Jean Goldzink


1Montesquieu seems not to have felt the need to elaborate or put forth a theory of the passions, whether philosophical or classificatory, as did Descartes, Hume or Adam Smith. Yet it is evident that he could no more than his contemporaries reflect on man without passing via the passions. Of this the opening of L’Esprit des lois is sufficient evidence, where the criterion of the passions, a specific trait of man and animal, helps to sort out the different beings in the cosmos, and therefore the various orders of laws (I, 1), before occasioning the famous definition of “principles”, which are so many collective and political passions on which the survival of governments depends (III). We shall not attempt here to reconstitute the philosophical backdrop for the emotions, on which Montesquieu did not care to express himself. Malebranche would have more importance than Descartes in it, and we would have to review all his literary and historical readings, as a schoolboy or an adult, not to mention the spirit of the times, the huge reservoir of notions previously acquired. It is better to examine how he puts the passions into play in different kinds of texts.

Passions in space

2If the Persian Letters founded the immediate celebrity of their anonymous author, heretofore turned toward more austere labors, they are also the first text that really faced Montesquieu with the representation of the passions. To say novel is to say passions. But the Persian Letters, as the author was to agree in his later “Quelques réflexions”, represent “a sort of novel”, in which epistolary polyphony allows all subjects and tones to intersect, by way of Persia and Paris, women and priests, the furies of the seraglio and metaphysical discussions about God, justice, or population. How to expose such disparate and uneven passions? The reader must forcibly separate what the text never ceases to juxtapose and intermix, except in the last fifteen letters (in the posthumous edition), all devoted, in defiance of chronological order, to the seraglio plot. We can thus distinguish an oriental scene where dark emotions are agitated and fester between Usbek, his eunuchs and his wives; a Parisian scene observed by the Persians, essentially devoted to satirical discourse, but which also speaks of the passions; and finally a philosophical scene, supposedly dedicated to reason, a reason capable of mastering affective excesses. Only Usbek participates in these three types of spheres and discourses.

3The seraglio figures essentially as a foyer of unhappy passions, of painful frustrations. Usbek, although lacking sensual desire and absent, is tortured by jealousy and disquiet, passions of the seraglio owner, which incite him finally to a terrible repression. For if he changes his philosophical and political notions in contact with Europe, he remains inflexibly attached to his religion and especially to oriental mores. It is thus as if the pulsions linked to the enclosed and watched women retained all of their violence, as if reason had no purchase on the seraglio and its deadly passions. The novel gives voice to the passions of eunuchs (9) – ambition, fear, envy, despair, hatred, vengeance, rage – but also makes room, despite Chardin’s testimony, for friendship (14 [15]), the substitute for an impossible paternity. The wives, because of Usbek’s absence, but also because of polygamy, know frustration (7), and therefore the substitutive temptations (lesbianism, adultery), while their struggle of every minute against the eunuchs involves them in the same passions, witness Roxane’s famous last letter, so nearly a tragic pastiche (150 [161]; see also 148 [156], Supplementary Letters 9 [157] and 10 [158]). The seraglio dreamed by Montesquieu is indeed that fatal triangle in which arise the wildest passions, well-suited to give the novel its bloody epilogue.

4If disquiet and rage carry away the seraglio, the amused, distanced description of Parisian mores reveals a completely different economy of marriage, which is much more adept. Jealousy would make French husbands, who combine marital indissolubility with free exercise of adultery (53 [55]) look foolish. In Europe Usbek and Rica encounter other, unknown passions, like curiosity (29 [31], 46 [48]), glory (87 [89], 98 [90]), the alchemical (43 [45]) or archeological folly (136 [142]), etc. The tranquillity of the French (which is a passion in the classical sense, in other words a state of soul) is therefore as great as the freedom of women, their madness for gambling, fashion, disputes, theatre, salons, liaisons. This freedom that suits Rica fine nevertheless arouses from Usbek, an adept of Mohammed and the seraglio as antidotes to the passions (31 [33]), a whiff of patriotic and religious indignation (46 [48]). Men and women, in France as the satiric discourse captures them, are not at all immune to the passions, manias and biases, but the difference in mores, laws, politics and religion between Orient and Occident brings forth two worlds foreign to each other, two heterogeneous realms of passion. But the structure of the text does not submit these two types of passions to the same enunciative status. The Orient is placed under the sign of pathos without distance, France under the mordant irony required by the fiction of the Persian gaze. It is clear that this apparatus was meant exactly to reverse the natural relation of the reader to the passions represented. To this reversal is added an effect of scrambling. Oriental passions are indeed perfectly consistent with the despotic system and the institution of the seraglio. They form a whole with no breach. However, how is Europe’s political, military, technical and intellectual superiority, strongly asserted by the text, to be reconciled with the caustic or even indignant portrayal of the mores? Could it be the underbelly of freedom, its unfortunate price, or its substratum? Are we to judge these passions by morality and religion, or by politics? French passions leave us with this question mark which the notion of “principle”, absent from the Persian Letters, will enable to resolve in L’Esprit des lois, by distinguishing clearly between moral and political virtue. But then we risk drying up the source of the satirical irony.

5As we expect, grave meditations between philosophers (necessarily virile) offer little material for an equally rich and contrasting portrayal. But we must not forget, and the Church has repeated it often enough to help us not to, that the search for profane truth is a concupiscence, just like friendship, linked since Antiquity with philosophical intercourse. Is it also permitted to remark that the last missive of Roxane and of the novel repeats most of the major philosophical terms of the collection (right, servitude, nature, freedom, virtue, laws, spirit, happiness), but to submit them to the vehement power of the passions, as if femininity and philosophy were antagonistic? It is indeed by fleeing women, his own and even the Parisian women, that Usbek, an abstinent philosopher, gains access to universal truths, and it is because of the seraglio, absent and obsessive, that he remains the slave of his most violent passions.

Passions and history

6One might think that by trying to raise history to the status of true philosophical knowledge, impossible with skepticism and literal Cartesianism, Montesquieu needed to reduce passions, the preferred terrain of romantic or moralizing historiography, to a minimum. The Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence proves that this is hardly the case. The point was not to exclude them, but to rethink them, to give to the most glorious trial of profane history, at least in the eyes of a classical thinker concerned above all with political lessons, all its rationality. What is the “principal cause of the grandeurs which that city achieved” (ch. 1)? The institution of triumphs is itself related to the “great joy” aroused by “the booty of vanquished peoples” brought to the city since Romulus (ibid.). It is true that the next paragraph adds another cause, the unique capacity for giving up Roman habits to adopt better ones. But where did they get this quality that other antique peoples did not attain? From the crushing primacy of the originating warlike passion, maintained by the institutions with exceptional constancy, which is just what needs explaining. If a decisive factor cannot be brought to the credit of drives – the unique quality of the first Roman kings – then the institution of annual consuls, another capital cause, depends on a temporal economy of the passions: whereas monarchs necessarily alternate their desires, including that of idleness, the consuls, pressed for time, ought logically to devote themselves entirely to warlike ambition, and show the people “new enemies every day”. The brevity of the republican magistracies brought with it the longevity of the warlike spirit, whereas the fame of victories incited to decisive military actions.

7From this disposition to war, to a war led loud and clear, flowed another national passion, Roman virtue: “Ever exposed to the most terrible vengeances, constancy and valor became necessities for them; and these virtues could not be distinguished from vanity, family, country, all that is dearest to men”. As this quotation attests along with many others, history reconceived was not intended to marginalize the passions, but to account for them. The purpose was to justify two major features of the Roman passion, its energy and duration. Which required assigning to it too an external cause, itself explicable, the long resistance of the Italian peoples, at least those who “passionately loved war”, which technical and social reasons forbade to overcome too quickly, with the risk of corrupting “the Romans’ obstinacy” (“l’opiniâtreté des Romains”) under a profusion of riches (ibid.). That obstinacy, another name for the Roman passion for conquest, is also based on a republican and military education (II), on the social structure, agrarian and egalitarian, which favored the numeric relationship between soldiers and citizens: “It was the equal division of land that made Rome able to emerge from its abjection” (“Ce fut le partage égal des terres qui rendit Rome capable de sortir de son abaissement”, III).

8Is one able at this point, thanks to the reciprocal relationship between institutions and warlike spirit, to account for the Roman victories over the most formidable adversaries? Not entirely, as proved by the Gauls, just as passionate as warriors as are the Romans: “The love of glory, scorn for death, obstinacy for victory, were the same in the two peoples; but the weapons were different” (“L’amour de la gloire, le mépris de la mort, l’obstination pour vaincre, étaient les mêmes dans les deux peuples ; mais les armes étaient différentes”, IV). The Gauls lacked the Roman capacity already encountered, and linked to their entire devotion to things of war, for immediately appropriating to themselves weapons and customs to make themselves stronger. The obligatory comparison between the Romans and the Carthaginians also underscores the fact that Montesquieu never loses sight of the question and vocabulary of the passions, obviously associated with social structures: “The Romans were ambitious out of pride, and the Carthaginians out of greed; […] the latter always made war but without loving it” (“Les Romains étaient ambitieux par orgueil, et les Carthaginois par avarice ; [… ] ces derniers firent toujours la guerre sans l’aimer”, ibid.). Guided by the commercial interest proper to a merchant city, Carthage stumbled against the intransigent Roman refusal to sue for peace, in other words against “pride”, or “virtue”, or “constancy”, or “obstinacy”.

9So many different names for the same collective urge that leads to world conquest, and from there to the brutal and complete corruption of the national spirit, for want of time to adapt the former passions to the new situation. The violence of Roman passions explains the conquests and the hideous servitude that unleashed despotic feelings. “The citizens were treated as they had themselves treated the vanquished enemies […]” (“Les citoyens furent traités comme ils avaient traité eux-mêmes les ennemis vaincus […]”, XV). The grandeur and decadence of the Romans relates to a temporal paradox. They had the time during the republic to harden their original warlike passion, but not the time to soften it to enter into a monarchy. The price to pay was “that horrendous tyranny of the Roman emperors” (ibid.).

Passions and politics

10In Romans, as we have just seen, unlike the Persian Letters, Montesquieu basically brings the Roman republican spirit back to a single passion – war and conquest. But we must await L’Esprit des lois to see passion attain the status of a unitary political concept, defined and thought-out, under the name of government “principle”. The primal force of the principle is based on the nature of man, defined from the start as the most passionate being in the cosmos, and the one who makes the “worst use of [his] passions” (I, 1). We know that Montesquieu, without, like Rousseau, eliminating all trace of rationality, brings the first “natural laws”, in the hypothetical state of nature, to “feelings” common to men and animals – timidity, hunger, sexuality, sympathy between members of the same species (I, 2). The passage to a social state instantly reverses peace, born of these urges, into generalized war, founded on the new and irresistible feeling of each individual and every collectivity of its “strength”, on the desire of hoarding by violence “the principal advantages of that society”. Whence the invention of birthright and political order (I, 3) already deduced in chapter I, without passing through the state of nature, from the constitution of man, an intelligent being “subject to ignorance and error”, and a sensitive being “subject to a thousand passions”.Curiously, these inaugural analyses do not figure under the article “Passions” in the “Analytical table” – reduced, it is true, to a few lines, which do not even mention the famous “principles”, key concept of the work (see our article “Principles”) – but we know that this table owes nothing to Montesquieu. We will simply recall here the fundamental difference between the “thousand passions” that agitate man and the “principle of government”, which defines a political, collective, directing, structuring passion, without which a type of government becomes both unviable and unintelligible. It would obviously be absurd to conclude from this that the principle eradicates the other passions, including those that constitute the principles of the other types of government. But if any concrete state, to be understood, must be put into relation with the logic of the type that models it, it also pursues a specific object, which determines a dominant passion, and different men: “Aggrandizement was the object of Rome; war, that of Lacedaemon; religion, that of the Judaic laws” (“L’agrandissement était l’objet de Rome ; la guerre, celui de Lacédémone ; la religion, celui des lois judaïques”), etc. (XI, 5). To this object, to this passion proper to “each state”, corresponds the specific “general spirit” of each people (XIX. See “Principles”). The French state pursues “glory”, Rome conquest, England political freedom (XI, 5). Honor is the monarchical principle, virtue that of the republic, and book XIX analyses the general spirit of the French and the English: so many different, but correlated, angles on the passions, which thus play a fundamental role in the economy of the text, and sometimes where we least expect it, for example the political analysis of religion in books XXIV and XXV.

Passions and religion

11The Christian religion, the only true one, commands men to love one another, and thus “every people to have the best political laws and the best civil laws” (“que chaque peuple ait les meilleures lois politiques et les meilleures lois civiles”, XXIV, 1). But the first political function of religion in general is to arouse fear of a repressive God. Should one say that the laws and their penal sanctions suffice to contain the subjects? That would be forgetting the princes; they must “bleach with foam the sole restraint that those who do not fear human laws can have” (“qu’ils blanchissent d’écume le seul frein que ceux qui ne craignent point les lois humaines puissent avoir”, XXIV, 2). Without this religious fear, a prince “is the terrible animal that can only feel his freedom when he rends and devours.” Religion, including in despotism where “it forms a sort of deposit and permanence” (“elle forme une espèce de dépôt et de permanence”) in lieu of laws (III, 4), works for order and moderation. Unequally, to be sure, Christianity, through its evangelical “gentleness”, “resists despotic wrath”, whereas “Mohammedan princes are constantly administering death” (XXIV, 3) and benefit from Muslim fatalism, raised to a “rigid doctrine” (XXIV, 11), to a horrendous “indolence of the soul” (XXIV, 14). Unlike pagan cults which, not knowing the heart, could arrest the hand only by the notion of inexpiable crimes, true religion rejects that thought, “envelops all the passions”, makes us pass “endlessly from repentance to love, and from love to repentance” (“sans cesse du repentir à l’amour, et de l’amour au repentir”). It is able to ally fear and hope to attach us flexibly, without violence, “by an innumerable number of threads”. But it also indicates to us that, “never paid up with the Lord, we must fear […] overfilling the cup” (“jamais quittes envers le Seigneur, nous devons craindre […] de combler la mesure”), wearying his “paternal goodness” (XXIV, 13).

12In other words, Christianity cultivates moderate religious passions, and all the more efficacious because they are mild, in accordance with the general, but not absolute, penchant, of the civil and penal laws, with the nature and principle of government of European regimes, with the law of war in modern Europe. Elsewhere too, however, religions often contribute to peace, by pacifying “hatreds”, as among the Greeks, Japanese, Arabs, Germans, Malays (XXIV, 16-17). On the other hand, they become dangerous when they found the mutual horror of castes as in India, when they support, “for indifferent things”, such as alimentary taboos, “a certain aversion for other men”, a lack of love and pity (XXIV, 22) which is contrary to the fundamental principle of the law of peoples: “to do oneself, in peace, the most good, and, in war, the least harm possible” (“se faire, dans la paix, le plus de bien, et, dans la guerre, le moins de mal qu’il est possible”, I, 3).

13One can also approach religious passion under another angle, in its very nature as religious passion. Are there not types of different attachments to religion that need to be explained? It is a fact that “the various religions of the world do not give those who profess them equal motives of attachment to them” (“les diverses religions du monde ne donnent pas à ceux qui les professent des motifs égaux d’attachement pour elles”, XXV, 2). Idolatrous religions attach less than those which “make us worship a spiritual Being”; inversely, “our natural inclination for tangible things” explains why the Catholic religion favors religious passion and missionary zeal more than the Protestant religion. The more a religion promulgates cultural practices, like the Jewish and Mohammedan religions, the more attaching it is, whereas “barbaric and savage peoples, […] concerned only with hunting or war, assume hardly any religions practices” (“les peuples barbares et sauvages, […] uniquement occupés de la chasse ou de la guerre, ne se chargent guère de pratiques religieuses”), and consequently easily change religions. A religion with no paradise or hell, such as the Japanese religion, arousing neither fear nor hope, will easily be replaced (ibid.); peoples with no hourses, and consequently no temples where they can bring their fears and hopes, hold less to their religion and are easily tolerant or converted (XXV, 3).

14Toleration is associated with the passions. Indeed, repressive laws regarding religion brutally oppose judiciary fear and fear of God. “Between these two different fears, souls become excruciating” (“Entre ces deux craintes différentes, les âmes deviennent atroces”), whatever their choice (XXV, 12). To detach a soul from its religious passion, it is better to repress it by stimulating “other passions”, by hope of fortune, honors, the “conveniences of life”. It is better then, playing on the passions rather than challenging them despotically, to proceed as the monarchy did before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. “When it comes to changing religion, invitations are stronger than penalties” (“En fait de changement de religion, les invitations sont plus fortes que les peines”), in exact proportion to an economy of passions proper to the human spirit (ibid.).

15It will not fail to be observed that all these explanations of a sociological order of the etiology of religious passions singularly reduce the miraculous character of conversion to Christianity of “barbarous and savage” peoples, assigning to them much less exalting causes than divine providence hastening to the aid of the only true religion.

Bibliographical reference

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