Guillaume Barrera


1The Cardinal de Bérulle founded the order of the Oratory on a particular spirituality marked by the abyss separating the nothingness of the human condition and the divinely infinite. Father Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) became its mentor and, to use his word, the ever-more radiant intellectual “monitor”. He had been ordained priest the same year that Descartes’s Traité de l’homme (1664) revealed to him his philosophical vocation. Ten years later, he finished publication of a Recherche de la vérité [‘Search for truth’] which assured him a brilliant reputation while he lived, underground and broad after his death. It reached its apogee in the years when the young Charles de Secondat was about to receive the instruction of the Oratorians of Juilly: election to the Science Academy, translation of his works into Latin and English, correspondence with Leibniz. Montesquieu grew up in this convivial environment. In Paris, even when he wrote his Persian Letters, he still frequented circles marked by Malebranche’s thought, to which numerous of his friends more or less belonged, or his future academic colleagues like Fontenelle, Desmolets, Polignac, and Dortous de Mairan. For the second of these, he even managed to buy books from the Oratorian’s personal library. In a word, Malebranche was no doubt for him the philosopher par excellence, and the closest in any case. And yet what had they in common?

2If we believe Fontenelle, the philosopher did not like history and did not consider study of it necessary, for Adam, he said, who had had perfect knowledge, knew nothing of it (Éloge du père Malebranche). Montesquieu for his part derided metaphysics, which he thought arrogant, useless and empty (Pensées, no. 202). To be sure, both excelled in prose. Both saw one of their works placed on the Index. But what else?

3Must we repeat here what is already known? Malebranche, against his intentions, holds a place of choice in the “crisis of the European consciousness” diagnosed by Paul Hazard. If the systematic meaning is left out, many aspects of his thought anticipate the French Enlightenment: adoration of a God initially conceived as Reason, universal legalism, the reduction of the life of the body as all matter to mechanism, finally the clear valorization of pleasure as such already treated by Bayle as early as 1685. By noting one or another of these traits which they detach from their religious context, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau were to be in part epigones of the great Cartesian.

4Nor does Montesquieu escape, no doubt, this rule (Riley, 1986, ch. IV). The scientific papers of the Bordeaux Academician visibly betray this influence in the 1720s. Where did he find, before secularizing it, the idea that the matter that replaces God produces everything in the simplest and most general ways, if not from Malebranche’s theological thought? Scientific research in his time on the optimum or principle of “least action”, moreover, follows in the same path.

5And yet the relationship of Montesquieu to Malebranche does not remain there. It is more like an explicit dialogue between the two men than a hidden influence. In many respects, the political writer contradicts Malebranche’s theoretical, moral and religious thought, precisely in order to found a political science which, for his part, condemns the model of government left by the fourteenth Louis, an exact contemporary of the philosopher. From this point of view, L’Esprit des lois, a motherless child, was also sine patre. To show this in few lines, it is best to isolate from a work impossible to summarize a few central propositions, then try to discover from them their reception and fate in Montesquieu.

61. Marked by the radical mechanism of Descartes in the physical sciences, Malebranche came to philosophy by way of physiology. Study of the human body led him to call it a “machine”. For him, it is not only the muscular or nervous phenomena that are thereby explained, but a good share of the sensitive and affective life insofar as it is explained by the flow of “animal spirits”, the “traces” and “folds” which they engrave in the brain, all the “occasional causes” of part of our thoughts (Rodis-Lewis).

7The end of philosophy, such as Malebranche conceives it, then consists in extracting the spirit from the influence of the senses and the imagination. This ascesis, which the understanding cannot conduct without an effort of attention, is also tantamount to closing “the windows”, not only of our body, the senses, but also of our houses, to adopt the initial metaphor of Entretiens sur la métaphysique [‘Conversations on metaphysics’] (1688). The influence of the air, in the physical sense, that of “airs” in a moral sense, can be overcome only at this price.

83. This domination of the senses is a disorder: it subordinates the superior to the inferior. Such a disorder has not always been. Malebranche imputes and refers it back to original sin. That sin in turn, felix culpa, was good at least insofar as it led God to give his Son: the Word, identified with true Reason, was incarnated to manifest himself to the senses, and return men to reason.

94. It remains nonetheless that his lessons are comprehensible only to the inner man, which Malebranche worked to reinforce by methodically learning to think clearly to act well. In the moral sense, this correct thought is tantamount to replacing the order of “inclinations” in its initial form: as God is the sole cause of all things, from the love of God, in other words from the good in general must proceed the legitimate love of self. Evil consists precisely in stopping at specific goods.

105. A correct meditation further reveals that God was able to do nothing if not for himself, and that it is appropriate for the infinity of his attributes – wisdom, power, justice – to accomplish the most with the slightest means possible. Thereby is founded an economy of “paths”. The paths are also laws. Five orders of laws govern Creation: laws of the communication of motion, laws of the union of soul and body, laws of the union of spirit with Reason, laws of the action of angels on bodies, laws of the action of Jesus Christ on bodies and spirits (Guéroult, 1959).

116. Knowledge worthy of the name is accessible only through the radical distinction between images and ideas. For only ideas can equally illuminate spirits (Alquié, 1974, ch. IV). Now the soul has not the power to produce these ideas which bodies can no more produce in it (Recherche de la vérité, III). So it sees them “in God”. To this extent, God, here understood as “intelligible extension”, is the locus of spirits as spatial extension is the locus of bodies. But if ideas have a certain reality, truths are to be understood not as beings, but as relations, “relations of grandeur” (scientific truths) or “relations of perfection” (moral truths).

127. The Traité de morale, finally complete in 1684 the design already posited by the Recherche and confirmed by the Entretiens: it studies precisely the second types of relations so man can regulate his love, in other words his will, on the order of perfections he sees in God himself, as God sees and loves them proportionately. This love of order forms the principal virtue whence flow all the other virtues (I).

13In the second part of his treatise, Malebranche examines the different duties. The first consists in loving God alone with a “love of union”. As for political duties, they reduce to obedience and respect. There also exist two powers, ecclesiastical and civil. Even if an infinite difference separates spiritual from temporal goods, these two powers are called “sovereign” and the prince in monarchies is an “image of God” who gives him his authority, such that he enjoys a more absolute reign than the bishop, the vicar of Christ, because he makes laws (II, ch. IX).

14After distinguishing the respective end of each – preservation of civil societies, establishment and preservation of “celestial society” – the philosopher-priest insists on the unity of the divine design, the edification of the Church. He concludes from this that “It is clear that the state appertains to and must serve the Church, rather than the Church appertaining to the glory and conservation of the state” (ibid., § 8). The two chapters that follow corroborate this primacy of the spiritual. The product of an indissoluble union, children are not destined only for the state, that “society of a few days”, but for Heaven. The education of the fathers and then the preceptors should be ordered towards true goods. As for the social order, non-equalitarian and violent, it is not to be confused with the eternal Order that reason reveals, even if reason can justify it, because “force is a law that must straighten those who no longer follow reason” (II, chap. X). A “Christian philosopher” nevertheless will avoid being impressed by brilliance, luxury and honors. Merit alone, in his eyes, ought to distinguish men: such is in short Malebranche’s design.

15What do these propositions and theses become in the thought of Montesquieu?

161. Montesquieu very faithfully inherits Malebranchist physiology. Even in its style, the first part of the Essay on the causes, written a half-century later, betrays for example a very lively memory of the second book of Recherche de la vérité. Does the “differential physiology” presented there (Rodis-Lewis) also enable him to propose a scientific explanation for the human differences and particularities consecrated by the third part of L’Esprit des lois? His explanation takes account, not of race, but of climate, air, terrain, sex and age. That is the share of the “machine” in men’s lives. However, Montesquieu envisages man exclusively as a union of soul and body. Leaving aside “pure understanding”, he identifies, at the heart of human nature, insofar as it depends on the nature of things, the “heart”, seat of physical and moral sensitivity, and “the character of the spirit”, the seat of courage and strength (EL, XIV). But he refers both back to the nervous and muscular system.

172. In other words, Malebranche figures among “the philosophers” who “have alerted” man who can “at every moment forget himself”, “by the laws of morality”. But Montesquieu takes his place beside “legislators” who think that man is “made to live in society” (EL, I, 1). That is why the role and weight of “air” and “airs”, the condition of communication of opinions and passions, are decidedly rehabilitated. Made to live together, men are also subsequently destined to get along with each other, which is a decisive motor of life in common. To designate the attraction of the sexes, Montesquieu consequently adopts the expression of “natural prayer” which the Oratorian used to designate attention (EL, I, 2)! It forms in fact the condition of a sort of “natural religion”, the establishment of families, more important in his eyes than speculations of speculative, or “lethargic” minds.

183. As much as to say that the political author excludes from his discussions the consideration of original sin, that subversion of the faculties. The Défense returns to it dryly (1st part, II, 3rd and 4th objections, OC, t. VII, p. 79-80). But if he does not deal with it outright, Montesquieu proposes an historical and social version of it, which is the entrance into “the state of war” which unfailingly follows the formation of societies (EL, I, 3). This loss does not concern Adam, but rather the sons of Adam. Rousseau was to remember this. At the same time it includes, like the felix culpa, a happy outcome since wars “cause the establishment of law among men” (ibid.). God himself was reacting in the first case. Here, “human reason” suffices to meet the needs of men.

194. This reason is not to be confused with the Word. It is not about revealing the eternal order of perfections, or saying for example that the soul must take precedence over the body, justice over wealth, a friend over a dog. Though it has access to “relations of equity prior to [positive] law” (EL, I, 1), it is based most often on an historical knowledge of men. It is even human to the point of sparing itself the detour via “the idea of God”.

20In fact, the desire of God which is at the basis of human will, for the author of the Recherche (book IV), is here transformed into that indefinite disquietude without object which can be neither contained nor restrained. Here Montesquieu rejoins Locke’s uneasiness, vulgarized by Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques. No more than those two thinkers does he indicate an object that could correspond to it. On the contrary, positive in its very negativity, disquietude forms the motor of the activity that triumphs in work and trade, sources of prosperity and power. The same goes for the “curiosity” which he henceforth attaches to the chain associating “all our pleasures” (Essay on Taste, OC, t. IX, p. 491). Finally, he takes no interest in struggling to re-establish the correct order of “inclinations”. The primacy of self-love (amour de soi) – which nevertheless, following Malebranche, he identifies with pride (amour-propre), unlike Rousseau – can be good: under the name of “vanity”, it produces effects too beneficial to be resisted (EL, VII, XIX, XX, XXI). The evil, in sum, would here lie not in this primacy, but in the risk of seeing love of self transformed into “arrogance” conceived as love of domination.

21Finally, Montesquieu in no way shares the Oratorian’s essential conviction about causality, proper to God and God alone. In fact, Malebranche would never have accepted the idea that God “make use of secondary causes”, even less that he is willing to “submit” to them (Réponses et explications données à la faculté de théologie, 17th proposition, OC, t. VII, p. 268-270). On the contrary, the secondary causes here find a decisive role. Not only do “great things” govern men and well deserved the name of great causes – climate, mores, laws or religion (EL, XIX, 4) – but the historical agents themselves, to a lesser degree, also recover an efficaciousness, such as the Antonines (Romans, XVI).

22They also illustrate the strength of a sect, Stoicism, as general cause. In other words, the share of personality as well as that of events, though not reducible to the idea of “occasional cause”, finds itself interpreted in Malebranchist terms, as “particular accidents”, subject to the more general causes already mentioned. But however particular they are, they no less remain causes: Caesar, “in whatever republic he had been born […] would have governed it” (Romans, XI, OC, t. II, p. 170). The Défense itself returns to that (1st part, II, 2nd objection, OC, t. VII, p. 78-79).

235. It is thus not a matter here of rendering everything to God, the idea of whom in any case would not be in man in the state of nature (EL, I, 2). The Persian Letters, Romans, then L’Esprit des lois insist on this fact: when it comes to the God of Revelation, the quarrel of religions cannot be settled. Philosophy itself is powerless in this respect and cannot resolve it. The Pensées, irreplaceable on this point, teach us how Montesquieu distances himself from Malebranche: “this idea of the infinite, so dear to Father Malebranche, is not part of us” (Pensées, no. 1946). L’Esprit des lois goes farther: supposing that God is this “infinite being”, one precisely must never avenge him (EL, XII, 4). If the entire work, finally, opens onto an evocation of divine action (EL, I, 1), we must still observe the subtraction surreptitiously performed: Montesquieu retains but two of the divine attributes, wisdom and power, implied in the creation and preservation of the material world. He does not mention on the same level the goodness of a redeeming God who is known only through “religion” and not through natural reason.

24Finally, pushing to the extreme a distinction already present in Malebranche, the political writer completes the process of making the idea of justice independent of the very idea of God, so as to preserve the first of the quarrels provoked by the definition of the idea of God. Six years after Malebranche’s death, a Persian character dares to write: “However free we may be from the yoke of religion, we ought not to be free from equity”, even though, put differently, “there were no God” (LP, 81 [83]).

25In other words, Montesquieu does without the two last orders of laws mentioned above. The first continues to serve the understanding of the material world, the second is at the heart of moral and political reflection. Finally, Montesquieu indeed has recourse to a sort of attention and method – third order of laws – to understand the human world. But they are not the same as the laws praised by Malebranche.

266. This is perhaps where we come to the heart of the theoretical argument that separates the two thinkers. Montesquieu, though he did not read them directly, perfectly espoused the criticisms that Locke had addresses to the theory of the “vision in God” back at the end of the 17th century (Examen de «la vision en Dieu» de Malebranche, posthumous, trans. Jean Pucelle, Paris: Vrin, 1978).

27His distancing did not stop increasing, as his notebooks testify. The analyses of Malebranche, according to him, would only teach us that “we do not know how we perceive objects” (Pensées, no. 157). There would be nothing contradictory, in his eyes, in thinking that our general ideas come from the senses. Finally the step is taken with the Essay on the causes (I). The capital distinction between the idea and the image collapses before an empiricist explanation, sometimes at the limits of sensualism: “An idea is only a sentiment that one has on the occasion of a sensation one has had” (“[…] une idée n’est donc qu’un sentiment que l’on a à l’occasion d’une sensation que l’on a eue”, OC, t. VIII, p. 230). The thought of Malebranche could not be better reversed, and even more, in its own terms.

28Nothing surprising, subsequently, if the method borrowed to enter into the spirit of a time, or into the general spirit of a nation, has recourse to paths that Malebranche would have disavowed, because it aims precisely to rediscover the “wisdom of the age” or men, which the Oratorian calls “folly”, compared to that of the Word: it is the travels, the colossal readings, the philological studies, in a word history. Here however, it must be noted, and against Malebranche himself, Montesquieu remains faithful to the lessons of the Oratorians, and of Father Lamy (1640-1715) in particular. Did the latter’s Entretien sur les sciences , in which we learn how one should use the sciences to acquire a clear and judicious mind (1684, re-edition Paris: PUF, 1966), not specify, alongside of the geometric method, the experimental method and the genetic and philological method (Roddier, 1952)?

297. As much as to say that the author’s “design” distinguishes itself deeply from the properly edifying intention of Malebranche. It even distinguishes itself to the point of opposing it almost point for point, there as well.

30Thus, love seen as the passion at the basis of regimes (EL, III) is very close to the love of union described by the Traité de morale, so that the virtue in a republic also engenders all the other “individual virtues” which are the same “preference” of the public for self-interest (EL, IV, 5). The motivation of the political writer himself, moreover, again distinguishes him from the Oratorian: it is not the love of good in general that he obeys but that “general virtue that includes the love of all” (EL, Préface). The former love is fundamentally the love of God; the latter, a political concern.

31Moreover, in order to counter the absolute character of the princely power in a monarchy, Montesquieu channels and mediatizes the power of a nobility that Malebranche does not even mention. In the same way, he opposes Malebranche who thinks that the prince can have recourse to “all means possible”, if not contrary to Order, to accomplish the end of civil power (Traité de morale, II, ch. IX, § 6). The quite liberal respect of individual property and integrity, presented as sacred, rejects such means (EL, XXVI). But above all, far from being subordinated at the end to spiritual goods, the civil and political power must accept only what serves its own good. That is the recurrent subject of books XIII, XXIV, XXV and XXVI. Here one could say: utilitas, non veritas, facit legem!

32Book XVI bearing on domestic servitude still contradicts the argument of the Traité de morale. If Usbek said he was unmoved by the sacrament of marriage back in (LP, 112 [116]), it was the same for Montesquieu who defended marriage in politics only, more for the material profits it procures than for its sacred values. Thus Montesquieu is not opposed in principle either to divorce or even to polygamy which Malebranche did not even take the trouble to refute. Nor does he insist on the religious character of education (EL, IV). And to state it baldly, it seems clear that he did not hope to see the “Christian philosopher”’s point of view too generally dominate: it would ruin the very motive of monarchies that depend on honor, luxury, and the thirst for distinction, a vanity precious for obedience as well as for trade. As for the trading republics, they not only do not recognize merit, but also wealth as “real qualities” (EL, XIX, 27). They finally prove, as he sees it, that equality, moderation and peace can be achieved without subordination to ecclesiastical power.

33To be sure, there remains something of Malebranche’s intellectualism in Montesquieu: thus the definition of laws as relations implies a conception of political intelligence which was to arouse Hume’s critique (An Enquiry concerning the principles of morals, London, 1751). Similarly, the very distinction between the general and the particular, inherited from Malebranche, plays a role not denied in this political thought. Patrick Riley was indeed inspired to write the history of this “transformation of the theological into the civic”. But this distinction itself does not imply a rejection of all particularity as such: as Riley himself observes, the chapter on the English Constitution, for example, does not incriminate the individual will, but the entirely despotic conflation of the general, legislative, and individual will, executive or judiciary.

34Finally, if power must be stopped by power, it is not necessary to hail back to original sin in order to understand it. The Florentine Histories, an “eternal experiment”, show well enough that men are evil, that any state meets with bad humors. And those dissonances themselves can under certain conditions engender freedom.

35Between the Rue Saint-Dominique and the Oratory thus ran a river as wide and deep as the Tiber.



Nicolas Malebranche, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Vrin-CNRS, 20 volumes, 1962 et suiv.

Martial Guéroult, Malebranche, 3 vols., Paris: Aubier, 1955-1959.

Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, Nicolas Malebranche, Paris: PUF, 1963.

Ferdinand Alquié, Le Cartésianisme de Malebranche, Paris: Vrin, 1974.

Patrick Riley, The General Will Before Rousseau, the transformation of the Divine into the Civic, Princeton University Press, 1986.

Denis Moreau, Malebranche. Une philosophie de l’expérience, Paris: Vrin, 2004.


Henri Roddier, “De la composition de L’Esprit des lois: Montesquieu et les oratoriens de l’académie de Juilly”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 52 (1952), p. 439-450.

Paul-Laurent Assoun, “Les sources philosophiques du concept de loi dans L’Esprit des lois: Montesquieu et le malebranchisme”, in Montesquieu:“De l’esprit des lois”, la nature et la loi, Ellipses-Marketing, 1987, p. 169-179.