Œuvres et écrits attribués à Montesquieu

Works and writings attributed to Montesquieu

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger


1The Lettres persanes, published anonymously and the work of an absolutely unknown author, were sometimes attributed to the abbé de Gamaches, notably by Mémoires historiques et critiques (15 January 1722, p. 22); in September-October 1723, Le Mercure has doubts, yet is still unable to offer the slightest clue about “this artful and gracious writer”. In 1725, Mathieu Marais judges that Le Temple de Gnide is from the pen of “some libertine who wished to enrobe garbage in allegories”, but in 1734 he has no hesitation at all about the identity of the author of Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. As for The Spirit of Law, the printing of which Montesquieu wished to surround with complete silence, its secret was known in Geneva well before the publication date (Volpilhac-Auger 2011, p. 128-130), and no one in France had the slightest doubt on the subject; the same was true for Défense de L’Esprit des lois in 1750.

2But the anonymity so dear to Montesquieu has given some credit to much more daring attributions, reinforced by biographers or publishers more interested in volume than in critical thinking, and especially desirous to stand out by means of some discovery.

3It is thus all the more necessary to address the present state of things that a critical edition of Œuvres complètes is based on such discrimination, and the historical record of such attributions has much to teach us on the methods themselves of the publishers or biographers.

4We shall not list here all the titles of works supposedly lost, taken in sometimes fanciful ways from his own works, or more or less explicit notes: Xavier Védère deplored (Masson, 1955, p. 7) that the manuscript of the Discours sur la cause et les effets du tonnerre (‘Discourse on the cause and effects of thunder’) had not been found among Montesquieu’s papers or at the Bordeaux Academy – and for a good reason, for that was the title of a prize competition, and the academicians, among whom was Montesquieu, were not entitled to enter it. Examples of supposed works based on Mes pensées or a few pages that in fact constituted a documentary file (Volpilhac-Auger, 2000). Instead we will examine the attribution of works which their anonymity and Montesquieu’s reputation, coupled with his penchant for discretion, have brought improbably together, whereas from the 1730s on his reputation was such that the public could not go wrong: the greatest importance must therefore be assigned to the judgment of contemporaries.

Voyage à Paphos

5One case is provided by the Voyage à Paphos, the subject of another article on this site. Whatever the interest of the various analyses that purport to draw decisive arguments from the style of this little piece published in the Mercure in 1728, a single remark would suffice to disqualify it: it is not included in the complete works of 1758. Why was it left out, had it been by Montesquieu? Le Temple de Gnide, to which it is usually compared, and even Lysimaque are there, as is Céphise et l’Amour. The history of the attribution too is revealing, and hardly authorizes discussion or even uncertainty. Whereas none of Montesquieu’s contemporaries, notably among his biographers (or rather those who delivered a eulogy of him), ever put forward the slightest element in this direction; it is not mentioned until 1778 in abbé de La Porte’s Supplément de La France littéraire, no doubt recopied by O’Gilvy in 1858 to compile the list of Montesquieu’s works in an often inaccurate Nobiliaire de Guienne (‘Noble registry of Guyenne’), which has no semblance of literary competence: in both cases no justification is given. In 1878, Louis Vian, the largely uncritical author of a History of Montesquieu and capable of the worst procedures (Volpilhac-Auger 2011, p. 270, 331 and 282), bases his authority on the prior two, even going so far as to declare that O’Gilvy relies on the testimony of the Montesquieu family (whereas nothing of the sort is to be found in the “Mémoire pour servir à l’histoire de M. de Montesquieu” written up by Jean-Baptiste de Secondat), and sees it as a much better work than Le Temple de Gnide. He is immediately followed by Paul Lacroix, called “the Jacob bibliophile”, who published the work under the name of Montesquieu beginning in 1879, whereas the same year Laboulaye inserts it into the Œuvres complètes, thus setting in motion that was all but irreversible. In 1951, also allowing himself no doubt, Roger Caillois declared it “traditionally attributed to Montesquieu” – a “tradition” that goes back in fact only to Vian, Lacroix and Laboulaye; he is followed by André Masson (1955), who would rather, as we shall later repeatedly see, add to the corpus than examine it, the only alleged motive being that it “must not be held back from” the reader: “The Voyage de l’isle de Paphos which has always been attributed to Montesquieu could not be absent from an edition of his Œuvres complètes” (p. 237, our italics; see Volpilhac-Auger 2011, p. 358). The current edition of the Œuvres complètes allows the reader to judge by supplying the text while accompanying it with the most explicit reservations (t. IX, 2006).

Bigarrures, Étrennes de la Saint-Jean and a few poems and dissertations

6Other attributions have been no more than a flash in the pan. We might mention the licentious Netturalles, ou la Licéride, fragment traduit du latin (1743), which has never really passed for something by Montesquieu, despite what the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Xavier Védère in Masson, 1955, p. 9-10; Angus Martin, 1976) asserts on the word of a few bibliophiles. We shall merely note the attribution to Montesquieu of a notebook called Bigarrures (‘Medleys’) according to an hypothesis put forward by Louis Desgraves in 1956 and never again argued by its author. The same goes for a poem, “À la comtesse d’Egmont allant à un combat simulé” (‘To countess d’Egmont as she goes off to simulated combat’; Courtney, 1998, 2.01): the celebrations given in Bordeaux in honor of the Duke de Richelieu’s daughter for her marriage in 1756 could not have been known by Montesquieu… and if this poem of circumstance really has an identifiable author, he must be found in the entourage of Montesquieu’s son or in a Bordeaux circle, as is also doubtless the case for the verses dedicated to “Mme Le Franc, lady of the enchanted abode of Baillon, in 1738” (OC, t. IX, 2006). Another attribution which no one has ever taken the trouble to refute, so unfounded did it appear, still figures in many bibliographies and dictionaries: the Étrennes de la Saint-Jean collection (1738, sometimes listed with a later date), attributed to Crébillon, Maurepas, Moncrif, “the president de Montesquieu” and Caylus, to whom they ought more justly to be restored (Courtney, 1998, 1. 72); Kris Peeters (2004) has shown that is was by confusing the title of a derived work (L’Histoire véritable […] des Étrennes de la Saint-Jean) with that of Montesquieu’s Histoire véritable that the error became established. But at least never did any of these works enter into the corpus.


7It has always been a simple matter to imagine a correspondence, as is seen in the article “Helvétius” on this site, which evokes letters highly critical of Montesquieu which were forged under this author’s name in the Revolutionary period, and which it was very difficult to withdraw from the Œuvres complètes (in the André Masson edition, in 1955, Gébelin could not bring himself to do so). We shall not dwell on the case of the gross forgeries disseminated in 1869 by Vrain Lucas, who makes Montesquieu into an ancestor of Sherlock Holmes heading off to find Newton’s manuscripts so as to undermine the prior claims of Blaise Pascal’s discoveries, and maintaining a correspondence on that subject with the mathematician Jean II Bernoulli and Savérien (all the apocryphal letters are supplied in “Montesquieu comme vous ne l’avez jamais connu” (‘Montesquieu as you have never known him’, 2010). More dangerous because they are more plausible are three letters “to the chevalier de Bruant” that appeared a mere eleven years after Montesquieu’s death among the Lettres écrites par M. de Voltaire à ses amis du Parnasse (1766), and which appear to be owing to a scrupulous publisher: “The three following letters are not by M. de Voltaire; at least they do not seem so to us, and we have very good reasons for attributing them to the famous author of The Spirit of Law. We include them here as most worthy of this collection.”

8These three letters have never been published in the French editions of Montesquieu’s correspondence: the chevalier de Bruant is unknown, and even less so as a friend of Montesquieu, which makes them immediately suspect, without completely disqualifying them nevertheless. But especially, the apocryphal character of the volume having been recognized, no confidence can be placed in the publisher of these letters. But it has nonetheless been translated in its entirety into English (Letters of M. de Voltaire, to several of his friends, 1770), and as a result these three letters were included in The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu, translated from the French (1777). And so did they become a part of English or American editions, now widely accessible because they are accessible on-line.

9Nothing about these letters overtly contradicts Montesquieu’s thought unless it be the mention of an England that is very close to despotism (letter I); but it is just a pastiche or spinning out of his thought in which neither his pen nor his manner can be recognized: the succession of maxims, the constant grandiloquence, the vague thoughts, the gross generalizations are still less in their place in a letter than in the body of his work; never in his correspondence does Montesquieu indulge in such analyses. The second and third manifest their fictional, or rather conventional or literary, character by being addressed to “Philinte”, whom it is difficult not to identify with the Misanthrope’s reasonable friend, while containing Voltairian formulas (the distinction between the great man and the conqueror) that had become commonplaces. Thus, without telling us anything about Montesquieu, these three letters reveal to us the image of him that might have been held by the person who pastiched him in 1766: a harsh critic of society (financiers, women, the court), hastening to apply to the letter judgments found in The Spirit of Law. That is the only interest they deserve.

Essai touchant les lois naturelles et la distinction du juste et de l’injuste (‘Essai bearing of natural laws and the distinction between the just and unjust’)

10On the other hand, we need to pause on a short work published in 1955: a manuscript often quoted under the abridged title “Essay on the just and unjust”, of which a nineteenth-century copy slept in the archives of the city of Bordeaux, and was published by Xavier Védère, city archivist, in volume III of the Montesquieu Œuvres complètes directed by André Masson. It is obviously a genuine discovery, which brings to light a new aspect of Montesquieu the philosopher: it reveals a new definition of law as commandment (whereas Montesquieu’s great originality was to define the law as a relation), and constantly refers to God, which hardly squares with the approach of The Spirit of Laws. Whereas the Voyage à Paphos was a work of no consequence, since its philosophical or esthetic contribution was slim, here we are dealing with a publication destined to be noticed. Yet it turns out that it soon provoked doubts, among true specialists of Montesquieu’s thought like Robert Shackleton and Jean Brèthe de La Gressaye, whose demonstration is taken up and reinforced by Catherine Larrère, in tome IX of the Œuvres complètes (2006); neither exterior nor interior evidence is convincing, on the contrary, for it is a modern copy to which the name of Montesquieu was affixed for no good reason, and a collection of commonplaces of expression and thought quite remote from everything we know of him. The limited and superficial comparisons between this Essay and The Spirit of Laws can thus have no value as evidence. But the damage is done: the work entered the corpus in 1955, and even if the edition of 2006 expresses the most explicit reservations, it is necessarily included, for the doubt can be completely lifted only when the name of the author can be established (Shackleton suggested the name of Burlamaqui). And critics are still to be found who treat it like Mes pensées or The Spirit of Law on the faith of the 1955 edition, or who perhaps, ignoring the placement of the work in the volume (as an appendix) and its introduction, will wish to see in this publication, intended to provide the reader with the means of judging, the confirmation of what seems to have been a pure and simple mistake.


Voyage à Paphos, in OC, t. IX, 2006, Appendix I, p. 545-573 (ed. Cecil P. Courtney and Carole Dornier).

“Pour Madame Le Franc”, “Pour Madame Geoffrin”, OC, t. IX, 2006, Appendix I, p. 575-590 (ed. Pierre Rétat and Sylvain Menant).

Essai touchant les lois naturelles et la distinction du juste et de l’injuste (sometimes called Essai sur le juste et l’injuste), in OC, t. IX, 2006, Appendix I, p. 591-607 (ed. Pierre Rétat and Catherine Larrère).

“À la comtesse d’Egmont allant à un combat simulé”, Bordeaux, municipal library, Ms 1868/336.

“Sur les Lettres persanes”, Mémoires historiques et critiques, Thursday 15 January 1722, Amsterdam: J. F. Bernard, art. I, p. 11-22, reproduced in C. Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, Paris: Presses de l’université de Paris-Sorbonne, “Mémoire de la critique”, 2003, p. 39-43. http://books.google.fr/books?hl=fr&id=bc4UAAAAQAAJ

Le Mercure, VI (1723), September [October], p. 544-546, reproduced in C. Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, p. 39-47. http://books.google.fr/books?id=I6ACpGWdi0kC

Correspondance littéraire du président Bouhier, no. 8, Lettres de Mathieu Marais, ed. Henri Duranton, Saint-Étienne, 1980-1987, t. I, p. 125 (1725 ; reproduced in C. Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, p. 49) et t. VI, p. 144-165 (1734 ; extracts, ibid., p. 85-88).

Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, “Mémoire pour servir à l’histoire de M. de Montesquieu” (1755), reproduced in C. Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, p. 249-258.

Lettres écrites par M. de Voltaire à ses amis du Parnasse, London: Nourse, 1766, [J. Robinet ed.], p. 1-16.

Letters of M. de Voltaire, to several of his friends, translated from the French by T. Franklin, Glasgow: Robert Urie, 1770 (the Montesquieu letters are found on pages 1-11).

The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu, Translated from the French, 4 vol., London, T. Evans and W. Davis (and Dublin), 1777, t. III, p. 485-491. http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1338/74658

Abbé Joseph de La Porte, Supplément à la France littéraire, Paris: Veuve Duchesne, t. III, 1778, p. 154 and 222. http://books.google.fr/books?id=0JLaXGrm77EC

Henri Gabriel O’Gilvy, Nobiliaire de Guienne et de Gascogne, Bordeaux, 1858, t. II, p. 259. http://www.archive.org/details/nobiliairedegui02laffgoog

Louis Vian, Histoire de Montesquieu, Paris: Didier, 1878, p. 92-94. http://www.archive.org/details/histoiredemonte01viangoog

Montesquieu, Voyage à Paphos, “published by the bibliophile Jacob”, Paris: Librairie des bibliophiles, 1879. http://www.archive.org/details/levoyagepaphos00mont

Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, Roger Caillois ed., t. II, 1951, p. 1583.

Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, André Masson ed., t. III, 1955.

Louis Desgraves, “Un carnet de notes inédit de Montesquieu : les Bigarrures”, Actes du Congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 111-118.

Angus Martin, “Desfontaines, Gouge de Cessières et un morceau attribué à Montesquieu: les Netturales de 1743”, Revue des sciences humaines vol. 41, no. 164 (1976), p. 605-608.

Cecil P. Courtney, “Bibliographie chronologique provisoire des œuvres de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 2 (1998), p. 211-245. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article157

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Montesquieu, l’œuvre à venir”, Revue Montesquieu 4 (2000), p. 5-25. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article326

Kris Peeters, “Bibliographie critique du comte de Caylus”, in Le Comte de Caylus: les arts et les lettres, Nicholas Cronk and K. Peeters ed., Amsterdam – New York: Rodopi, 2004, p. 288.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Montesquieu comme vous ne l’avez jamais connu”, Lire Montesquieu, ENS de Lyon, ENS Média – UOH, 2010, http://lire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr > Ressources.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil, Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon: ENS Éditions, “Métamorphoses du livre”, 2011.