Rebecca Kingston


1Religion is constant theme in the work of Montesquieu although the nature of his reflections evolved over the course of his life. The nature of Montesquieu’s internal convictions is disputed, but the focus of most of his reflections is on religion as a social and political force. His first presentation at the Academy of Bordeaux was the “Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion” (1716) where he took a Machiavellian stance, acknowledging religion to be a tool of the political elites. By the end of his career he appeared to give more credence to the autonomy of religious belief and the possibility for its particular role in political life. Still, his emphasis on questions of the utility of religion was an approach which drew much concern and suspicion from ecclesiastical authorities in France and led to the placing of L’Esprit des lois on the Index despite Montesquieu’s various attempts to placate both Jansenists and Jesuits. By forging new avenues of reflection leading to an understanding of religion in its links to other social and political phenomenons, Montesquieu provides a unique contribution to Enlightenment debates concerning religious diversity and toleration.

2Many in Montesquieu’s own family became clerics or nuns, notably among his uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters, as was commonplace among the noble classes of the time to ensure the continued concentration of land and wealth within one branch of the family. Still, he ensured that his own children would not follow the precedent, preferring to marry his daughter Denise off quietly, and there was some suspicion within certain ecclesiastical circles within France that Montesquieu’s views on religion were highly unorthodox. On the publication of De l’Esprit des lois some critics characterized his work as Spinozist, given his willingness to see even God as subject to law (EL, I, 1). This would correspond to some modern readers of Montesquieu who understand him to be an anti-religious thinker (Faguet, Shklar). In contrast, an acclaimed biographer of Montesquieu, Robert Shackleton, argued that while Montesquieu showed a practical adherence to Catholicism in his life, the tendency in his writing to hold morality more important than faith was evidence, not of hostility towards religion, but of a deist conviction. Further evidence of this position is found in a letter Montesquieu wrote (possibly in May 1754, but the letter is not dated) to Bishop Warburton where in matters of religious belief he shuns the search for speculative truth (“vérité purement spéculative”) in favor of the infinity of practical goods (“infinité des biens pratiques”) issuing from unquestioned faith, even when misguided . The passage shows that from the perspective of considering the social and political effects of certain patterns of religious belief, Montesquieu could hardly be considered to be anti-religious. Still, the question of the content of his own religious convictions is something which will most likely remain matter for speculation, despite his attempts to defend his orthodoxy in his Défense de l’Esprit des lois. Relevant though not decisive in this regard is a note written by Montesquieu in the marginalia of a volume of Cicero’s works: “My thoughts on this matter were done in the spirit of a thought experiment. I have often treated the religion I revere in a more abstract manner […]” (“[…] je les ai faites [ces réflexions] dans la liberté de la philosophie, j’ai souvent fait abstraction d’une religion que je révère […]”, Notes sur Cicéron, Bordeaux, Ms 2538, OC, t. XVII, forthcoming.). In the broader context of his writing these more personal claims do not always sit well with other directions of his thought. In particular, it has also been argued that the civil religion claims of Montesquieu that tend to favour pluralized forms of religion in different national spheres clash significantly with the universalist claims that issue from his distinction between true and false religion (Beiner 2011).

3It is clear, nonetheless, that Montesquieu was very critical of the politics and a number of the practices of the Catholic Church. These criticisms are most strongly and effectively raised in his early writings and in particular in the Lettres persanes. In this work Montesquieu undermines the authority of the Church in three ways: he ridicules the actions of various clerical figures including the Pope and casuists; he directly provokes a questioning of certain doctrines of the Church; and he relativizes the practice of Catholicism through parallels with Islam. The clerical figures targeted by Montesquieu include the Pope whom he describes as a magician even stronger than the king of France (Letter 22 [24]) and an “old idol” for whom reverence is merely a matter of custom (Letter 27 [29]). In the latter letter he also pokes fun at the episcopal hierarchy of the Church, whose most important function, it appears to Rica, is the granting of special dispensation to override religious law. In Letter 55 (57) he exposes the hypocrisy of the Jesuit confessors who not only violate their vows of poverty and chastity but make a mockery of religious doctrine through their casuistry.

4His scepticism for Church doctrine is expressed in part by giving heightened emphasis to its many internal disputes. As he states in Letter 27 (29): “I can also assure you that there has never been a kingdom as marred by civil wars as that of Christ” (“Aussi puis-je t’assurer qu’il n’y a jamais eu de royaume où il y ait eu tant de guerres civiles que dans celui du Christ”). In some instances, such as the disputes over the bull Unigenitus evoked in Letter 98 (101), the differences of doctrine are portrayed as overly pedantic and largely unimportant. In other instances, he indicts the clerics for taking their doctrinal differences too seriously, thereby leading to tragic consequences. In Letter 27 (29) he provides a forceful humanist outcry against the terrors wrought by scholastic concern for doctrinal orthodoxy and conformity through his condemnation of the Inquisition. “[T]here are some dervishes who do not have a sense a humour and who condemn a man to death as if he were made of straw. When one is at the mercy of one of them, happy is the man who has always prayed to God with beads, who has worn two pieces of cloth attached to two ribbons, and who has from time to time visited a region in Spain called Galicia. If not, the poor devil is in an awkward situation” (“[...] il y a de certains dervis qui n’entendent point raillerie, et qui font brûler un homme comme de la paille. Quand on tombe entre les mains de ces gens-là, heureux celui qui a toujours prié Dieu avec de petits grains de bois à la main, qui a porté sur lui deux morceaux de drap attachés à deux rubans, et qui a été quelquefois dans une province qu’on appelle la Galice! Sans cela un pauvre diable est bien embarrassé”.)

5Still, perhaps Montesquieu’s greatest challenge to Catholic orthodoxy in the work is in placing Christian claims to truth within a broader context than was usual. In Letter 33 (35) Usbek reflects on the ultimate fate of Christians, given their status as non-believers of Islam. Still, Usbek is struck by many of the practices common to the two religions. “Everywhere I see Mohammedism although I nowhere find Mohammed” (“Je vois partout le mahométisme, quoique je n’y trouve point Mahomet”). It would serve as a way to shock Christians into considering that their religion did not have a monopoly on the truth. Features shared by all religions are also discussed in Letter 44 (46): « […] regardless of one’s creed, obedience to the law, love for humankind, respect for one’s parents, are always fundamental requirements of religion” (“[…] dans quelque religion qu’on vive, l’observation des lois, l’amour pour les hommes, la piété envers les parents, sont toujours les premiers actes de religion”). It leads Usbek to conclude that doctrine and its worldly implications are much more important than religious rites. For practicing Catholics it places more emphasis on the day-to-day actions of lay believers and less on traditions of hierarchy and ritual orthodoxy. Also, by considering religion as one artifact among many and part of the more general cultural make-up of Europe, Montesquieu leads readers to question the doctrinal autonomy of their beliefs. Still, Montesquieu in the midst of these criticisms does also bring to attention positive attributes of the Christian community in Europe. He notes in Letter 58 (60) that one is beginning to see the spread of a spirit of toleration with the growing awareness in Spain and France in particular that “enthusiasm for evangelism is distinct from a sincere attachment to religion, and so in order to love and observe religion, it is not necessary to hate and persecute non-believers” (“le zèle pour les progrès de la Religion est différent de l’attachement qu’on doit avoir pour elle, et que, pour l’aimer et l’observer, il n’est pas nécessaire de haïr et de persécuter ceux qui ne l’observent pas”).

6It has been noted that in his writings subsequent to the Lettres persanes, Montesquieu became less critical of religion (Bianchi, 2002). By the time he wrote De l’Esprit des lois Montesquieu showed greater interest in the place of religion in a spectrum of moral codes governing human conduct and the implications of varying religious doctrines on the nature and quality of collective life. At the beginning of De l’Esprit des lois Montesquieu develops a framework which serves as a basis for his subsequent remarks on religion. What is particularly interesting about this framework is that in contrast to the modern theories of natural law which were widely read at the time, Montesquieu does not derive society and an array of social obligations from a rational calculation of isolated beings in a state of nature; instead, he recognizes that, given the importance of society for the development of our rational capacities, we can only come to a recognition of the benefits of society and hence our duties to help preserve it based on a retrospective reflection. In addition, then, whereas in the natural law theories of Grotius and Pufendorf, laws developed by human beings through rational reflection serve to structure and order a society which is brought into being, in the case of Montesquieu all forms of law developed by human beings play rather a restorative role in mending an already existing order. In this sense, for Montesquieu laws are perceived as responding to and correcting human weakness rather than representing rational ideals. Religion is seen to play a role complementary to the moral dictates of philosophy and positive law in restoring the justice factored into the order of the world at the time of its creation. The relegating of a religious sensibility to a later stage of moral development and human consciousness and hence dependent on other more fundamental modes of social being became a point of attack by clerics of Montesquieu’s work, an attack from which Montesquieu felt impelled to defend himself in Défense de l’Esprit des lois. By distinguishing the normative force of natural laws (through which Montesquieu continued to defend the primary importance of religious sensibility) from the attempt at an actual anthropological account of the development of moral psychology in early human life, Montesquieu developed a mode of reflection that would have tremendous significance for the work of Rousseau.

7The uniqueness of religious law lies in the fundamental beliefs in a creator and a duty of worship. For Montesquieu, these are laws established by the divinity (I, 1). However, insofar as in Montesquieu’s system God also acts according to laws to conserve the universe (ibid.), the laws of religion will indirectly have a relation to the preservation of the whole. This double purpose in religion as a code of laws geared towards worship of the divinity as well as the preservation of the universe will allow Montesquieu to recognize the independent sphere religion occupies while asserting at the same time throughout the work that its ends should be compatible with those guiding basic rules of morality. What this picture assumes is that God works through every worldly religion. As he states in his Pensées: “God is like a king who has multiple nations in his Empire; each brings to him their offering and each speaks to him in their own language and creed” (“Dieu est comme un monarque qui a plusieurs nations dans son Empire; elles viennent toutes lui porter le tribut et chacune lui parle sa langue, religion diverse” (no. 1454, a passage removed from the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois). This is possible for Montesquieu because in his portrayal of the development of human communities religious ideas do not appear from the beginning (as in, for example, Locke) but rather they are gained in retrospective reflection once rational capacities are developed. Thus, while religion may serve divine ends as an institution, it is clearly instituted through human effort and dependent on the flourishing of human community.

8Because religion is seen as fundamentally rooted in the social condition of human beings, religious movements will develop in accordance with the general intellectual and cultural development of a society. Thus, in early societies rites were simple and not assigned to any particular priestly class (EL, XXV, 4). As societies developed religious movements took on qualities particular to their context: “When Montezuma insisted on repeating that the religion of the Spanish was good for Spain, and that of Mexico good for his own country, he was not talking nonsense, because in reality lawmakers cannot help but take heed of what nature has previously established” (“Et quand Montésuma s’obstinait tant à dire que la religion des Espagnols était bonne pour leur pays, et celle du Mexique pour le sien, il ne disait pas une absurdité, parce qu’en effet les législateurs n’ont pu s’empêcher d’avoir égard à ce que la nature avait établi avant eux”, XXIV, 24). In the same way rites are seen to be linked to climate, such as bathing rituals in Islam and Hinduism. It is because of the cultural rootedness of religion that Montesquieu suggests it to be inappropriate to export religion from one country to another (XXIV, 25). He also remarks on the cultural and hence religious differences between the north and south of Europe.

9It is true that such a picture leaves little room for original sin, divine grace or revelation, but it is not completely disregarded in the work. As Montesquieu states in the first book of De l’Esprit des lois: “Such a being could in any instant forget his creator; God has reminded him through religious laws” (“Un tel être pouvait, à tous les instants, oublier son créateur; Dieu l’a rappelé à lui par les lois de la religion”, EL, I, 1). Still, to distinguish himself from traditional deism and of the eighteenth century, Montesquieu notes the unique qualities of religious law that do not fully conform to the dictates of moral and civil law, such as religion’s focus on a standard of perfection and thereby by necessity its more lenient enforcement (XXIV, 7). He also acknowledges in Défense de l’Esprit des lois that the notion of natural religion should not be invoked as a synonym for atheism but should be considered the very foundation of a religious sensibility. In general his notion that religion can work in its own sphere resting on natural foundations can be construed as a defense for distinct institutional structures for religion. Because religion aims firstly at the good of the individual and is sustained by personal belief, it should not serve as the basis for civil or positive laws whose authority is grounded in the fear they inspire and which aim at the general good of society (XXVI, 2 and 9).

10Nonetheless, this concern to explore the uniqueness of religious law and institutions does not translate into a defense of a separation of Church and State. It is clear from the outset of L’Esprit des lois that while Montesquieu recognizes religion and political life as in some ways independent of each other, he does not perceive them as fully separate. In his famous description of the general spirit in Book XIX he notes that religion stands as one mode among many of governing behaviour and that it works in common with other forces: “Several things govern human beings:climate, religion, laws, political maxims, examples from past events, morals, manners; things that combine to produce a general spirit. In each nation, the greater the force of one of these causes the lesser the force of the others” (“Plusieurs choses gouvernent les hommes: le climat, la religion, les lois, les maximes du gouvernement, les exemples des choses passées, les mœurs, les manières; d’où il se forme un esprit général qui en résulte. À mesure que, dans chaque nation, une de ces causes agit avec force, les autres lui cédent d’autant”, XIX, 4).

11His discussion of religion is centered, though not exclusively, in Books 24 to 26 of De l’esprit des lois. He places particular emphasis on studying how religion relates in particular to various facets of the general spirit. He notes instances when religious practice must be rejected for contravening the basic principles of sociality. For example, religion should respect the basic needs of self-preservation (XXVI, 7) and should prescribe days of rest with consideration for the material condition of the people (XXIV, 23). He shows how religion can be used to fortify general morals, or undermine them (XXIV, 21). He also shows how religions such as Stoicism (assimilated to a religion) and Christianity can be used to bolster collective ends (XXIV, 1-3 and 10). He argues against Bayle that Christianity can easily be reconciled with earthly ends and that Christians, as political citizens, would constitute a vibrant and active republic (XXIV, 6). In cases of political anarchy, religion can even supplant basic civil law (XXIV, 16). In fact, Montesquieu goes so far as to suggest that the forming of “good citizens” is one of the principal objects of religion and civil law, noting that when one of these influences strays from this end, the other should make up for it (“lorsque l’un s’écartera de ce but, l’autre y doit tendre davantage”, XXIV, 14).

12In general one can see that in his latter work religion for Montesquieu is more important as a form of public regulation than as a matter of private conviction. He recognizes that religious law is in essence different from civil law in that it focuses on worship of a higher being and espouses values of human perfection, rather than the more immediate and prosaic demands of order and security. Still, these differences do not render religion a private and civically neutral activity, for religion both issues from basic human sociality, which also forms a grounding for political life, and has an impact on the quality of collective life Montesquieu is thus clearly aware of the manner in which religion may influence politics, but also of how politics can be justified in some circumstances in regulating religion.


Émile Faguet, Le Dix-huitième siècle. Paris: Boivin, 1893.

Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, in Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, pp. 287-336, reprinted in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson and Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, pp. 109-116.

Judith Shklar, Montesquieu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Rebecca Kingston, “Montesquieu on Religion and on the Question of Toleration”, in Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on “The Spirit of Laws”. David W. Carrithers, Michael A. Mosher et Paul A. Rahe dir., Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, p. 375-408.

Lorenzo Bianchi, “Histoire et nature: la religion dans L’Esprit des lois”, in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret and C. Volpilhac-Auger ed., Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 289-304.

Ronald Beiner, Civil Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Bibliographical reference

Kingston Rebecca , « Religion », dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :