Philip Stewart


1For Montesquieu, the word love (amour) first and foremost designates the attraction that holds humankind together, and applies to a whole range of their social and affective reciprocities, and more generally to any abstract motivation, even to instincts: “[…] a certain love for the preservation of life (EL, XVIII, 4).

2Erotic love no doubt has its place there. “Hearts made for love do not easily become attached”: this is the theme of a piece by the Marquise de Gontaud of which Montesquieu seemed to approve (Pensées, no 1972). In other words, on a certain level he does not distance himself from an idyllic sense of passionate love to which he devoted several stories: “Histoire d’Aphéridon et d’Astarté” (LP, Letter 65 [67]), Le Temple de Gnide, Arsace et Isménie. Such love is encoded in a litany of aphorisms such as “[A] really violent love has neither rules nor laws” and “Love sees everything it fears” (Arsace et Isménie, OC, t. IX, p. 341 and 345). It sometimes takes on bucolic accents still very much in favor in the first half of the eighteenth century: “It seems that such a love lends a bright appearance to everyone about us, and that the one creature lovely commands that all nature seem to us lovely as well […]” (ibid., p. 330).

3One can believe in reading some love letters not wanting in charm that Montesquieu could have believed in it without excessive naiveté or scepticism: My dear love, I have never loved you more. I find you more mine than you ever have, and the way you turn my heart and mind makes my love seem to begin right where it had seemed at its highest point. I have for a moment ceased to think of my dear love. (To Mme ***, OC, t. XVIII, no 92)

4This love turns out to be incompatible with marriage, that institution whose constraint is wholly exterior; it “cannot suffer other chains than those it has itself assumed” (to Mlle de Clermont [?], OC, t. XVIII, no 75). For the same recipient Montesquieu wrote commented upon these lines whose referents belong to romances of chivalry : When by solemn vows
Two faithful lovers with similar ardor
Bind themselves together before the immortals’ feet
Love is ever the victim
That is sacrificed at the altar. (ibid.)

5Not far from this idealized love – of this Montesquieu makes no secret – is carnal love, synonym of desire: “In a seductive, flattering dream I see that dear object of my love; my imaginations loses itself in desire […]”, writes Fatmé (LP, 7); Usbek goes so far as to evoke “love’s furies” up against the Roxane’s virginal resistance (LP, 24 [26]). “O Venus! o mother of love!”: this is how he cites Lucretia in a chapter on the reproduction of the species (EL, XXIII, 1). We learn in L’Esprit des lois that the intensity of the “physical side of love” (EL, XIV, 2) varies according to climatic warmth. Shared pleasure is celebrated as at once biologically and morally superior to debauchery, which then appears as degraded, and at bottom solipsistic, pleasure (Pensées, no 1383); still worse is the “vile” (infâme) love practiced by the Greeks, which “took only one form, which cannot be spoken” (EL, VII, 9 et VIII, 11). It is this gallant notion of love that is celebrated in The Temple of Gnidus, where reigns an indulgent Cupid who “always spares one the final days of a languishing passion: one need not pass through the waning of attraction before ceasing to love” (OC, t. VIII, p. 398). Similarly, he rejects any tragic accent: “Cupid has removed from his quiver the cruel darts with which he wounded Phaedra and Ariadne” (chant I). Nevertheless, in L’Esprit des lois (XXVIII, 22) gallantry “is not love, but the delicat, wispy, perpetual lie of love.”

6In the Persian Letters Montesquieu exposes less the illusions of love too intense than the pitfalls of a language of passion (Fatmé calls herself “a slave to the violence of my passion” (LP, 7), the degree of truth of which cannot be judged. Zachi declares: “[if] my rivals […] had really seen my transports, they would have sensed the difference there is between their love and mind” (LP, 3) – she who in 1717 will be found in bed with a slave girl (LP, 139 [147]), and who, when being punished for we know not what violation, again writes to him in 1720: “I have borne your absence, and I have preserved my love by the strength of my love” (LP, supplementary letter 9 [157]). The lie of passion perfectly resembles the expression of sincere love. As for Usbek, who speaks none the less of love when he is invoking his authority, he concedes from the outset that he is less in love with his wives than he pretends when writing to them: “Not that I love them, Nessir […]” (LP, 6).

7The social and political value of love is dependent on its object. Speaking of L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu personally claims “love of the good, of peace and of the happiness of all mankind” (to the duc de Nivernais, 26 January 1750). Love for our fellow human beings, as the parable of the Troglodytes shows (LP, 11-14) is a fundamental virtue, as is that between the members of a single family. The different kinds of love which reinforce the social fabric are not, for Montesquieu, a matter of complete disinterestedness, which if unmotivated would explain nothing; on the contrary, they are tied to mutual advantage, tacit perhaps, which derives from them for its members. According to the viewpoint which Usbek attributes to the “English”, he is clear on this point: According to them, there is but one bond that can attach men, which is that of gratitude : a husband, a wife, a father and a son are bound together only by the love they bear each other or by the advantages they procure for each other, and these various reasons for gratitude are the origin of all realms and all societies. (LP, 101 [104])

8For the Chinese, we read in L’Esprit des lois, what is involved is not only the origin of society but the cohesion which a network of respect and love contributes at every moment to its structure. The respect of fathers is the touchstone that represents all the rest, for all love, in a well-functioning system, implies reciprocity, and its echo can be felt at every level: The respect of fathers was necessarily tied to whatever represented fathers: the aged, masters, magistrates, the emperor. This respect of fathers presupposed love in return for children, and consequently the same return from the aged to children, from magistrates to those under their rule, from the emperor to his subjects. (EL, XIX, 19)

9An so it is that there is no paradox in affirming that a subject’s feeling of loyalty and solidarity for his king (EL, VI, 21) and the king’s feeling of obligation and protection for his subjects are equally called love: “this relation of love that exists between the prince and his subjects” (EL, XIX, 19). A prince “must by flattered by the love of the least of his subjects, who are still men” (EL, XII, 27).

10History is a repertory of passionate loves, the principal of which is the love of freedom which indeed characterized the Greeks as well as the Romans (LP, 125 [131]). Ultimately the love of freedom is a natural given (EL, V, 14). The soul of the republic consists of love of order (EL, VIII, 2), whence love of law (EL, XXVIII, 12), love of equality (Romains, IX), love of the public welfare (EL, XXIII, 7). The expression “love of country” also is frequent, especially in Romans, where it is accompanied by love of glory (Romains, iv) and takes precedence over every other bond: “It was a dominant love of country which, exceeding the ordinary rules of crimes and virtues, listened only to itself, and saw neither citizen, no friend, nor benefactor, nor father” (Romains, xi). In L’Esprit des lois, it is more generally the republican context which evokes such terminology, extending also to the equality of citizens: “I have thus called the love of country and of equality by the name of political virtue.” (EL, Avertissement [1757-1758]). Il also brings with it other values: frugality, disinterestedness, and even a sort of glory that consists in “the ambition […] to render greater services to country than the other citizens do” (EL, V, 3). We can summarize all these republican passions in a single word, the love of the republic: “Virtue, in a republic, is a very simple thing: it is the love of the republic, a sentiment and not a set of knowledge; the least man in the state can possess this sentiment as well as the first” (EL, V, 2).

11The breath of generosity common to all these instincts is neither “altruistic” nor narrowly self-interested. Montesquieu makes very limited use of the notion of self-love, no doubt because of its ambiguity (Romains, xii); well understood, it can lead one to sacrifice for the collectivity. In a sense, self-love without negative connotation is part of all civic motivation, which pure altruism would never suffice to explain. More generally, love of country represents a supreme form of human soldarity, whatever the political system. Absolute with respect to the state, love of country is but a link in a larger network of ties. This integration of different bonds, including to oneself, is the same thing as the self-interests or one’s own and the society’s interests of which it is constructed.

Bibliographical reference

Stewart Philip , « Love », dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :