Alexis Keller


1It is a commonplace to assert that before the Revolution French thought had developed no republican theory or ideology: France was entirely monarchical, advocates of absolutism as well as those who hoped for reforms. In the 18th century, all intended to establish or re-establish a regime in the framework of the monarchical system and only a few, under the Regency and the reign of Louis XVI, dared dream of a change in dynasty. There are several arguments to support this point of view. In the first place, the cahiers de doléances that betray the persistence of the royal “mystique” in the masses. Next, unlike the England of the Hanoverian kings, monarchical France had no republican past, the English Revolution having not, moreover, left many admirers there. Finally, for most of the French, the modern republics – the United Provinces, Venice or even Geneva – were not only strange, even ridiculous, but also often odious because they were enemies of the king of France. Thus, no republicanism in French thought. The political dream of the Classical period was not republican (Jean Marie Goulemot, 1993).

2Yet the term Republic was indeed present in learned discourse. At the beginning of the 18th century, it still signified state, in the sense of political organization, in the extension of the definition adopted by Jean Bodin in 1576 in his Six Livres de la République. The definition of the term given by the Dictionnaire de l’Académie (1694 and following editions) is thus quite clear: “State governed by several” and “is taken sometimes for any kind of state”. It is indeed the Latin meaning of res publica which is retained here and reinforced by Cicero’s famous definition: “The republic is the thing of the people; but a people is not just any gathering of persons assembled no matter how; it is the gathering of a multitude of individuals who have become associated by virtue of an agreement on law and a community of interests” (De republica, I, 25). From this angle, the res publica does not call for a given constitutional form – since it can take on a status, a “way of being particular” according to Cicero – and monarchy is in theory considered as one of the possible forms of republic; La Boétie’s doubts in his Discours sur la servitude volontaire are in this respect exceptional for the time.

3The term republican, however, had the meaning of “rebel”, “libertine”, “regicide”. In Enlightenment France, a republican was someone who opposed the present regime, rarely one who proposed the establishment of a republic. To believe the principal dictionaries – Dictionnaire de l’Académie, Furetière’s Grand Dictionnaire, the Dictionnaire de Richelet et Dictionnaire called de Trévoux – the only republican is in the inner opposition to the monarchy. As the Dictionnaire de l’Académie puts it: “Republican: someone who lives in a republic […]. It also signifies one who loves the republican government […]. It is sometimes used pejoratively, meaning mutineer, seditious, someone with sentiments opposed to the monarchical state in which he lives”. Yet on another level, and often in the same authors – Bossuet or abbé de Vertot for example – the ancient republics, Athens, Sparta, and especially Rome, remained unequaled models of civic virtue and political organization. But, more than a model to imitate or pick up on, these ancient republics served essentially as a cultural reference, inevitable since Aristotle, but without practical value for reforming one of the oldest European monarchies.

4Under Montesquieu’s pen, the term republic was incontestably polysemic. Sometimes it referred backto the political community – the “republic of Letters” or the “republic” of women (LP, 104 [107]), to the state (EL, XVIII, 27) or to a “federative republic” – which has “all the inner advantages of republican government and the exterior force of the monarchical” (EL, IX, 1). Sometimes it corresponds to an authentic political regime – in many respects a counter-example of despotism – which is the dominant meaning in his writings. Thus book II of L’Esprit des lois opens on the famous distinction that organizes the whole first part (books I-VIII) and remains the constant reference throughout the work. It is the typology that “there are three kinds of governments: republican, monarchical and despotic” (EL, II, 1). What distinguishes these three types of government is both a numerical criterion – a distinction between governments by all or many (the republic can take the form of a democracy or an aristocracy) and governments by a single person – and a normative criterion, that of legality, which notably makes the difference between monarchy endowed “with fixed and established laws” and despotism where “a single person, without law or rule, carries everything by his will and his caprice” (“un seul, sans loi et sans règle, entraîne tout par sa volonté et par ses caprices”, EL, II, 1). The republic is a regime in which power rests on a legal footing. In this sense, it is the opposite of a despotic power because it assures the citizens’ freedom, the “right to do whatever the laws allow” without fear or uneasiness (Catherine Larrère, 1999).

5If Montesquieu clearly distinguishes these three kinds of governments, it is because he adds to the definition by nature of a government – its “constitutional structure” – a definition by principle, a subjective disposition that attaches each people to its form of government and, above all, assures its functioning. “There is this difference […] between the nature of the government and its principle,” he underscores, “that its nature is what makes it what it is, and its principle what makes it act” (“Il y a cette différence […] entre la nature du gouvernement et son principe, souligne-t-il, que sa nature est ce qui le fait être tel, et son principe ce qui le fait agir”, EL, III, 1). And the principles differ according to the governments: virtue for the republic of democratic type, moderation for the republic of aristocratic type, honor for monarchy, fear for despotism. Constituted by its nature, articulated around its principle, each government appears thus in books II and III of L’Esprit des lois as a quite separate entity, which can be studied in its own unity. This does not prevent comparisons from being made in the process from one government to the next. Regroupings are thus performed between the republic of aristocratic type and monarchy. At the beginning of L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu studies separately the two subspecies of republic, democracy and aristocracy, and he shows how the latter entertains a sometimes troubling resemblance with monarchy: an aristocracy that copies monarchy denatures itself, he insists. Also, “the closer aristocracy comes to democracy, the more perfect it will be” (EL, II, 3). Conversely, in order to correct itself, democracy must borrow institutions of aristocratic type.

6The chapters which Montesquieu devotes to republics are full of examples from Antiquity. Montesquieu directly refers to the ancient authors, Greek and Roman; Aristotle, Plato, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero are regularly solicited. But the ancient republics of which he speaks with nostalgic admiration nevertheless present, as models and references, many flaws. First, they cannot be envisaged except in narrow territorial frameworks. L’Esprit des lois thus gives a classical formulation of the reason for which large, modern states cannot live under the regime of a republican government (EL, VIII, 16): “It is in the nature of a republic to have but a small territory: otherwise it can scarcely subsist. In a large republic, there are great fortunes, and consequently little moderation in the minds: there are deposits too great to place into the hands of a citizen; interests become more individual; a man feels first that he can be happy, great, glorious without his country; and soon, that he can be a single great one on the ruins of his country. In a large republic, the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations; it is subordinated to exceptions; it depends on accidents. In a small one, the public good is better felt, better known, closer to each citizen; abuses are less extensive and consequently better protected.” (“Il est de la nature d’une république qu’elle n’ait qu’un petit territoire : sans cela, elle ne peut guère subsister. Dans une grande république, il y a de grandes fortunes, et par conséquent peu de modération dans les esprits : il y a de trop grands dépôts à mettre entre les mains d’un citoyen ; les intérêts se particularisent ; un homme sent d’abord qu’il peut être heureux, grand, glorieux, sans sa patrie ; et bientôt, qu’il peut être seul grand sur les ruines de sa patrie. Dans une grande république, le bien commun est sacrifié à mille considérations ; il est subordonné à des exceptions ; il dépend des accidents. Dans une petite, le bien public est mieux senti, mieux connu, plus près de chaque citoyen ; les abus y sont moins étendus et par conséquent moins protégés.”)

7Besides, historical circumstances are unfavorable to republics: the development of trade and the accumulation of wealth, Montesquieu explains, make the equality and frugality of the ancient republics impossible. “Greek politicians, who lived in a popular government, recognized no other force that could sustain them than virtue. Those of today speak to us of nothing but factories, trade, finance, wealth, and even luxury” (“Les politiques grecs, qui vivaient dans le gouvernement populaire, ne reconnaissaient d’autre force qui pût les soutenir, que celle de la vertu. Ceux d’aujourd’hui ne nous parlent que de manufactures, de commerce, de finances, de richesses et de luxe même”, EL, III, 3; the 1757-1758 editions read “that could sustain it”). At bottom, the “general spirit” of modern nations is no longer favorable to the republican regime and the ancient models are not transposable to the present.

8This inadaptability of the classical republican model which Montesquieu insists upon throughout L’Esprit des lois and his subtle description of the English model have led a whole tradition, both scholarly and political, to examine the relation which Montesquieu maintained with monarchy. The work of Élie Carcassonne and Harold Ellis has thus shown the importance of L’Esprit des lois in debates over the history of a French monarchy seeking its origins in a Germanic past, against the Roman tradition. In a more philosophical perspective, the interpretations inspired by Leo Strauss, notably that of Thomas Pangle, have insisted on Montesquieu’s choice for the principal values of modernity – personal security, praise of the representation of the English system, defense of commerce – to the detriment of ancient morality, rejected and abandoned. They have made of Montesquieu a modern thinker who definitively consummates the break with the classics. They have consecrated the dominant opinion, never re-examined since Althusser’s assertion: “Montesquieu does not believe in the republic, and for a very simple reason: the time of republics is past” (Louis Althusser, 1959).

9While it is perfectly correct to say that Montesquieu is not a “republican” in the strict sense of the term, it is nonetheless true that the author of L’Esprit des lois was very familiar with a tradition which, in modern Europe, picked up on some republican ideas handed down by Antiquity. This tradition, qualified by its principal current interpreters, John Greville A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, as “civic humanism” or “classical republicanism”, developed in the Italian cities of the 15th and 16th centuries, on the basis of Greek and especially Latin authors (Quentin Skinner, 2001). The ancient ideals of active life – the vivere civile – and political freedom were exalted there by a whole series of Florentine and Venetian writers, of whom the best known are Machiavelli and Guicciardini. From Italy, this republican tradition was carried to seventeenth-century England where discourse about the “republic” was once more on the agenda among the Stuart opposition. The English republicans, in the first ranks of whom were James Harrington, John Milton, Henri Neville and Algernon Sidney, espoused in their cause the teaching of Machiavelli (Félix Raab, 1964). They pleaded for the centrality of the common good, for the general interest as the end of political action, for equal participation of citizens and for the economic independence of the citizen. They take up, while reformulating it, the old Roman notion of “mixed” government. Their successors in the 18th century, the “Country Whigs”, among whom we find notably John Toland, Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard and Walter Moyle, insisted for their part essentially on the moral and ethical dimension of republican ideology (Franco Venturi) and offered their contemporaries a vast reflection on the relationships between freedom, trade, virtue and corruption.

10Montesquieu contemplated the principle authors of this tradition. He passionately read Plato and Aristotle. He admired Cicero – the republican Cicero as much as the Stoic Cicero – and the project, in 1725, of writing a Traité des devoirs on the model of De officiis is in this respect significant. In 1716 he drafted his Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion basing himself on Machiavelli and his thesis of the social utility of religion elaborated in the Discourses on the first book of Livy. He cites Harrington’s Oceana as well as Sidney’s Discours sur le gouvernement which appeared in French in 1702; several times he met Bolingbroke, who was participating in the English constitutional debates of the 18th century and between 1733 and 1735 published – in 1735 in the form of a work ironically dedicated to Walpole – his Dissertation on Parties. Furthermore, the French parlementary crisis of 1728-1732 also familiarized him with the radical republicanism of certain arguments of the Jansenist lawyers and magistrates. As shown by the work of Catherine Maire and David A. Bell, these were indeed invading the parlementary literature, notably after the publication of the royal edict of 1730 imposing the Constitution Unigenitus as law of the realm. The argument of the “defense of fundamental laws”, elaborated by the Jansenist lawyers, is but part of a much vaster system of representation that was collapsing. Thus in France they were beginning around 1730 to talk about “public order”, “public law”, “state laws” and “country”. The king is called “chief of the nation”, parlements “senates” and the laws “conventions between those who govern and those who are governed”. The traditional, vague formulas such as “maxims of the realm” or “legitimate and changeless rights of royal authority” were further refined by a much more trenchant political vocabulary. This semantic slippage thus makes of the Paris parlement the “repository” of the laws and interests of the nation. The chancellor d’Aguesseau, while favorable to the Jansenist cause, was not mistaken in this: the logic of the arguments used was “republican”, he asserted in 1730, and contrary to the French government.

11The presentation and analysis which Montesquieu does of these republics integrates several central concepts of the republican tradition. Beginning with virtue. Here Montesquieu takes up the separation of the two virtues formulated by Machiavelli: political virtue and Christian virtue. Thus he specifies in the foreword to the posthumous edition of 1757 at the beginning of L’Esprit des lois that “it is not a moral virtue, nor a Christian virtue, it is political virtue” of which he speaks. And he adds in a famous note in chapter III (EL, III, 5): “I am speaking here about political virtue, which is moral virtue, in the sense that it tends toward the general good, very little about individual moral virtues, and not at all about the one that relates to revealed truths” (“Je parle ici de la vertu politique, qui est la vertu morale, dans le sens qu’elle se dirige au bien général, fort peu des vertus morales particulières, et point du tout de cette vertu qui a du rapport aux vérités révélées”). The comparison of these two passages shows that the principal opposition is not between morality and politics, but between politics and religion. However, from Machiavelli to Montesquieu, it is not the same virtues that are celebrated. If Machiavelli’s virtù is without hesitation a pagan force, a “virile ardor” (Quentin Skinner, 1981), that of Montesquieu is all in austerity and renunciation. And so, when Montesquieu speaks of virtue as “love of country, desire for true glory, renunciation of self, sacrifice of one’s dearest interests, and all the heroic virtues that we find in the Ancients” (“l’amour pour la patrie, du désir de la vraie gloire, du renoncement à soi-même, du sacrifice de ses plus chers intérêts, et de toutes ces vertus héroïques que nous trouvons dans les anciens”, EL, III, 5), he evinces no nostalgia comparable to the one which the reflections of Machiavelli allow to be perceived. For the author of L’Esprit des lois, the virtù of his illustrious predecessor is no longer on the agenda. The virtue of the Ancients, “which we have merely heard tell of”, has become anachronistic in a world where trade and culture have given rise to new forms of social relations.

12Montesquieu’s virtue, essentially political, nevertheless retains Christian characteristics, singularly that aptitude for sacrifice. Which has led certain authors to say that Montesquieu’s virtue is a secular version of Christian charity (Nannerl Keohane). Chapter 2 of book V of L’Esprit des lois is, from this vantage point, absolutely remarkable, for if virtue is defined as “love of country”, attached to the very existence of the “republic”, in its collective dimension, it is also in that same chapter that the comparison is made between the citizen’s attachment for his country and the monk’s attachment to his monastery. “Why do monks so love their order?” asks Montesquieu. “It is precisely the reasons for which it is unbearable to them. Their rule deprives them of all the things on which ordinary passions depend: there thus remains only this passion for the very rule that dismays them” (“C’est justement par l’endroit qui fait qu’il leur est insupportable. Leur règle les prive de toutes les choses sur lesquelles les passions ordinaires s’appuient : reste donc cette passion pour la règle même qui les afflige”, EL, V, 2).

13Montesquieu thus gives democratic virtue a strongly moral dimension that recalls Plato. As with the author of The Republic – notably in books VIII-IX – corruption is first of all the effect of a “disease of the soul”. Montesquieu denounces the excesses of freedom – “the more [the people] appears to take advantage of its freedom, the closer it comes to the moment when it loses it” (“plus il [le peuple] paraîtra tirer d’avantage de sa liberté, plus il s’approchera du moment où il doit la perdre”, EL, VIII, 2) – and criticizes the deplorable consequences of the individualist egoism that prevails in society. The development of trade takes place to the detriment of virtue – here Montesquieu rejoins the opposition between virtue and trade dear to the republican tradition – and is constructed solely on the terrain of individual interests, characterized by ambition and pettiness. Men become “vain”, he explains, citing Mandeville, and “feel rising in themselves the desire to distinguish themselves by small things” (“sentent naître en eux l’envie de se signaler par de petites choses”, EL, VII, 1).

14These republican resonances indeed emanate from Montesquieu the moralist, the very one who scandalized the pious with his praise of the Stoics – “[…] if I could for a moment cease to think that I am a Christian, I could not help placing the destruction of Zeno’s sect among the misfortunes of humankind” (“[…] si je pouvais un moment cesser de penser que je suis chrétien, je ne pourrais m’empêcher de mettre la destruction de la secte de Zénon au nombre des malheurs du genre humain ”, EL, XXIV, 10). We henceforth understand better why the early books of L’Esprit des lois gave rise to belief in a republican Montesquieu. We also understand why certain authors imagined they were conceived before the author’s great European journey and the discovery, in Venice or Genoa, of the modern republican vices. If all these hypotheses are assuredly unsustainable, it is clear that the first part of the work invites us to question the respective values of republican and monarchical governments. And in the play of this unstable balance, it is less the forms of government that count than the political values that found them. Democratic virtue is praiseworthy, but at the painful price of a “renunciation of oneself” (EL, IV, 5), of a form of control of each man over all, a constraint that is clearly related to the monastic life. In sum, democratic virtue cohabits uneasily with freedom.

15As Jean Ehrard has shown with respect to L’Esprit des lois, the central opposition is thus not so much that of virtue and trade as that of virtue and freedom. As one goes forward in the work, the preoccupation with freedom by far takes precedence over the interest for virtue: the balance of the two terms, which leans clearly to the side of virtue in the first part, is reversed in the rest. From this viewpoint, dissociating virtue and freedom, Montesquieu distances himself from the republican tradition and rejoins the modern definition of freedom through security (EL, XII, 1), which consists in protecting oneself – and in feeling protected – from power. Simultaneously, Montesquieu combines the republic and monarchy under the common label of “moderate government” and substitutes a more polemic typology for the traditional tripartite classification, apparently more neutral (Larrère, 1979). Then a new distinction between moderate government / despotic government is put in place that picks up, while modifying it, the opposition established by the Roman moralists and historians between a free regime and a slave regime.

16Those had taken much inspiration from Roman private law – notably the concept of slavery discussed in the Digest under the rubric De statu hominis – to analyse the possession or deprivation of freedom for a political association. Reflecting on the conditions for individual dependency, they had broadened this problematic to the state and Livy’s Histoiry of Rome was exemplary in this regard. The first chapters of his work were devoted essentially to describing how the people of Rome had freed themselves from their former kings and succeeded in founding a free state. Such a state, Livy had explained, was one where magistrates were elected every year and where there reigned a perfect equality of citizens before the law. It was an autonomous community where the imperium of law was superior to that of every man (Livy, II, 1, 1). At the same time, Livy had broached the mechanisms by which free states lost their freedom, and had invariably compared this danger to that of “slavery”. He had used the vocabulary that would be the current vocabulary of the Digest to explain the idea of political servitude, describing the communities deprived of their freedom as living under the domination of another community, or as living in dependency – a capital nuance – with relation to the will of another.

17This “neo-Roman” theory of political freedom reappears in the Renaissance in Machiavelli before being followed by the whole English republican tradition (Quentin Skinner, 1998). We find it again in the years 1649-1660 in authors like Marchamont Needham, John Milton and James Harrington – or during the crisis of the years 1679-1683 in writers like Henri Neville and Algernon Sidney. To be sure, some of these “republican” authors think that the freedom they invoke is compatible with a monarchical government where the royal power is appropriately limited. But they all depend on the binomial freedom/servitude described by the Roman moralists to analyze political regimes. From Harrington to Sidney, they all assert that there is no possible alternative. Either a state is free, or it is enslaved. And the road to servitude is quickly present, they explain. All it takes is for the will of the body politic to be at the mercy of a third party – the king’s veto, for example – for a form of arbitrary power to be put in place, for the security of individuals to be no longer guaranteed, for a person to be above the laws, and a regime topples into tyranny.

18Thus, when Montesquieu substitutes for the initial typology – that which distinguishes three governments – a division between moderate and despotic governments, he shows the extent to which he knows and uses the language of the republican tradition. He uses the opposition free regime / slave regime to elaborate his conception of political freedom (books XI-XIII of L’Esprit des Lois).He picks up the central postulate of this tradition to assert in book XI that “political freedom is found only in moderate governments” (EL, XI, 4). This new typology, which in no way effaces the first one, allows him to compare republic and monarchy under the label of “moderate government”. From that point, between the two “governments by a single person”, monarchy and despotism, the difference lies above all in the relationship to law. The common characteristic (one alone) becomes secondary while the apposition (with or without laws) makes the real difference. The reflection on monarchy and the critique of despotism thus lead Montesquieu to identify government of law and moderate government. This is both the objective of L’Esprit des lois, and, for its author, the true stakes in the contemporary debates.

19A government of laws thus assures political freedom, without it being necessary to add that these laws must be just. What matters to Montesquieu is less the content of the laws than the way they are applied. In this sense, the generality of the law is a guarantee against arbitrariness since it assures that no individual will be directly exposed to the action of power: generality functions thus as a “screen between power and the individual” – the expression is that of Catherine Larrère (1997) – and on this point Rousseau will join Montesquieu (Social Contract, II, 3, 4, and 6). But that implies distinguishing between the legislative function (the place of elaboration of law in its generality) and the executive function – in its administrative version or its judicial version – which, being responsible for the application of laws, directly affects individuals in their daily lives. Whence the importance of the study of England, which is “a nation in the world the constitution of which has political freedom as its direct object” (“une nation dans le monde qui a pour objet direct de sa Constitution la liberté politique”, EL, XI, 5).

20As Charles Eisenmann has shown, the English constitution presented by Montesquieu in chapter 11 achieves the rule of law by combining two principles: the separation of functions, legislative, executive and judicial, and the participation of several powers or “organs” for a single function, in particular that central function which is the legislative power. In their turn, these powers link up and penetrate each other so as to constitute a genuine prototype of the system of checks and balances. “The legislative body being composed of two parts, the one will link to the other by the mutual faculty of preventing. Both will be linked by the executive power, which itself will be linked to the legislative power” (“Le corps législatif y étant composé de deux parties, l’une enchaînera l’autre par sa faculté mutuelle d’empêcher. Toutes les deux seront liées par la puissance exécutrice, qui le sera elle-même par la législative”, EL, XI, 6). We are very far from the pure doctrine of the separation of powers which we find during the English revolution among John Lilburne’s Levelers or even a republican author like Milton. We are, on the other hand, closer to the theory of mixed regime characteristic of the republican tradition which, from Aristotle to Harrington, wanted to combine equally the monarchical, aristocratic and democratic elements of a political regime. However, Montesquieu never used the term “mixed government”. At the most he spoke in his Pensées with respect to England of a gouvernement mêlé (Pensées, no. 1744), but this expression disappears from L’Esprit des lois. Moreover, if he presents England as “a nation where the republic is hidden under the form of monarchy” (EL, V, 19), he nevertheless concludes like David Hume for the monarchical nature of the English government. Finally, contrary to the Polybian tradition of mixed regime, Montesquieu does not desire to combine the three forms of government equally, but rather to institute a dominant form around a parlementary institution. The whole must then be egalitarian, without being fixed, but in perpetual motion.

21In fact, if there is a link between the republican tradition and Montesquieu’s constitutional analyses, it is not so much the question of mixed government as the importance accorded to pluralism. In the fourth chapter of book I of Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Machiavelli had indeed defended the good use of political dissensions and the disunion in the Roman republic. Contrary to the moralists and historians of Rome who forcefully condemned discord, he had introduced an important break with respect to the Ciceronian ideal of concordia ordinum. He did not see in the play of rivalries the germs of corruption arising, but had conceived the conflict as the origin of freedom. He had thus integrated the division of particular interests into his definition of the republic and pleaded for the necessary opposition between the different groups of a political community. Montesquieu adopts this thesis in his Romains, notably in chapter IX, and sees in the Romans’ divisions a sort of index of republican vitality and not a morbid sign of decadence. What he underscores here is indeed the necessity of pluralism for the maintenance of political freedom. One must accept the reality of social conflict, and not deny it, but grant it legitimacy while attempting to protect oneself against its negative effects. “[…] to make a moderate government,” he explains, “one must combine the powers, temper them, make them act and regulate them; give, so to speak, ballast to one, to make it capable of resisting another. This is a masterpiece of legislation which chance rarely does well, and prudence is hardly allowed to do” (“[…] pour faire un gouvernement modéré, explique-t-il, il faut combiner les puissances, les tempérer, les faire agir et les régler, donner, pour ainsi dire, un lest à l’une pour la mettre en état de résister à une autre. C’est un chef-d’œuvre de législation que le hasard fait bien rarement, et qu’on ne laisse guère faire à la prudence”, Pensées, no. 892). What is affirmed here is indeed the necessity of the multiple in the search for unity. A unity which is not substituted for the multiple, but is its result.

22The 18th century has often been defined as the invention of freedom (Jean Starobinski). Beginning at the end of the 17th century, there is indeed a movement from a quest for the origins of political freedom to a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of its implementation. This is largely the sense of the analysis of England in L’Esprit des lois, where the English monarchy is presented as a unique “ideal-type”, fragile, and alone able to preserve the freedom of citizens against the arbitrariness of monarchical power and the domination of the nobility. While the means proposed by Montesquieu to establish this “moderate” government are varied, the objective is clear: to design a political regime that can resist the temptation of the arbitrary. In this respect, the republic is no more creative of freedom nor better preserved from authoritarian drift than is monarchy, and the struggle against despotism must remain the priority, beyond a partisan position on the type of regime. But the republican tradition is for its part indeed alive in Europe and it operates as an inexhaustible “reservoir of arguments” to guarantee political freedom. From the Persian Letters to Romans to L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu was to draw from it arguments on freedom, virtue, corruption and representation. If he was assuredly not a partisan of the republic – despite the “republican” destiny which the republican historiography was to reserve for him after 1875 (Claude Nicolet) – and if he did not perceive the possibility of a republican “modernity”, he was to exert a considerable influence on the destiny of republicanism, notably in its American version. To replace him in that tradition is not to make of him a “republican” unbeknownst to himself, it is simply to show that he situates his project in the continuity of Aristotle: that of a knowledge of political good and evil (Pensées, no. 1940).


Élie Carcassonne, Montesquieu et le problème de la constitution française au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: PUF, 1927.

Charles Eisenmann, “L’Esprit des lois et la séparation des pouvoirs”, Mélanges Carré de Malberg, Paris, 1933, p. 163-192.

Louis Althusser, Montesquieu: la politique et l’histoire, Paris: PUF, 1959.

Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli: a Changing Interpretation, 1500-1700, London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1964.

Franco Venturi, Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Thomas Pangle, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism, Chicago University Press, 1973.

John Greville A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press, 1975.

Quentin A. Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Catherine Larrère, “Les typologies des gouvernements chez Montesquieu”, in Études sur le XVIIIe siècle, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Clermont-Ferrand, 1979, p. 88-103, reprinted in Revue Montesquieu 5 (2001), p. 157-172.

Nannerl Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France, Princeton University Press, 1980.

Quentin Skinner, Machiavel, Paris: Seuil, 1989; first edition Oxford University Press, 1981.

Claude Nicolet, L’Idée républicaine en France: essai d’histoire critique, Paris: Gallimard, 1982.

Bernard Manin, “Montesquieu et la politique moderne”, Cahiers de philosophie politique de l’université de Reims, Brussels: Ousia, 1985. p.157-229.

Jean Starobinski, L’Invention de la liberté, Paris: Flammarion, 1987.

Catherine Larrère, “Montesquieu républicain? De l’interprétation universitaire pendant la IIIe république”, Dix-huitième siècle no. 21 (1989), p. 149-162.

Jean Ehrard, “Esthétique et philosophie des Lumières: la chaîne de L’Esprit des lois”, Lendemains 62 (1991) ; reprinted under the title “La ‘chaîne’ de L’Esprit des lois” in Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 179-192.

Jean Marie Goulemot, “Du républicanisme de l’idée républicaine au XVIIIe siècle”, Le Siècle de l’avènement républicain, François Furet et Monique Ozouf ed., Paris: Gallimard, 1993, p. 25-26.

David Bell, Lawyers and Citizens, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Paulette Carrive, La Pensée politique anglaise de Hooker à Hume, Paris: PUF, 1994.

Catherine Larrère, “Le gouvernement de la loi est-il un thème républicain?”, Revue de synthèse 2-3 (1997), p. 237-258.

Catherine Maire, De la cause de Dieu à la cause de la Nation: le jansénisme au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Gallimard, 1998.

Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Catherine Larrère, Actualité de Montesquieu, Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1999.

Bibliographical reference

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