Montesquieu: Friends

François Cadilhon


1On 26 September 1721, Montesquieu wrote to Jean-Baptiste de Caupos, director of the Bordeaux Academy: “Please greet warmly for me MM. de Sarrau, de Barbot and Monsieur le président de Gascq” (OC, t. XVIII, letter 36). If for the Larousse classique the close friend (familier) is “one who regularly frequents someone and lives in his/her intimacy” (“celui qui fréquente habituellement quelqu’un et vit dans son intimité”), the definition applied to Montesquieu assuredly requires us to plunge into everyday Bordeaux life and more precisely that of La Brède, but leaves aside partly the Parisian relations evoked elsewhere. In any case, it is in this domain that the numerous memoirs defended at the University of Bordeaux have best made known those with whom the baron might have had very close relations. It is also possible to have recourse to the various biographical dossiers assembled by Louis Desgraves (OC, t. XVIII, p. 427-433).

2On the subject of close friends, two strata can be clearly identified. The crucible of the college of Juilly with Barbot, Bel, Loyac, Marans and Navarre seems essential at an early stage, justifying in advance the remarks of the Cardinal de Bernis, who underscored in his Memoirs that “the relations of youth are never forgotten and are easily renewed”. Many former students moreover maintained close relations, epistolary and human, with Father Desmolets (1678-1760), the librarian of the Oratory in Paris, who tied together in some measure a group with multiple connections. From the La Brède side, we can point to complex relations that mixed business and trials as much as writing and friendship, notably the Latapie clan, the Sarrau brothers of the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, in addition to the abbé de Guasco, the subject of another article in this dictionary.

3Joseph de Marans (1682-1764) is often forgotten in the list of Montesquieu’s close friends. Yet he was one of the rare persons whom the philosopher permitted to address him as tu, contrary to the rules of propriety at the time: “My dear […] thou art as attentive at events as thy wife is inattentive” (OC, t. XVIII, letter 85, p. 105). A counselor at the Bordeaux parlement beginning in 1706, he left Guyenne in 1730 for an office as maître des requêtes (a parlementary position) the purchase of which supposed a considerable fortune. He still remained very close to Montesquieu and even attended, along with his eldest son, the count d’Estillac, the philosopher’s last moments. Between Paris and Bordeaux, Joseph de Navarre (1681-1757) also had an uncommon destiny. The grandson of a merchant whose family acquired nobility late, in the seventeenth century, and could acquire a charge of counselor at the cour des aides (a chamber of parlement) of Guyenne where Navarre succeeded his father in 1720, after law studies in Paris where he received his licence in 1699. He who is often presented as a co-disciple of Montesquieu at Juilly was thus in reality admitted much earlier than Monsieur de La Brède to the Oratorian academy (indeed he is often confused – especially by Paul Courteault, too easily reproached – with his cousin Jacques). On the other hand, at the college of Dammartin-en-Goëlle he made the acquaintance of the Duke of Berwick to whom, most likely, he later introduced the philosopher whom he also got into the Bordeaux Academy. A founding member of the august company, fascinated by astronomy and agronomy but ruined by the failure of Law and unable of paying his dues, he had to leave the Academy in 1724. Joseph de Navarre frequented Angélique Anquetin de La Chapelle and maintained a rich correspondence with her; she had a salon in Paris and announced Montesquieu’s death to him: “He esteemed and loved you” (Municipal Archives, Bordeaux, Fonds Beaumartin, VII, no. 342).

4Jean-Jacques Bel (1693-1738) and Jean Barbot (1695-1771) never stayed long in Paris and in many respects served as Bordeaux relays for Charles-Louis de Secondat to follow or concretize his personal projects. The former was the son of a taille collector in Cahors, late come to the Bordeaux parlement. Having become a counselor at the death of his father in 1720, Jean-Jacques married his cousin Antoinette de Gauffreteau but for want of progeny bequeathed most of his property, in particular his home in the Allées de Tourny to the Academy – which he had entered in 1736 – which immediately made it its seat. Throughout his life Bel remained very discreet; he nevertheless acquired some reputation in the world of letters thanks to his reviews in the Bibliothèque française, a journal published in Amsterdam, in which he adopted very harsh positions on the works of Voltaire – who too had himself most disobliging remarks with respect to the Bordeaux Academy – and on Houdar de la Motte. Barbot is frequently presented as Montesquieu’s closest confident; yet we know of only a very small part of the epistolary exchanges between the two men. François de Paule Latapie indeed explains “that the immense correspondence that existed over more than thirty years between Montesquieu and his friend was delivered to the flames by the latter’s fanatical sister, directed by a Tartuffe of a monk who never left her side” (“que l’immense correspondance qui a existé pendant plus de trente ans entre Montesquieu et son ami [a] été livrée aux flammes par la fanatique sœur de ce dernier, dirigée par un tartufe de moine qui ne la quittait pas”, BNR, manuscripts, 6203). A member of the Academy of Bordeaux in 1718, director on several occasions and notably filling the secretaryship, he did not always manage to master the magnitude of the task; but he bequeathed all of his library to the institution in 1749 and tried to persuade Montesquieu not to sell his position as président à mortier.

5One can no doubt add to the list Jean-Jacques de Loyac (1690-1755), Montesquieu’s cousin, the son of a treasurer of France and of Anne de Pesnel. As for Antoine Alexandre de Gascq (1673-1753), though he was outside the Juilly circle, the one whom Charles Louis de Secondat wanted to greet so warmly was the baron de Portets, a president in the parlement, a great aficionado of letters and one of the founders of the Academy; it was doubtless thanks to his marriage with Marie de Pichard, one of the largest fortunes in the city in the first half of the 18th century.

6At La Brède, Montesquieu first relied on Pierre Latapie, whose family served the Secondats and lived in their intimacy since the late 17th century. Married to Thérèse Berthomieu, he was the private notary, the seigniorial judge and to a degree a confidant. A note from the baron de Montesquieu in 1843 also emphasizes that “M. Latapie was not only a notary handling the business of my great-grandfather but also his friend, and the affection was mutual” (BM Bordeaux, ms. 2579). He is nevertheless principally known through the acerbic remarks of his son François-de-Paule (1739-1823), an eminent naturalist – who called went by the name of Paule Latapie – and who long complained of the cruel treatment inflicted by an authoritarian father. We shall not mention here the numerous secretaries who assisted Montesquieu from the late 1720s to his death, since they are the subject of another article; let us simply note that at least one of them, abbé Nicolas Bottereau-Duval, was also a collaborator, who assisted him in his scientific experiments (see Essai d’observations d’histoire naturelle, OC, t. VIII, p. 189 and 222).

7At La Brède, the baron spent as much time improving his lands as speculating with or against his neighbors. Anne Charlotte de Crussol, duchesse d’Aiguillon, from whom many letters to Jean-Baptiste begin with a thundering “best friend of the great Montesquieu” (whom she indeed often received in her Parisian house), sometimes had this bitter experience. Presented in the personal (and secret) collection of his Pensées as “the woman of France who lied the most in any given time” (no. 1393), she had to defend herself in several suits which Charles Louis de Second brought against her in order to delimit their respective holdings. On the other hand, the Sarrau brothers — Jean de Vésis (or de Vézis, who died in 1739) and Isaac de Boynet, known as Sarrau the Elder (died in 1772) — heirs of an old Protestant family newly converted and ennobled, prolific members of the Academy, enthusiasts of climatology and musicology, were involved in all the struggles against the pretentions of an intendant who wanted only the strict application of the royal edicts on the plantation of vines. It was moreover with Sarrau de Vézis, seigneur de Pichon, that Montesquieu attempted illegally to enhance the Pujeaux’s property in Pessac (Departmental archives, Gironde, 3E3504, 24 December 1726). The intensity of the correspondence exchanged underscores the ties that united the philosopher with these two bachelor and misanthropic patrons who are quite representative of the comportment and choices of the Bordeaux nobility in the 18th century.


Paul Courteault, Un ami bordelais de Montesquieu [Joseph de Navarre], Bordeaux: Taffard, 1938.

Marie-Josèphe Pajot, “De la bibliothèque de l’Académie à la Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux”, typewritten TER thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 1982.

Florence Albespy, L’Ascension sociale d’une famille parlementaire, les Navarre, typewritten TER thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 1999.

Christophe Métreau, “Climatologie et musicologie à Bordeaux au XVIIIe siècle”, typewritten TER thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 1999.

Benoît Lamiscarre, “François de Paule Latapie, un citoyen de la République des Lettres”, typewritten TER thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 2000.

Caroline Le Mao, Les Fortunes de Thémis: vie des magistrats du parlement de Bordeaux au Grand Siècle, Bordeaux: Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, 2006.