Jean Goldzink


1Is there, in an overview of Montesquieu’s works, one that does not present itself as an inquiry of reason in a field of human affairs, a reason curious to sort out effects and causes, and to distinguish the differences? Upon reflection, there are only two narratives, Arsace et Isménie and Histoire véritable which, unlike the Persian Letters, belong to the pure novelistic genre, and therefore to taste. We can add the seven prose cantos of the Temple of Gnidus, successfully published during the author’s lifetime. Is it entirely accidental that, despite their unequal publishing destiny, these are the least notable successes? It is indeed to the labor of reason, in the Persian Letters, that philosophical, satirical “sort of novel”, in the Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, and obviously in L’Esprit des lois, that Montesquieu owes his immortality, which saves him from the way his other works have been forgotten.

Reason and philosophical novel

2When he wrote between 1751 and 1754 his “Quelques réflexions sur les Lettres persanes” , which was to be published in the posthumous edition of 1758, this is how Montesquieu explains its immediate and persistent success.

31. “Nothing caused more pleasure in the Persian Letters than to discover in it unexpectedly a sort of novel. One can see the beginning, the development, the end; the various characters are placed in a chain that connects them.” (“Rien n’a plu davantage, dans les Lettres persanes, que d’y trouver, sans y penser, une espèce de roman. On en voit le commencement, le progrès, la fin; les divers personnages sont placés dans une chaîne qui les lie.”) What pleases, consequently, is that the novel, a discredited genre because of its unreasonable implausibilities, is dissimulated in it (“unexpectedly” [“sans y penser”]) while offering the pleasure of a visibly complete action, and that a logical structure (“a chain”), able to satisfy the mind and even the reason, distinguishes the Persian Letters from other novels. This chain that connects the characters is a double one, as the scene of the novel is double, shared between Europe and Asia. “As [the Persians’] stay in Europe lengthens, the mores of that part of the world assume in their thoughts a semblance less wondrous and less bizarre, and they are struck more or less by this bizarreness and this wonder in keeping with the difference of their characters. On the other hand, disorder is mounting in the seraglio in Asia as Usbek’s absence grows longer, in other words as the fury augments, and love diminishes.” The first quality of the Persian Letters comes then, according to the author, from the unusually logical coherence of its construction, based on temporality and its required effects. The duration of the Parisian sojourn diminishes the intellectual astonishment (the moral side) and increases the tension of passions (the seraglio side). Rome’s fate too will depend on a temporal paradox, through the dramatic encounter between a long, warlike passion and a sudden passage from Republic to Empire.

42. The second reason for the success is linked to the epistolary form, “which makes the reader feel passions better than all the relations that could be told about them […]” (“qui fait plus sentir les passions que tous les récits […]”) when assumed by a narrator in the third person.

53. The epistolary structure, favorable to the experience of the passions, also has the decisive advantage of authorizing, unlike long narratives, “digressions” other than embedded stories. It enables the author to insert at will, with complete verisimilitude and without “going against” the “nature” of the work, “arguments”, to “combine philosophy, politics and morality with a novel, and to connect it all by a hidden and, in some sense, invisible chain”. The form that serves the passions thus also serves, and even more, the discourse of reason, banned in ordinary novels. For in them, the characters are not brought together “to reason” but to live passions and adventures.

64. This structure open to “digressions”, to “arguments”, does not, however, enable any insertion or apocryphal sequel, declares Montesquieu, precisely because of the temporal logic that dictates its writing and makes it a complete work, because it is fully thought-out. “Transplanted into […] another universe”, the Persians obey a specific logic of the genealogy of thoughts: “The only concern was to make visible the generation and progress of their thoughts. Their first notions had to be singular […] When speaking of our religion, these Persians could not appear better informed than when they spoke of our customs and habits” (“on n’était attentif qu’à faire voir la génération et le progrès de leurs idées. Leurs premières pensées devaient être singulières […]. En parlant de notre religion, ces Persans ne devaient pas paraître plus instruits que lorsqu’ils parlaient de nos coutumes et de nos usages”), in “utter ignorance of the connections that exist between those doctrines and our other truths” ( CHAPTER \h \r 1“une parfaite ignorance des liaisons » qui existent entre nos « dogmes et nos autres vérités”). The “barbs that many people have found too bold” (“traits que bien des gens ont trouvés trop hardis”, such as Marivaux in his Spectateur français, no. VIII, 8 September 1722) relate to this structural and esthetic necessity. The Persians must express their “surprise”, their ignorance and their prejudices. Reason speaks through “paradoxes created by men who were not even capable of creating any” (“paradoxes faits par des hommes qui n’étaient pas même en état d’en faire”), through the decentered, satirical and spiritual vision that make for the work’s celebrity.

7So one suspects a double logic in this remarkable analysis of Montesquieu by himself (has anyone done better in so few words?). On the one hand, that of the progression, apprenticeship, that little by little acclimates the Persians to the European world: “There was a time when they had necessarily to be represented as full of ignorance and prejudice. […] These barbs are always linked to the feeling of surprise and astonishment, and not at all with the idea of scrutiny, and even less with that of criticism” (“Il y avait un temps où il fallait nécessairement les représenter pleins d’ignorance et de préjugés […] Ces traits se trouvent toujours liés avec le sentiment de surprise et d’étonnement, et point avec l’idée d’examen, et encore moins avec celle de critique”). And on the other, a logic that obviously wants to maintain from one end to the other the inherent ingenuousness of the Persian effect, since “all the pleasure lay in the everlasting contrast between real things and the singular, naive, or bizarre manner in which they were perceived.” (“tout l’agrément consistait dans le contraste éternel entre les choses réelles et la manière singulière, naïve, ou bizarre, dont elles étaient aperçues”) Thus, Montesquieu skillfully sloughs the “bold barbs” having to do with religion onto the form of the novel and the Persian fiction. The honest, reasonable reader is invited to enjoy fully and unreservedly the salt of a critical displacement and restrain himself from adhering ingenuously to judgments that could have nothing to do, by definition, by reading contract, with the spirit of “examination”, an enlightened and methodical reason, conscious of the “connections” forbidden to Persians, and thus able to perform, if needed, a “criticism”. It is up to the reader to use reason, while enjoying that of the Persians without always accompanying it all the way. And in fact, it is indeed in the order of satire, linked to the Persian point of view, that readers and critics can the most legitimately, because of the very structure of the apparatus of enunciation, differ on the evaluation and scope of the satirical judgments, on the author’s implication in them. One could rather easily sketch the gradation of the major interpretative positions through Montesquieu’s terminology: “surprise”, “examination”, “criticism”.

8But do all the “arguments” pass through the channel of astonishment and Persian ingenuousness, through the piquant “contrast”, and according to Montesquieu, easily decipherable unless there is bad faith, between the reality and the manner of speaking? In other words, do the epistolary polyphony (multiplicity of viewpoints) and the Persian gap (between things and their perception) amount to a sort of undecidability of utterances, and consequently an indetermination of reason in the Persian Letters? Are politics, morality and philosophy, to use Montesquieu’s terms, caught in the dizzying turnstile of a structure that is decentered, broken apart, contradictory? Is any specifically philosophical discourse, about God, justice, law, liberty, population, the sciences, etc., masked, evasive, and contested by others? It does not seem so to us, although we do not have space here to prove it. Beside the satirical letters, turned toward Western mores, and the letters of passion, linked to the seraglio, a place must be made for properly philosophical letters, exchanged by friends, where the author’s voice seems indeed to express itself without too much obliqueness. If we look a little more closely, we will note moreover how little those great philosophical subjects lend themselves, in the Persian Letters, to contradictory debates! The novel really does intend to mix mocking voices, vehement and reasonable or quibbling. In short, to assure a place for reason, and its echo to truth, in the choppy kaleidoscope of the Persian Letters.

Reason up against diversity

9 L’Esprit des lois hangs from a conviction, a wager: “I believed that, in this infinite diversity of laws and mores, [men] were not solely led by their fantasies” (“[…] j’ai cru que, dans cette infinie diversité de lois et de mœurs, ils [les hommes] n’étaient pas uniquement conduits par leurs fantaisies”, EL, Preface). And from a desire, which defines the practical, or if one prefers the political, nature of reason in Montesquieu: “It is not indifferent for people to be enlightened. […] I would hold myself the happiest of mortals, if I could cause men to be cured of their prejudices” (“Il n’est pas indifférent que le peuple soit éclairé. […] Je me croirais le plus heureux des mortels, si je pouvais faire que les hommes pussent se guérir de leurs préjugés”), in other words cease to know nothing about themselves (ibid.). This is not about pious inaugural propositions, but the very penchant of a mind turned toward the real world, still more exactly toward the “nature of things”, itself tied together by the idea of complexity and internal connection. To know is to gain access to the reasons for human diversity. And to understand is to act better. To act better is to correct with prudence and insight, examining “all the causes to see all the results”. It is also to know better why one obeys and to find “a new pleasure in obeying” (ibid.).

10Reason works for the understanding of modes of collective existence of men, not to subject them to the imperious, arrogant aspiration of an ideal political or religious model (for example Christian or monarchical bosses), but to preserve the varied and the specific in the order of their reasons, in the sense of their logic. “The love of everyone”, which motivates such an enterprise of instruction, of self-knowledge as a political being, energetically refuses to conflate the universal and the uniform. “Each nation will find here the reasons for its maxims” (“Chaque nation trouvera ici les raisons de ses maximes”, ibid.), not out of a priori moral respect of the values of each society, but because true understanding of human things is first the rational knowledge of differences. Reason is turned, under the species of the law-relation, towards the understanding of human societies, with an eye to preserving them, and correcting them the better to preserve them. For every society that lasts has to be the effect of necessary causes, the destruction of which, under pretext of reform, would be a remedy worse than the disease: the fruit of ignorance, or of fanaticism. Montesquieu’s “conservatism” is inseparable from his conception of reason, as a faculty of knowing the connection of effects and causes, and as a principle of action (legislative action, above, and obedient action below, or rather action of collective participation in the functional logic of a political entity). Reason asks to examine the English Constitution in order to reflect on political freedom (EL, XI), because that is the specific object of that constitution, the place where it is best revealed. But it firmly advises against imaging it can be exported. Why? Because “constitution” does not at all signify the solemnly drafted text, in transportable articles, constitutional dispositions in the modern sense of the word, but English society, the political, social, and mental structure that makes possible, against a backdrop of a particular history, the functioning of a freedom, all the more fascinating and unique that Montesquieu considers it extreme (and thus fragile).

Boldness and moderation

11The reasonable legislator is not an importer, because enlightened reason discovers that every political society, through the interconnection of the relations that are so many laws, forms, at the end of the analysis, a specific totality. This analysis passes, of course, via the updating of universal, transverse concepts, the nature and principle of government, the general spirit, and all the parameters that organize L’Esprit des lois. Each particular, concrete political form involves one or two general political types (republic, monarchy, despotism), of which it is indispensable to know the logic before taking up “particular cases” (Preface). But the superposition and interdependence of the law-relations (climate, space, mode of life, religion, status of women, penal system, etc.) necessarily in the long run creates a singular configuration, which presents to each legislative reason its delicate complexity, its eminently perilous fragility. Especially since the legislator must imperatively know what temporal logic organizes the society for which he is responsible, where it comes from, where its most violent bent is carrying it, what must at all costs be maintained, what it would be best to change or leave alone, what motive to play on to balance another, and resist the attrition of time that wears everything down but uses the political machine because of the very interdependence of its multiple motives.

12The reason of the Enlightenment has so often been accused of simplism, arrogance, puerile or fanatical reformative enthusiasm, that is it not without use to stress how much Montesquieu’s prudence (an old but empirical political virtue) is above all the effect of his intellectual boldness. The child of reason which has gone off in conquest of the continent called History, to subject it to the double legality of a general method and specific applications, of always singular calculations, is apt to master, rationally and practically, the extreme entanglement of a real that is definitively always unique. What Montesquieu says with regard to English freedom is thus applicable to his whole procedure: “I do not pretend by this to diminish other governments, nor to say that that extreme political freedom ought to mortify those who have only moderate freedom. How could I say that, I who believe that the very excess of reason is not always desirable, and that men are almost always more in agreement with the middle than the extremities?” (“Je ne prétends point par là ravaler les autres gouvernements, ni dire que cette liberté politique extrême doive mortifier ceux qui n’en ont qu’une modérée. Comment dirais-je cela, moi qui crois que l’excès même de la raison n’est pas toujours désirable, et que les hommes s’accordent presque toujours mieux des milieux que des extrémités ?”, EL, XI, 6). The concept of moderation, central to political typology, is also applied to reason, as to the law and the legislator, and it is precisely its exclusion that makes all the congenital malignity of despotism. But this moderation of reason, as we can see, has nothing to do with any skepticism on its capacity of understanding if not acting on the course of History.

13So we find ourselves before the paradox of a History and human societies that are entirely accessible to reason, by means of a method the principles of which bend all specific cases to its law of intelligibility, and which yet are the doing of ignorant men carried away by passions. It is because God is a “primitive reason” who orders the cosmos according to law-relations proper to each type of beings (EL, I, 1). A physical being, sensitive and intelligent, man is required to compensate for the violence of his passions and the finitude of his reason by the invention of law, fruit and remedy of his constitutional freedom, which is first of all the freedom to be wrong and to violate (I, 1, 3). This human invention of social rules, often sullied by ignorance, but sometimes hanging on a legislative genius, from a sovereign and founding reason, obeys rules, and an immanent logic that grosso modo puts into relation, but never totally and continually, the different types of laws, under the aegis of nature and the principle of government by priority. Nature and principle, themselves linked to other factors (climate, space, religion, etc.), or engendered by the involuntary transformation of another type of government, a transformation called corruption, which also obeys, like any collective human process, a determinable logic, laws, and relations.

14By reason, we must therefore understand essentially the force of things (climate is a “natural reason” – not the only one – for despotism, servitude, European moderation in its various degrees of freedom, the distribution of religions and forms of the family, etc.). Human reason is a source of rules and unruliness, of violence and moderation, order and infraction: “Law, in general, is human reason, insofar as it governs all the peoples of the world; and the political and civil laws of each nation should only be particular cases in which this human reason is applied” (“La loi, en général, est la raison humaine, en tant qu’elle gouverne tous les peuples de la terre ; et les lois politiques et civiles de chaque nation ne doivent être que les cas particuliers où s’applique cette raison humaine”, EL, I, 3). Any law, however strange, is the expression of human reason, but a reason dependent on a multitude of factors, including physical ones, that correspond to a general coherence, because of their very interconnection, inscribed in the nature of the law-relation. But if any law refers back to reason (of men and things), it is not necessarily reasonable, in other words adapted and moderate. This is where reason encounters despotism, a regime of extreme internal coherence, of brutal simplicity, and yet which throws reason off by turning all its violence against the ends most visibly in conformity with rational requirements, in other words with divine designs, the natural norms and happiness of men.

Penchants and pleasures of reason

15We will say then that the philosophical reason dear to Montesquieu neglects metaphysics and logic, in favor of politics and morality. It turns away from the abstract considerations of its own functioning, from the laws and limits of knowledge to devote itself to the deciphering of the real world such as it is constituted and perpetually transformed by History. Its target is the totality of the human domain, in space and in time; it pretends to an integral intelligibility of the political and social order, but while admitting and explaining the irreducible diversity of societies offered to its decipherment; it does not try to exclude normative judgment, in the name of God, nature, reason, morality, but it privileges above all the duty of knowledge which supposes a new manner of reasoning about politics. It is an intellectually intrepid reason, pragmatically circumspect, human and distant, grave and playful, more inclined to judge, to open the reader’s intelligence than to carry it away and enlist it.

16What does it most detest? We should doubtless first list the distaste for professorial pedantry, scholastic dogmatism, boring uniformity, unbearably exhaustive argumentation – today we should say academic. For it is that distaste, that disdain, that desire, that accounts for the writing of L’Esprit des lois, of the immense effort to write a masterpiece of political reflection that resembles no other, and especially not a laborious, formal treatise. It is in the Essay on Taste that we will find his most distinct esthetic and philosophical principles: the art of surprising curiosity the better to excite the native pleasure of the soul, which consists of englobing, comparing, separating, connecting. revealing, hiding, condensing, aerating, accelerating, loosening and retaining, saying and suggesting, going from detail to the lightning that rends the sky. “Thus we will always be sure to please the soul, when we cause it to see many things, or more than it would have hoped to see” (“Ainsi, on sera toujours sûr de plaire à l’âme, lorsqu’on lui fera voir beaucoup de choses, ou plus qu’elle n’aurait espéré en voir”). “What ordinarily makes a great thought is when you say something that makes a good many others appear, and we are made to discover all of a sudden what we could only hope to learn from much reading” (“Ce qui fait ordinairement une grande pensée, c’est lorsqu’on dit une chose qui en fait voir un grand nombre d’autres, et qu’on nous fait découvrir tout d’un coup ce que nous ne pouvons espérer qu’après une grande lecture”), in short, “the pleasure of embracing all of a general idea, or seeing a large number of things, etc., or of comparing, joining and separating ideas” (“le plaisir d’embrasser tout d’une idée générale, celui de voir un grand nombre de choses, etc., celui de comparer, de joindre et de séparer les idées”), to leave to the reader his share of the work and enjoyment, his freedom, but without compromising the seriousness and depth by flattering the caprices of the mind at the expense of reason: “One will not find here those witticisms that seem to characterize today’s works. Provided we see things with a certain expanse, witticisms vanish; they usually arise only because the mind goes all to one side, and abandons the others” (“On ne trouvera pas ici ces traits saillants qui semblent caractériser les ouvrages d’aujourd’hui. Pour peu qu’on voie les choses avec une certaine étendue, les saillies s’évanouissent ; elles ne naissent d’ordinaire que parce que l’esprit se jette tout d’un côté, et abandonne tous les autres”, EL, Preface). The mind dissipates reason if it misses the relations.

Bibliographical reference

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