Philip Stewart


1“In order to write a treatise on happiness,” writes Montesquieu, “one must posit how far happiness can go by man’s nature, and not begin by requiring him to know the happiness of angels or other happier powers that we imagine.” (“Pour faire un traité sur le bonheur, il faut bien poser le terme où le bonheur peut aller par la nature de l’homme, et ne point commencer par exiger qu’il ait le bonheur des anges ou d’autres puissances plus heureuses que nous imaginons”, Pensées, no. 1644). Human nature is thus the key, whence this corollary: it is essential to temper our ambitions, in other words to content ourselves with what is within our reach.

2In the large measure to which happiness consists in being free from woe, Montesquieu could be thankful for a most agreeable temperament, as if he were describing himself in Pensées, no. 1023: “I had the good fortune that I liked almost everyone, and this character was the happiest thing in the world for me” (“J’avais le bonheur que presque tout le monde me plaisait, et ce caractère a été la chose du monde la plus heureuse pour moi”). For him, in the words of Jean Starobinski, happiness was “perpetually evident […] that happiness which is central to his character” (“une évidence perpétuelle : […] ce bonheur est au centre de son caractère”, p. 26). In fact Montesquieu appears less obsessed with his personal happiness than fascinated by the obsession manifested by others.

The happy being

3But he had much contemplated the conditions for moral and political happiness. He had even sketched a treatise substantial passages of which can be found in the Pensées, especially no. 1675. In this passage, entitled “On happiness”, although happiness is defined essentially in psychological terms, at first it is largely a question of physical constitution: “Happiness or unhappiness consist in a certain favorable or unfavorable disposition of organs.” (“Le bonheur ou le malheur consistent dans une certaine disposition d’organes, favorable ou défavorable”). The question of happiness “based on the machine” (“fondé sur la machine”), that is, on the body (Pensées, no. 58), will be further developed in Essai sur les causes. Moreover, one can never surely gauge someone else’ happiness or unhappiness, because everything is relative and subjective: “A situation is never unhappy when one likes it” (“Une condition n’est jamais malheureuse lorsqu’elle plaît”, Pensées, no. 30) – and there are those who are contented with little.

4To two unhappy sorts, those who are lethargic and bored, or who are have unsated thirst, correspond two sorts of happy persons: Some are intensely excited by objects accessible to their souls and which they can easily acquire. The desire intensely; they hope, they are gratified, and soon they begin desiring again.
The others have a machine so constructed that it is gently and constantly stimulated. It is maintained, and not agitated; for them, reading or conversation is good enough. Les uns sont vivement excité par des objets accessibles à leur âme et qu’ils peuvent facilement acquérir. Ils désirent vivement ; ils espèrent, ils jouissent, et bientôt ils recommencent à désirer. Les autres ont leur machine tellement construite qu’elle est doucement et continuellement ébranlée. Elle est entretenue, et non pas agitée ; une lecture, une conversation leur suffit. (Pensées, no. 30.)

5One could say, in function of the temperament, either an active approach that instigates and constantly recommences a cycle of desire and assuagement: such people are sporting and sensual; and a more placid approach that has constant need of stimuli but of a gentler sort: these are intellectual and worldly. The rest of the passage gives one to think that, at least for most of us, one of these two conditions will be fulfilled, for “we are happy, and our manner of speaking makes it seem we have no idea this is so. Nevertheless, we find pleasures everywhere: they are attached to our being, and our woes are only accidents.” (“nous sommes heureux, et nos discours sont tels qu’il semble que nous ne le soupçonnions pas. Cependant, nous trouvons partout des plaisirs : ils sont attachés à notre être, et les peines ne sont que des accidents”, ibid.).

6Montesquieu adds that two mechanisms which are part of our nature defend us against this kind of “accident”: on the one hand, we work at improving the circumstances of our lives, which can make it more agreeable; on the other, we cloak ourselves in our pride: “it diminishes our faults, augments our virtues; it is an added sense for the soul, which gives it new satisfactions at every moment.” (“il diminue nos défauts, augmente nos vertus ; c’est un nouveau sens de l’âme, qui lui donne à tous les instants des satisfactions nouvelles”, ibid.).

7What makes life worth living is less positive pleasures than absence of woe; “happiness is the moment which we would not wish to exchange for non-being” (“le bonheur est ce moment que nous ne voudrions pas changer pour le non-être”, Pensées, no. 2010). But paradoxically, when we are free of woe we do not notice it; this is the mistake Maupertuis made, according to Montesquieu, in his Essai de philosophie morale (1749) – that of underestimating “the happiness of existing and continual felicity, which alerts us to nothing, since it is habitual (“le bonheur de l’existence et la félicité permanente, qui n’avertit de rien, parce qu’elle est habituelle”, Pensées, no. 2010).

8Such a conception betrays no particular penchant for an introverted state of contemplation. On the contrary, one must always take an interest in something else; it is important, pace Pascal, to keep one’s mind occupied: “To be happy, one must have an object, because that is the way to give life to our actions. […] The reason is that our soul is a succession of ideas. It suffers when it is unoccupied, as if that succession were interrupted, and its existence were threatened.” (“Pour être heureux, il faut avoir un objet, parce que c’est le moyen de donner de la vie à nos actions. […] La raison en est que notre âme est une suite d’idées. Elle souffre quand elle n’est pas occupée, comme si cette suite était interrompue, et qu’on menaçât son existence”, Pensées, no. 1675). The pleasure procured through reading, for example, comes from the fact that it agreeably occupies “a few hours we would find unbearable in the vacuum of each day” (“quelques heures qui nous seraient insupportables dans le vide de chaque jour”).

9Extrapolating from his personal experience, Montesquieu becomes persuaded that in general it “is very easy, with a little reflection, to be rid of somber passions” (“[il] est très aisé, avec un peu de réflexion, de se défaire des passions tristes”;  ibid.). Moreover, one is consoled, even in misfortune, by the efficacious balm of human solidarity: “We are happy in the circle of societies in which we live: witness galley slaves. Now everyone makes his own circle, in which he places himself to be happy.” (On est heureux dans le cercle des sociétés où l’on vit : témoin les galériens. Or chacun se fait son cercle, dans lequel il se met pour être heureux”). Just as imaginary pleasures are none the less pleasures for being imaginary, even “false” afflictions may bring us the pleasure of compassion. The true ones too “have their zest; true afflictions are never bothersome, because they keep the mind well occupied. […] The soul is an eternal worker, which is endlessly working for itself.” (“[Elles aussi] ont leurs délices; les vraies afflictions n’ennuient jamais, parce qu’elles occupent beaucoup l’âme. […] L’âme est une ouvrière éternelle, qui travaille sans cesse pour elle”, Pensées, no. 1675).

10If, to be sure, Montesquieu denies the equivalence of happiness and pleasure, he is also far from excluding or depreciating the latter, which all the same occupy a large place in an existence which judges itself happy. Moderation implies no asceticism. Yet nor does he wish to say, by asserting that “one must not set out always to find pleasures, for that is impossible, but as many as one can” (“il ne faut pas se mettre dans la tête d’avoir toujours des plaisirs, cela est impossible, mais le plus qu’on peut”, Pensées, no. 658), that the idea is to devote oneself to a frenetic search for pleasure. As Robert Mauzi puts it, happiness for Montesquieu “is situated at equal distance from glacial indifference and insatiable avidity” (“se situe à égale distance de l’indifférence glacée et d’une insatiable avidité”, p. 433).

11What is positive about desire and pleasure is that they provide the soul with that “object” it needs; for even well-being, when it is too passive, is threatened with another kind of unhappiness which is boredom. “When one is all right, one easily tires of this being all right. For one is never so all right that nothing is awry, and this causes dissatisfaction. So, when we are all right, we easily feel this dissatisfaction, and then we have little sense of being all right.” (“Quand on est bien, on se lasse aisément de ce bien. C’est qu’on n’est jamais si bien qu’on n’ait quelque endroit qui cloche, et qui cause un dégoût. Or, quand nous sommes bien, on sent aisément ce dégoût, et l’on sent peu le bien.” Pensées, no. 1201.) Arsace offers us a proof, at the moment when he is, indeed, very happy, that one cannot help stirring: “When we feel that our happiness cannot be greater, we want to modify it in some way.” (“Quand nous sentons que notre bonheur ne peut plus s’augmenter, nous voulons lui donner une modification nouvelle”, Arsace et Ismenie, OC, t. IX, p. 491).

12Ambition and glory, however civically useful they may be in certain situations, are not without danger for the happiness of the individual. “To be happy, one must not desire more than others. If one had Ariosto’s winged steed, the ring than makes one invisible, would one be happier?” (“Pour être heureux, il ne faut pas désirer plus que les autres. Si l’on avait le cheval ailé de l’Arioste, l’anneau qui rend invisible, est-ce que l’on serait plus heureux?”, Pensées, no. 2046). But there is nothing static about such contentment, which is not a “virtue of contraction”, to use an expression of Jean Starobinski’s, but “quite the contrary, “the attitude which makes possible the broadest opening onto the world and the largest reception” (“tout au contraire l’attitude qui rend possible la plus vaste ouverture sur le monde et le plus large accueil”, p. 26).

13This philosophy, and whatever Montesquieu’s own religions observance, willingly settles for the here and now: thus, in L’Esprit des lois, he leaves aside the relation of religions to truth to consider only the “good they do the civil state” (“bien que l’on en tire dans l’état civil”, EL, XXIV, 1). For, he adds further on, as religion’s goal – the true one, it is understood – is not “the good” but “the best”, being absolute, it cannot possibly be discussed, whereas “there are several goods” (“il y a plusieurs biens”, EL, XXIV, 2 and 7), happiness not being determined by any fixed formula. In other words, unlike faith, it is not exclusive, and admits of neither revelation nor recipe. Similarly, on a personal level Montesquieu gladly leaves metaphysical Angst to others, as Starobinski again says: “Open to the world, Montesquieu’s happiness wishes to and can blossom within the limits of the human condition. Its ambition is to achieve this by itself, without any outside help. […] Nature and reason, which are in us, are sufficient.” (“Ouvert sur le monde, le bonheur de Montesquieu veut et peut s’épanouir à l’intérieur des limites de la condition humaine. Il prétend y accéder par lui-même, sans aucun secours extérieur. […] La nature et la raison, qui sont en nous, suffisent”, p. 54).

14To be sure, Montesquieu did not go as far as to say that no one is forced to be unhappy or that one can always manage to make oneself happy. What he does affirm is that one can get used to a certain amount of discomfort or privation without needing to complain if one has not, against all reason, set too high a threshold for satisfaction. The other limiting factor has to do with the circumstances in which one lives, which alas are often, throughout history, hostile to any possibility of well-being.

Political happiness

15That happiness depends on other variables than individual situations or psychology, that social and political systems may be more or less conducive to individual and collective happiness, is demonstrated very early in the fable of the Troglodytes (LP, 11-14). It illustrates no less a maxim found in one of the author’s letters according to which “political happiness is such that it is never felt so much as when it has been lost” (“le bonheur politique est tel qu’on ne le sent jamais bien qu’après l’avoir perdu”, to the Comte de Matignon-Gacé, June 1726 ; Correspondance, p. 218). What do peoples desire but security and peace? The whole project of survey and analysis that constitutes L’Esprit des lois is motivated, to believe another letter, solely by “love for the good, for peace and for the happiness of humankind” (“l’amour pour le bien, pour la paix et pour le bonheur de tous les hommes”, to the Duc de Nivernais, 26 January 1750 ; OC, in press).

16The good in politics, like the happiness of every individual, is tied to the principle of moderation: “the spirit of legislation must be that of moderation; the political good, like the moral good, is always between two limits” (“l’esprit de modération doit être celui du législateur ; le bien politique, comme le bien moral, se trouve toujours entre deux limites”, EL, XXIX, 1). Rome’s legislative excesses show that “extreme laws for good effect extreme ill” (“[l]es lois extrêmes dans le bien font naître le mal extrême”, EL, XXII, 21). The advantage of democracy in this respect comes not only from the mediocrity of its needs and desires in general but from the will that all citizens should share the same level of happiness: “Each one must have the same happiness and the same advantages, enjoy the same pleasures, and conceive the same hopes: something that can be expected only from general frugality” (“Chacun devant y avoir le même bonheur et les mêmes avantages, y doit goûter les mêmes plaisirs, et former les mêmes espérances; chose qu’on ne peut attendre que de la frugalité générale”, EL, V, 3).

17 Arsace et Isménie, like the story of the Troglodytes, is a sort of treatise in the form of a fable about individual and collective happiness, and the connection between them. A whole repertory of possible happinesses (an unhappinesses) is described therein, beginning with bucolic happiness seasoned with a euphoria of solidarity: The whole household enjoyed a naïve joy. We descended gladly to the equality of nature; we were happy, and we wanted to live with people who also were happy. False happiness makes men hard and arrogant, and that happiness cannot be communicated. True happiness makes them gentle and sensitive, and that happiness can always be shared. Toute la maison goûtait une joie naïve. Nous descendions avec plaisir à l’égalité de la nature ; nous étions heureux, et nous voulions vivre avec des gens qui le fussent. Le bonheur faux rend les hommes durs et superbes, et ce bonheur ne se communique point. Le vrai bonheur les rend doux et sensibles, et ce bonheur se partage toujours. (Arsace et Ismenie, OC, t. IX, p. 330.)

18Further on, we find again the same principle of felicity in the reciprocity of the good Troglodytes, joining personal contentment with the moral responsibility that is incumbent to power: “Ardasire and I loved each other; and the natural effect of love is no doubt to make those who love each other happy. But that general benevolence which we find in all those about us can make even love happier.” (“Nous nous aimions, Ardasire et moi ; et sans doute que l’effet naturel de l’amour est de rendre heureux ceux qui s’aiment. Mais cette bienveillance générale que nous trouvons dans tous ceux qui sont autour de nous peut rendre plus heureux l’amour même.”, ibid., p. 343). Governments devoted to “general benevolence” are “adored by the little nation that [their] house constituted”, which is already a reduced version of a nation-state and the sentiments that must rule it as well. Happiness then consists in not thinking too much about oneself, for one also finds one’s well-being in the well-being one wishes on others. Strange effect of nature! Man never belongs so little to himself as when he appears to more. The heart is the heart only when it gives of itself, because its enjoyments are outside itself. […]
It is pride which, by possessing us, prevents us from possessing ourselves, and which, concentrating us on ourselves, always brings sadness with it. That sadness comes from the heart’s solitude, which always feels made for enjoyment but does not enjoy; which always feels made for others and does not find them.Étrange effet de la nature ! l’homme n’est jamais si peu à lui que lorsqu’il paraît l’être davantage. Le cœur n’est le cœur que quand il se donne, parce que ses jouissances sont hors de lui. […]
C’est l’orgueil qui, à force de nous posséder, nous empêche de nous posséder, et qui, nous concentrant dans nous-mêmes, y porte toujours la tristesse. Cette tristesse vient de la solitude du cœur, qui se sent toujours fait pour jouir et qui ne jouit pas ; qui se sent toujours fait pour les autres et qui ne les trouve pas.
(ibid.) (ibid.)

19It is also necessary for these general sentiments to be translated into laws capable of founding them institutionally: Arsace “was persuaded that the good could flow in a state only from the channel of laws; that the means of making for permanent good was, by doing good, to obey them” (“était persuadé que le bien ne devait couler dans un État que par le canal des lois ; que le moyen de faire un bien permanent, c’était, en faisant le bien, de les suivre”, ibid., p. 356). Without “the great principles of government” (“les grands principes de gouvernement”), the gods (“Providence”) would in vain endow the king with the best human qualities, making him think always of his subjects’ well-being: they would derive no advantage from it. Arsace is at the same time the enunciator and executor of this fundamental lesson for any monarch: He who thinks he can find happiness on the throne deceives himself, Arsace would say: you have there only the happiness you bring with you, and often you even risk the happiness you have brought with you. Therefore, he would add, if the gods have not commanded happiness for those who command, they must have done it for the happiness of those who obey. Celui qui croit trouver le bonheur sur le trône se trompe, disait Arsace : on n’y a que le bonheur qu’on y a porté, et souvent même on risque ce bonheur que l’on a porté. Si donc les dieux, ajoutait-il, n’ont pas fait le commandement pour le bonheur de ceux qui commandent, il faut qu’ils l’aient fait pour le bonheur de ceux qui obéissent. (Ibid., p. 354, variant of the edition of 1783.)

20To moderation must always be added equilibrium and solidarity. The happiness of others is neither self-interested in the narrow, ignoble sense, nor disinterested like altruism; it is part of the happiness of each individual, extends and secures it, just as, conversely, that of individuals stabilizes the power that assures their security. That is what earthly happiness can hope for, but can only with difficulty guarantee for long.


Jean Starobinski, Montesquieu par lui-même, Paris: Seuil, 1953, p. 25-58.

Robert Mauzi, L’Idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Armand Colin, 1979; reprint Paris: Albin Michel, 1994.

Bibliographical reference

Stewart Philip , « Happiness », dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : http://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/1377778430/en