Edith Flamarion


1Montesquieu did not like the Jesuits. His animosity, expressed especially in his writings unpublished during his lifetime, never occasions more than scattered remarks, often repeating traditional accusations. It appears under the sign of fear (“I am afraid of the Jesuits”, Pensées, no. 395): Montesquieu perceives the Society as an immense power machine, which could only be beaten back by another religious current: “If the Jesuits had come before Luther and Calvin, they would have been masters of the world” (“Si les jésuites étaient venus avant Luther et Calvin, ils auraient été les maîtres du monde”, Pensées, no. 11). That power has to do with the universality of their presence, a source of anguish: “The Jesuits are a body that surrounds me and which finds me everywhere” (“Les jésuites, c’est un corps qui m’enveloppe et qui me trouve partout”, Pensées, no. 482). This “body” seems to join together elements which, geographically dispersed, were closely bound by intense epistolary relation: “If I offend some grandee, he will forget me, I will forget him, I will move to another province, another realm. But if I offend the Jesuits in Rome, I will find them in Paris: they will surround me everywhere. The custom they have of writing all the time to each other extends their enmities.” (“Si j’offense quelque grand, il m’oubliera, je l’oublierai, je passerai dans une autre province, un autre royaume. Mais si j’offense les jésuites à Rome, je les trouverai à Paris : ils m’environneront partout. La coutume qu’ils ont de s’écrire sans cesse étend leurs inimitiés.”, Pensées, no. 395). The strength of this body is owing to absolute submission to a single individual, the “general”, to “the will of a single man by whom they are governed” (EL, VIII, 21). One notices the importance near him of “the position of corrector of books” and “assistant general”. This totally independent power (“The government of the Jesuits is all interior”, Spicilège, no. 480), escapes even from the Pope: “They have no business before the Pope or the Congregations since, as soon as some Jesuit wants to bring some, suddenly they send him away by the power held by the general. So they have no general prosecutor in Roman as do the other monks” (“Ils n’ont aucune affaire devant le pape ni les congrégations car, dès que quelque jésuite y en veut porter, soudain ils le chassent par le pouvoir qu’en a le général. Ils n’ont donc point de procureur général à Rome comme les autres moines”, Spicilège, no. 480). It arises from an unbridled desire of domination: the Society “considers the pleasure of commanding as the only good in life” (EL, IV, 6). Religion is thus a pretext, leading to violence (“it is under the standard of religion that they fight for purely human interests and work at destroying each other”, Pensées, no. 237) and to religious proselytism. The strong influence of the Jesuit regents is decried: “in Bordeaux, in 1622, of the Jesuits’ sixty schoolboys, there were thirty who entered monasteries” (Pensées, no. 180). This will to power is fed by high self-esteem, reinforced by scorn of others. The “society’s exquisite sense of everything that is called honor, its zeal for a religion that humiliates those who hear it much more than those who preach it” (“sentiment exquis qu’a cette Société pour tout ce qu’elle appelle honneur, son zèle pour une religion qui humilie bien plus ceux qui l’écoutent que ceux qui la prêchent”, EL, IV, 6) is stigmatized. The Jesuits, suffering no opposition, are thus genuine inquisitors: “An enemy of the Jesuits is like an enemy of the Inquisition: he finds familiars everywhere” (“Un ennemi des jésuites est comme un ennemi de l’Inquisition : il trouve des familiers partout”, Pensées, no. 395). Montesquieu encounters them everywhere, around every corner during his travels. In Italy, “I was very surprised to find Jesuits governing Venice” (Pensées, no. 394); in Spain, “the number of Jesuit houses in Madrid is beyond counting” (Spicilège, no. 446); in Germany, in Fulda or Mannheim, “the Jesuits […] serve as the principal church […]. One can be sure of the Jesuits’ zeal for the conversion of Protestants” (Voyages, p. 424); in Heidelberg, “the good Fathers […] are going to get the elector to give them another house to make into a seminary” (Voyages, p. 425); even in Holland, “there is a great war in Utrecht between Jesuits and Jansenists: for the Jesuits […] have remained in the province of Utrecht where the Catholics are rich and powerful”.

2Montesquieu believes in their flawless efficacy: “Send into a newly-discovered realm a Jesuit and a Jacobin, in a year you will learn that the Jesuit is at court and the Jacobin among the rabble” (“Envoyez dans un royaume nouvellement découvert un jésuite et un jacobin, dans un an vous apprendrez que le jésuite sera à la Cour et le jacobin parmi la canaille”, Pensées, no. 453). For the Jesuits’ skill is to get close to the established powers. In China, “when M. de Tournon arrived, the Jesuits […] presented the Emperor to him in such a way that his only business was with the Emperor, who was always in collusion with the Jesuits” (Spicilège, no. 491). In France, they take the privileged function of confessor to the king, to be sure a function imposed in 1610 upon their return from exile, as Voltaire was to observe (Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, art. Jésuites ou orgueil” [‘Jesuits or pride’], OCV, t. 42a, 2011, p. 346). But for him as for Montesquieu, this measure of control was turned aside: “[…] those who, in order to contain the Jesuits, always obliged them to keep one of their number at court, hardly knew either the court or the Jesuits, since they thought they would demean them in that way” (“[…] ceux qui, pour contenir les jésuites, les obligèrent à tenir toujours un des leurs à la Cour, ne connaissaient guère la Cour ni les jésuites, puisqu’ils crurent qu’ils les abaisseraient par là”, Pensées, no. 1959). The nation suffered for it: “the princes who make them their confessors are unwise; for that spreads a spirit of servitude in the nation”. This occult link between king and confessor allows all kinds of drifts: “[…] each body having interests, the confession where they are always dealing between the Prince and themselves, gives them the ability to inform on people and sink anyone they want without his being able to defend himself” (“[…] chaque corps ayant des intérêts particuliers, la confession où ils traitent toujours entre le prince et eux leur donne la commodité d’être délateurs et de perdre qui ils veulent sans qu’il puisse se défendre”, Pensées, no. 482). Montesquieu attributes to the Jesuits the responsibility for the bull Unigenitus and a central role in its consequences in Rome in 1729, as well as the initiative in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: “When I see Louis XIV led by the Jesuits and sending his subjects, soldiers, merchants, workers, and trade to his enemies, and expelling the Huguenots, I pity him more than the Huguenots” (“Quand je vois Louis XIV mené par les jésuites et envoyer à ses ennemis des sujets, des soldats, des négociants, des ouvriers, son commerce, et chasser les huguenots, j’ai plus pitié de lui que des huguenots”, Pensées, no. 728). He mentions the complaint often made about them, of incitation to regicide: “Who would have said that the Jesuits, so blackened with accusations against our kings, so often accused and even condemned, would some day govern France with heretofore unexampled power?” (“Qui aurait dit que les jésuites, si noircis d’accusations contre nos rois, tant de fois accusés et même condamnés, viendraient à gouverner la France avec un empire jusqu’alors sans exemple?”, Pensées, no. 544).

3To achieve their ends, the Jesuits are past masters in the art of intrigue. The privileged example is provided by Le Tellier, confessor to Louis XIV after 1709, an upstart and a fool; and here Montesquieu quotes the work of the Oratorian La Borde: “There are some very fine passages in this book, among others a portrait of Father Le Tellier after Tacitus. I do not know whether he was the first to represent the good Father as a man of the basest birth who, seeing himself rise to favor, lavished the Prince’s grace on unknown people, then he adds what Tacitus said […] about Sejanus, the favorite of Tiberius.” (“Il y a dans ce livre des traits parfaitement beaux, entre autres un portrait du P. Le Tellier d’après Tacite. Je ne sais s’il a tiré le premier trait qui représente ce bon père comme un homme de la plus basse naissance qui, se voyant élevé à la faveur, prodigue les grâces du prince à des gens inconnus, puis il ajoute ce que dit Tacite […] de Séjan, favori de Tibère.”, Spicilège, no. 579). Their hypocrisy well known. Here Montesquieu attests the voice of England: “To express some great imposture, the English say: ‘that is jésuitiquement faux, jesuitically false” (Pensées, no. 581). They do not shrink at anonymous denunciation, like Tournemine, who, Montesquieu was convinced, set off an anonymous cabal against his election to the French Academy: “I say against writers of anonymous letters (like Father Tournemine, who wrote to the Cardinal de Fleury against me, when I was nominated for the French Academy): the Tartars are required to put their names on their arrows, so it will be known who did the deed” (“Je dis contre les écrivains de lettres anonymes (comme le père Tournemine qui écrivit au cardinal de Fleury contre moi, lorsque l’on me nomma à l’Académie française) : les Tartares sont obligés de mettre leurs noms sur leurs flèches, afin qu’on sache d’où vient le coup”, Pensées, no. 472). As he notes in the extracts that make up the Geographica, their missionaries practice dupery: “We see that the Jesuits fooled the Chinese as well as the Europeans, by getting them to believe that Christians worshipped like the Chinese, as they gave Christians to understand that the Chinese worshipped like Christians” (“On voit que les jésuites ont trompé les Chinois comme les Européens en leur faisant accroire que les chrétiens étaient du culte chinois, comme ils ont fait entendre aux chrétiens que les Chinois avaient le culte chrétien”, Geographica, p. 396). Montesquieu observed about the Lettres édifiantes: “These letters are full of very curious facts; they must be telling the truth when they have no reason to hide it, so they will be believed when they want to lie” (“Ces lettres sont pleines de faits très curieux ; il faut qu’ils disent la vérité lorsqu’ils n’ont pas d’intérêt de la cacher, pour être crus lorsqu’ils veulent mentir”, p. 369). In general, he derides the Jesuits’ enthusiasm for China and notes with respect to the Description de la Chine: “Let us see then in Father La Halde what it is not in the Jesuits’ interest to conceal from us or to forge” (p. 259). For “in the description of the first eight provinces that I saw in Father Du Halde, everything I see is admirable, beautiful, good, marvelous, delightful: is nature always so lovely with no admixture of ugliness?” (“dans la description des huit premières provinces que j’ai vue dans le P. Du Halde, je ne vois rien que d’admirable ; tout est beau, tout est bon, tout est merveilleux, tout est délicieux : la nature est-elle ainsi toujours belle sans aucun mélange de laideur ?”, p. 156). Their lying uses a thousand ruses, so greatly do they wish to make Chinese religion appear purely spiritual, despite practices which they themselves judge idolatrous: “Father Du Halde, like a good Jesuit, always calls the Tien Lord of Heaven” (p. 160) – in the quarrel over rites, in which the Jesuits defended the idea that Christianity could be assimilated to the Chinese religion, the definition of divinity was indeed disputed, and this formula lifted all difficulties, at least in appearance. Their project distorts their political analysis. Indeed they are mistaken in seeing in the Chinese system an example of order: “Could it not be that the missionaries were fooled by an appearance of order; that they were struck by that continual exercise of the will of a single man, by which they themselves are governed, and which they like to find in the courts of the kings of the Indes, because going there only to make great changes, it is easier for them to convince princes they can do anything than to persuade peoples they can suffer anything?” (“Ne pourrait-il pas se faire que les missionnaires auraient été trompés par une apparence d’ordre ; qu’ils auraient été frappés de cet exercice continuel de la volonté d’un seul, par lequel ils sont gouvernés eux-mêmes, et qu’ils aiment tant à trouver dans les cours des rois des Indes, parce que n’y allant que pour y faire de grands changements, il leur est plus aisé de convaincre les princes qu’ils peuvent tout faire que de persuader aux peuples qu’ils peuvent tout souffrir ?”, EL, VIII, 21). In another extract, which he copied in the Geographica, doubtless owing to Fréret, Quelques remarques sur la Chine que j’ay tirées des conversations que j’ay eües avec M. Ouanges (‘A few remarks on China that I have taken from conversations I have had with M. Ouanges’), their errors are underscored: “In the Jesuits’s relations, it is said that there are only about 400 words in Chinese, which is false, there are over 1200 and, by multiplying tones, it reaches 6000”. Thus the missionaries act like Father Hardouin who in his “fantasies” “exercises arbitrary power over facts” (“Dans les relations des jésuites, il est dit qu’il n’y a à peu près que 400 mots dans le chinois, ce qui est faux, il y en a plus de douze cents et, en multipliant les tons, cela va à 6 000 » (p. 121). Ainsi les missionnaires agissent comme le P. Hardouin qui dans ses « rêveries », « exerce sur les faits un pouvoir arbitraire”, EL, XXX, 12).

4Montesquieu subscribes to the traditional complaint about “lax” morality. Jesuit laxity is in evidence in Rome: “The Jesuits also perform tragedies; but they don’t want the schoolboys to dress as women; but they allow women to dress as men to go hear them” (“Les jésuites font aussi des tragédies ; mais ils ne veulent pas que les écoliers s’habillent en femmes ; mais ils souffrent que les femmes s’habillent en hommes pour les aller entendre”, Voyages, p. 262); in Venice: “The Jesuits, great directors [of conscience] in Venise. As each of them has his whore, they tolerate until they can persuade marriage. They have caused great turpitudes to be committed. Yet they still mix, and each one confesses for his own part. They take communion as if there were nothing happening” (“Les jésuites, grands directeurs à Venise. Comme chacun y a sa p***, ils tolèrent jusqu’à ce qu’ils puissent persuader le mariage. Ils ont fait faire bien des bassesses. Cependant, on se voit toujours et chacun de son côté se confesse. On communie comme si de rien n’était”, Voyages, p. 140). He does not spare the Jesuit casuistic, who, albeit “gentle casuists”, refer to “lax theologians” (Pensées, no. 1059), like Escobar or Suarez, “who reveal in broad daylight the secrets of the night […]” (LP, 128 [134]). As he does in, among other places, the anonymous pamphlet Monita secreta, translated into French in 1718, where Montesquieu attributes a taste for gold to Jesuits. He takes the liberty of relating an anecdote said to have been heard from Lord Bath: “One gambler, […] foolish and devout, thought he could play against J. C. He lost 10,000 florins against J. C. and, wishing to pay, went to find the Jesuits who told him that being in the Society of Jesus, they would receive the money. He counted it out, took his receipt and left. A fortnight later, he returned and said he had played again and won 20,000 florins from J. C. The Jesuits were not willing to pay.” (“Un joueur, […] fou et dévot, pensa qu’il ne pouvait jouer que contre Jésus Christ. Il perdit contre Jésus Christ dix mille florins et, voulant payer, alla trouver les jésuites qui lui dirent qu’étant de la Compagnie de Jésus, ils recevraient l’argent. Il le compta, prit sa quittance et s’en fut. Quinze jours après, il revint et dit qu’il avait rejoué et gagné à Jésus Christ vingt mille florins. Les jésuites ne voulurent pas payer.”, Pensées, no. 1648). Money serves power: during his travels, Montesquieu notes that the Jesuits of Heidelberg “say that with money, they would convert many of the poor” (Voyages, p. 424). It enables the construction of colleges, “convents” and churches, close links on an international network. Montesquieu observes the large number, the wealth, and often the mediocrity of the establishments. With respect to the Roman College, he notes: “[…] they have put in images, curiosities, those bottles from Germany, carcasses of birds that are not very rare, the arrows of savages, etc., that aren’t much” (Voyages, p. 245). He does not spare certain of their churches: in Venice, “I went to see the Jesuits’s church. It is small, cost a lot of money and is in very bad taste” (Voyages, p. 131-132); “You see in Rome at the Grands-Jésuites the famous chapel of St. Ignatius. It cost huge sums, and indeed it is composed of marbles and the most precious stones, lapis, alabaster, etc. It is terribly mars a chapel of St. Xavier, which is just opposite” (Voyages, p. 244).

5This occupation of space corresponds to a will for intellectual leverage that places freedom in peril. Montesquieu blames the Jesuit periodical: “I used to say of the Journaux de Trévoux that, if they were read, they would be the most dangerous work there is, with its project of making itself master over literature” (“Je disais des Journaux de Trévoux que, si on les lisait, ils seraient le plus dangereux ouvrage qu’il y eût, dans son projet de se rendre maître de la littérature”, Pensées, no. 1954). He does not spare Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercices. He writes of Venice: “The Jesuits have made that city pious, as well as Padua and other cities in the Venetian state, by means of their Exercises of St. Ignatius. They close a young man into a very dark room, speak to him of nothing but eternity, hell, etc.: it’s like the ceremony performed by Mir-Oweis, when he put himself in a sort of tomb, from which he re-emerged mad.” (“Les jésuites ont rendu cette ville dévote, aussi bien que Padoue et d’autres villes de l’État vénitien, par le moyen de leurs Exercices de saint Ignace. Ils enferment un homme dans une chambre fort obscure, ne lui parlent que de l’éternité, de l’enfer, etc. : c’est comme la cérémonie que fit Mir-Oweis lorsqu’il se mit dans une espèce de tombeau dont il sortit fou.”, Voyages, p. 130).

6Frightened by this power, Montesquieu was attentive to the breaches that weaken it: confrontations with papal authority, in particular the “quarrel over [Chinese] rites” and the run-in with Clement XI; the hostility of other orders (“the other missionaries enemies of all of them”, Spicilège, no. 481) and their quarrels with the Jansenists. He points out the internal divisions (“The Portuguese, German, and French Jesuits are incontestably the enemies of each other […]”, Spicilège, no. 481), their absence of “influence in Vienna” at the time of his travels (Pensées, no. 394), whence their ultimate inefficacy in China: “it is almost excluded that Christianity should ever be established in China” (EL, XIX, 18). Their disappearance is even envisaged: “the Molinists are already preparing codes with which to hang or be hanged” (“les molinistes préparent déjà les cordes avec lesquelles ils pendent ou seront pendus”, Pensées, no. 1226). This vast indictment culminates in a condemnation without appeal: “One thing I cannot reconcile with the lights of this era is the authority of the Jesuits” (Pensées, no. 715).

7Is the origin of this dark view of the Jesuits to be found in a personal experience? The origins, education, and function of Montesquieu did not incline him in favor of the Society: his wife was a Protestant, he was raised by the Oratorians of Juilly and the parliamentary tradition was often unfavorable to the Jesuits. His distrust could have been fed at the time of his election to the French Academy: convinced of Tournemine’s cabal against him (Pensées, no. 472; see above), he long stigmatized afterwards the Jesuit’s “despotism and hassles” (letter to Guasco, 5 December 1750). He was to be persuaded that the Society impeded the distribution of L’Esprit des lois: “I have just learned that the Jesuits have managed to have the sale of the book L’Esprit des lois forbidden in Vienna” (letter to Stainville,27 May 1750); yet he noted in his Pensées, as we have seen, their absence of “influence in Vienna” observed some twenty years earlier.

8Yet the Jesuits reacted to his work with moderation. They kept their peace when Lettres persanes was published; Castel came to the support of Romains. As for the critiques addressed to L’Esprit des lois, they were nuanced and far from the violent diatribes of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. The work was commented upon beginning in April 1749 by the Mémoires de Trévoux, which praised the author’s talent and erudition, while reproaching him for being too severe on religion, contesting his concept of freedom, his praise of Julian the Apostate, his condemnation of penal laws touching religion as well as his explanation of suicide and polygamy by natural conditions. To its conclusion, which invited the author to react, Montesquieu did not respond. In the immediate review of the Défense de L’Esprit des lois, published in Geneva in February 1750, he is attacked over details and accused of eluding the theological discussion, with an invitation for him to respond. There again, he kept silent (on all this, see Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, p. 1-14 et 119-128). We cannot, in any case, attribute the placing of LEsprit des lois on the Index by the Holy See on 29 November 1751 to the Jesuits’ influence, nor the censures which the Sorbonne tried to publish in 1752): the Jesuits’ relations with the Pope and the University of Paris were difficult, even conflictual.

9Montesquieu’s animosity for the Jesuits did suffer exceptions. He had ties to Vitry (Voyages, p. 289), Fouquet whom he met in Rome and who shared with him his experience in China (Voyages, p. 345 and 649), and especially with Castel. Their friendship lasted until the president’s death, which was surrounded by a sort of mystery. How did the Jesuits behave then? At his bedside were to be found, indeed, two Jesuits, Castel, whom Montesquieu had chosen as confessor, and Routh, whom Darcet, faithful to Montesquieu, accused of unworthy behavior (see C. Volpilhac-Auger, 2003, p. 234). Voltaire, among others, was to assert that Routh had forcefully entered Montesquieu’s home to steal some papers (Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article “Jésuites ou orgueil”, and L’Homme aux quarante écus, “Scélérat chassé”); the Jesuit gave a very different version in a letter to the Papal nonce in Paris, and published in Chaudon’s Dictionnaire anti-philosophique in 1767.

10Montesquieu’s judgment on the Jesuits was nuanced by a few reservations. More than a theological disagreement, he expresses a rejection of Jesuit practices: “the Jesuits defend a good cause, Molinism, by very bad means” (Pensées, no. 730). Their action sometimes achieves good results: in the esthetic domain, where there exists a “worship that the Catholic religion allows one to render to images” (De la manière gothique, OC, t. VIII, p. 98) or in the scientific domain: “the Jesuits, to communicate with and between their missions have undertaken travels with enormous labors to the benefit of geography” (Geographica, OC, t. XVI, p. 383). In Italy, he admired what was “good and rare” in Kircher’s collection in the Roman College (Voyages, p. 245), or he notes the interest of the translation of a Chinese play by Prémare (Spicilège, no. 554). He consulted their works, gleaned information from the Mémoires de Trévoux, retained the analysis of the beautiful by Buffier (Pensées, no. 272). He was very pleased by the Society’s activity in Paraguay against the “devastations of the Spanish”: “[…] it will always be excellent to govern men while making them happier. It is glorious for the Society to have been the first to show the idea of religion combined with that of humanity […]. It has brought dispersed peoples out of the woods; it has given them an assured subsistence; it has clothed them; and if it did no more than increase human application, it will have accomplished much” (“[…] il sera toujours beau de gouverner les hommes en les rendant plus heureux. Il est glorieux pour elle d’avoir été la première qui ait montré dans ces contrées l’idée de la religion jointe à celle de l’humanité. […] Elle a retiré des bois des peuples dispersés, elle leur a donné une subsistance assurée, elle les a vêtus ; et quand elle n’aurait fait par là qu’augmenter l’industrie parmi les hommes, elle aurait beaucoup fait.”, EL, IV, 6).

11An admirer in his way of the energy behind it, he presents it satirically: “I am undertaking a long-term work: the history of the Society is richer in great events than that of more warlike nations. We find there a great company, in continual war against a world of enemies: attacking and defending itself with the same courage. Always determined in good success and in ill, it benefits from the former by its adroitness and can repair the latter by its firmness.” (“J’entreprends un ouvrage de longue haleine : l’histoire de la Société est plus féconde en grands événements que celle des nations les plus belliqueuses. On y trouve une grande compagnie, dans une guerre continuelle contre un monde d’ennemis, attaquer et se défendre avec le même courage. Toujours obstinée dans les bons et dans les mauvais succès, elle profite des uns par son adresse et sait réparer les autres par sa fermeté.”, Pensées, no. 237). The tone becomes more ponderous to assert: “If the books that have been written against the Jesuits survive even in the distant future and outlive the Jesuits themselves, will those who read them not believe that these Jesuits were assassins, men blackened with crimes, and will they not wonder that they were allowed to live? They will surely not imagine that they are about like the other religious, like the other ecclesiastics, like other men” (“Si les livres qui ont été faits contre les jésuites subsistent jusque dans l’avenir reculé et survivent aux jésuites mêmes, ceux qui les liront ne croiront-ils pas que les jésuites ont été des assassins, des gens noircis de crimes, et ne s’étonneront-ils pas qu’on ait pu les laisser vivre ? Ils ne s’imagineront pas sûrement qu’ils sont à peu près comme les autres religieux, comme les autres ecclésiastiques, comme les autres hommes”, Pensées, no. 104).


Geographica, OC, t. XVI, éd. C. Volpilhac-Auger et alii, 2007.

Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, P. Rétat dir., 2010.


Paul Bastid, “Montesquieu et les jésuites” Actes du [colloque de Bordeaux, 1955], Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 305-325.

Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford, 1961.

Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu, Paris: Mazarine, 1986.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, Paris: Presses universitaires de la Sorbonne, “Mémoire de la critique”, 2003.

Bibliographical reference

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