Criticism (literary)

Eszter Kovács


1Montesquieu mentions a work on criticism in two articles of Mes pensées. A series of four articles brings together “Fragments that could not be used in my work on criticism” (no. 510-513), and we read at the end of article no. 1006: “See my work on criticism.” But that text, the existence of which might have been ephemeral, has not come down to us and it would be difficult to determine its objective or ambition. Other articles in Mes pensées suggest that these reflections centered on literary criticism, Montesquieu’s opinion of which was both skeptical and critical. The general considerations and the more concrete remarks concerning one writer (or debate) or another follow the same logic: the principal motive of criticism is the vanity or egoism of its author.

2The Catalogue of the library at La Brède informs us only partially about Montesquieu’s familiarity with the subject. Works of literary criticism are assigned to the category “Writers, philologists, orators, critics and grammarians” (Catalogue, no. 1813-1982) but works entirely devoted to criticism are rare (see for example no. 1853 and 1923). The catalogue contains only a part of the works relative to the literary quarrels to which Montesquieu alludes in Mes pensées. Among the titles figuring in the inventory of his Parisian domicile, we find Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1730) which Montesquieu probably added to the catalogue of La Brède (no. 2154) in 1740. The composition of his library thus does not testify to any particular interest in this subject, which nevertheless makes an appearance in all three volumes of Mes pensées.

3The essence of Montesquieu’s thought is that it is too easy to be a critic, since all it requires is to identify a few weaknesses in the work one is attacking. Consequently, less and less fair critical writings multiply (see Pensées, no. 805, 936, 1305). Yet the critic ought to manifest good will and moderation. In many cases, the critic is capable of locating the work’s flaws but is not without some himself; he may well be inferior to the author criticised (Pensées, no. 1287, relative to Antoine Houdar de La Motte). On the other hand, public opinion, especially some while after the publication of a book or performance of a play, is often on target. Montesquieu repeats this idea in several articles (no. 1541, 2086, 2130) and tries to explain it: “In the long run, the public is right. Here is why: the approval of wise people is constant; but that of fools is disparate and constantly varies, and cancels out” (no. 2130). It is precisely for this reason that the author attacked should avoid responding to criticism: the wise author awaits the justice rendered by the public (no. 1103, 2241).

4Literary criticism is not only a vain and facile activity, it furthermore is rarely original: “As more has been required of authors, less has been required of critics” (no. 1542). Montesquieu makes fun of those who devote themselves to it: critics “are like poor bad army generals who, unable to conquer a country, pollute its waters” (no. 511); “Critics are like the painter who, after painting a rooster, forbade his apprentices to allow roosters near the painting” (no. 1461). In other places, he categorically condemns venomous quarrels: “We have seen men of letters attack each other with such horrible slander that there are not in nature great enough talents to rescue a man from the humiliation of having made them” (no. 1293). The only acceptable ambition would be merely to point out mistakes to be corrected, and that in appropriate moderation: “Critics should help and not destroy each other; seek the true, the good, the beautiful; illuminate or reflect, reflect and mirror light by its nature; eclipse only by accident” (no. 1289). Montesquieu finds an obvious example in “the fine critique by the Académie Française” of Le Cid, in which “we find praise of beauties so close to criticism of flaws” (no. 1299).

5The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, and more particularly the Quarrel of Homer, becomes a representative example of the confrontation between men of letters. As Christophe Martin has shown in his articles “Une apologétique ‘moderne’ des Anciens” and “La poésie des ‘temps héroiques’ selon Montesquieu, forty or so articles in Mes pensées relate to the Quarrel. These fragments testify to Montesquieu’s care to remain aloof from the debate but he nevertheless makes an original apology of Homer. In truth, Montesquieu reflects on the Quarrel during its second phase, when the partisans of Homer are on the defensive; he reacts to earlier judgments: what he wants to do is judge the judgments. Although defending the Ancients after the debate is over might appear as going backward, he casts a detached glance on those clashes. Even if Montesquieu “admits [his] taste for the Ancients” (no. 110), he refrains from joining one of the opposing camps and seeks to reconcile the sensible and durable arguments. He justifies moreover this “taste” for the Ancients: “After reading several of the current criticisms of the Ancients, I have admired several of these criticisms; but I have always admired the Ancients” (no. 131). His thoughts echo those of Fontenelle (De l’origine des fables, 1714); sharply critical of Mme Dacier but also of La Motte (no. 894-895), Montesquieu seems to share only Pope’s opinion; even this agreement is not unconditional: Pope had simply said the essential. Montesquieu has recourse to certain well-known arguments in judging this controversy, notably the strangeness of ancient mores in modern times and the relativism of esthetic judgments, but for Christophe Martin his originality lies in having pointed to “the poetic virtues of ancient paganism” (“La poésie des ‘temps poétiques’selon Montesquieu”, p. 94).

6Besides the Quarrel, it is the reaction to the criticism of La Motte as playwright that represents Montesquieu’s attitude in an interesting way. He owned the ironic anthology of his friend Jean-Jacques Bel (Apologie de M. Oudart de la Mothe, 1724, Catalogue, no. 1826). According to Bel, the tragic becomes comic in his play Inès de Castro (performed in 1723) because La Motte offended the rule of verisimilitude when Inès’s two children, raised up till then in secret, enter the stage, whereas before this turn there was but a single and nearly incomprehensible allusion to their existence in the play. Without referring explicitly to the Apologie, Montesquieu takes La Motte’s defense: only the change of mores has made the stirring scenes ridiculous, which the critics did not realize. He even sees “an astonishing injustice in the judgments of men” who accuse their “fathers [of] little wit” without understanding that taste changes along with mores (Mes pensées, no. 143).

7Montesquieu’s thoughts on criticism, despite their disparate presence in his works, are fairly coherent. He underscores the futility and vanity of this activity except when it is practiced in a moderate and fair way. Criticism seems to be the consequence of the multiplication of publications and a degree of refinement of taste. If the question is not of a general order but of a concrete debate, Montesquieu tries to size up the arguments of the opposing camps impartially and render justice while steering away from the controversy. This is how he seems to justify his own attitude: “It will be found that in giving my judgment on various authors, I praise more than I criticize. I have almost always given my judgment on authors I esteemed, having read as much as possible only of those I thought the best.” (Mes pensées, no. 1315.)


Christophe Martin, “Une apologétique ‘moderne’ des Anciens: la Querelle dans les Pensées”, Revue Montesquieu 7, 2003-2004, p. 67-83.

Christophe Martin, “‘L’esprit parleur’: Montesquieu lecteur d’Homère, Virgile, Fénelon et quelques autres”, in Montesquieu, œuvre ouverte ? (1748-1755), Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples: Liguori, 2005, p. 271-291.

Christophe Martin,“‘Nos mœurs et notre religion manquent à l’esprit poétique’: la poésie des temps héroiques’ selon Montesquieu, in Du goût à l’esthétique: Montesquieu, Jean Ehrard et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Pessac: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007, p. 79-103.

Eszter Kovacs, “‘Quand on se consacre à l’art de critiquer’: réflexions de Montesquieu sur la critique », Studi Filosofici 38, 2015, p. 120-133.

Bibliographical reference

Kovács Eszter , « Criticism (literary) », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :