Catherine Maire


1“What it is to be moderate in one’s principles! I pass in France for having little religion and in England for having too much” (“Ce que c’est que d’être modéré dans ses principes ! Je passe en France pour avoir peu de religion et en Angleterre pour en avoir trop”, Pensées, no. 1134). Montesquieu’s lucid observation has retained its currency. After his death, the historians were divided between those who, following D’Alembert’s eulogy, tried to defend Montesquieu’s Christianity and those who following the placing of said eulogy on the Index in 1758 continued to see in him nothing but an ungodly man or an atheist. The debate has scarcely evolved since Émile Faguet called him “the least religious soul there is” while Sergio Cotta perceived “the Christian and Catholic tradition” at the bottom of his thought. Roger Caillois speaks of his “absolute humanism” while Joseph Dedieu insists on the evolution of his attitude “towards benevolence and sympathy” towards religion.

2Montesquieu is a Catholic author who much criticized “the Christian religion” while trying to recognize its merits: “It is to reason badly against religion to collect in a large book a long enumeration of the evils it has produced, if the same is not done for the good it has done” (“C’est mal raisonner contre la religion de rassembler dans un grand ouvrage une longue énumération des maux qu’elle a produits, si l’on ne fait de même celle des biens qu’elle a faits”, EL, XXIV, 2). Instead of “working to make people believe it” (OC, t. VII, p. 71), he relativized it as an object of knowledge, as a “Christian system” (Pensées, no. 112) among other religious systems. This original posture, which some have seen as a prefiguration of the sociological approach, is in large part explained if we re-situate Montesquieu in the tradition of political Gallicanism in his time. His repeated affirmation must be taken seriously that he writes as a political thinker (EL, XXIV, 1 et XXV, 9) in his treatment of religion and of Christianity in particular. This attitude, fundamentally exterior to the Christian religion and to all religions in general, is accompanied by a Gallican point of view that aims at considering only Christianity’s relations with society, to examine the bonds and barriers between the two sovereignties, that of the Church and that of the state, only in the perspective of the category of social utility, measuring “what good we get from it in the civil state” (“du bien que l’on en tire dans l’état civil”, EL, XXIV, 1). All the criticisms which Montesquieu addresses to Christianity take on meaning, if we consider that they are part of the numerous debates taking place in the 18th century on problems that involve the relations between Church and state: the Constitution Unigenitus, the celibacy of priests, monasticism, the Jesuits, ecclesiastical property, the coactive power of the Church, Protestant marriage, civil toleration. Often they even anticipate them. By small touches, Montesquieu elaborated an original Gallican system that reduces neither to the supremacy of the political over religion neither to that of the Council over the pope.

3Moreover he expressed himself explicitly on the “liberties of the Gallican Church” (Pensées, no. 215) and even sketched some projects for reform of the Church (Pensées, no. 181, 182, 273). He was conscious of the political dependency which the system of liberties of the Gallican Church inaugurated by Pithou implied for the Church: “One really ought to say servitude of the Gallican Church, since they [these liberties] only serve to maintain the authority of the king against ecclesiastical jurisdiction and take from the pope the power to maintain it, since they take from the ecclesiastics the right they have over magistrates and even kings, as members of the faithful” (“On devrait bien plutôt dire la servitude de l’Église gallicane, puisqu’elles [ces libertés] ne servent qu’à maintenir l’autorité du roi contre la juridiction ecclésiastique et ôter au pape la force de la maintenir, puisqu’elles ôtent aux ecclésiastiques le droit qu’ils ont sur les magistrats et les rois mêmes en qualité de fidèles.”, Pensées, no. 215, transcribed before 1731). On the other hand, he takes equal care to shake the argument of the conciliar and canonical tradition in their regard: “We must not say that they are everything found in the old canonos: for France would be most unfortunate if she were obliged to accept as law the collections which have been done” (“Il ne faut pas dire qu’elles soient tout ce qui est porté par les anciens canons, car la France serait bien malheureuse si elle était obligée d’accepter comme loi les collections qui en ont été faites”, ibid.). He prefers to found these liberties in natural law and in particular “in the law of peoples, which would have a nation governed by his laws and not being subjugated, not to be subjected with respect to the temporal to a foreign power; and with respect to the spiritual, in divine law, which would have the Council be above the pope, [and in Reason also]: there being no body which has not more authority entire than divided” (“sur le droit des gens, qui veut qu’une nation qui se gouverne par ses lois et n’a pas été subjuguée, ne soit point soumise à l’égard du temporel, à une puissance étrangère ; et à l’égard du spirituel sur le droit divin, qui veut que le concile soit au-dessus du pape, [et sur la Raison, qui le veut aussi] : n’y ayant point de corps qui n’ait plus d’autorité tout entier que divisé”, ibid.). In the first version, he had kept only “reason” in the place of “divine law”.

4But as always, he tempers what he has to say about ecclesiastical jurisdiction: “I am not obstinate about ecclesiastical privileges, but I would not have injustices be done to them. I would have the terms of their jurisdiction be set forth clearly, but that they be reciprocal, and that Févret’s hypotheses, the individual decisions, not be laws against them; otherwise, this jurisdiction will have to disappear, as new decisions are forever cutting it back” (“Je ne suis point entêté des privilèges des ecclésiastiques, mais je voudrais qu’on ne leur fit point d’injustices. Je voudrais qu’on leur marquât pour une fois les termes de leur juridiction, mais qu’ils fussent réciproques, et que les hypothèses de Févret, les arrêts particuliers, ne fussent pas des lois contre eux ; sans cela, il faudra bien que cette juridiction s’anéantisse, de nouveaux arrêts la retranchant toujours”, Pensées, no. 470). He is in search of a moderate form of Gallicanism that would not lead fatally to the subordination of the Church to the state. He explicitly attacks Hobbes’s system, “a frightening system, which, by making all virtues and all vices depend on the establishment of laws which men have made for themselves, and wanting to prove that all men are born in a state of war, and that the first natural law is the war of everyone against everyone, overturns, like Spinoza, both all religion and all morality” (“système terrible, qui faisant dépendre toutes les vertus et tous les vices de l’établissement des lois que les hommes se sont faites, et voulant prouver que les hommes naissent tous en état de guerre, et que la première loi naturelle est la guerre de tous contre tous, renverse, comme Spinoza, et toute religion et toute morale”, Défense, OC, t. VII, p. 73). He tries to resolve the impossible equation of maintaining the common interests of the two sovereignties on the basis of a fundamental distinction between the temporal domain and spiritual power: “I have never pretended to make the interests of religion yield to political interests, but to unite them: now to unite them, one must know them. The Christian religion, which commands men to love each other, doubtless wants each people to have the best political laws and the best civil laws, because they are, after itself, the greatest good that men can have and receive” (“[…] je n’ai jamais prétendu faire céder les intérêts de la religion aux intérêts politiques, mais les unir ; or pour les unir, il faut les connaître. La religion chrétienne, qui ordonne aux hommes de s’aimer, veut sans doute que chaque peuple ait les meilleures lois politiques et les meilleures lois civiles, parce qu’elles sont, après elle, le plus grand bien que les hommes puissent donner et recevoir”, EL, XXIV, 1). Joseph Dedieu has advanced the hypothesis of an influence of William Warburton’s Alliance between Church and State (1736), translated in 1742 by Étienne Silhouette under the title Dissertations sur l’union de la religion, de la morale et de la politique, tirées d’un ouvrage de Montesquieu et dédiées au cardinal de Fleury. This complementarity of domains does not signify their indetermination, quite the contrary, it supposes their delimitation: “This great distinction which is the basis on which the tranquillity of peoples rests is founded not only on Religion, but also on Reason and Nature, which would have things that are really separate, that can subsist only separately, not be conflated” (“Cette grande distinction qui est la base sur laquelle pose la tranquillité des peuples, est fondée non seulement sur la religion, mais encore sur la raison et la nature, qui veulent que des choses réellement séparées, et qui ne peuvent subsister que séparées, ne soient jamais confondues”, Romans, XXII).

5Montesquieu recognizes that Christianity has “mellowed human nature” (“adouci la nature humaine”, Pensées, no. 551) and is opposed to despotism: “The Christian religion is distant from pure despotism, for gentleness being so recommended in the Gospel, it opposes the despotic anger with which the prince would work justice and practice cruelties” (“La religion chrétienne est éloignée du pur despotisme ; c’est que la douceur étant si recommandée dans l’évangile, elle s’oppose à la colère despotique avec laquelle le prince se ferait justice et exercerait ses cruautés”, EL, XXIV, 3). He also underscores its contribution to the domain of law: “[…] we owe to Christianity, both in the government a certain political law, and in war a certain law of peoples, which human nature cannot recognize too willingly (“[…] nous devons au christianisme, et dans le gouvernement un certain droit politique, et dans la guerre un certain droit des gens que la nature humaine ne saurait assez reconnaître”, ibid). He manifests total disagreement with Bayle, who maintains that true Christians could not form a viable state: “Why not? They would be citizens infinitely enlightened as to their duties, and would have very great zeal to fulfill them, they would very well feel the rights of natural defense; the more they thought they owed religion, the more they would think they owed the country. The principles of Christianity, well engraved in the heart, would be infinitely stronger than the false honor of monarchies, the human virtues of republics, and the servile fear of despotic states” (“Pourquoi non ? Ce seraient des citoyens infiniment éclairés sur leurs devoirs, et qui auraient un très grand zèle pour les remplir, ils sentiraient très bien les droits de la défense naturelle ; plus ils croiraient devoir à la religion, plus ils penseraient devoir à la patrie. Les principes du christianisme, bien gravés dans le cœur, seraient infiniment plus fort que ce faux honneur des monarchies, ces vertus humaines des républiques, et cette crainte servile des États despotiques.”, EL, XXIV, 6).

6The relationship between Christianity and politics which he assumes is not direct, but analogical and complementary. He thus implies at once a separation between the two autonomous spheres, the spiritual and the temporal, and a concordance towards the same social goal: peace, the common good, love of country. Unlike the state, Christianity ought to have no coactive force: “penal laws must be avoided where religious matters are concerned” (“il faut éviter les lois pénales en fait de religion”, EL, XXV, 12). Montesquieu insists strongly on the difference between “precepts” proper to human laws and “advice” proper to religions: “One must not enact by divine laws what should be legislated by human laws, nor regulate by human laws what should be regulated by divine laws” (“On ne doit point statuer par les lois divines ce qui doit l’être par les lois humaines, ni régler par les lois humaines ce qui doit l’être par les lois divines”, EL, XXVI, 2).

7Almost all the reproaches that Montesquieu formulates with respect to Christianity contain a denunciation of the confusion between ecclesiastical power and secular authority. It is precisely when religion is used as a pretext by human interests that it gives birth, according to him, to the greatest evils: “[…] the maxims of religion are very pernicious when they are brought into human politics” (“[…] les maximes de religion sont très pernicieuses quand on les fait entrer dans la politique humaine”, Pensées, no. 1007, transcribed between 1734 and 1739). Without casting doubt on its privileges, Montesquieu much denounces the Church’s riches which are no longer the patrimony of the poor: “The good [bien] of the Church property is an equivocal word. Once it expressed the sacredness of morals; today, it no longer means anything more than the prosperity of certain people and the augmentation of their privileges or their revenue” (“Le bien de l’Église est un mot équivoque. Autrefois, il exprimait la sainteté des mœurs ; aujourd’hui, il ne signifie autre chose que la prospérité de certaines gens et l’augmentation de leurs privilèges ou de leur revenu”, Pensées, no. 214, transcribed before 1731). While recognizing the sacredness and inviolability of the ancient domain of the clergy, he recommends allowing “new domains to leave its hands” (EL, XXV, 5). Nevertheless, he refuses constraint in the implementation of this plan: “Instead of forbidding the clergy to make acquisitions, we should try to dissuade them from doing so; leave the right, but take away the thing” (“Au lieu de défendre les acquisitions du clergé, il faut chercher à l’en dégoûter lui-même ; laisser le droit, et ôter le fait”, ibid.).

8The consequences of celibacy of the priests “which could become harmful, in proportion to the extent of the clergy and consequently that the laity could become too small” (“qui pourrait devenir nuisible, à proportion que le corps du clergé serait trop étendu et que par conséquent celui des laïques ne le serait pas assez”, EL, XXV, 4) also held his attention. On this point too his reflections “bear only on the excessive extension of celibacy, and not on celibacy itself” (“ne portent que sur la trop grande extension du célibat, et non sur le célibat même”, ibid.). It should, according to him, remain “advice” and never become a precept that implicates laws to make sure it is observed (EL, XXIV, 7). A reasoning revealing of his Gallicanism, he makes it the basis of papal power and the very essence of clericalism: “It was with very good reason that the popes made such efforts to establish the celibacy of priests. Otherwise, their power would never have grown so, and never would it have lasted if every priest had wanted a family, if they had wanted one themselves. Finally monasticism came along, even more attached to the popes than the former clergy. What characterizes our priests is the opposition to the lay state, in which they differ entirely from pagan priests” (“Ce fut avec très grande raison que les papes firent tant d’efforts pour établir le célibat des prêtres. Sans cela, jamais leur puissance ne serait montée si haut, et jamais elle n’aurait duré si chaque prêtre avait tenu à une famille, s’ils y avaient tenu eux-mêmes. Enfin est venu le monachisme, plus attaché encore aux papes que l’ancien clergé. Ce qui caractérise nos prêtres, c’est l’opposition avec l’état laïque, en quoi ils diffèrent entièrement des prêtres païens”, Pensées, no. 294, transcribed before 1731). But this clerical state which distinguishes them from society does not prevent them from meddling in secular matters. He is also surprised that “in the Catholic Church, where priests are forbidden to marry, so they will not meddle in secular matters, they meddle more than in England and other Protestant countries, where they have been allowed to marry” (“dans l’Église catholique, où l’on a défendu le mariage aux prêtres afin qu’ils ne se mêlent pas des affaires séculières, ils s’en mêlent plus qu’en Angleterre et autres pays protestants, où l’on leur a permis le mariage”, Pensées, no. 649, transcribed between 1731 and 1734).

9Prime symptom of the confusion of the temporal and the spiritual, “devotion” is “a disease of the body that gives the soul a madness the character of which is to be the most incurable of all” (“une maladie du corps qui donne à l’âme une folie dont le caractère est d’être la plus incurable de toutes”, Pensées, no. 1405). It is devotion that, through a misunderstanding, justifies the politics of princes and “almost all the vices they want, like avarice, arrogance, covetousness, ambition, vengeance: it costs them almost nothing to be devout” (“presque tous les vices qu’ils veulent, comme l’avarice, l’orgueil, la soif du bien d’autrui, l’ambition, la vengeance : il ne leur en coûte presque rien pour être dévots”, Pensées, no. 1993). It is particularly dangerous for a prince to put the affairs of his state in the hands of his confessor or a person attached to a monastic body. It is known what fear Montesquieu had of the Jesuits, who excelled, according to him, in conflating lay matters and duties of conscience. “Princes who make them their confessors are making a big mistake, for it spreads a spirit of servitude in the nation and makes me honor a Jesuit brother in a province as a man of the court honors his confessor. Besides, bodies that have particular interests, confession, where they always deal between them and the prince, offer them the convenience of being informants and destroying whomever they wish, and that person has no chance to defend himself” (“Les princes qui en font leurs confesseurs font bien mal, car cela répand un esprit de servitude dans la nation et fait que j’honore un frère jésuite dans une province comme un homme de cour honore le confesseur. D’ailleurs, les corps ayant des intérêts particuliers, la confession, où ils traitent toujours entre le prince et eux, leur donne la commodité d’être délateurs et de perdre qui ils veulent, sans qu’il puisse se défendre”, Pensées, no. 482, transcribed between 1731 and 1734). Worse yet, the Jesuits are friends of the tribunal of the Inquisition, which is the institution corresponding to the very principle of the equivalence of human justice and divine justice, the height of abomination for Montesquieu: “The tribunal of the Inquisition, created by Christian monks on the idea of the tribunal of penitence, is contrary to all good policy” (“Le tribunal de l’Inquisition, formé par les moines chrétiens sur l’idée du tribunal de la pénitence, est contraire à toute bonne police”, EL, XXVI, 11). That tribunal promulgates precisely “penal laws in matters of religion” (EL, XXV, 12) and thus makes it possible to “rule human tribunals by the measures of tribunals having the afterlife as their business” (“régler des tribunaux humains par les mesures des tribunaux qui regardent l’autre vie”, EL, XXVI, 11), maxims against which he protested many times over.

10In the Persian Letters, he expressed a clear preference for the Protestant religion, more favorable to the development of society, to commerce, to factories, to agriculture and to population growth than Catholicism, which encourages, according to him, the ideal of a tranquil life withdrawn from the world, monasticism and celibacy. He even predicted its defeat: “I dare say that in the present state of Europe, it is not possible for the Catholic religion to subsist another five hundred years” (“J’ose le dire : dans l’état présent où est l’Europe, il n’est pas possible que la religion catholique y subsiste cinq cents ans”, LP, 113 [117]). But as usual, he balances this inclination with a defense of papal authority: “I even believe that the pope’s authority is, politically speaking, infinitely useful to us. For what should we become in this turbulent nation, where there is no bishop who thinks like his neighbor?” (“Je crois même que l’autorité du pape nous est même, politiquement parlant, infiniment utile. Car, que deviendrions-nous dans cette nation turbulente, où il n’y a aucun évêque qui pense comme son voisin ?”, Pensées, no. 1226, transcribed between 1734 and 1739). Furthermore, he does not call into question Catholicism as dominant religion in the monarchy since he establishes a correspondence between the two: “[…] the Catholic religion best suits a monarchy and […] the Protestant religion is more at home in a republic” (“la religion catholique convient mieux à une monarchie et […] la protestante s’accommode mieux d’une république”, EL, XXIV, 5). The explanation is founded in the last analysis on the climate: “It’s that the peoples of the north have and will always have a spirit of independence and freedom that the peoples of the south do not have, and that a religion that has no visible head is better suited to the independence of the climate than one that does” (“C’est que les peuples du Nord ont et auront toujours un esprit d’indépendance et de liberté que n’ont pas les peuples du midi, et qu’une religion qui n’a point de chef visible, convient mieux à l’indépendance du climat que celle qui en a un”, ibid.). Nevertheless, Montesquieu undertook to support the Catholic religion and the freedoms of the Gallican Church which are advantageous in the final analysis to France, eldest daughter of the Church: “France must support the Catholic religion, which is inopportune for all the other Catholic countries and does it no harm. She thereby maintains a superiority over the other Catholic countries.” (“La France doit soutenir la religion catholique, qui est incommode à tous les autres pays catholiques et ne lui fait aucun mal. Par là, elle conserve la supériorité sur les autres pays catholiques”, Pensées, no. 1875, transcribed about 1750). He is conscious of the drawbacks that would according to him result from domination of the Protestant religion for other confessions: “If she became Protestant, everything would become Protestant” (ibid.).

11Long before the Commission of the Regulars (1766-1780), instituted by Louis XV to reform the abuses of the clergy, he called for a reduction in the number of small chapters filled with people without education, learning or standing, and in the number of small convents that “serve only to maintain the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline” (“ne servent qu’à entretenir le relâchement de la discipline ecclésiastique”). With great clairvoyance, he imagined, also before the quarrel over ecclesiastical immunities, a plan of secularization of the property of the clergy: “Although I in no way approve of such an enterprise, here is how I imagine it will be carried out, if ever it is. They will suppress all the abbeys, monasteries, priories, chapels, cathedrals and collegiate churches, and keep only the bishoprics and parsonages, hospitals and universities. They will leave each individual the tranquil possession of what is his, but when a benefice falls vacant, it will be suppressed, and the property attached to it, even the houses, sold to the benefit of the state” (“Quoique je n’approuve nullement pareille entreprise, voici comment je m’imagine qu’elle sera exécutée, si elle l’est jamais. On supprimera toutes les abbayes, couvents de moines, prieurés, chapelles, cathédrales et collégiales, et on ne gardera que les évêchés et cures, hôpitaux et universités. On laissera chacun dans la paisible possession de son bien, mais à mesure qu’un bénéfice vaquera, il sera supprimé, et les biens qui en dépendent, même les maisons, vendus au profit de l’État”, Pensées, no. 273, transcribed before 1731). The French Revolution was to exceed this prediction in radicality and brutality.


D’Alembert, Éloge de Montesquieu, Encyclopédie, vol. V.

Censure de l’Éloge de Montesquieu [in the context of the censure of volume V of the Encyclopédie) in 1758 by Brother Jean-Jacques Proville, of the Order of Prémontrés: Archives of the Holy Office (ACDF: Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede), Index Protocolli, 1757-1759, f. 188r-189v.

Émile Faguet, Le Dix-huitième Siècle. Études littéraires, Paris: Boivin, 1894.

Jean Carayon, Essai sur les rapports du pouvoir politique et du pouvoir religieux chez Montesquieu, Paris, 1903.

Joseph Dedieu, Montesquieu et la tradition politique anglaise en France, Paris: Lecoffre 1905 (Slatkine reprint, 1971).

Joseph Dedieu, Montesquieu, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1913.

Sergio Cotta, Montesquieu e la Scienza della Societa, Turin: Ramella, 1953.

Roger Caillois, “Montesquieu et l’athéisme contemporain”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 327-336.

Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 287-294.

Pauline Kra, Religion in Montesquieu’s “Lettres persanes”, SVEC, 72 (1970).

Lorenzo Bianchi, “Montesquieu e la religione”, in Leggere “L’Esprit des lois”, ed. Domenico Felice, Naples: Liguori, 1998, p. 203-229.

Catherine Maire, “Montesquieu et la Constitution civile du clergé”,  in Montesquieu, l’État et la religion (colloque de Sofia), Jean Ehrard dir., Cahiers Montesquieu hors série, Sofia: Éditions Iztok-Zpada, 2007, p. 213-229.