1Montesquieu, a Catholic who married a Protestant, living and writing in an absolute monarchy considered as the “eldest daughter of the Church”, could adopt a critical attitude towards the official religion only with infinite precaution. His passages on Christianity testify to great erudition with respect to theology and history. They are on the other hand underlain by constant tensions between prudence and daring that often makes their interpretation delicate. It is thus less apposite to wonder about the degree or mode of his possible faith than about the method of analysis which he applied to the Christian religion, and the conclusions he drew from it.
2In reality, the term Christianity applies to four principal Churches: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican. Only the first two terms constantly retained Montesquieu’s attention. Indeed, if he recalls the political context which led to the schism of the Eastern Church (Pensées, nos. 606 et 1783), if he mentions, with respect to a letter of Tavernier, the Christians of Armenia, Syria or Georgia (Spicilège, no. 170), he is content with very general remarks about the spirit of superstition which once marked the religious practice of the Greeks and could have subsisted until Peter I in that of the peoples of Muscovy (Romans, XXII; OC, t. II, p. 267-271). As for the Church of England, it is devalorized in his eyes by the personality of its founder, Henry VIII, in whom he sees an incoherent despot (Pensées, nos. 373, 583, 626, 651), and by the attitude of the English who, after sacralizing the king’s authority and desacralizing that of the law (Pensées, no. 1252), end up considering their religion as a laughable fiction (Pensées, no. 1052; Notes sur l’Angleterre, Voyages, OC, t. X, p. 504-505 [§36]). When Montesquieu speaks of Christianity, it is thus essentially of Catholicism and Protestantism that he is thinking, and more often the first of them.
3He always pretended he wished to address the question of religions – and thus of Christianity – as an historian and “political writer”, not as theologian (EL, XXIV, 1 ; XXV, 9; Réflexions sur le rapport de Mgr Bottari, OC, t. VII, p. 182), refusing to flatter “those who have more piety than intelligence” (“ceux qui ont plus de piété que de lumières”), and to discredit himself “before those who have more intelligence than piety” (“auprès de ceux qui ont plus de lumières que de piété”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part III; OC, t. VII, p. 112). Therefore he goes about studying the conditions of the founding and development of Christianity by the sole light of reason. This leads him to analyze the favorable circumstances that presided at its appearance: the discredit cast by the Epicurians on pagan religion, the sensibilisation to spiritualism cultivated by the Platonists (Pensées, nos. 21, 969) had prepared, according to him, the terrain for the birth of a more abstract religion where “everything […] leads to spiritual ideas” (EL, XXIV,19) by mysteries that are “more sublime for reason than for the senses”, entirely different from the Greek, Roman, or Jewish religions (Pensées, no. 112). Added to that was the seduction of a simplified monotheistic religion and the aid of fortuitous events: the premature end of the emperor Julian, hostile, and the very long reign of Constantine, favorable to Christianity (Pensées, no. 98), contributed for Montesquieu to accrediting in “hesitating minds” the notion of a divine will sustaining the new religion. Its strangeness contributed to fortifying this prejudice: indeed, in the mentalities of the Roman world, Christianity must have imposed itself by (or despite) its absurdity (Rome scorned the Jews, found the symbol of the cross scandalous, and found inconceivable the notion of a crucified god. Montesquieu did not hide his perplexity before the paradoxical development of Christianity in such an environment (Pensées, nos. 969, 2072, Spicilège, no. 287), whence the hiatus which sometimes appears between a rational explanation of the phenomenon and a tendency to attribute a supernatural cause to it (Pensées, no. 969). The explanation by “general causes” on the other hand poses no fundamental problem when it comes to the birth of Protestantism: there is no doubt in his mind that its founding, at the end of the Middle Ages, was linked to the renewal of the sciences and literature of Antiquity (Pensées, no. 515), to the invention of printing and the vulgarization of knowledge (Pensées, no. 1097), more than to the influence of an individual, even a Luther or a Calvin.
4It is evident that such a humanization, even hesitant, of the origin of Christianity was likely to awaken the suspicions of theologians. The idea that a particular religion was attached to a given “climate” must have appeared much more subversive yet, especially to those who pretended to “catholicity”, in other words the universality of their religion: Christianity to northern countries, Islam to the south (EL, XXIV, 26), Protestantism to the coldest regions, Catholicism to the most temperate, because the peoples of the North “have a spirit of independence and freedom unknown to those in the South” (“ont un esprit d’indépendance et de liberté dont ceux du Sud sont dépourvus”, EL, XXIV, 5). Montesquieu thus develops a system of tight interdependence between religion, government, and “climate”. He brings into play correspondences either at a general level, to conclude from that that moderate government is the one that best suits Christianity (EL, XXIV, 3), or at a more particular level to explain the implantation of Lutheranism among the German principalities, Calvinism in Switzerland (EL, XXIV, 5), or in the very detail of religious rules, to account for the greater number of holiday feasts in Catholicism than in Protestantism (EL, XXIV, 23), or the celibacy of priests but not of pastors (EL, XXV, 4), of the monogamy that managed to impose itself in Roman and Christian Europe, but not in Asia nor in the Muslim countries of the South (Pensées, no. 757). Montesquieu deduces from that the idea that a religion is difficult to export (LP, 47; EL, XXIV, 25). In fact “only intolerant religions have great zeal for establishing themselves elsewhere” (“il n’y a guère que les religions intolérantes qui aient un grand zèle pour s’établir ailleurs”, EL, XXV, 10). This refusal of the “catholicity” of a religion grounds in reason the necessity of toleration, of understanding and mutual respect among nations as among individuals of different faiths.
5Through its principle of love for all, the Christian religion seems to Montesquieu to correspond better than others to this requirement: it defines a certain number of moral rules essential to a good balance between individuals and between collectivities (Pensées, no. 2008 ; EL, XXIV, 1). It mellows mores (Pensées, no. 551), makes rulers less cruel (Pensées, no. 478 ; EL, XXIV, 3), introduces the notion of law into the functioning of states and into their relation (EL, XXIV, 3), and develops among citizens an acute sense of their responsibilities and their duties towards their country (EL, XXIV, 6). The Christian religion, maintaining among the true believers the feeling that they are “never even with the Lord” (“jamais quittes envers le Seigneur”, EL, XXIV, 13), should be gifted with an exceptional moral efficacy, if its precepts were engraved in the hearts: they alone, Montesquieu asserts, would be stronger than the principles of the various governments as he had defined them at the beginning of L’Esprit des lois (EL, XXIV, 6). Even if he denounces here and there the severe austerity of a religion that does not manage to make a place for pleasure (Pensées, nos. 378, 392), requires one to hate himself (Pensées, no. 2008), and henceforth facilitates the play of despotism (Pensées, no. 1606), Montesquieu, unlike Bayle, is not far from believing that a state constituted of convinced Christians could assure the happiness of all (EL, XXIV, 3).
6In reality, however, the situation turns out to be very different from this ideal image, for it is far, among Christians, “from profession to belief, from belief to conviction, from conviction to practice” (“de la profession à la croyance, de la croyance à la conviction, de la conviction à la pratique”, LP, 73). Paraphrasing Montaigne, Montesquieu remarks that one is a Christian “as one is Spanish or French: one is of one country but doesn’t know how to prefer the good of that country to one’s own” (“comme on est espagnol ou français : on est d’une patrie mais on ne sait point préférer le bien de cette patrie au sien”, Pensées, no. 2096). The Christian religion is adopted for the hope it gives but rejected for the virtues it requires and the abstinence it preaches (LP, 73). Pride and egocentrism feed a constant intolerance. Christians indeed have a tendency to consider all religions as bad except theirs (Pensées, no. 374). They once exterminated the American Indians (Pensées, no. 207); today they sidetrack justice to put it at the service of a persecuting Inquisition which many approve without scruple (Pensées, no. 2079), whereas for Montesquieu it represents the worst of incoherences and the most scandalous scorn for the very principles of Christianity (LP, 27); EL, XXV, 13; XXVI, 11-12; Pensées, no. 409; Spicilège, nos 122, 472); see also a passage from the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois not included in the published version [XXV, 12]: OC, t. IV, p. 694-695, “Des tribunaux injustes par eux-mêmes”).
7As for the clergy, it perpetuates the contradiction between discourse and action, casuists justifying every aberration (Pensées, no. 1059) when they do not practice it themselves (LP, 55). Montesquieu moreover attacks the ecclesiastics more than the faithful, whose transgressions he tends to consider as a particular manifestation of the weakness of humankind. On the other hand, men of the Church are unforgivable in his eyes for betraying their mission: they take a vow of poverty and accumulate riches without sharing them (Pensées, nos. 214, 1077), they are always trying to reform without being willing to be reformed (Pensées, no. 214), they maintain the people in ignorance for the sole purpose of maintaining their authority (Pensées, nos. 586, 754). But their major sin is their collusion with power (Pensées, nos. 715, 1302, 1993) and the self-interested conflation they sustain between temporal and spiritual power, lengthily evoked in the Pensées (no. 1302, but also nos. 197, 571) and the Spicilège (nos. 122, 513). The practice of Christianity – and particularly of Catholicism – has thus veered off track and the clergy has completely cut itself off from the nation, without realizing, says Montesquieu “on the occasion of disputes between clergy and parlement and the exile of the latter in 1753”, that what it takes for respect is in fact hatred (Pensées, no. 2158).
8What consummates, among enlightened minds, the discrediting of the lesson of intelligent moderation that Christianity pretends to give is the interminable controversies that constantly set theologians at odds with each other (EL, XXV, 15 ; Pensées, no. 1609). Each order tends to constitute itself as a sect impermeable to the truths of the others (Pensées, no. 80), which means “there has never been a kingdom where there have been so many civil wars as in the kingdom of Christ” (“il n’y a jamais eu de royaume où il y ait eu tant de guerres civiles que dans celui du Christ”, LP, 27). Controversy has moreover become so consubstantial with theologians that they must be considered incurable (Pensées, no. 690, transcribed between 1731 and 1734), those who “make an end to one dispute only in favor of a second one” (“ne s’apaisent sur une dispute qu’en faveur d’une seconde”, Pensées, no. 2176, transcribed in 1754). This attitude seems to Montesquieu all the more ridiculous that quarrels of theologians “who theologically say many stupid things”(“ qui disent théologiquement force sottises”, LP, 98) generally bear on futile speculations. The conflict between Lutherans and Calvinists? Each of these two religions believes itself the most perfect, the Calvinists more faithful to what Christ said, the Lutherans to what the apostles did (Pensées, no. 917). The disagreement between Catholics and Protestants over transsubstantiation at the moment of the Eucharist? “They have only not to ask each other in what way Jesus Christ is present” (“Il n’y qu’à ne pas se demander l’un et l’autre comment Jésus-Christ y est”, Pensées, no. 2218; see also LP, 22). In short, it is useless to seek the truth in disputes in which reason plays no part. Their condemnation by Montesquieu is unconditional: “O Frenchmen! If you knew how beautiful is theology and how stupid are theologians!… Know that religion is eternal and has no need of your anger to survive” (“Oh Français, si vous saviez combien la théologie est belle et combien les théologiens sont idiots… Sachez que la religion est éternelle et qu’elle n’a pas besoin de votre colère pour se soutenir”, Pensées, no. 2164, “on the quarrels of 1753”).
9On one point, however, he does not hesitate to take a position. The ongoing quarrel over the bull Unigenitus was in the news for some forty years, between 1713 and 1753, covering nearly the whole period of Montesquieu’s literary production. He clearly feels attracted neither to the Jesuits, whose power with its infinite ramifications seems to him fearsome (Pensées, nos. 11, 395, 453, 482), neither by the Jansenists, who want to forbid man every pleasure except “that of scratching oneself” (Pensées, no. 852). He considers moreover that the latter seek only “to get themselves hanged”, whereas the Molinists “are already preparing the ropes with which they will hang or be hanged” (“préparent déjà les cordes avec lesquelles ils pendront ou seront pendus”, Pensées, no. 1226, transcribed between 1731 and 1734). But insofar as they jeopardize human freedom, disputes over grace cannot leave him indifferent. Thus he leans all the same toward the Jesuits, who “defend a good cause […] by very bad means” (“défendent une bonne cause […] par de bien mauvaises voies”, Pensées, no. 730, transcribed about 1734). As it happens, the theological dispute indeed leads to the political and philosophical struggle which Montesquieu never ceased to wage. The plea in favor of a certain idea of freedom, the unalienable right of every individual and every nation to choose and control its destiny, thus gives rise to his critiques of the God’s foreknowledge (LP, 67), or man’s predestination (Pensées, no. 437, 1945), as well as his defense of suicide (LP, 74), or of gallicanism against the ultramontanists (Pensées, n. 215). These to him are no longer quarrels “in which religion is at war with itself” (Pensées, no. 1010), but debates that go to the heart of his philosophical principles.
10For if one can, ultimately, speak of Montesquieu’s belonging to Christianity, it can only be a rational and critical one. He remains absolutely foreign to mysticism. That is why he takes a stand, in the name of epistemological realism, against Malebranche and his doctrine of “vision in God” (Pensées, nos. 156, 157), preferring to follow Newton in affirming that we perceive the world – and therefore can intuit God – only through a chain of secondary causes without ever managing to identify the first cause, and that our knowledge of the infinite can only be asymptotic and approximate (Pensées, nos. 156, 157, 2095). He likewise condemns quietism, which he considers “a method that was invented to evade crime only to re-enter it” (“une méthode qu’on a inventée pour sortir du crime afin d’y mieux rentrer”, Spicilège, no. 121). The religion of his heart is founded in reason and must serve as guarantor of individual and public morality, a precious adjunct of economic efficiency and political moderation.
11We can also ask ourselves the meaning that Montesquieu gives to the distinction he makes between “true” and “false” religions, between one “which is rooted in heaven” and those “which are rooted on earth” (EL, XXIV, 1). Simple prudence with respect to the censors? In vain, if so, since it did not avoid its being placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1751. Or recognition of the more rational foundations of Christianity with respect to other religions, and the superiority of its potential political and moral virtues? What is certain is that Montesquieu considers, when all is said and done, religion as indispensable (Pensées, no. 421; EL, XXIV, 2), the idea of revelation as necessary (Pensées, no. 825), Christianity as better than Islam (EL, XXIV, 4). And if he never recanted Catholicism, his sympathies nevertheless go rather to Protestantism, which allows more room for reason (Pensées, no. 519). The narrative left to us by Mme Dupré de Saint-Maur about the impatient annoyance with which Montesquieu received extreme unction on his deathbed is a good indication of the distance he never ceased placing between his convictions and the practices of official religion (letter to Suard [February 1755], in Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes André Masson dir., t. III, 1955, p. 1548). All that one can advance is that, a deist in his soul, his hopes are for a union of all religions around the recognition of a superior power and the pursuit of an ideal based on reason, toleration and freedom (LP 33); Pensées, no. 1454). In this sense, like others of his contemporaries but in a manner which is his own, he sought, not without difficulty, to make the faith of his baptism compatible with the demands of Enlightenment.
Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, 2010, Pierre Rétat dir.
Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, in Actes du Congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 287-294.
Pauline Kra, Religion in Montesquieu’s“Lettres persanes”, Genève-Oxford, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth century SVEC 72 (1970).
Jean Ehrard, “Montesquieu et l’Inquisition”, Dix-huitième siècle 24 (1992), p. 333-344, reprinted in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots. Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, “L’Inquisition”, p. 81-94.
Pauline Kra, “La religion dans les Pensées”, Revue Montesquieu 7 (2003-2004), http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article329.
Colas Duflo, “Montesquieu, une science politique des religions”, Études théologiques et religieuses, 80, no. 2, 2005.
Montesquieu, l’État et la religion (colloquium of Sofia), Jean Ehrard dir.,Cahiers Montesquieu hors série, Sofia, Éditions Iztok-Zpada, 2007.
Jean-Paul Schneider, “Dieu et Patrie: l’apport de Montesquieu”, Conscience nationale: États et religions, Patrick Werly dir., Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2008, p. 23-39.