1“Luxury is singularly proper to monarchies” (EL, VII, 4). By making luxury a structural element of this type of government, along with “honor”, Montesquieu takes a bold and original stance in a great debate that runs through the 18th century, in which participate theologians, moralists, philosophers, politicians and even poets. A moral theme inherited from Antiquity, adopted and interpreted by the Christian tradition (that of corrupting luxury) mixes with the properly political and economic theme of the role it plays in the formation and circulation of wealth. Until the end of the century, until the notion lost all pertinence in economic thought and ceased to be an ideological stake, it held an important place in the interpretation of societies and the judgment made on them: the sign and token of fortunate growth, collective happiness, or on the contrary the terrible, fatal effect of social inequality, an incurable disease that eats away at civilizations. Montesquieu tends to make no judgment of value in this respect: luxury simply enters into the normal functioning of one of the three modes of government in his political typology; it accompanies the inequality of ranks and fortunes which is constitutive of them; for money never to cease circulating, spending must be proportional to it: “Thus, for a monarchical state to maintain itself, luxury must continue to increase, from the plowman to the artisan, to the merchant, the nobles, the magistrates, to the great lords, the principal financiers, the princes; otherwise all would be lost” (EL, VII, 4). In the Persian Letters, Montesquieu was already vaunting the benefits of “interest” and luxury; he showed the “passion for acquiring wealth” passing “from station to station, from artisans to grandees” (LP, 103 ). In L’Esprit des lois, he makes a decisive step: he associates this thirst for wealth and consumption, for which luxury is the defining, simplifying term, with the very principle of monarchy, the “honor” that thus assumes an ambiguous character: it remains the delicate sentiment of “glory”, the pride of an “order” of the state, but it is also that “ambition” that “gives life” to the monarchy, the “effect of wealth” that motivates people to acquire ever more, to strive for superiority and seek the prince’s gratifications, “the honors”. It is an inherited, imperious code, but also a frivolous art of living, which one learns in the “world”, the imposture of which Montesquieu shows in the brilliant chapter 2 of book IV on “education in monarchies”.
2He thus proposes an astonishingly new analysis of monarchy, the mode of government of the great modern European states, since the motor that moves it achieved the synthesis between the values and intact pre-eminences of an order and the individualism of the merchant and bourgeois ethic. The famous chapter 7 of book III compares the natural harmony of ambitions in society to that of the Newtonian world: “[…] each person contributes to the common good, believing he is working for his own interests”. An individualist interpretation of the spirit of monarchy is thus found bending in the direction of a confirmation of the rights of the nobility, the maintenance of the traditional hierarchy: the social stratification that corresponds to the progression of luxury is founded on wealth, but is generally identified with the scale of “states”, from the “plowman” to the “princes”. Montesquieu refuses to the nobility the right to commerce (EL, XX, 20 ), but means to make it profit from the commercial enrichment which the monarchy must favor to satisfy the luxury needs that support its nature. The nobility can thus assume the essential social function that consists of “spending”.
3Monarchy appears in this light as a society of distribution and attribution of revenue in favor of a priviliged, idle class, but its luxury expenditures play a role in the economic motor. Montesquieu recommends “luxury trade” to the great monarchical nations in opposition to the “economic trade” of the small, trading republics; by that we mean trade that does not seek to make a profit for the nation, but to satisfy and encourage the consumption required by great wealth. It is evident that this model corresponds to a French reality which Montesquieu had before his eyes, and which he analyzes lucidly. It is France he is thinking of when he insists on the benefits of apparent moral corruption and asks that the “general spirit” of the French not be changed (EL, XIX, 5-6); England, where the mode of living is more egalitarian, is developing “solid luxury”, whereas French luxury, more aristocratic and worldly, is based on appearance and vanity.
4One could easily collect, in Montesquieu’s work, passionate and eloquent denunciations of the misdeeds of luxury: the “awful luxury” of the capital contrasting with the misery of the provinces in a conquering monarchy (EL, X, 9), the “cry of luxury and sensuality” that rises in favor of slavery (EL, XV, 9), the excess of the “luxury of superstition” (EL, XXV, 7). We know with what intensity Montesquieu dreamed of the fine equality and frugality of the ancient democracies; he sometimes evokes the “earliest times”, “sacred times […] ages when luxury was unknown” (EL, XXVI, 14), or expresses his disgust at “the dregs and corruption of our modern times” (Pensées, no. 737). But he expresses just as strongly his happiness in living in a modern monarchy, a happiness that cannot be had without accepting the break that is patent between the moral ideal and real practice. Others before him, contemplating that break, had given the richest societies of modern Europe a critical, aggressive vision: Bayle and especially, taking inspiration from him, the English doctor Mandeville, whose work Montesquieu knew and quoted with praise. The famous Fable of the Bees (1714) had starkly posed the following dilemma: to be virtuous and poor, or rich and perverted. Mandeville too vaunted the benefits of luxury and vanity, the harmony of individual interests, and denounced the moral falsity of noble honor. The sarcastic tone he often adopted no doubt was completely foreign to Montesquieu; but it is extremely significant that he had recourse to this type of paradoxical, cynical thought, that claimed enjoyment of commercial and manufacturing wealth and the consumption of luxury products, to define an important aspect of his own conception of the French monarchy and the ideal model he constructs of it in L’Esprit des lois.
5In the second half of the eighteenth century the rising theory of capitalist accumulation among the Physiocrats, that of “profit” as opposed to “revenue” in Turgot and Adam Smith, were simultaneously to decry luxury as a practice of economic agents and void it as an analytic category. In this light, the model of a spending, luxury society conceived by Montesquieu seems to reveal his membership in an archaic, pre-capitalist world. It would be wrong to refuse him all historical pertinence, however, since he is on the contrary the perfect expression of another moment in capitalism, commercial and manufacturing, in the service of a society of old structure where transitions leading to a bourgeois society were slowly operating.
Jean Ehrard, L’Idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle, Paris: SEVPEN, 1963, re-edition Paris: Albin Michel, 1994, p. 586-592, 602-604.
Jean-Claude Perrot, Une histoire intellectuelle de l’économie politique, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 1992, p. 333-354.
Pierre Rétat, “De Mandeville à Montesquieu: honneur, luxe et dépense noble dans L’Esprit des lois”, Studi francesi 50 (1973), p. 238-249.
Pierre Rétat, “Luxe”, DHS 26 (1994), p. 79-88.
Céline Spector, Montesquieu et l’émergence de l’économie politique, Paris: Champion, 2006, ch. 3.