Œuvres diverses


Pierre Rétat


1The classical idea of a choice of works worthy of the author and his/her public dominated the practice of “Works” or “Miscellany” in the old sense of the word. With the “Complete Works” that appear and multiply in the second half of the 18th century, the new idea takes over that everything should be included that can help to understand the author, the formation of his/her genius, but also the person and the entirety of his/her personality and history: here begins the quest and collection of all documents, of the slightest writings that subsist. Such is the literary ideology that commands the constitution and enrichment of the category of “miscellany” in the modern sense.

2Since 1816 most of Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes thus include a section entitled “Œuvres diverses”. This editorial category seems to impose itself naturally; it makes it possible to make a place, beside the major works, for all those the modest or even minimal dimensions of which make it necessary to regroup them in an ensemble the law of which is variety or even disparity.

3The “œuvres diverses” serve to collect everything that is not the “great works”, in other words, in Montesquieu’s case, first of all L’Esprit des lois, the Persian Letters and Romans, their content depends on various kinds of luck or choice, and first on the discovery and publication of forgotten manuscripts or texts, which enrich them but can also subtract from them works which attain autonomy by growing.

4The enrichment has especially occurred at two decisive moments: in 1796-1797 the Plassan edition of the Œuvres revealed the discourses and memoirs delivered at the Bordeaux Academy, thus a whole phase of Montesquieu’s activity heretofore unknown to the public; in 1891 began the publication by the Bibliophiles de Guyenne of the manuscripts preserved at La Brède, which renewed the knowledge of Montesquieu’s work through an influx of widely divergent texts, from a small youthful work like the Discours sur Cicéron to Histoire véritable. But at the same time the “Pensées diverses”, in other words some of the Pensées we know, and which were part of the “œuvres diverses”, left them through the revelation of an integral manuscript, and the correspondence, which was also a part, no longer needed to remain there after the Gébelin edition of 1914. The dissociation of works previously grouped together was the cause of other modifications in the content of the “œuvres diverses”: The Temple of Gnidus, which accompanied the Persian Letters, was separated from them rapidly to rejoin this section, but the Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate long remained inseparable from Romains. In any case, a margin of indecision, and thus of freedom, determined the collection’s content, whatever the justifications which the editor brought to bear.

5Nearer to us, the research of the editors of the Masson edition, acquisitions and donations of manuscripts of La Brède to the Bordeaux city library, made it possible to add further new items to the corpus already constituted. By their nature, “œuvres diverses” are never closed, even if a time comes when the known items or those that remain to be found are quite few in number and discoveries improbable.

6In the edition of the Œuvres complètes currently under way in Lyon and Paris (after Oxford), Montesquieu’s Œuvres et écrits divers occupy two volumes, VIII and IX, published in 2003 and 2006 at the Voltaire Foundation: in all sixty-one texts, from the summary of Roman history in the notes of a young schoolboy of the Oratorians in 1700 (Historia romana) to the Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution, which he wrote a few months before his death.

7Several texts appear here for the first time: a collection of Latin mottos for the château de La Brède, of uncertain date, an epigram certainly found in Florence in 1728 or 1729, a compliment to the king at the head of the French Academy in 1739, and finally a songbook that Montesquieu had had his secretary compile for the Prince of Wales (an introductory note to this Recueil d’airs was known, but the complete inventory of the contents is given for the first time).

8The works of uncertain attribution are published separately in the appendix of vol. IX: Voyage à Paphos (1728), various poems, finally an Essai touchant les lois naturelles et la distinction du juste et de l’injuste (after 1747), revealed by the Masson edition, but which it seems impossible to attribute to Montesquieu.

9Various aspects of the personal life, activity and preoccupations of the landowner appear in several writings: a Mémoire de ma vie (around 1750), and essay on family genealogy for his grandson; the Testament of 1750, preserved in the National Archives; Questions sur la culture de la vigne (~ 1725?), a sort of vintner’s memento; an État de ses affaires en 1725, totting up his assets and debts; finally a Mémoire contre l’arrêt du conseil du 27 février 1725, where Montesquieu claims the right to plant vineyards in the heaths he has bought (these last four items first appeared in the Masson edition).

10The principal interest of ten or so poems is to testify to various episodes in the worldly life of Montesquieu, first under the Regency and in the following years, in Paris, Bélébat and Chantilly, then at the court of Stanislas in Lunéville during a stay in 1747 of which he left Souvenirs, a small collection of anecdotes.

11The Discours de réception à l’Académie française (1728) and the Ébauche de l’éloge historique du maréchal de Berwick (around 1753) can also be connected to Montesquieu’s social career, and to the eminent position, close to the highest nobility, which he gained thanks to his friendship with Berwick and his family, even if the interest of these two texts (especially the second) obviously surpasses this narrow framework.

12The Discours sur l’équité qui doit régler les jugements et l’exécution des lois, delivered at the opening of the Bordeaux parlement in November 1725 is the sole trace of a parlementary activity that was to end a little later with the sale of his charge.

13The rest, and the bulk of Œuvres et écrits divers, is divided into several large groups. The one that most obviously attracts attention includes the academic discourses and everything having to do with Montesquieu’s experience at the Bordeaux Academy, so important in the formation of his philosophy and method: from 1716, the date of his reception, to 1725, come a string of discourses and memoirs on physical subjects, natural history, morality, about fifteen texts in all (see the article “Academic Discourses”). A Projet d’une histoire de la terre ancienne et moderne, launched in public through the press in 1719, also manifests the scientific ambition that motivated Montesquieu at this time. After his travels he again delivered to the Bordeaux Academy his Réflexions sur les habitants de Rome (1732) and Mémoires sur les mines (1731-1732; they will be published after the Voyages). In 1749 he proved his attachment to that institution by writing up a Requête au roi contre l’arrêt du 26 juillet 1749 to defend the interests of the Academy that were threatened by Tourny’s urbanistic projects.

14Also grouped with Montesquieu’s scientific activity is a text that manifests his seriousness and depth, and in which we already find, expressed with great power, some of the principal ideas of L’Esprit des lois: the Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères (about 1734-1738).

15Another group has to do with history, political analysis or reflections, including and especially in allegorical, heroic and imaginary forms: Discours sur Cicéron (~1717? A recently found manuscript, Notes de lectures which will be published in vol. XVII, also reveals this text’s philosophical interest); Lettres de Xénocrate à Phérès (1724), which offer a portrait of the Duc d’Orléans; Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate (1724); Dialogue de Xantippe et de Xénocrate (~ 1727); Réflexions sur le caractère de quelques princes et sur quelques événements de leur vie (~ 1731-1733); Lysimaque (1751). It can also be remarked that the first (obviously not counting the schoolboy’s Roman history) and last texts by date are presented as attempts by Montesquieu to intervene in current issues: the Mémoire sur les dettes de l’État (1715) answers to a general consultation launched by the Regent to resolve the financial crisis, and the Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution (1754) takes a position in the religious and political crisis provoked by the refusal of sacraments. Finally, we find, in a central position, in preparation for the Monarchie universelle and L’Esprit des lois, his Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne (1727).

16It can appear artificial to cite side by side Le Temple de Gnide (1725), Histoire véritable (~ 1734-1738) and Arsace et Isménie (~ 1748-1754). Between a poetic fiction à l’antique to the glory of Venus, a collection of portraits and satirical reflections in the form of deliberately comic transmigrations, and a novel of perfect and unhappy love mixed with a political fable, what connection should be made? At least these works, especially these last two which do not, like the first, depend on personal, worldly circumstances, reveal Montesquieu’s permanent taste for literary expression, narrative, fantasy, character traits, dreams, often fed by antique references and allied with the greatest freedom of invention and tone. The Pensées attest very early to Montesquieu’s interest for what we call esthetics. We find an echo of it in an untitled text on the “gothic manner” (~ 1734), the sketch of a theory of the evolution of the arts, and especially in the article “Goût” [‘taste’] in vol. VII of the Encyclopédie (1757) and subsequently published under the title Essay on Taste.

17We can draw several conclusions from the collection and grouping of these “miscellanea”. Of fifty-five texts of certain attribution, only eight appeared during Montesquieu’s lifetime, three of which are reviews of academic memoirs (the only vestiges we still have) and a brief announcement in the learned journals. So we understand that “miscellanea” are one of the most important places of Montesquieu’s posthumous manuscript legacy, a dispersed legacy preserved through many accidents and progressively opened to the public over two and a half centuries: beside the Pensées, to be sure, and in communication with them, for we find there many “rejects”, notes related to and preparatory for our texts.

18The chronological order of the texts has the great advantage of emphasizing the extreme variety and especially the simultaneity of scientific, philosophical, historical, political, and literary interests and works that interact with each other (and with the major works), inviting us to find, not a unity or oversimple line of an oriented trajectory (as has too often been claimed), but the obscure focus of a polymorphic reflection, invention, and imagination.

19Though Montesquieu’s editors have often succumbed to the finalist obsession, any idea of a certain organic unity ought not therefore to be excluded. It is not out of the question that the “miscellanea” inspire it, but it seems they are par excellence the place where it should be forgotten and avoided, and one should return to a possible uncertainty and an irreducible multiplicity. In their spread, their accidental contiguity and their discontinuity, they are the principle of an at least marginal dissolution of the “author” and the “work”. From this trial Montesquieu can only emerge the richer.


Critical edition

Œuvres et écrits divers, OC, t. VIII-IX (2003, 2006), ed. Pierre Rétat.


La Notion d’œuvres complètes, Jean Sgard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 370 (1999).

Jean Sgard, “Des collections aux œuvres complètes, 1756-1798”, ibid., p. 1-12.

Jean Ehrard, “Les ‘Œuvres complètes’ de Montesquieu”, ibid., p. 49-55.

Jean Ehrard, OC, t. I, p. ix-xxvi.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, « Montesquieu, l’œuvre à venir », Revue Montesquieu 4 (2000), p. 5-26. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article326

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs ? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon : ENS Éditions, « Métamorphoses du livre », 2011, with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil.