1If we needed only to account for the personal relations between Montesquieu and Voltaire, and relate a few anecdotes, the material would be very thin. Indeed, no scandal, no violent antipathy, but no friendship or complicity either. The two great figures of the Enlightenment barely crossed paths in their lifetime, even if they knew well their respective works and left behind a few commentaries.
2But first the facts. It was doubtless at Bélébat, at the home of Mme de Prie, that the two first met in the fall of 1725. But they did not belong to the same society. Which explains why Montesquieu remained cold when the insolent Arouet got himself roundly beaten by the Chevalier de Rohan in February 1726. He noted the event, was indignant at the procedure which consisted of hiring henchmen, but did not defend the turbulent victim who “is telling his story to everybody” (Spicilège, no. 773). They were close to a few common circles, those of the hôtel de Brancas and Maurepas, the court of Stanislas in Lunéville (which Montesquieu frequented, it is true, only for a few weeks in 1747). But one would search in vain in memoirs of the time any trace of conversations or even simply cordial relations between the two men, the anecdotes about an invitation to Montesquieu at Voltaire’s, in Paris or Ferney, being entirely groundless. They both travelled to England, several years apart. There again, we note a few common frequentations, like the Duke of Richmond. They both knew and appreciated another celebrated Englishman, Viscount Bolingbroke. But these rapprochements are almost fortuitous and create no link between the two philosophes. The only contact recorded by Montesquieu, conversations over the authenticity of Richelieu’s Political Testament (Pensées, no. 1762), only leads to completely opposite conclusions (“Entre Voltaire, Dubos et Montesquieu: le Testament politique du cardinal de Richelieu”).
3Even the Academy, which in time inducted both of them, was not a place which drew them together. At first, Montesquieu was very circumspect about Voltaire’s possible election. He noted: “It would be disgraceful for the Academy to have Voltaire in it; it will some day be disgraceful to him not to have been” (Pensées, no. 896). He supported Marivaux against Voltaire. And when Voltaire was finally inducted, it was in the magistrate’s absence. Not until 1746 for the election of Duclos did they attend at the same time.
4The attitude of Voltaire to the work of Montesquieu lets us understand the divide that separates them. Even if he defends, sometimes vigorously, analogous positions – the condemnation of slavery, for example – even if he was conscious of certain converging visions, he could not keep from seeing in Montesquieu the robe nobility and its rigidities. He did at times welcome Montesquieu’s remarks and judgments, but also punctuated his works with notes that are hardly flattering. Montesquieu, on the other hand, did not appreciate the hasty judgments and the excessively testy spirit of Voltaire. He did not like the man he found “feckless” and self-interested. He disdained the bel esprit of which the “notary” Arouet was capable and did not recognize the depth of perception of the thinker. He saw in him, as did the entire century, a poet, able no doubt, but whom he found facile: a real esthetic divergence, for “facility” to Voltaire is a real poetic quality which he admired for example in a La Fontaine. He also disapproves of his too engaged writing, lacking distance, when it is a matter of writing history, even if he recognizes his sense of narrative, notably in the Histoire de Charles XII of whom, on the other hand, he does not share the political views (Pensées, nos. 641, 734, 744; Spicilège, nos. 236, 572). It must also be said that Montesquieu died before he could see the patriarch of Ferney at work in a combat against intolerance, but their temperaments as men and writers were really not compatible.
5All the same, the judgments of Voltaire are fairly nuanced and sometimes contradictory when he mentions the works of Montesquieu. He often complains about the way he arranges the subjects he treats, pretending to see in it a sort of dust thrown in the eyes of the readers’ critical intelligence. Thus, speaking of Considérations sur les […] Romains, he confides to Thiriot in 1734: “This books is full of hints, it is less a book than an ingenious table des matières writ in an odd style” (Voltaire, Correspondence, D803). Or, thinking of L’Esprit des lois, in a letter of 1759 (D8029), he asserts that “Montesquieu often lacks order despite his divisions into books and chapters”. What Voltaire adds can draw a smile: “sometimes he gives an epigram as a definition, an antithesis for a new idea.” Can we not see, at this distance, a point common to these two superior minds? Again what should we say of the oft-repeated criticism accusing the magistrate of not being exact in his quotations? Voltaire is rather ill-placed to make this remark…
6However, in the controversy over L’Esprit des lois, Voltaire supports the mistreated author, publishing a pamphlet in 1750 entitled Remerciement sincère à un homme charitable [‘Sincere thanks to a charitable man’] to defend him against the attacks of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. But his attitude soon changed, and after Montesquieu’s death, he became much more critical. The first of the “seventeen political dialogues” that make up L’ABC in 1768 establishes a parallel between Grotius, Hobbes, and Montesquieu: Voltaire faults the magistrate’s imagination, says from the start that he makes mistakes on his facts wrong and sometimes when he reasons, but he qualifies him all the same a “fine human mind” (bel esprit humain). Likely every word counts in this formula. He mentions him generally in Idées républicaines (1766), where he nevertheless attacks Rousseau more than Montesquieu.
7However it is later, in 1777, that Voltaire returns to a large number of of propositions from L’Esprit des lois to propose an extended commentary, as he once had done for the work of Pascal (Commentaire sur “L’Esprit des lois”). It was obviously an homage rendered to Montesquieu to reflect thus on his thought, even if he sometimes expressed serious reservations, taking certain formulas literally, but especially disapproving an ill-considered use of travel relations, and a concept of despotism which he finds fallacious: about China, which they both know thanks to the same informers, Du Halde the author, or rather compiler, of Description de la Chine) and the Jesuits, authors of Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, they deliver absolutely opposite judgments. But in a letter already cited of 1759 (D8029), he writes: “he will forever be a fertile and profound genius, who thinks and makes people think. His book should be the breviary of those who are called to govern others” (“ce sera à jamais un génie heureux et profond, qui pense et fait penser. Son livre devrait être le bréviaire de ceux qui sont appelés à gouverner les autres”). It is again to this aspect that he returns in his Commentaire sur “L’Esprit des lois”, explaining why even Montesquieu’s errors are fruitful in his eyes: “When a genius as fine as Montesquieu makes a mistake, I plunge into other errors while discovering his: such is the fate of all those who run after truth; they collide while running, and all fall down. I respect Montesquieu even in his falls, because he gets up again to rise to heaven […]; I take him as my guide, not as my adversary.” (“Lorsqu’un aussi beau génie que Montesquieu se trompe, je m’enfonce dans d’autres erreurs en découvrant les siennes. C’est le sort de tous ceux qui courent après la vérité ; ils se heurtent dans leur course, et tous sont jetés à terre. Je respecte Montesquieu jusque dans ses chutes, parce qu’il se relève pour monter au ciel […] ; je le prends pour mon guide, non pour mon adversaire.”, “Commentaire sur “L’Esprit des lois”, XLVII, p. 403-404) There we have everything Voltaire appreciates in his reading: a sort of stimulus to thought, even when he does not agree with the point of view, a point from which he can himself develop his own theories in a dialogue in motion.
Voltaire, Correspondence and Related Documents, ed. Theodore Besterman, Oxford, 1968-1977 (“definitive” edition D).
Voltaire, Commentaire sur L’Esprit des lois, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, t. 80B, 2009 (ed. Sheila Mason).
Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, O. Golubieva et alii ed., Berlin-Oxford: Akademie Verlag-Voltaire Foundation, 1994, t. V.
Voltaire en son temps, René Pomeau dir., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1985, 5 vols.
Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography, Oxford, 1961.
Robert Shackleton, “Allies and Ennemies: Voltaire and Montesquieu”, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, Oxford, 1988, p. 153-169 (first edition 1977).
Jean Ehrard, “Voltaire vu par Montesquieu”, in Voltaire et ses combats, Ulla Kölving and Christiane Mervaud ed., Oxford, 1997, p. 939-951, reprinted under the title “Le ver et la cochenille” in J. Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots. Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 195-211.
Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Entre Voltaire, Dubos et Montesquieu : le Testament politique du cardinal de Richelieu”, in OC, t. IV, 2008, p. 899-901; revised version (2010) [http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article871].
Myrtille Méricam-Bourdet, “Voltaire contre Montesquieu ? L’apport des œuvres historiques dans la controverse”, Débats et polémiques autour de “L’Esprit des lois”, in Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques, 35 (2012/1), https://www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-d-histoire-des-idees-politiques1-2012-1-page-25.htm.