons, et par l’air que nous respirons et qui en est mêlé. […] Or, de tels volatils, une fois dans l’air doivent y produire quelque effet. Cet effet est une légèreté, cette inconstance, cette vivacité française.”) In such an approach, we see how there can be different “climates” at the same latitude, and how different latitudes can be similar in certain ways: thus, in the Voyages, Montesquieu is attentive to the imperceptible variations that can be detected in the continual passages from one region to another. In the digest which this text offers, we can also see that Montesquieu was trying to hold together the two ends of a single chain that allows one to conceive the effects in their differences.

6The object of Réflexions sur les habitants de Rome (read in the author’s absence to the Bordeaux Academy in December 1732; OC, t. 9, p. 69-76) is to explain the cause of the sobriety of the inhabitants of Rome compared to the intemperance of the ancient Romans. The interest of the Roman case is that these changes in character have taken place at the same latitude, in other words in the same “climate”. Yet the Roman environment, the quality of the air and water that specify the milieu, was much changed. From this point of view, the text manifests an attention to the characteristics of the milieu that we find again in L’Esprit des lois, and which prevents interpretation of the climate inquiries as a simple “theory” of climates: a classification of geographic zones which would take account only of “temperature”. In L’Esprit des lois it is less a matter of presenting a theory of climatic forms to parallel the “classification” of political regimes elaborated in the first part of the work, than to propose schemas permitting the elaboration of a system of differences. The difference between “climates” (hot or cold) allows the situation of zones where the terrain of each place must be examined. Nor does the question of temperature end climatic inquiries; it opens it, on the contrary, by allowing one to show the play that exists between the milieu and the machine, by exposing together the order of organic dynamics and the sensitivity that is formed (sensations, ideas, passions). The famous examination of the sheep’s tongue (Mazzolini) articulates this correlative examination and sensorial dispositions: the history of sensitivity is deployed beginning with the examination of which is in play in the living machine, which constitutes itself in a certain milieu and reacts to its changes. Yet one must not say that mores are but the product of the physical characteristics of bodies, as it the operation were a simple reductionism: it is the perception of the physical characteristics that mediates the passage to the moral. For example, if the men in cold countries are courageous, that is less because the disposition of their fibers would directly induce a moral inclination than because they feel strong and resistant to pain. Now this perception is largely informed by the social environment, by what Montesquieu calls the invisible links that connect human machines amongst themselves (Essai sur les causes, OC, t. 9, p. 259). It is not by chance that in the the part of the Essai sur les causes that opens with the examination of a sheep’s tongue ends with Book XIX, which bears on the general spirit. In this sense, we must say that in Montesquieu the climatic inquiry goes beyond the simple question of climate. It is the particular “milieu” that interests Montesquieu, and he seeks less to identify causes than to inventory the variables that play together in each situation, to make it possible each time to pursue successfully the examination of singular situations. For he who is incapable of grasping how these variables communicate amongst themselves to design the configuration of the terrain cannot exploit them.

7From this point of view, one must not think that climatic questions begin with the voyages and feed on the readings which Montesquieu might have made “around” this period. We must see that this question of places is of interest in the whole final part of the Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle (read to the Bordeaux Academy in 1721, OC, t. 8, p. 219-223). The qualities of plants must be studied relative to their climatic environment, which impacts on the arrangement of the places where a man’s life is situated (see also Pensées, no. 138). The climatic questions of L’Esprit des lois must therefore be connected to those we find when Montesquieu was reflecting on the natural environment and the influence that human labors might have on climats (Minuti, 1998 and 2002); one can equally put into perspective the Projet d’une histoire de la terre ancienne et moderne (1719, OC, t. 8, p. 177-184 ; see Courtois 2007), for the history of the earth et the history of climate are not unrelated to the history of men.

8Thus we must not be misled by the distinction which Montesquieu makes in the fourth paragraph of Réflexions sur les habitants de Rome among “several causes”, some physical and others moral. The important thing is not so much to assign a “physical” cause to these changes, as to see how the changes in terrain (notably phenomena of stagnating waters), and the physiological influence they might have (on the quality of fibers), are linked to social changes (evolution of mores and customs, displacement of zones of habitation) and human arrangements (abandonment of certain run-down localities, mines). So the initial distinction which we find again in the Essai sur les causes is not a sign of dualism. If the Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères is indeed constructed in two parts, that presentation in fact obliges us to keep together a fibril physiology and a history of sensitivity, as in Book XIV of L’Esprit des lois, which repeats long passages from Essai sur les causes. In this framework where Montesquieu takes an inventory of variables that might be in play, the question is to elaborate a systematic manner of apprehending characters and spirits in their differences. It is each time to understand particular “dispositions”, a term which in Montesquieu refers as much to the mechanical order (Essai sur les causes, OC, t. 9, p. 232) as to the state of mind of individuals (Pensées, no. 220). In L’Esprit des lois, he also speaks of the “disposition” of the people with which the “particular disposition” of the government must accord (EL, I, 3). For these “dispositions” come together, they conviennent: thus the science that Montesquieu wants to elaborate is knowledge of particular “comings together” (convenances), which allow one to grasp how the accord is made, and what discords may ensue from various inflections. This comprehension is at the same time an evaluation, and the perspective of the Essai sur les causes as that of L’Esprit des lois is practical, if we keep in mind the fact that this knowledge of the formation of minds also concerns the formation of the educator and the legislator.

9In L’Esprit des lois it is indeed the legislative praxis that is to be elucidated, as is shown by the example of “illnesses of the climate”. Montesquieu opposes the “wisdom and foresight of the laws” (EL, XIV, 11) made by men and divine wisdom and providence. There is neither a priori finality in the state of the locality, nor fatality of the order of consequences. “Necessity” produces its work only is man puts up no resistance: “[…] bad legislators are those who have favored the vices of the climate and the good ones are those who have stood against it” (“[…] les mauvais législateurs sont ceux qui ont favorisé les vices du climat, et les bons sont ceux qui s’y sont opposés”, EL, XIV, 5). By a reversal of positions, “fatality” comes out on the side of religious discourse; it takes on a political and human meaning: it is associated with oriental despotism, not so much because of a climatic determinism as because of human passivity. This is a failure which results from bad government, whence the importance of illuminating the legislator on what ought to be done.

10To create this knowledge of laws in context, Montesquieu articulates the discoveries of a mechanistic physiology with the old physics of place. In this approach, time and space are differentiated milieux. With Book XIV, the structural, constitutional, analyses presented in the two first parts are taken up again in a reflection on local relations. This does not mean that the typological approach is not concerned with the singularity of positive laws; on the contrary, the examples mobilized are always thought through so that the differences will not be missed. But Book XIV begins with examination of place, whence the impression of a break, a new departure in the inquiry; so it is no longer first typology that orders the examination of new relations, even if the typological framework remains ever present. With the climate as indicator of diversity, we have therefore a complexification of differences: constitutional differences will be attached to new factors of differentiation, which bring out new “reasons”. Thus the opening of Book XIV does not fix determinations, but instead draws our attention on passages by degrees that are made between different situations, and different sensitivities: “As one distinguishes climates by degrees of latitude, one could distinguish them by degrees of sensitivity” (“Comme on distingue les climats par les degrés de latitude, on pourrait les distinguer, pour ainsi dire, par les degrés de sensibilité”, EL, XIV, 2). By articulating the geographical meaning of the climate with the physiological approach, Montesquieu gives a new meaning to the “climates”: they are the places in which a certain manner of sensing is formed. From there, one can “psychologically standardize the varieties of mores” (Larrère, p. 100). This attention to situations accords with the relativist and pluralist approach of positive laws. All Montesquieu does it to follow the problematics he had outlined in explaining that “it is very much by chance if [the laws] of one nation be suitable to another” (“c’est un très grand hasard si [les lois] d’une nation peuvent convenir à une autre”, EL, I, 3). Human reason applies, in other words is not uniform, but always works in a situation. And moderation can also be understood as the act by which one justly takes the measure of a situation: “If the author has sought what magistrates in various countries could do to conduct their nation in the manner most suited and in conformity with its character, what harm has he done thereby?” (“Si l’auteur a recherché ce que les magistrats de divers pays pouvaient faire pour conduire leur nation de la manière la plus convenable et la plus conforme à son caractère, quel mal a-t-il fait en cela ?”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part two ; OC, t. VII, p. 94). So the question is not extending natural law to the human domain via climate and the physics of fibers; Montesquieu’s proceeding here is closer to that of Aristotle, who examines climatic differences to understand the particular quality of peoples to govern (Politics, VII, 7, 1327b 20 – 1328a 15). One might say that the idea of according legislation to situations is also in Bodin (Republic, V; see Staszak and Couzinet), who wants to constitute the instrument for “wise politics” which will permit “an accommodation of the republican form to the natural temperament of peoples”. His model is that of the “good architect who accommodates his building to the material he finds on the site”. In fact the text of Book I, chapter 3 can also refer, in its very formulation, to what Pufendorf says when he examines the government’s flaws: “They are in general noticed when the laws and costums of the state are not in conformity with the natural temperament of the people which is to be their subject, or to the qualities and the situation of the country” (Le Droit de la nature et des gens, Catalogue, no. 801 [1672], VII, 5, § 10 [Bâle, 1732, t. II, p. 276]; formulations of the same type can be found in Gravina or Sidney). In these authors, however, this question of adaptation remains secondary with relation to a problematics of souvereignty (even if it includes different conceptions and positions which cannot be examined here): Montesquieu’s originality is to constitute his political problematic without the foundations that are usually mobilized. The question of norms is raised in situation and must be reflected upon at the same time as a detailed examination of historical situations (Casabianca).

11In his Défense de L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu therefore returns to the general idea of a climatic influence and places the perspective of his inquiry: “The climate and other physical causes produce an infinite number of effects. If the author had said otherwise, he would have been regarded as stupid. The whole question comes down to whether in countries distant from each other, whether in different climates, there are national characters of mind. Now that there are such differences is established by the near universality of books that have been written. And since the character of the mind greatly influences the disposition of the heart, we can hardly still doubt that there are certain qualities of heart that are more frequent in one country than another; and we have for further proof an infinite number of writers of all places and all times.” (Le climat et les autres causes physiques produisent un nombre infini d’effets. Si l’auteur avait dit le contraire, on l’aurait regardé comme un homme stupide. Toute la question se réduit à savoir si dans des pays éloignés entre eux, si sous des climats différents, il y a des caractères d’esprit nationaux. Or, qu’il y ait de telles différences, cela est établi par l’universalité presque entière des livres qui ont été écrits. Et comme le caractère de l’esprit influe beaucoup dans la disposition du cœur, on ne saurait encore douter qu’il n’y ait de certaines qualités du cœur plus fréquentes dans un pays que dans un autre ; et l’on en a encore pour preuve un nombre infini d’écrivains de tous les lieux et de tous les temps. ”, OC, t. VII, p. 94). Nevertheless, Montesquieu’s intention is not to present himself as a moralist, or to polemicize with the theologians over the nature of moral qualities. By examining the “infinite diversity” of human institutions in a relativist perspective, he is only seeking to explain and to illuminate humanly legislative reason. “As these things are human, the author has spoken of them in a human way. He might well have added many questions that are debated in the schools about human virtues and Christian virtues; but it is not with such questions that one writes books about physics, politics and jurisprudence.” (“Comme ces choses sont humaines, l’auteur en a parlé d’une façon humaine. Il aurait bien pu y joindre là bien des questions que l’on agite dans les écoles sur les vertus humaines et sur les vertus chrétiennes ; mais ce n’est point avec ces questions que l’on fait des livres de physique, de politique et de jurisprudence.”, ibid.). Physical knowledge (which is indeed mobilized in Book XIV, chapter 2), political knowledge and legislative prudence: these are what constitutes here what Montesquieu calls the “human sciences”.

12If Book XIV on climates seems essential to Montesquieu’s political problematic, that is because it makes evident that there is no autonomy of the political, on which the constitutional approach could have been misleading. The climatic questioning is still essential to political problematics, for it is part of an “anthropology of differences” which alone makes it possible to conceive the agreement between the “disposition of governments”and the “disposition of peoples” (Casabianca, 2012). If the political level opens the inquiry on the knowledge of laws, that is because it constitutes the field of a possible action: the machine image shows how an intervention is possible in this play of forces; from this standpoint it is opposed to the constructivist use Hobbes makes of it in the Leviathan. The legislator, for Montesquieu, is not so much a fabricator of machines as an artisan who regulates them, winding up their springs. There is a ‘bricolage’ aspect of the application of reason. But the importance given to the passion-principle of governments makes the structure open, in its very dynamic, to non-political determinations. The bricoleur [‘handyman’] must make do with “the nature of things”. One must not believe, like certain moderns, that men are the creatures of their political community. The climate theory that juxtaposes social characteristics (for example the practice of slavery or polygamy; see also Pensées, no. 757) and natural differences (heat) affirms that physical causes continue to be at work in human societies, but that does not mean that they are the only ones active, nor that they are the most important ones: “Nature always acts, but it is overwhelmed by the mores” (“La nature agit toujours, mais elle est accablée par les mœurs”, Pensées, no. 1296, our italics; cf. no. 1199). “The character of the English marked at all times is a certain impatience which the climate gives them, and which does not allow them to act for long in the same manner, nor to suffer long the same things: a character which is not great in itself, but can become so very much, when it is not mixed with weakness, but with that courage given by climate, liberty, and laws.” (“Le caractère des Anglais marqué dans tous les temps est une certaine impatience que le climat leur donne, et qui ne leur permet ni d’agir longtemps de la même manière, ni de souffrir longtemps les mêmes choses : caractère qui n’est point grand en lui-même, mais qui peut le devenir beaucoup, lorsqu’il n’est point mêlé avec de la faiblesse, mais avec ce courage que donne le climat, la liberté et les lois.”, Pensées, no. 889). Is the main thing not to illuminate this play of climate and laws so as to conceive freedom?

13To investigate this play properly, L’Esprit des lois puts in place a systematic focus: the English case, to stay within our example, is not examined only in Book XI, chapter 6, with the famous chapter on the English constitution, it is pursued in those chapters of Book XIV that bear on the English “machine” and their way of feeling (EL, XIV, 12 et 13), and brought to a conclusion in the long chapter 27 of Book XIX on the mores, manners and character of the English nation. For if the “constitution” is not a mere legislative organ (the order of political, or “constitutional” law), but results equally from a disposition of powers that can incarnate these legal determinations, one must consider that the political union plays as much in this dynamic of powers as in the social passions which animate in opposite directions the different political bodies, and equally binds the citizens. The way in which these “dispositions” (of the people, of government) are formed is singular and must be examined each time. Montesquieu wants to offer the means of understanding these elements together, whereas a relativist approach might have led to a dispersion of the focus, to a certain scepticism. Anchored in fibril physiology, the climatic approach makes it possible to investigate well the effects of legislative intervention. So the practical priority given to the political testifies to no ontological hierarchy. In society, “everything is tightly linked” (“tout est extrêmement lié”, EL, XIX, 15); it is relations that create institutions, and there is no being or essence of the city as such. The order of political relations is always knitted to other relations, to the climate, to mores, to religion, to commerce, etc. Therefore one should not limit oneself to a political doctrine of freedom that seems to be exposed in the first thirteen books; in fact, Montesquieu questions slavery from the standpoint of climatic differences, he examining the circumstances that cause a “genius of freedom” or a “spirit of servitude” to form (EL, XVII, 6); Montesquieu asserts, with an analogy with a distinctly Hippocratic ring, that all soils are not fertile for giving rise to freedom: “Freedom itself has appeared unbearable to peoples who were not accustomed to enjoying it. So is pure air sometimes harmful to those who have lived in swampy countries.” (“La liberté même a paru insupportable à des peuples qui n’étaient pas accoutumés à en jouir. C’est ainsi qu’un air pur est quelquefois nuisible à ceux qui ont vécu dans des pays marécageux.”, EL, XIX, 2). On this point, Rousseau underscores what he owes to Montesquieu: “Freedom not being a fruit of all climates is not within reach of all peoples. The more one contemplates this principle established by Montesquieu, the more one senses its truth” (“La liberté n’étant pas un fruit de tous les climats n’est pas à la portée de tous les peuples. Plus on médite ce principe établi par Montesquieu, plus on en sent la vérité”, Du contrat social, III, 8). Beginning with Book XIV, the legislator becomes a gardener, which is never anything but coming to terms with a living machine, the dynamics of which is also related to its milieu – to repeat the image: “Men are like plants, which never grow well unless they are well tended” (“Les hommes sont comme des plantes, qui ne croissent jamais heureusement si elles ne sont bien cultivées”, LP, 118 [122]).

14Human societies inscribe themselves in a nature of place, which means that the “physical causes” continue to be at work in society. But nature here is not thought as a finalized or absolutely demanding order; the idea will not be to rediscover to a natural harmony to adapt to it, nor to bring everything back to a mechanistic determinism. Historical causality, specifically human, is linked to a natural causality; it does not reduce to it, but takes root in it. It is not a matter of opposing a physical causality to a moral one, but to think the intricacies (Courtois 2002) to know how to insert the action of men into these complex situations, how to inflect the changes that play there. In forming societies, men compose an order linked to a place, and the order of relations becomes constantly more complex. Book XVIII of L’Esprit des lois interrogates this play between nature and society by examining the relations that legislation entertains with the nature of the terrain and the conditions for survival. If there is indeed an historicity in the complexification of relations, Montesquieu does not mean to finalize this movement in a natural process that would account for the stages of “civilization”. The work of men in situation is not conducted by a pre-established model, nor projected into a progress which realizes its full-blown form. If this book does not find its place in the part on commerce, that is also because it does not conceive a “natural history of humanity” as did the Scottish thinkers of the 18th century. This complexity is at once what explains the varying wanderings of men, and the fact that they are governed without knowing it by such and such a determination, but also what makes action possible; once the relations are considered, one can seek to orient one’s efforts. Thus man does not pluck himself from nature, nor does he inscribe his destiny in it; he deploys his freedom in it, an uncertain freedom that works historically. To insist on this physical causality ever at work, ever linked in history to the workings of human reason, is to say that there is in matters of legislation no absolute beginning, and that good use must be made of freedom in situation. The question of climates thus opens an examination of the non-political conditions of the political (mores, commerce, religion), to sketch the field of possibilities of human action, see its limits, since these various “more specific” relations reveal how legislators can encounter resistances in their attempts to reserve a space for political freedom.

15Another outcome of these climatic questions is that this practical politics needs to remain centered on Europe, as if human reason could be applied only in this temperate geographic zone. The stark opposition between hot and cold climates brings into relief this median zone of application, where the field of human possibilities is the broadest, and thus also the most uncertain (EL, XVII, 3-6). In Europe all is possible, even the worst, hence the urgency, to be really useful, of knowing how the best advantage can be taken of a situation so

16favorable to human action, if only it is enlightened – even the situation of France (LP, 118 [122]). It is in this advantageous place that the responsibility of legislators is engaged, for misery and despotism there would be a flaw of application; that is where the future of monarchies must be anticipated and there must be reflection on the possibilities of political moderation.


Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford University Press, 1961.

Jean Ehrard, L’Idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle (1963), Paris: Albin Michel, 1994, p. 691-736.

Georgres Benrekassa, La Politique et sa mémoire, Paris: Payot, 1983, p. 205-256.

Renato Giuseppe Mazzolini, “Dallo ‘spirito nerveo’ allo ‘spirito delle leggi’: un commento alle osservazioni di Montesquieu su una lingua di pecora”, in Giles Barber et Cecil P. Courtney (ed.), Enlightenment essays in memory of Robert Shackleton, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 205-221.

Catherine Larrère, “Galiani lecteur de Montesquieu”, in Eclectisme et cohérence des Lumières, Paris: Nizet, 1992, p. 97-109.

Rolando Minuti, “Ambiente naturale e dinamica delle società politiche: aspetti e tensioni di un tema di Montesquieu”, Domenico Felice (ed.), Leggere “L’Esprit des lois”: stato, società e storia nel pensiero di Montesquieu, Napoli: Liguori, 1998, p. 137-163.

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