Rebecca Kingston


1Montesquieu’s general thoughts on toleration were never systematized in one tract but were a natural outgrowth of his continued interest in the diversity of religious beliefs and their foundations. His reflections touched both on the global dimension given a world with a multitude of religious creeds, and on the national dimension in the context of ongoing disputes within the French Catholic Church as well as between Catholics and Protestants. The thrust of his arguments relates back to his general view concerning the nature of religious belief, which he saw as rooted in and thereby regulated by basic principles of human sociality. It was a position which generated suspicion from ecclesiastical critics and praise from those who see in Montesquieu a herald of major principles of the modern liberal creed.

2A study of Montesquieu’s intellectual development shows increased awareness of the complexity of issues related to the question of religious diversity and the practice of toleration. In his early writing Montesquieu took a strong Machiavellian approach to the question of the relation between religion and the state (Bianchi 1993). His “Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion” (1716) suggested that in the ancient world religion was used largely as a means for government to establish more effective social control and military discipline. In this perspective, the mere fact of collective piety was more important than the content of belief. The spread of Stoicism and of the idea of a pervasive world spirit again lessened the need for dogma and in this context, Montesquieu notes, toleration flourished in the ancient world.

3In the Lettres persanes it is evident that Montesquieu had a growing interest in questions surrounding religious diversity. Through this work the idea of toleration is broached at several levels. First, through the voice of Usbek in letters 33 (35) and 44 (46), Montesquieu reflects on certain aspects common to Islam and Christianity. “[R]egardless 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”, LP, 44 [46]). In making this argument he renders concern for proper rites and religious mores secondary to the social ends which he perceives in religious life, namely good citizenship and respect for the family. This sensitivity to common ends of religious belief was expressed with the intention of forcing a rethinking of long traditions of dispute and enmity over religious matters and to call individuals back to the fundamental social utility of their beliefs. It is an approach which can find some resonance in the tradition of natural law revived in the late 17th century by Grotius and Pufendorf who sought to build a theory of social peace and toleration by calling all individuals back to basic common principles of social life.

4The case for toleration is also made in the Lettres persanes through a thinly veiled discussion of the prohibition 1685 of the practice of the Protestant religion (the Edict of Fontainebleau revoking the Edict of Nantes) and leading to the exile of a great number of Huguenots. In letter 83 (85) Usbek addresses the question of the proposed ultimatum for Armenians living in Persia, namely to convert or leave the kingdom. Usbek discusses the harm such a policy would bring including the devastation of the commercial and artisan communities of the realm. He goes on to reflect on the benefits of having several religions in one state including encouraging the industriousness of the more marginal groups and the more rigorous moral discipline engendered by competing sects. Again his focus is on a toleration grounded in the social utility of religious beliefs, but here through a sociological dynamic of competition rather than a reflection back to basic principles or shared understandings.

5In L’Esprit des lois Montesquieu’s defense of toleration continues to be traced to the notion that all religion must address the fundamental needs and interests of humans in community. Still, he develops the argument in a way which places certain limits on toleration. In Book XXV, chapter 9 as well as chapter 13, he advances various reasons why toleration is a better policy in the face of religious diversity, including the ineffectiveness of promoting faith with force and its greater consonance with Christian values and with the basic values of humanity and justice, arguments which reflect John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. Montesquieu also notes that toleration is more in tune with the spirit of his age in which there is greater recognition of the rights of humanity. Still, he notes in Book XXV, chapter 10 that the state, if able to regulate the spread of faiths, should not allow the introduction of any new religion given that those who seek to convert others are more likely to be intolerant themselves. He also calls for the justified intervention of the state in religious matters when religious groups come to neglect or ignore basic social responsibilities, such as the need for life, shelter and liberty (XXIV, 19). He notes that the practice of religion can itself become corrupted by religious leaders, leading to “terrible consequences”.

6But while allowing for state intervention in ways to regulate religious practice, Montesquieu does place limits on what the state can do. For example, he does not allow for the imposition of civil penalties for crimes specific to religious doctrines, such as heresy. Also, nowhere does he suggest, as Locke had, that whole sects or groups, such as atheists, ought not to be tolerated in principle given the content of their beliefs. Finally, he notes that the state, while able to police incoming sects, must tolerate them once they have been established in the country (XXV, 10).

7Still, for Montesquieu, toleration involves not only the relation between the state and established religious groups, but also concerns the relations among these groups. He notes in chapter 9 of Book XXV, entitled “Religious toleration”, that “It is necessary therefore that the law not only require that different religions not disrupt the state, but that they do not disrupt each other” (“Il faut donc que les lois exigent de ces diverses religions, non seulement qu’elles ne troublent pas l’Etat, mais aussi qu’elles ne se troublent pas entre elles”).

8He defended his ideas concerning toleration as stated in L’Esprit des lois in his subsequent Défense de l’Esprit des lois written to appease ecclesiastical critics of his major work. In the section of this work on toleration he defends his espousal of religious pluralism in maintaining that states should be cautious in allowing the introduction of new religions into their territory, thereby legitimating the move in China to ban Catholic missionaries. He suggests here that while one might consider the good of Christianity to have a universal application, the way of politics in the spread of religion should give way to the way of God who may move in somewhat curious and mysterious ways to spread his truth. The bottom line here appears to be one step bolder than the last. Not only is Montesquieu suggesting that states have a right to reject the introduction of a new religion, he is suggesting here that all evangelism that occurs outside the border of one’s state is God’s responsibility and not that of man. No wonder the ecclesiastical critics were not satisfied by his responses.

9The theme of encouraging toleration among people within the same state is particularly resonant in one of Montesquieu’s later pieces. His Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution (OC, t. IX: called Mémoire sur la bulle Unigenitus by previous editors of his collected works) was written about 1754 in response to a long-standing crisis in the Catholic Church concerning the status of the Jansenists. The pope had issued the famous bull Unigenitus dei filius in 1713 to condemn the writings of Quesnel, a Jansenist sympathizer, but it sparked a long crisis and acrimonious debates over the role of papal and monarchical authority within the Gallican Church. The so-called “acceptants” defended both the spirit of the legislation condemning Jansenist theology and the principle of absolute royal and papal authority to establish Church law. The “appelants”, in contrast, were opposed to the ruling in part for denying the legislative authority of the whole Gallican Church, including both clerical and lay members.

10Despite the fact that these two positions helped to define public debate in France in the early part of the century, throughout his life and work Montesquieu never clearly sided with one or the other. Through his commentary in the Mémoire sur le silence on achieving a practical accommodation in this dispute, Montesquieu develops a more refined theory of toleration.

11His carefully nuanced position is studied in detail in the introduction to the edition of the Mémoire sur le silence: he “develops the principles of an original and personal Gallicanism, political, but formally moderate with respect to Rome, enlightened but pragmatic, equally distant from the ‘valor’ of the ‘lower classes’, from ‘ignorant ecclesiastics’, from Jansenists and from parlementary members of the opposition” (p. 528).

12At the outset of the work he makes the distinction between ‘external toleration’ and ‘internal toleration’. The distinction harkens back to chapter 9 of Book XXV of L’Esprit des lois, where he states: “even for theologians there is a big difference between tolerating a religion and approving of it” (“pour les théologiens mêmes, il y a bien de la différence entre tolérer une religion et l’approuver”). By external toleration he means the willingness to allow the presence of a religious practice outside the dominant culture. By internal toleration he means both acceptance and approval of these rites and beliefs. He argues that the grounds for each form of toleration are very different. The first involves no clear challenge to an established set of beliefs as it is founded on a need for public peace. In contrast, internal toleration involves a degree of acceptance of the other and their beliefs as a valid expression of religious sentiment, a disposition he felt was not accessible to believers of all sects. “Everyone knows that the Roman Catholic religion does not in any way allow for internal toleration. It does not admit of any internal sect; according to its own principles, it is the only vehicle of salvation so it is unable to tolerate any competing internal sect where salvation would be deemed impossible” (“Tout le monde sait que la religion catholique n’admet, en aucune sorte, la tolérance intérieure. Elle ne souffre parmi elle aucune secte; car, comme, par ses principes, elle est la seule dans laquelle le salut se trouve, elle ne peut tolérer aucune secte, où l’on pourroit croire que le salut ne se trouverait pas”, Mémoire sur le silence, p. 530). Internal toleration cannot, by implication, be the basis for a public or universal defense of toleration.

13In the case of France, then, it is necessary to pursue a policy of toleration based on the minimum demands of external toleration. “When [a Catholic ruler] practices external toleration, it is as if he were saying: ‘I have been granted power by God to maintain peace in my state; to prevent assassinations, murders, rapes; to ensure that my subjects do not destroy one another; to ensure they live peacefully: it is necessary then that my laws be such, in particular circumstances, that they do not diverge from this objective. My conscience tells me not to approve in my heart those who think differently from me; but my conscience also tells me that there are circumstances when it is my duty to tolerate them externally.” (“Quand [un prince catholique] a la tolérance extérieure, c’est comme s’il disait: ‘Je suis établi de Dieu pour maintenir dans mes États la paix; pour empêcher les assassinats, les meurtres, les rapines; pour que mes sujets ne s’exterminent pas les uns les autres; pour qu’ils vivent tranquilles: il faut donc que mes lois soient telles, dans des certaines circonstances, qu’elles ne s’écartent pas de cet objet. Ma conscience me dit de ne point approuver intérieurement ceux qui ne pensent pas comme moi; mais ma conscience me dit aussi qu’il y a des cas où il est de mon devoir de les tolérer extérieurement’”, p. 530-531.) In so doing, Montesquieu seeks to uphold the tradition of an established church, which for him most importantly provides a certain bridle or check on the powers of the king, while at the same time avoiding the consequences of religious oppression which had often flowed from the union of political and religious power. For Montesquieu, while the institutions of political and religious power may be intertwined in the person of the Catholic King, the principles of politics and religion are to be regarded as distinct. Politics cannot afford to be governed by a particular theology because it must respond fundamentally to those distinct principles for which all governments are established, principles which concern the quality of earthly life bracketing questions of future salvation.

14He finds precedents for just this form of external toleration in France prior to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes as well as in Germany following the Treaty of Westphalia (p. 531). As he argues, such arrangements did not make the rulers worse Catholics because all in their conscience could still question internally the validity of different beliefs.

15Thus, as a practical solution to the disputes within the Catholic Church over the Unigenitus bull, Montesquieu recommends that the king declare the papal declaration as law within France, but that he censure any future deliberation over it. The effect of such a policy would be twofold. On the one hand, it would reinforce the authority of the king as leader of the Gallican Church against the conciliators of his day, that is the lower clergy who claimed a right to have a say in decisions concerning the Church. On the other hand, the ban on deliberation would greatly impede effective enforcement of the policy by denying upper clergy the right to pursue their questioning. “Will a priest question a sick man? If he accepts the Constitution now he is declared a disturber of the peace” (“Un curé interrogera-t-il un malade? S’il reçoit la Constitution le voilà déclaré perturbateur du repos public”, Mémoire, p. 535).

16Montesquieu’s arguments provide a new approach to the issue of toleration as debated in the eighteenth century. One strand of argument traced to les politiques or reason-of-state theorists held that in the interests of social peace and the consolidation of power in the state, rulers should tolerate sectarian diversity and avoid regulating religious matters except when the general peace was threatened. This was part of a general approach to political life which Montesquieu had criticized in his Traité des devoirs. He argued that this approach often ignored the independent power and significance of various social conventions and institutions. By implication, while it would justify acceptance of religious diversity on the part of the state, it provided no strong grounds for religious groups themselves to tolerate one other. Another strand of argument was grounded in a broader scepticism about the possibility of religious truth. It advanced that toleration was a necessary policy given the impossibility of certainty over the right means to salvation. For Montesquieu this again was a questionable basis for toleration as he felt that it was a stance which weakened the force of religion, particularly in its ability to provide a check on political power. A third strand of argument inspired by Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration was based on the idea that matters of the inner conscience could never be effectively regulated through the force of law. While Montesquieu, like Locke, does concede that matters of religious conviction often are driven by different considerations than those of politics, that is, concern for the ideal as opposed to the practical, he also was more sensitive than Locke to the nature of religion as a social institution which thereby could be shaped by a whole series of cultural and political factors. His objection to legislation in certain matters of religion (i.e. penal laws) is motivated not by a recognition that they would be ineffective, but rather that they would be inappropriate.

17Thus, by developing the distinction between external toleration as a policy based generally on pragmatic concerns of political accommodation and internal toleration as a more demanding form of acceptance and approval, Montesquieu seeks to provide a new argument which would both protect a certain religious diversity within France while recognizing the political demands of an established Catholic religion in the kingdom. Still, those who might wish to see in these arguments a foreshadowing of modern liberalism in its defense of diversity must note that here the conscience is not solely a realm of freedom, but is to play for Montesquieu an important political and hence public role in restraining the overreaching impulses of European monarchs.


Montesquieu. Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution, OC, t. IX, 2006. p. 519-535, text edited by Pierre Rétat, introduction and annotation by Catherine Maire and Pierre Rétat.

Montesquieu, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, 2010, Pierre Rétat ed.

John Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James Tully. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983.

Lorenzo Bianchi. “Nécessité de la religion et de la tolérance chez Montesquieu: la ‘Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion’”, in Lectures de Montesquieu, Edgar Mass and Alberto Postigliola eds, Cahiers Montesquieu 2, Naples: Liguori Editore, 1993, p. 25-39.

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, and Paul A. Rahe dir., Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, p. 375-408.

Bibliographical reference

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