1This text was read in Montesquieu’s absence at the opening session of the Bordeaux Academy, at the end of November or beginning of December 1732. The manuscript, preserved at the library in La Brède and first published in 1896, is a later copy (secretary E, 1734-1739). An article in the Pensées (no. 665) presents a sketch of it. A note drawn from Diodorus follows the text.
2A first title, crossed out (“Fourth memoir: reflections on mines”) proves that this memoir was first a sequel to the Mémoires sur les mines (read in 1731-1732 at the same academy). Like the latter, it is inspired by observations made during his travels; the pages on Rome and the Roman countryside in Voyage d’Italie contain notations of which the traces can be found here.
3The text is short, and the subject simple: opposing “the surprising sobriety” of today’s Romans to the “prodigious gluttony” of the Ancient ones, Montesquieu attributes several causes to this change. Physical causes first: modern Rome is built in lowlands where the air is “gross”, or on buried remains where water stagnates. Moral causes principally, stemming from their manner of living: on the one hand, the use of baths before meals, which restores their action to the “fibers” (a usage also found among the Indians), an agitated life spent entirely out of doors; on the other hand, a measured, confined life, solitary meals, everything that contributed to weakening the body and relaxing the fibers.
4In its condensed form, this text is extremely rich in suggestions, where one anticipates the physiological analysis of the Essai sur les causes and the reflection on the relationship of the physical and moral causes in L’Esprit des lois, the curiosity for customs attested in the missionary and travel narratives (Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, Chardin), the taste for making connections, the explanatory hypothesis, the comparison of similar usages among quite various peoples. The memoir has rightly been considered as testimony to the birth of some important ideas in L’Esprit des lois.
Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux, Ms 2133/vi.
Voyages, t. II (1896), p. 379-383.
OC, t. IX, p. 67-82 (ed. Sheila Mason and Pierre Rétat).