Ghislain Waterlot

1The Inquisition occupies little place in Montesquieu’s reflections, but what he said about it gets much attention today, since he speaks of it above all in a text that has become a classic of academic teaching: the “Most humble remonstrance to the inquisitors of Spain and Portugal” (“Très humble remontrance aux inquisiteurs d’Espagne et de Portugal”, EL, XXV, 13). In this text, criticism of the Inquisition is inseparable from a plea in favor of toleration. That is no doubt what made it famous. Its arguments are implacably linked: with such an emblematic institution of constraint, Christians ought not be surprised that certain countries, Japan first of all, received them reluctantly, insofar as the persecutions that strike them are only those they inflict on others as soon as they are in a position to dominate; Christians point to the fact that they were persecuted by the pagans, but today they behave as pagans, pursuing those who think differently from them; the Christians’ master, Christ, always gave the example of behavior contrary to that of persecutors, who yet claim his name, etc. None of these arguments was new.

2But in the 18th century, inquisitors scandalized because they appeared as vestiges of a barbarous world. Moreover, it was hardly only the Iberian peninsula that still illustrated itself with such a tribunal (which besides was hardly very active in the 18th century). It is in this respect that Montesquieu’s greatest originality on the question appears. France in the 18th century, as is well known, had little love for Spain, and Montesquieu shared the antipathy of his contemporaries. It is already manifested in the Persian Letters ([‣]), where Spain is the subject of vitriolic portraiture, barely tempered by the relativization of the peroration. For the Inquisition appears, in the heart of this pitiless Spanish fresco, as a sort of Iberian atavism: “The Spaniards who are not burned appear so attached to the Inquisition that it would be churlish to take it from them” (“Les Espagnols qu’on ne brûle pas paraissent si attachés à l’Inquisition, qu’il y aurait de la mauvaise humeur de la leur ôter”). The hypocrisy of the institution, which “never burns a Jew without its apologies” (ibid.) accords perfectly with the Iberian temperament, with its hatred of Jews which is manifestly, for Montesquieu, a prominent trait. Above all, the Inquisition will appear in The Spirit of Laws as taking its origin from the laws of the Visigoths who, by their code, “tried to conciliate the former inhabitants” (EL, XXVIII, 1, in fine)of the Iberian territory. In Montesquieu’s eyes, this Visigoth code, complemented by the bishops, founded “all the principles and all the views of today’s Inquisition”. Now these Visigoths were “puerile, awkward, stupid” (ibid.). Whence the notion that if Spain and Portugal are the last countries still to be infatuated with the Inquisition, that is because is is hard for them to abandon a system which they invented – even though the equivalent has been found with Charlemagne, with the remerc (as Montesquieu calls it, no doubt because of a mistaken reading of his source, the “Veimique tribunal [or court]” which Voltaire was constantly to denounce), the secret tribunal that allows for monstrous pursuits; he mentions in a passage of L’Esprit des lois, crossed out no doubt out of prudence on his working manuscript: “The same spirit that formed the remerc since formed the Inquisition” (book XXV, ch. 12, suppressed in the printed version; OC, t. IV, p. 695): this latter was indeed a product of an uncivilized Middle Ages.

3We know in reality that the Inquisition was desired by the popes who wanted effectively to organize the eradication of heretics. The Treaty of Paris and the Council of Toulouse (1229) are its true origin. But in the 18th century, the final living form of the Catholic Inquisition was that of Spain and Portugal, founded in 1478 under the name of Tribunal of the Holy Office, and tied to the often sinister Torquemada. All the Enlightenment authors, when they deal with the Inquisition, thus think of the Iberian peninsula (Voltaire, for example, is no different in the article “Inquisition” in his own Dictionnaire philosophique [1769 edition]).

4Yet when he considers the Inquisition as a whole, Montesquieu is clear: this tribunal “is contrary to all good policy” (EL, XXVI, 11). It has always been opposed and rejected everywhere, it is “insupportable in all governments” (ibid.). To be sure it pretends to set itself up as a valid instance of human justice (EL, XXVI, 12), but in this respect its very principle is vitiated, since the tribunal deals not with actions but with thoughts. He who denies the accusations is thus guilty and obstinate, whereas he who confesses can be pardoned. Now the pact of repentance applies only to men and God. In civil life, on the contrary, the sole preoccupation is determination of innocence or guilt. So a simply human tribunal does not need to pardon the criminal who repents, but contrariwise does not have to condemn the man to whom no unlawful act can truly be imputed.

5Finally, the Inquisition is motivated by a profoundly corrupt spirit, which violates nature itself. In one entry of his Pensées (no. 898), Montesquieu notes, based on a work by the abbé de Bellegarde, that high inquisitors did not hesitate to promise heretics general amnesty, the better to draw them into a trap that led them to the scaffold. These narratives cannot be read, he concludes, “without feeling sadness in one’s heart”.


Reading of the “Très humble remontrance aux inquisiteurs d’Espagne et de Portugal” (EL, XXV, 13) : Lire Montesquieu, VIII : Lectures. Écouter Montesquieu [].

Jean Ehrard, “Montesquieu et l’Inquisition”, DHS 24 (1992),, reprinted in J. Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots. Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Genève, Droz, 1998, p. 81-93.

Guillaume Barrera, “La figure de l’Espagne dans l’œuvre de Montesquieu : élaboration conceptuelle d’un exemple, stratégie d’écriture et modes d’avertissement », in Actes du colloque international de Bordeaux pour le 250e anniversaire de L’Esprit des lois, Louis Desgraves ed., Bordeaux: Bibliothèque municipale, 1999, p. 153-171.

Bibliographical reference

Waterlot Ghislain , “Inquisition”, translated by Philip Stewart, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: