1Montesquieu was received into the Académie Française on 24 January 1728. Much has been written about the difficulties he encountered when he put forward his candidacy, and on the opposition made by the Cardinal de Fleury, alerted to the daring content of the Lettres persanes.
2Much less has been said about his reception oration, which is nevertheless worthy of interest in several respects. Ostensibly conforming to the extremely constricting conventions of the genre (eulogy of the departed member one is succeeding, eulogy of the Academy’s founder, Cardinal de Richelieu, and of the king, the “protector” of the Academy), he partly eludes them and adroitly plays around them. The brevity of the text is remarkable: it is barely half as long as the medium length of speeches at the time. By giving a condensed and allusive form to the eulogy of Louis Silvestre de Sacy, whom he succeeded in chair number 2, Montesquieu seems to have wished to defer to Mme de Lambert, a friend of both, who had already published a long eulogy in the Mercure de France. The original way he deals with the other obligatory aspects is much more significant; his eulogy of the great protectors is almost entirely indirect, and is addressed with veiled irony to the Academy, established as he puts it to devote to them a “formal appreciation” (culte réglé), for which he expresses an excessive and suspect admiration. Finally, he opposes the “king” and the “hero” in Louis XIV in terms in which can be subtly inferred past and future condemnations.
3One can thus judge that with consummate prudence Montesquieu delivered an oration that was both quite academic and un-academic, and in any case quite original.
4The very incisive response of J.-R. Malet (or Mallet), director of the Academy, was not published (contrary to custom) after Montesquieu’s oration. It can be found beginning in 1730 in the Recueils (collections) of academic documents.
First edition in brochure form, Paris: Jean-Baptiste Coignard fils, 1728.
Critical edition: OC, t. IX, p. 1-15 (ed. Pierre Rétat).
On his election: Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 85-89.
Louis Desgraves, “Montesquieu et l’Académie française”, in Montesquieu, l’œuvre et la vie (Bordeaux: L’Esprit du Temps, 1994), p. 39-60.