Machine, mechanics

Denis de Casabianca


1The paradigm of the machine as it appears in Montesquieu is that of modern science. Since Galileo, the figure of the scholar has been linked to that of the engineer. Nor does Montesquieu fail to describe in detail “the English machine that acts by means of fire”, to compare ancient and modern “machines for drawing water” (Mémoires sur les mines, OC, t. X, p. 630); his travel notes evince the same attention (Voyages, OC, t. X, p. 114, p. 217, p. 219, p. 405-408). The physics Montesquieu claims is mechanistic insofar as the machine model should enable one to apprehend the natural reality to study. It stems from Descartes for since his research, scholars “have unraveled chaos and explained, by simple mechanics, the order of divine architecture” (“ont débrouillé le chaos et ont expliqué, par une mécanique simple, l’ordre de l’architecture divine”, LP, 94 [97], italics added). The world is thought like a “machine” of which God is the “artisan” (Pensées, nos. 1096, 1946). It is not so much a matter of referring, as in Malebranche, to a divine project, and manifesting the wisdom of the creative Act through the economy of the whole, as permitting a scholar to conduct his research effectively. In the same Cartesian line, the living body is presented as a “machine” so simple in its action and so composed in its ‘spring’” (Discours sur l’usage des glandes rénales, OC, t. VIII, p. 166). [Spring = ressort, a driving or motor force.] Yet one must not yield to admiration of that order: against pious scholars, and as a “rigid Cartesian”, Montesquieu means to maintain a mechanistic schema in the study of vegetals despite the difficulties encountered by the researcher (Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle, OC, t. VIII, p. 213).

2As if to echo this kind of physical research we might note that a “mechanical imagination” (Benrekassa, p. 245) is at work in L’Esprit des lois. A whole metaphorical system is deployed in the work to support the examination of political regimes. The image of the spring (Benrekassa, p. 247-248) is the most present one, both in the sense of numerous occurrences and because it serves to qualify the play of the principles of governments. The nature of each government presented as a “structure” (EL, III, 1), must be animated by its own specific principle. “In a popular state, there must be an additional spring, which is virtue” (“Dans un État populaire, il faut un ressort de plus, qui est la vertu”, EL, III, 3). The spring is the passion that spurs action, and each government has its own specific spring; thus, with respect to thus monarchical government: “[…] if one spring is wanting, there is another one: honor” (“[…] s’il manque d’un ressort, il en a un autre. L’honneur”, EL, III, 3 - 6). The spring-principle that is specific to each form of government, however, is articulated with other springs (maxims of morality, religion, establishment of penalties, etc.) and Montesquieu clearly distinguished between the two expressions. The spring-principle is what constitutes the dynamic unity of the structure and which is necessary for its preservation; the play of springs serves to articulate itself with this first tension and comes to terms with it. The metaphor makes it possible to examine the evolution of regimes one the basis of tensions and relaxations in the machine that underscore the play of the different powers and forces present. Thus Montesquieu presents the shocks of history (EL, III, 3), the crises where “all the springs of the government are wound tight” (“tous les ressorts du gouvernement sont tendus”, EL, XI, 13). In this play of mechanical forces, the opposition appears between the moderate governments, which can relax their springs, and rigid despotism (EL, III, 9).

3In the comparison of the monarchical order to the “system of the universe” (EL, III, 7), cosmic mechanics refers to an ideal of economy in which all the parts are linked together by a simple dynamic apparatus. Yet we must note that such an image serves to characterize only well-run monarchies, and is opposed to the image of the thrown ball used to qualify despotism (EL, III, 10; EL, V, 14). We can remark that “democracy, aside from its spring, escapes the mechanical imagination (Benrekassa, p. 249), which lets us think that it is the opposition between monarchy and despotism that largely structures the metaphorical field in L’Esprit des lois (Casabianca, 2000, p. 44-50). Despotism is presented as a mechanism gone awry, brutal, whereas monarchical order presupposes a regulation of the powers that can be realized only in a well-composed machine. We might ask whether Montesquieu is not thus opposing Hobbes, who also uses the image of the machine, showing how his Leviathan is nothing but a despotic mechanism. The image of fluids also serves to examine the passage of monarchy to despotism (Casabianca, 2000, p. 50-63). The image of a hydraulic system draws attention to the good regulation of power in “middle canals” (EL, II, 4) as well as its good diffusion from its source; it makes it possible to point out the possible disruptions. One can think that Montesquieu thus overturns the imaginary of absolutist thinkers who take inspiration from machinery constructed in the royal gardens to manifest the presence and wisdom of the prince.

4Does this metaphorical ensemble mark a “rejection of the organicist metaphor” (Benrekassa, p. 252)? Yet we must observe that the image of the machine also refers to the living body, as we see with the study of the motion of bodies in its exchanges with its milieu, the mechanical disposition being the reverse side of sensitivity (EL, XIV, 2). The passage puts forward organic temperaments and the equilibrium of liquids. The textual apparatus is therefore perfectly in harmony with the observed metaphorical system, and we can ask whether the opposition between despotism and monarchy as moderate government cannot also be understood as the opposition between a simple, blind machine that strikes moot blows, and a cleverly composed machine like the living body. In the living body, “everything works together for the good of the animate subject” (“tout concourt pour le bien du sujet animé”, Discours sur l’usage des glandes rénales, OC, t. VIII, p. 166), as in the monarchical “system” (EL, III, 7). Such an image makes room for the intervention of a legislator (Casabianca, 2010), who would resemble an amiable artisan (the moderate government is a “masterpiece of legislation”, EL, V, 14) or that of the “genius” artist who knows how to penetrate “the whole constitution of a state” and compose the laws to make a whole (EL, Preface). The machine then appears as a poietic category. And since Montesquieu did not “lack genius” (EL, Preface) himself, it is again to this image that he refers to manifest the unity of his work (Pensées, no. 2092).


Georges Benrekassa, “Système métaphorique et pensée politique: Montesquieu et l’imagination mécanique dans L’Esprit des lois”, Revue des sciences humaines 186-187 (1982-1983), p. 241-255.

Denis de Casabianca, “Dérèglements mécaniques et dynamique des fluides dans L’Esprit des lois”, Revue Montesquieu 4 (2000), p. 43-70.

Denis de Casabianca, “La santé du corps politique : médecine et art de la législation chez Montesquieu”, in Le Corps et ses images dans l'Europe du XVIIIe siècle, Sabine Arnaud et Helge Jordheim ed., Paris: Champion, 2012, p. 243-258.