1How can someone from Bordeaux belong to the elite of a society that is necessarily Parisian? As a young law student, Montesquieu quickly learned that to cap his education he had to flee his province. He also understood that the really influential milieux were not those of the local notables, but were encountered in the worldly societies of the capital.
2And so it was that the first Parisian relations formed by the young Montesquieu took place at the college of Juilly and beginning with a first network around the fathers of the Oratory who taught there. The pivot of this network, for a first introduction into the company of the erudite, was Pierre Nicolas Desmolets. We do not know whether it was precisely at the college that he made his acquaintance, but since he was the librarian of the Paris Oratory, the former Juilly pupil was, in any case, led to frequent him. This man of great culture also incarnated a certain openness of mind. He constituted the firs tlink in a chain of free thinkers whom the young man from Bordeaux began very early to frequent. Indeed in 1712-1713 he was already attending a few sessions of the Academies, of sciences and inscriptions, and became involved with Nicolas Fréret, a relation of Desmolets, a rather lively spirit, without prejudices (for which he was to pay in 1715 with a stay in the Bastille). He sensitized Montesquieu to the history of China, of which he was a specialist; he was also introduced to Hoange, a Chinaman employed at the Royal Library, and above all put into contact with a rather extravagant person, the Count de Boulainvilliers, an atheist, astrologer, fascinated with history. Another person belonging to this first circle was Bernardo Lama, a Neopolitan admirer of Malebranche, a freethinker like the others. This is the company of pioneers of the Enlightenment, often very hostile to the pope and the Jesuits, sometimes even professing real atheism, since it was to Boulainvilliers, because of his Spinozism and his reputation, that was sometimes attributed the clandestine manuscript entitled Treatise of the Three Imposters (today we know he was not its author). This treatise places on the same level, to reject them, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Therefore, on his father’s death, when Montesquieu returned to Bordeaux at the end of 1713, he already had assumed a hint of oppositional philosophy, linked to a conception of history interconnecting with political and religious theories.
3For a young noble whose family was not Parisian, it was essential to find friends who could introduce him into rather closed circles, and the most prestigious of them was, to be sure, the court. It was the Duke de Berwick who played this role for the young Montesquieu. The bastard son of James II of England, but also recognized in France or in Spain as in his homeland, this military man came to Bordeaux to assume his command of Guyenne in 1716: it was to him that Montesquieu owed a facilitated entry among the grandees beginning in 1720. But it was the success of the Persian Letters that was decisive: the author wanted to go be recognized and appreciated in Paris. He took advantage of his membership in the parlement and academy of Bordeaux to use the defense of their interests as a pretext, and thus justified his frequent trips to the capital during the period after the Regency. Through Berwick he became acquainted with representatives of the old sword nobility, like the Matignons. That family in turn helped move him closer to power: the marshall was allied by marriage with the Berthelots, a family of parvenus, but one of their daughters was the Marquise de Prie, formal mistress of the Duc de Bourbon. This is how, from one relation to the next, Montesquieu found himself frequenting the duke’s entourage, in Bélébat, near Fontainebleau, where the marquise held a small and brilliant court, and in Chantilly. Berwick was not the only famous Englishman in Paris: he put Montesquieu into contact with another of his famous compatriots, Viscount Bolingbroke.
4In the intellectual milieu, Desmolets and Mairan enabled him to establish ties to Fontenelle at the time of the publication of the Persian Letters. Thus the noble academician opened to him the doors of Mme de Lambert’s salon, no doubt from 1724: two years later, he was among the assiduous members. This salon, characterized by decency and literary exchanges, was frequented by nobles as well as writers. It was a sort of antechamber for aspiring to a seat at the Academy. There one met Fontenelle, La Motte, Sacy (whom Montesquieu would moreover succeed in the Academy), but also Bouhier, when he was in Paris, Marivaux, Crébillon the tragedian, Dubos, the Duc de Nevers or the Marquis d’Argenson. Mme de Lambert was to support Montesquieu at the time of his election in 1727.
5At the same time, though we do not know whether he really belonged to it, Montesquieu was frequenting the Club de l’Entresol, presided over by a former preceptor of Louis XV, abbé Alary, a close friend of Mme de Lambert. An assembly of freer tone, also more polemical, it made possible a mixture of political, social and economic ideas. The club (or rather, academy) was dissolved in 1731 by the minister Fleury.
6Montesquieu’s Paris frequentations after 1733 took place around the Académie Française which he attended during his stays in Paris and played a role in elections, and around great salons which he willingly attended.
7The Academy allowed him to form relations with his literary colleagues, like Marivaux or Moncrif (for whom he had low esteem), even if he saw little of Voltaire there. As for the salons, the one he particularly liked was that of the Hôtel de Brancas, located not far from the Rue Saint Dominique where he lived. At the college of Juilly, Brancas had been his fellow pupil: in any case he had known the marquis since 1725 and frequented his son, the Count de Forcalquier, beginning in 1740. Another family at the heart of this salon, the Beauveaus, to whom Montesquieu was also strongly attached through the person of the prince whom he admired and his sister the future Duchess de Mirepoix for whom he sighed. In this salon were many nobles, Luxembourg, Boufflers, Nivernais, but also men of letters: Helvétius, Duclos, the président Hénault and Mme Du Deffand. They put on theatrical performances. The tone of conversation was often playful.
8The Duchesse d’Aiguillon, a very prominent woman in these salons, was Montesquieu’s means of access to another circle, that of Maurepas. The secretary of state, until his fall in 1749, did not assemble around him grave and serious persons; quite the contrary. “The Academy of these Gentlemen” was a joyous assembly, joining together Moncrif, Nivelle de La Chaussée, Duclos, the young Crébillon, the Comte de Caylus, Collé, Vadé, Voisenon – did Montesquieu play a role there? They composed fugitive poetry, tales in verse, jocose pieces of all kinds. The author of the Persian Letters and The Temple of Gnidus was at home there.
9Two other women who enlarged Montesquieu’s circle of Parisian relations are worthy of mention: Mme Dupin and Mme de Tencin. Mme Dupin, wife of a farmer general, also entertained. Montesquieu supplied her with wine, but he seems to have remained an elusive guest: Rousseau, who was Mme de Tencin’s secretary, does not mention him among the regulars. Mme de Tencin, for her part, who was by far his closest woman friend, at least if her correspondence is to be believed, grouped around her “seven sages” and a few intimate friends: Montesquieu already knew almost all of them since at least three of them were colleagues at the Academy and two others were old friends. She was a warm and sincere woman, who counseled him on the publication of his works, even if her role was far from as important as is reputed. She was in any case one of the first to read L’Esprit des Lois and to circulate it among her friends.
10We can thus, through Montesquieu’s Parisian relations (among whom we might also mention the duc de Saint-Simon), understand the obstacle course which a man from the provinces, whatever the origin of his family, had to face to make his name in the Republic of Letters. Each person frequented was finally but a link in a larger network that assured one’s integration into select societies.
Correspondance, OC, t. XVIII, 1998 and XIX, 2014 (t. XX-XXI, in preparation).
Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography, Oxford University Press, 1961.
Jean Sareil, Les Tencin. Histoire d’une famille au XVIIIe siècle, d’après de nombreux documents inédits, Geneva: Droz, 1969.
Roger Marchal, Madame de Lambert et son milieu, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 289 (1991).
Nick Childs, A Political Academy in Paris, 1724-1731: the Entresol and its members, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 2000, nos. 10-11.
Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil, Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs ? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon: ENS Éditions, « Métamorphoses du livre », 2011.