Jean Terrel


1Montesquieu owned an edition of the Latin works of Hobbes (1668, Catalogue, no. 1473) and the French translations of De cive by Sorbière (1651, Catalogue, no. 2394) and Du Verdus (1660, Catalogue, no. 2393). We do not know whether he had read or consulted the Leviathan in the English version. Montesquieu also frequented the Of the Law of Nature and Nations (De jure naturæ et gentium), in which Hobbes is quoted at length, paraphrased and criticized by Pufendorf.

2From the Traité général des devoirs (1725) to the Défense de l’Esprit des lois (1750), he constantly attacks Hobbes’s “terrible system” (Défense) which risks “spoiling” the reader, as was the case with the Duc d’Orléans (Spicilège, no. 505). The explicit criticism concerns the principles of morality and law and is maintained without significant changes from 1725 to 1748. Yet certain essential themes of L’Esprit des lois (the difference between a despotic and a monarchical government, the praise of political moderation, the eclipse of sovereignty, the refusal to cut off mankind from the rest of nature) open new contestations with Hobbes or at least, since he is no longer named, reveal the distance between the two authors.

3A reader of Pufendorf, Montesquieu knew the complexity of Hobbes’s theses on natural laws: Hobbes is less “overstated” than Spinoza (Pensées, no. 1266, transcribed between 1734 and 1739), he knows that pacts must be observed (Pensées, no. 224, prior to 1731). Pufendorf played on this complexity to set aside the must outrageous theses, dissociate Hobbes from Spinoza and reintegrate him in the tradition of natural law. This is not Montesquieu’s point of view: Hobbes is much more dangerous than Spinoza. Freed from his complexities, brought back to essentials, Hobbes “tells me that justice is nothing in itself, that it is nothing but what the laws of empires statute and defend” (Pensées, no. 1266). Similarly, according to the relation by the Bibliothèque française of Montesquieu’s presentation of the first chapters of a Traité général des devoirs (OC, t. VIII, p. 429-439), “the author, in chapters IV and V, shows that justice is not dependent on human laws […]. This question leads to the refutation of Hobbes’s principles on morality”. This theme is reiterated right from the first chapter of L’Esprit des lois: instead of “saying with Hobbes that there is nothing just or unjust except what concrete laws statute […] we must [...] acknowledge relations of equity prior to the positive law that establishes them” (“dire avec Hobes qu’il n’y a rien de juste ou d’injuste que ce qu’ordonnent les lois positives […] il faut [...] avouer des rapports d’équité anterieurs à la loi positive qui les établit”, EL, I, 1; OC, t. III, p. 7). Let us observe nonetheless that Montesquieu allows with Hobbes (without elaborating on this agreement) that the relations of equity are established by concrete laws. Montesquieu crossed out this first reference to Hobbes: perhaps he knew that the latter cannot so easily be reduced to such unqualified positivism and that this manner of critiquing is not very original. When Hobbes directly enters the stage in the following chapter, Montesquieu exposes his own critique, which he formulated as early as 1725 (Pensées, no. 1266, transcribed between 1734 and 1739, but “not being usable in the Traité des devoirs” of 1725) and which would then be taken up and developed by Rousseau: before the establishment of societies, men were close to animality, only potentially reasonable, impelled by fear to flee each other and then to regroup and not wage war against each other for domination. Now this critique is prepared by the distance first taken from the rationalism of modern natural law. If animals “have natural laws, because they are joined by feeling” (EL, I, 1), we no longer can, like Grotius or Pufendorf, reduce natural law to the law of reason proper to reasonable animals. Similarly the first natural laws, according to the temporal order, would proceed for men from feeling and instinct, and not from reason. It is in this movement in which the modernization of reason depends on the development of society that Hobbes is reproached for attributing “to men, before the establishment of societies, what can come to them only after this establishment […]” (EL, I, 2). Therefore one can make use of the concept of state of war (here again Montesquieu hides what he borrows from Hobbes) if we cease to confuse it with the state of nature, which thus becomes the starting point for an hypothetical history of humanity. The fictive obliteration of the state and law, which Hobbes deemed necessary to the genetic demonstration of the principles of political law, is thus historicized, as was already the case of Locke or Pufendorf and as it will be even more so with Rousseau.

4The state of war entails the right to natural defense. Grotius and Pufendorf condemn preventive attack, except if one is certain that the other has the power and will to attack you (On the Right of war and peace [De jure belli ac pacis], II, 22, § 5). According to a text that could not fit into the Traité général des devoirs and which is devoted to the Hobbesian conception of natural law, “it is not true that defense necessarily entails the necessity of attacking” (Pensées, no. 1266). This is a position still close to that of Grotius. In 1748, Hobbes is no longer quoted and the stress is different: the state of war that subsists between states (and not within each of them) is such that “the right to natural defense sometimes entails the necessity of attacking” (EL, X, 2). The Grotian reference to an avowed intention to harm or attack has disappeared: it is enough that the attack be the sole means of preventing the other from destroying you.

5Before 1731, and the critique is again hardly original, Hobbes, according to Montesquieu, “has forgotten his principle of natural law”, the obligation to respect pacts, by asserting “that the people having authorized the prince, the prince’s acts are the people’s acts, and consequently the people cannot complain about the prince, nor require of him any account of his acts: since the people cannot complain about the people” (“que, le peuple ayant autorisé le prince, les actions du prince sont les actions du peuple, et, par conséquent, le peuple ne peut pas se plaindre du prince, ni lui demander aucun compte de ses actions, parce que le peuple ne peut se plaindre du peuple”, Pensées, no. 224). This is to amalgamate the arguments of 1642 and 1651, the idea that, in a monarchy, “the king is the people” (De cive, chap. 12, § 8) and the argument according to which “he who complains of a wrong committed by the sovereign is complaining about what he himself has initiated” (Leviathan, ch. 18): in the reconstituted argument, it is the people and not, as in Leviathan, each individual who authorizes the prince. As others before him (and in particular Pufendorf), Montesquieu refuses to place the sovereign outside the convention that establishes it: the prince has a pact to honor. In the same way the fact that the prince represents the people, that he is their delegate – Hobbes indeed evokes trust, a mission of confidence which is entrusted to him – is turned against absolutism, the idea of an unlimited authorization. This text is not repeated in L’Esprit des lois: Montesquieu prefers to critique absolutism on another terrain, by developing positively the political theory that is proper to it: the eclipse of sovereignty to the benefit of the government (see the article “Sovereignty” in the present dictionary), the distinction of monarchy from despotic government (which obviously is tantamount to opposing the way in which Hobbes disallows the distinction between royalty and tyranny and, more generally, the Aristotelian distinction between the political and the despotic).

6Beyond morality, beyond principles of law and politics, there are philosophical reasons which explain why Hobbes, much more than Spinoza, should be an adversary: his artificialism, his exaggerated volunteerism, his manner of separating (starkly according to Montesquieu) man from the rest of nature. As if to prepare for the critique of Hobbes which follows immediately, Montesquieu declares in a crossed-out passage of the manuscript Esprit des lois that “it is above all among [animals] that we should look for natural law” (I, 2; OC, t. III, p. 8). “Hobbes says that curiosity is particular to man; in which he is mistaken: every animal having it in the sphere of its knowledge” (Pensées, no. 288). This is not a minor divergence: curiosity for Hobbes is what manifests the specificity of the human animal, the separation from the present that constantly determines new desires, which Montesquieu rejects all the more significantly that he borrows from Hobbes (perhaps through Locke) the idea that the ultimate felicity consists of “conceiving ever new desires and satisfying them as they are conceived” (Pensées, no. 69).


Simone Goyard-Fabre, “Montesquieu adversaire de Hobbes”, Paris: Minard, 1981, “Archives des Lettres modernes”, 72 p.

Benoît Le Roux, “Hobbes et Montesquieu”, Analyses et réflexions sur Montesquieu: “De L’Esprit des lois”, Paris: Ellipses, 1987, p. 162-168.

Annamaria Loche, “Le ragioni di una polemica: Montesquieu e Hobbes”, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 190 (1980), p. 334-343.