Guillaume Barrera


1After portraying Spain unsparingly in the Persian Letters, then criticizing it as a counter-example in the 1724 Considérations, and before invoking it straightforwardly in Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle (about 1727), Montesquieu reserves it an important and singular place in L’Esprit des lois. Following the method for also the “design” of his great work, it thus proves profitable to question the political thinker on this subject. To leave aside the witticisms which, after reading Las Casas, Garcilaso de La Vega, el Inca, or the abbé de Vayrac, the Enlightenment man adresses to Spain (LP, 75 [78]), it is better to try to understand and restore here the unity and extent of the analyses Spain gives rise to. We also need to be clear about the object of study.

2 By the term Spain Montesquieu first denotes the kingdom of Castile, then the body, sometimes immense and sometimes fragmentary, of which it remains the head (EL, IX, 9). As for Aragon, besides the reign of Ferdinand and his alliance with Isabelle, it stands out in the Middle Ages, and up to 1640, for its nearly republican character, or even for its autonomy (EL, VII, 5 ; IX, 9). Still modern Spain, of which they form the kernel, is indeed defined as a monarchy. It cannot for several reasons be considered a despotic state in the strict meaning of the term. In the first place, “fear” does not make its “government” work, since the “point of honor” there is carried to excess. Its conquering spirit distinguishes it moreover from a regime necessarily closed in upon itself (EL, IX, 4). Finally, the Catholic religion, which governs it exclusively, does not go along with the spirit of despotism, although it is no more likely to suffer the spirit of independence (EL, XXIV, 3).

3The Spanish monarchy nevertheless preoccupies Montesquieu because it incarnates more than any other, in recent history, the type of “monarchies heading toward despotism” (Felice, 1995). This “absolute” regime has become installed and reinforced century after century, from Ferdinand to Felipe II, to the ministry of Olivarez, a sort of Spanish Richelieu, according to the author. On both sides of the Pyrenees, moreover, this tendency confesses a single and same cause, the suppression of “intermediate powers”, in other words the privileges of cities, bodies, and orders. In the case of Spain, however, the evil seems more advanced because another “evil”, the power of the Church, there appears as a good, and a “barrier” (EL, II, 4).

4To this first approach, we should add two accidental traits, but ones which have acquired a decisive weight. Thanks to the play of successions and the discovery of the West Indies (MU, XVI), a double source of power, Spain, the destiny of which is now conflated with that of the “House of Austria”, has reinforced its almost unspoken tendency, since “a great empire supposes despotic authority” (EL, VIII, 19). Henceforth, its history and its place have been linked with those of Spanish America. On this head, Montesquieu, like his entire century, endlessly underscores the horrors and errors of the conquest : the destruction of the Indes by a troupe of fanatical brigands, the violation of the principles of the rights of men, the exploitation of the natives. After ravaging America, it was moreover itself that Spain, if not destroyed, at least ruined to the point of seeing itself led to dependency on its own colonies (EL, XXI, 22), as well as being under the tutelage of other European countries (Pensées, no. 2220). In this respect, the extraction of “precious” metals, their flow into the metropolis, and the error of Spanish politicians about their nature constitutes the kernel of the matter. This mistake seems so serious to Montesquieu that he devotes a separate study to it in 1724, his Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, which though unpublished, was repeated in condensed form in Book XXI of L’Esprit des lois, twenty years later.

5Thus, Montesquieu’s reflection on the Spain of the Habsburgs, while embracing it in several regards, principally concerns the “bullionist” and “chrysohedonistic” illusion that those kings fed. If it merits so much attention, in his eyes, that is because it teaches via the absurd the true nature of currencies, the capital distinction between “wealth of fiction”, of sign, even of “accident”, and genuine prosperity that comes from work or the “industriousness” of the subjects. It also indicates more circumspect economic thought and especially practice. Moreover, the kings of Spain have neglected Spain proper, its population, and its deserted and desolate territory, according to the writer (LP, 75 [78] et 108 [112]). They would doubtless taken greater care of it had they not dreamed so of the establishment in Europe of the “universal monarchy”, in other words empire.

6So if the two facts mentioned above can be retains as being accidental, it is important on the contrary to see the direct and necessary connection that joins their double effect, which one of the Persian Letters mentions together: the “false opulence” and the “overwhelming grandeur” of the realm at its height (LP, 130 [136]). For the Habsburgs’ monetary and financial policy is not only vitiated in its form, it is also vitiated in its ends. Like that of Louis XIV later, it is indeed entirely ordered for the conduct of perpetual wars, offensive wars as it happens and tending towards an imperialist project. One must therefore not be surprised to see Spain occupying a central place in a work which Montesquieu conceived as a sort of appendix to Romans. The writer lends it, moreover, all of Rome’s flaws – a spirit of conquest, destruction, assimilating conquest – without in this case recognizing its “vast ambition”, not the “grandeur” of its “ideas” (EL, XIX, 9). Above all, he seizes on the Spanish example to mark a change of times. Such a project no longer has any sense in a time and a Europe where “the civilized peoples” are “the members of a great Republic” (MU, II).

7As can be seen, Montesquieu’s thought manifests irreproachable consistency: what the Persian Letters denounce, the Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, then the Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle of the decade 1725-1735 explain in detail. It remained to integrate these features into a yet wider framework. LEsprit des lois, published exactly one century after the Treaty of Westphalia, was about to acquit itself fully of that.

8Yet it is appropriate to understand Spain now, not only as the changeable whole studied so far, but as a “country”, a “people”, a “nation”, finally a “state”, all connected but distinct notions. Now each of these realities appears at the least stricken by an “inner vice”, even an “incurable disease”.

9The country however, alongside its resources and access to two seas, holds many trumps, its “relative largeness” predisposing it for an effective defense (EL, IX, 6). As for the people, this “number of men” that obsesses Montesquieu, it has only too greatly suffered from the combined effects of the conquest and the wars, the American emigration, and the excessive presence of a separate clergy, a sterile but “perpetual family” (EL, XXIV). As for the Spanish nation, it is distinguished by one quality, a “good faith”, that is not appropriate to commercial relations (EL, XIX, 10).

10The state, in short, seems overwhelmed with defects: with its very authoritarian constitution it has retains almost nothing of the “gothic government”, that medieval preamble to the distribution of powers from which liberty emerged (EL, XI). Excessively inclined to uniformization, especially religious, it had given, by expelling in turn Maurs and Jews, an example of inept and pernicious policy that Louis XIV was to follow in revoking the Edict of Nantes (LP, 58 [60] et 117 [121]). Moreover, by giving “charges” instead of selling them, it encouraged the courtier spirit more than legitimate ambition, which could also explain the absence or weakness of the robe nobility that was so beneficial on this side of the Pyrenees (EL, V, 19 ; XX, 22). Finally, for want of investments in commercial development, wealth passed into the king’s hands without benefitting his subjects, which on the contrary were drowned in taxes, while the state itself suffocated under debt. This question of the public debt, we should point out, motivated, in the France of 1715, Montesquieu’s first defensive writings.

11Contemporary Spain thus appears as a sick society, which continues to manifest blatant social inequality. It is a fact that the land there was held by a handful of men, the nobility but especially the clergy, in particular the regular clergy which, under cover of droits de mainmorte, perpetuates a major injustice in the property of goods as in fiscal practice.

12The secular clergy, for its part, but in particular the tribunal of the Inquisition, eloquently berated, still blackened the country on the side of what, for the author of L’Esprit des lois, was of interest to “humankind, more than anything in the world” (EL, XI, 2). For under the question of justice, it was liberty itself that was in question (EL, XII), and the liberalism of Montesquieu, understood here in the initial sense, is in part forged against the religious confusion, inherited from the “tribunal of penitence”, which he observed in Spain. In fact, the persecution of thoughts, when acts alone should be prosecuted, goes directly against the penal justice he was promoting.

13As is well known, Montesquieu’s thought gives central importance to the concept of “general spirit”, a spirit more general, in fact, than the “principle” that powers each regime (EL, III et XIX). Now the spirit of the Spanish nation includes, among the “things” that make it up as well as in its “effects”, almost nothing that can lead Spain to power and prosperity, legitimate goals of any politics to the thinker. The climate, the religion, the laws, the “maxims of government”, the “examples of things past”, the mores and manners (EL, XIX, 4), are here, respectively, heat inclining people to inaction, a “wild superstition”, the confusion of political and religious jurisdictions, a confirmed inclination towards absolutism, the spirit of conquest, amorous jealousy which is closely allied with the excesses of the point of honor. Idleness and arrogance together arise from this spirit, which call upon each other and continue to produce each other. Since man for Montesquieu’s is or ought to be action, work, industry, there is no worse motivating principle that this destructive pride which additionally engenders the idleness which is ruinous to everyone.

14Anyone who tries now to explain the formation of that spirit, at least in its main outline, must recall a capital lesson of the Essay which Montesquieu devoted between 1734 and 1739 to the “causes that may affect minds and characters”: moral causes prevail over physical causes. These would thus not suffice to account entirely for the Spanish character. Moreover, the political thinker never presents Spain as one case among others of this South which he deems condemned to servitude by its climate. In this connection, Spain for him belongs only to Southern Europe, which still remains “temperate” (EL, XVII, 3). While the strength of passions and imagination assuredly comes from its own climate, Spain is not India.

15Thus the moral causes and history explain these “laws” better. Now the key to this story must doubtless be sought in the nation’s Wisigothian origins. From the time of kings Reccared and Recceswinth, indeed, Montesquieu sees the beginnings of the Spanish exception, which confers on that nation numerous traits of a “Rome” he fears, that of the Eastern Empire, stigmatized it in the final chapters of Romans: there took root in the power of bishops, the entirely byzantine confusion of empire and priesthood, the juridical unification of various laws into a single “code”. The sixth part of L’Esprit des lois returns to it often. The spirit of obedience accompanying Catholicism, on the one hand, and the military genius on the other, forged in the Reconquest, have completed the modeling of the Spanish character, to close it to the novelties of the Reformation and the modern spirit, and lead it to the attitude which we have stated, in Europe as in the “Indies”.

16In conclusion, Montesquieu really holds Spain as the “people” of western Europe that has the least taken advantage “of these three great things: religion, commerce, and freedom”, in contrast to England: it is legitimate for analysts, questioning the status of this example in the overall work, should oscillate between scientific (Felice) and polemical intentions, especially since the Pensées and Montesquieu’s correspondence reveal a well-informed witness of the raising up of Bourbon Spain under the aegis of ministers like Alberoni or Ensenada.

17So account must be taken of the style and genre of the various works before proposing an answer, but that would be to discuss really the figure of Spain. Such was not the subject of the present article, which can still pave a way to it.


Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, ed. Pierre Rétat et Catherine Larrère, OC, t. VIII, p. 581-623.

Domenico Felice, “Francia, Spagna e Portogallo: le monarchie europee ‘qui vont au despotisme’ secondo Montesquieu”, Maria-Grazia Bottaro-Palumbo et Alberto Postigliola dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 2, Naples, Liguori, 1995, p. 283-305.

Jean Marie Goulemot, “L’Espagne de Montesquieu”, Bulletin de la Société Montesquieu, no. 7, 1995, p. 16-26.

Joseph Pérez, Histoire de l’Espagne, Paris: Fayard, 1996.

Guillaume Barrera, “La figure de l’Espagne dans l’œuvre de Montesquieu: élaboration conceptuelle d’un exemple, stratégie d’écriture et modes d’avertissement”, inActes du colloque international de Bordeaux pour le 250e anniversaire de L’Esprit des lois, Louis Desgraves dir., Bordeaux: Bibliothèque Municipale, 1999, p. 153-171.

Bibliographical reference

Barrera Guillaume , « Spain », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :