Georges Benrekassa


1When in the Défense de L’Esprit des lois Montesquieu rejects the accusation of “Spinozism”, he explains his intention of referring to orders of determination which are not absolutely ineluctable except in the case of rules of motion, and he reaffirms that he does not wish to and cannot include everything in a unified and single “fatality”. And it is certain that this whole philosophical approach was founded on the appreciation of the limits within which one must understand, in its various aspects, an order of the “moral world”, unassimilable to that of the physical world, and which is certainly never completely a “natural” order that would be undergone as a constraint: which would imply a sovereignly comprehensive notion of nature. Montesquieu never ceased pressing forward in his requirement for rigor before the concept of nature, and the conveniences it appears to offer, in order to circumscribe the philosophical use in an original manner.

2Montesquieu’s original culture seemed indeed, however, to have made it the happy legatee of philosophical traditions from which one could draw at will to use the term in its various meanings – mathematizable phusis, unitary order of things, power of generation and life principle, anima mundi… But we can also see already at the beginning that it was a play on “contrariness” and the difficulties of the various meanings of the term that manifests itself.

3The scientific research reported on at the Bordeaux Academy testifies, it is true, to a fairly constant conviction. Descartes had come and “studied nature in its simplicity”, and the rigorous commitment to mechanical schemas, whether with respect to the transparency of bodies of the causes of echoes, was a guarantee against finalist causes and the occult qualities that make of nature a theater of appearances and mysteries all at once. Whence the affirmation in the Discours sur les motifs qui doivent nous encourager aux sciences: all the effects of nature come down to laws of communication of motion.

4A scanning of the Persian Letters, a school of doubt and controlled destabilization of the certainties of our moral world, encourage rather different reflections. We could stick solely to the affirmation, quite present in the unfolding of the novel, of the noblest references to a victorious human “nature”, in the long run, if we allow “natural” aspirations to develop unconstrained, to blossom and assert themselves: the terms of Roxane’s discourse of revolt, which reforms Usbek’s laws “on those of nature” correspond in the paroxysm to the peaceful affirmation of happiness of the good Troglodytes, and to the affirmation in Letter 130 [136] of a possibility for harmonic realization of a nature guarantor of the good (“that sweet freedom, so in conformity with reason, humanity, and nature”). But the Persian Letters also are situated in its margins, and far from that normative nature, have meaning only with relation to a whole teratology, with all sorts of forms of separation from the ideal that is usually without effect. Moreover, two orders of preoccupation can be seen there which take us even farther from the “ideal” so often doomed to failure. Meditations, first, of a sort similar to very ancient philosophies of nature, and archaic phantasms: the earth is losing population, it is weakening, nature is exhausting itself. And from the modern side, on the contrary, an aspect of the dynamics of nature not as normativity, but as a principle of diversification. In despotic regimes, “you hear only about fear […] and not nature which expresses itself so differently and appears in so many forms” (“on n’entend parler que la crainte […] et non pas la nature qui s’exprime si différemment et qui paraît sous tant de formes”, 61 [63]).

5Beginning with the preparation of Romans, the question was to be displaced, already under the constraint, in a way, of the search for “relations” (rapports): how to conceive nature and the natural, with respect to the “moral world”, and in the order of history? Here we need to see things from the standpoint of the final elaboration, L’Esprit des lois, in function of everything that helped it come to light, especially since the Essai sur les causes. Two sides can be distinguished: on one hand the persistence of traditional values of the idea of nature in its most frequently noted definitions – and we must wonder about this persistence and its limits; on the other, a decisive epistemological displacement towards a notion that implies both rethinking the “natural” order and perhaps even the very meaning of the term “nature”: the nature of things.

6It seems one is often enough in known terrain, between ineluctable given or resurgent characters, persistence of the figure of “good nature” and reference to a first state free from corruption or compromise. But already prudence appears necessary. To be sure, it happens that Montesquieu writes that Hippolytus, faithful to chastity and honor went to his death and thereby was faithful to the “voice of nature”: he has little love for “declamations” but does not always abhor dramatizations… In the conceptual order, things slowly become different. In book I of L’Esprit des lois, we know how Montesquieu rigorously limits what is of the natural order (necessities of climate and physics, natural defense, attraction of the sexes and force of the propagation of the species), and could serve as a basis for the constitution of a body of “natural rights”. Over the whole length of the book – in particular books XXVI and XXIX – he is trying to show that no legislation can be directly inspired by a natural given. Assuredly, he sometimes invokes “natural sentiments”, the “voice of nature”. In chapter 6 of book XII, dealing with the “crime against nature”, he asserts that there can be a return to “natural sentiments”, but by the bias of law and the reform of mores; nature then can “reclaim its rights”. After strange detours… Looking closely, nature is not a norm to respect, but an order we should help to manifest, and a point of optimal equilibrium more than a rule.

7In fact, if everything really changes in L’Esprit des lois, it is with the emergence of a much more problematized dimension.

8What is “nature”, in the long run, by the test of Montesquieu’s own research? The starting point is clear. It is true that the notion of nature in Montesquieu has an interesting and problematic role when it is specified (and surpassed) in the expression “nature of things”. This nature of things, which appears from the first definition of law, can hardly be reduced to an ensemble of observable phenomenal correlations or to the simple combination of various orders of determinations (physical or moral causes, etc.). Here what is of a natural order and in conformity with the necessary flow of things must be perceived both as a state and as a rule of development which have their constitutive logic and can be or become the locus of “rationality”. We know to what sharp discussions the verb derive has given rise to with respect to the definition of law, that rules of suitability have been seen in them in æternum, analogous to those supposed by Clarke’s metaphysics, or that it is reduced to a rather broad determinism. There remains the object itself of the establishment of relations and the order of “natural” reality to which it refers.

9It is truly, as Jean Ehrard has shown, an ambivalent concept that would conjoin what is and what ought to be – that would seek to account at once for the order of things, the laws or causes of its becoming, and the possibility contained within it to reach a better order. But the elucidation of the mode of relation between these orders was here to go beyond what could be confused with the ambiguous idealism of the time, in two stages: first because of the inevitable clarification of the notion of natural law, and the revelation of the relation between civil law and natural law; then because of the necessity of giving to this easily fluctuating and convenient notion of nature a genuine conceptual status that could free it from any abstract inquiry into the origin and any dependence on an external normativity, as much as it permits one to deal rigorously with its original meaning, engendering and becoming.

10The first point, depending on a sort of social balence, can be dealt with quickly. We have said to what extent Montesquieu was strict about natural law and natural rights. A very clear example of the difficult but logical and necessary articulation of the two domains is found in book XXVI (2 and 14) with regard to the articulation of a prohibition of incest that can be called natural because it is universal, of which the modes of extension and application are regulated by civil laws. But it can also concern, where the “nature of things” is concerned, both the complex, almost sedimentary formation that a society is, and the logic proper to the institutions that pretend to govern it. “One must take care that the laws be conceived in such a way that they do not clash with the nature of things” (“Il faut prendre garde que les lois soient conçues de telle manière qu’elles ne choquent point la nature des choses”, XXIX, 16).

11When the order or disorder of history enter into play, the problem assumes a larger dimension. The nature of things must then be perceived, first and foremost, as a sort of reality principle, a limit that reveals itself to be something like the emergence of a necessity. The most famous example concerns the defeat of Charles XII at Pultava (EL, X, 13): “The accidents of fortune are easily repaired; one cannot fend off events that continually arise from the nature of things” (“Les accidents de la fortune se réparent aisément; on ne peut pas parer à des événements qui naissent continuellement de la nature des choses”). If the expression the nature of things already appeared in Romans (XVI) in 1734, it was a matter of intelligent political calculation. Here it is something else… The first return effect on the meaning of the word nature is immediately perceptible. In the “nature of things”, nature is anything but immediate, as for the naïve eye, or simple as in the laws of motion, it is what challenges us, every time, to rational investigation and withdrawal from illusion.

12What is more revealing of the conception of the “natural” implied in the nature of things is finally even better revealed in the moments where the notion enters into competition with another notion. We will use four cases to help clarify the complexity of the debate.

131. In book III, the analyses of the corruption of the Roman democracy are placed in relation to the impossible establishment of democracy in England in the 17th century. The logical relationship and the historical relationship are conjoined: “What I have said is confirmed by the whole body of history and is quite in keeping with the nature of things” (“Ce que j’ai dit est confirmé par le corps entier de l’histoire et est très conforme à la nature des choses”); one can give a sense to relations that do not reveal observable recurrences, and submit them to the test of intelligibility that can make sense of them, only by moving to another plan and based on a logic which in fact alone can give to history its meaning. The nature of things is the revelation of an order that overcomes an empirical dispersal, but without recourse to general laws, beginning not with the object itself, but by the combination of the study of similarities and differences, true or fallacious, which are the subject of the preface of L’Esprit des lois. The nature of the “nature of things” is at once order, structure, and sum of the relations to extend.

142. It is obviously the conflict or contradiction between the “nature of things” and our notion of “nature” or “natural sentiments” – a good and uncorrupted kind of nature – that is able to raise the most difficulties. It might seem there is competition and even conflict between the nature of things and conscience of our “nature” – our notion of a kind of nature that is oriented or should be oriented towards humanity. The end of the chapter on torture (VI, 17) is well known. Montesquieu, who knew the classical arguments against such barbarity gives them homage in passing. What matters to him, as he shows elsewhere (XXIX, 11), is to establish how torture is a practice linked to the logic of a system of inquiry that privileges confession. In VI, 17, even while he was about to invoke another logic, that of the nature of things which makes of the question [‘torture’] a natural element in despotism or the servile system of the Greeks and Romans, he cuts short: “But I hear the voice of nature crying out against me […]” (“Mais j’entends la voix de la nature qui crie contre moi […]”). The nature of the nature of things is on the side of what allows us not to observe but to understand history. Would bringing the idea of nature to face various forms of intelligence of necessity pose insoluble problems for him?

153. Finally, we know how in book XV Montesquieu, who has to define a “right to slavery” outside of the quibbling of jurisconsults, gives shape to the notion of a slavery founded on the “nature of things”, and on “natural reasons”, though it is contrary to “natural” law. “Natural reasons” refers back obviously to the influence of the climate and to economic conditions in general. At the other pole, nothing can establish in reasoned and natural law the justification of civil servitude. The nature of things ought to combine all the logics of necessity proper to the historical world, in its proper rationality and also insofar as it escapes “reason”. The clash in return over the sense of the word nature is very significant here. It is as if the question were to preserve from any possible reduction what concerns “nature” without producing a dogmatic definition.

164. The nature of things in any case does not refer to an imperative necessity. It can escape our mastery, it even situates itself most of the time outside of its supposed sphere, and can be an element among others, graspable or ungraspable. With respect to the unending political speculations of the English, Montesquieu writes: “We might see people who spend their lives calculating events which, given the nature of things and the capriciousness of fortune, which is to say men, are hardly subject to calculation” (“On verrait des gens qui passeraient leur vie à calculer des événements qui, vu la nature des choses et le caprice de la fortune, c'est-à-dire des hommes, ne sont guère soumis au calcul”, XIX, 27). It would not be without interest to see how “nature” can manifest itself also as what cannot be perceived except as “disorder”…


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