1Elected director of the Bordeaux academy for the second time on 28 August 1725, Montesquieu delivered this discourse at the opening session on 15 November.
2A text in the Pensées (no. 1265) under the title “Particular examples of Spanish conquests in the Indes” is almost identical to the beginning of this discourse, but centers more on the misdeeds of superstition, the belief in miracles and prodigies. It seems this is (like no. 1263, some paragraphs of which are also in this discourse) material that served Montesquieu in 1725, and which the secretary E recopied into the Pensées between 1734 and 1739.
3This discourse does not shine by the coherence of the parts that make it up. Montesquieu seems, in order to respond to the obligations of his Academic responsibility, to have grouped together disparate and ill-matched arguments. To illustrate the utility of “arts and sciences”, he begins with what appears to be an original development, the very one we find again in the Pensées: if a Descartes had been born in Mexico or Peru before the Spanish conquest, he would have spread physical principles which, dissipating those people’s prejudices, would easily have permitted them to repel the invaders.
4After which he enumerates five other motives for devoting oneself to science, rapidly sketched, the most lengthily evoked consisting in a commonplace (the love of study makes for the happiness of our old age, when other pleasures have fled).
5To end, a few words on the utility of letters, books “for the mind”, the practice of which allows one to make the sciences less dry and their discoveries more accessible, and a flattering allusion to Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes.
BM Bordeaux, Ms 1914/ii (autograph) and 828/vi, n° 9.
La Décade philosophique, littéraire et politique, no. 7, 10 Frimaire year V (30 November 1796).
OC, t. VIII, p. 489-502 (ed. Sheila Mason).