Catherine Maire


1In L’Esprit des lois and then in the Défense, Montesquieu made a point of not “doing theology”, of writing “politically” a work “of pure politics and pure jurisprudence” (EL, XXIV, 1; XXV, 9; Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, p. 71 and 88). Despite and perhaps because of this negation, the book has paradoxically provoked a goodly number of theological readings and censures.

2Montesquieu is wary of the use of theology and particularly of theologians for whom he never has a positive epithet. Theology is a source of disagreements, disputes and even wars, the mask of purely human interests, a danger for the state, a seedbed of incredulity, a muddling of philosophy, worse yet, of the limits of “natural genius” (Défense de L’Esprit des lois, p. 112).

3The interpreters of Scripture have taken over the text for their own purposes: “they have not regarded it as a book that contained the dogmas they should accept, but as a work that could give authority to their own ideas” (“ils ne l’ont point regardé comme un livre où étaient contenus les dogmes qu’ils devaient recevoir, mais comme un ouvrage qui pourrait donner de l’autorité à leurs propres idées”, LP, 128 [134]). Works of theology are thus “doubly unintelligible, both for the subject matter they treat, and for the manner of treating it” (“doublement inintelligibles, et par la matière qui y est traitée, et par la manière de les traiter”, ibid.). Far from sticking to their domain, theologians “have employed many centuries muddling philosophy” (“ont employé bien des siècles à embrouiller la philosophie”, Pensées, no. 2152). Worse yet, they have in reality no consideration for believers, so greatly are they imbued with their authority: “They prefer a new article of belief to a million Christians, and provided they gain one item symbolically, they do not worry about losing believers” (“Ils aiment mieux un nouvel article de croyance qu’un million de chrétiens, et pourvu qu’ils gagnent un article de symbole, ils ne s’embarrassent pas de perdre des fidèles”, Pensées, no. 35). Montesquieu even scolds them for forgetting morality: “They dispute dogma and do not practice morality” (“On dispute sur le dogme et on ne pratique point la morale”, Pensées, no. 481). He encourages no illusion about their ability to pacify quarrels: “Theologians make peace over a dispute only in favor of a second dispute. They are like cormorants sent to fish: they come and yield to you a fish caught by a ring in their gullet; but don’t put a gudgeon there” (“Les théologiens ne s’apaisent sur une dispute qu’en faveur d’une seconde. Ils sont comme les cormorans qu’on envoie pêcher : ils viennent vous rendre le poisson qu’un anneau a arrêté dans leurs gosiers ; mais vous y mettez un goujon”, Pensées, no. 2176, transcribed in 1754). The controversialists go so far as to love controversy for its own sake: they “defend religion for the sole reason that it is established; they combat those who attack it for the sole reason that they are attacking it” (“défendent la religion pour la seule raison qu’elle est établie, ils combattent ceux qui l’attaquent pour la seule raison qu’ils l’attaquent”, Pensées, no. 980). To prevent them from doing harm, he proposes “reducing theologians to defending their opinions for truth alone, by which measure they will never go far” (“réduire les théologians à défendre leurs opinions uniquement pour la vérité; moyennant quoi, ils n’iront jamais bien loin”, Pensées, no. 690).

4His observation of the quarrel over the bull Unigenitus taught him the degree to which purely human interests can hide behind sometimes rather slight dogmatic stakes. He also had a vivid awareness of the dreadful effects which these theological quarrels ultimately spawned for religion itself: “I see here people who dispute endlessly over religion, but it seems they vie at the same time to see who will observe it the least” (“Je vois ici des gens qui disputent sans fin sur la religion, mais il semble qu’ils combattent en même temps à qui l’observera le moins”, LP, 44 [46]). Even the prince is tormented by theological disputes and generally becomes an interested party, settling thus on himself, “at one and the same time, the love and respect of one part of his subjects, and the hatred and scorn of the other” (“dans le même moment, l’amour et le respect de ses sujets, et la haine et le mépris de l’autre”, Pensées, n° 690). Montesquieu does not underestimate this “ill will” of some citizens: “[…] it does not fail to have quiet effects, which occur in the shadow and in time: whence come great revolutions” (“[…] elle ne laisse pas d’avoir des effets sourds, qui se produisent dans l’ombre et le temps, d’où viennent les grandes révolutions”, ibid.).

5In the Persian Letters, Montesquieu puts forward the radical thought that theological disputes are in reality consubstantial with Christianity: “I have not observed among Christians the intense persuasion of their religion that is found among Muslims; there is some distance, among them, between profession and belief, belief and conviction, and conviction and practice. Religion is less a matter of sanctification than a matter of argumentation that belongs to everybody; men of the court, men of war, even women rise up against the ecclesiastics, and ask them to prove to them what they are determined not to believe.” (“je n’ai point remarqué chez les chrétiens cette persuasion vive de leur religion qui se trouve parmi les musulmans. Il y a bien loin chez eux de la profession à la croyance, de la croyance à la conviction, de la conviction à la pratique. La religion est moins un sujet de sanctification qu’un sujet de disputes qui appartient à tout le monde : les gens de cour, les gens de guerre, les femmes mêmes, s’élèvent contre les ecclésiastiques et leur demandent de leur prouver ce qu’ils ont résolu de ne pas croire”, LP, 73 [75]). It is therefore for essential reasons that Montesquieu intends to keep himself on the outside, not only with respect to theology and to theologians but also to the “Christian system”. Further, he even judges that he ought to feign indifference over theological disputes: “the attention given to this affliction increases it immeasurably by making it appear greater than it really is” (“L’attention que l’on donne à ce mal l’augmente sans mesure en faisant croire qu’il est plus grand qu’il n’est en effet”, Pensées, n° 690). But he was not measuring the subversion that this posture of extraterritoriality represented at a time which did not yet know separation of church and state, nor between philosophy or morality and theology. From the moment L’Esprit des lois was published, he was to be made a theologian despite himself, as he bitterly complains in the Défense: “You say you are a jurisconsult and I will make you a theologian despite yourself” (“Vous dites que vous êtes jurisconsulte et je vous ferai théologien malgré vous”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, p. 88).

6As early as April 1749, the Jesuit periodical Le Journal de Trévoux published an article in the form of an anonymous letter addressed to Father Berthier (OC, t. VII, p. 7). In a moderate and respectful tone, the writer accuses the author of L’Esprit des lois of harming religion directly or indirectly, by explaining suicide and polygamy by the climate, by criticizing the celibacy of priests and the repression of sacrilege, by lavishing too much praise on Julian the Apostate, and by shedding doubt on Christian missions in pagan countries.

7Then it was the turn of the Jansenist gazette, Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, to attack him with less restraint in a long article published in two installments, 9 and 16 October 1749, and denounce him as “ungodly”, worse yet as an “ungodly man in disguise” (impie masqué, OC, t. VII, p. 34). L’Esprit des lois was seen as being based entirely on the system of natural religion of the English deists, Pope in particular, and ultimately on Spinozism. In addition to detailed objections over marriage and divorce, usury, the philosopher Bayle and the Stoics, the article concludes that his whole book purports to show that religion must adjust to the customs of different peoples, whatever they are, and that it depends above all on the climate and the political state. In this way L’Esprit des lois is fundamentally hostile to revealed religion.

8About January 1750, Montesquieu learned that his book was likely to be put on the Index, and asked the Duc de Nivernais, ambassador to the pontifical court, to intervene in his favor in Rome where he had made some friends (26 January 1750). Thanks to the good offices of a cardinal hostile to the Jesuits, Domenico Silvio Passionei, secretary of briefs and Vatican librarian, he obtained the designation as rapporteur of a prelate who was not predisposed against Montesquieu: Monsignor Giovani Gaetano Bottari, consultant of the congregation of the Index whose Jansenist sympathies are known (see the letter of 4 March 1750).

9If we are to believe the Italian manuscript, “Note sopra lo spirituo delle Leggi” (Vatican Library, Ottobon, Lat., 3157, f. 5-9; OC, t. VII, p. 184), the first sketch of the censure is a compendium, unedited, of passages of dubious orthodoxy. Bottari speaks with the goodwill of a man who hopes the work will escape condemnation for the price of a few corrections. The translation of the report was sent to Montesquieu so he could be aware of the Roman objections and give satisfaction on his assertions. But Montesquieu was satisfied with sending a general, vague response, a promise to make corrections in the next edition, in a note which he sent, along with a letter to Cardinal Passionei, on 1 February 1750 (OC, t. VII, p. 177-178). In it he reasserts his position of exteriority: “this is not a work of doctrine and theology, but a political treatise the subject of which is absolutely foreign to the subjects of doctrine and dogma” (“il ne s’agit point d’un ouvrage de doctrine et de théologie, mais d’un traité de politique dont la matière est absolument étrangère aux matières de doctrine et de dogme”, Réflexions sur le rapport de Mgr Bottari, OC, t. VII, p. 182). A deferral of the censure is obtained until December 1750. But we know, on the basis of the second report on censure, drawn up after October 1750 and rediscovered recently in the archives of the Holy Office (OC, t. VII, p. 190-197), that Bottari was to harden his position in the interim. It was the publication of the Défense de L’Esprit des lois and Montesquieu’s affirmation that he wrote “politically” that seem to have decisively influenced Bottari’s conduct in the context of the quarrel over ecclesiastical immunities in France.

10The collation of the former and current propositions of the text of censure allows corroboration of this interpretation. The order is no longer random; it now obeys the need for a demonstration. By abandoning six propositions concerning details, by introducing four new propositions taken from Book XXVI which discuss relations between religious and civil laws, notably the Inquisition (a point which had already greatly concerned Father Concina in Book VI of his Theologia christiana dogmatico-moralis), and by an allusion to the present quarrel over ecclesiastical immunities in France, Bottari much more sharply focuses his critique. He condemns the “political” writer, the jurisconsult who encroaches on ecclesiastical jurisdiction and privileges, raises doubts about the coactive power of the Church, in particular that of the tribunal of the Inquisition, on the English model. He refuses above all to allow the extraterritoriality which Montesquieu claims with respect to theology, “a fence around everyone who deals with the human sciences” (“enceinte autour de ceux qui traitent des sciences humaines”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, p. 112), a refusal which was equivalent in reality to challenging the very basis of his defense strategy. Following Bottari’s report, a majority of the Congregation of the Index, meeting in December 1750, pronounced for censure, however with the clause donec corrigatur (“until it is corrected”). Only the intervention of the Cardinal Prefect Angelo Maria Quirini was to put off the decision one last time. It is the Neopolitan translation, Lo Spirito dei leggi, in 1751, and the publication of La Suite de L’Esprit des lois by Beaumelle, which have generally been cited hypothetically to explain the definitive censure of 29 November 1751 (OC, t. VII, p. 199-213) by the new censor Thomaso Emaldi (Aimaldi), named as rapporteur of the Congregation of the Index on this occasion. He could see no possibility of correcting what was equivocal and pernicious. Montesquieu’s protectors would still manage to keep the censure from being published separately (parere) (OC, t. VII, p. 214-215). In France, the placing of L’Esprit des lois on the Index was to pass completely unnoticed.

11Facing two projects for censure by the Sorbonne – one in September 1750 in 13 points and another in August 1752 in 17 points – Montesquieu again maintained a firm attitude with respect to the essentials, while attempting to correct some points bearing on details. His Réponses et explications written in 1752-1753 (OC, t. VII, p. 245-270) contain only modifications of form designed to maintain and reinforce the fundament of his thought. They were in any case rejected by the Sorbonne in assembly in May 1754. Only the author’s death, no doubt, on 10 February 1755, would spare him from a programmatic censure.

12It is difficult to know whether Montesquieu was conscious of the consequences of his virulent attacks against theology, his “pedantism”, his “Schools of dark ages” (Défense de L’Esprit des lois, p. 113), which he opposes to the “enlightenment” of reason, the “human sciences” and the academies (ibid., p. 112 and 113). Reducing the theologians to the rank of “critics”, he nevertheless appears to believe in the possibility of fruitful collaboration: “If the critic and the author seek the truth, they have the same interest, for the truth belongs to all men: they will be confederates and not enemies” (“Si le critique et l’auteur cherchent la vérité, ils ont le même intérêt, car la vérité est le bien de tous les hommes : ils seront des confédérés et non pas des ennemis”, ibid., p. 113).



Manuscript Department of the Vatican Library: Ottoboni latino Ottobon. Lat. collection, 3157, f. 5-9.

Archives of the Holy Office: Index Protocolli, 1749-1752, f. 324r°-329r° (Mgr Giovani Gaetano Bottari) ; f.331r°-338r° (Mgr Thomaso Emaldi).

Défenses de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, Pierre Rétat dir. (ed.), 2010.


Louis Vian, Histoire de Montesquieu, Paris: Didier, 1877, p. 289-290.

Henri Barckhausen, Montesquieu,“L’Esprit des lois” et les archives de La Brède, Bordeaux: Michel et Forgeot, 1904 (reprint Geneva: Slatkine, 1970), Appendix, p. 93-117.

Léon Bérard, “L’Esprit des lois devant la Congrégation de l’Index”, IIe Centenaire de L’Esprit des lois: lectures organized by the city of Bordeaux, Delmas, 1948, p. 240-309.

Charles J. Beyer, “Montesquieu et la censure religieuse de L’Esprit des lois”, Revue des sciences humaines, Lille, 1953, p. 105-131.

Mario Rosa, “Catholicesimo e lumi : la condamna romana dell Esprit des lois”, Riformatori e ribelli nel 700 religioso italiano, Bari: Dedalo libri, 1969, p. 87-119.

Jean Ehrard, “Montesquieu et l’Inquisition”, DHS 24 (1992), p. 334-444, reprinted in Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Genève: Droz, 1998, p. 81-94.

Catherine Maire, “La censure différée de L’Esprit des lois par Mgr Bottari”, Rivista di Storia e Letteratura Religiosa, 41 (2005), n°1, p. 175-191.

Claude Lauriol, “La condamnation de L’Esprit des lois dans les archives de la congrégation de l’Index”, in Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755) ?, Catherine Larrère dir. (ed.), Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples: Liguori, 2005, p. 91-103.

Catherine Larrère, “La Défense de l’Esprit des lois et les ‘sciences humaines’”, in Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755) ?, Catherine Larrère ed., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples: Liguori, 2005, p. 115-130.