Ghislain Waterlot

1The Jewish people is the religious people par excellence. If all nations have as their purpose to maintain themselves, each of them has its specific difference, and Montesquieu asserts that the specificity of the Jews is to have religion as the particular purpose of their laws (EL, XI, 5). In this respect, they even testify to an “invincible obstinacy” (LP, Letter [‣]) that can appear surprising when one sees to what point they have been persecuted, but it is explained by the overload of practices characteristic of their religion: “they hold many things by which they are continually occupied” (EL, XXV, 2). The example of barbarian peoples, “solely occupied by hunting or war”, confirms this affirmation since these peoples have no scruple about renouncing their religion to adopt another. This religion of the Jews has another singular characteristic, which is that it has given rise to two extraordinarily expansionist religions which soon converted the world. So that, supported by its two daughters, the Christian and Muslim religions, the Jewish religion can both “embrace the whole world” (LP, [‣]) and pretend to dominate the whole of time, since it was so to speak born with the world. Yet the Jewish religion is intolerant and considers the other religions either as idolatrous, or as heretical (Christianity and Islam). The Jews have not only been intolerant with respect to others, they have transmitted the germ (the medical metaphor is classical and owes nothing to Montesquieu). The spirit of intolerance (proselytism) and enthusiasm or “spirit of vertigo” (LP, [‣]) have been communicated “like a contagious and popular disease to the Mahometans and to the Christians” (ibid.). But note: the Jews are not the source of intolerance and, remarkably enough, Montesquieu never yields to the temptation to burden them as a special source of ills. Unlike a Voltaire, whose antisemitism is virulent, as long as he holds Jews up for public obloquy, Montesquieu always manifested the will to weigh things carefully. Also, far from underscoring their unique character, as was usually done for better or worse, Montesquieu puts forward their inscription in a history and insists on the filiations or genealogies. Several times (for example EL, XIV, 11 ; LP, [‣]) he shows that the Jews prolong the Egyptians. Such is the case with intolerance: received from the Egyptians, the evil was transmitted to the Jews but not created by them. Therefore Montesquieu does not hesitate to compare the Jews to their powerful neighbors, even if, in a youthful work (Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion, 1716), he reproached the Roman authors with confusing Jews with the members of the sect of Serapis.

2In this context, it will not be surprising that the laws of the Hebrews never constitute, in Montesquieu’s eyes, a model from which modern states should take inspiration. Against Bossuet and the classical tradition, Montesquieu places himself in the philosophical line illustrated by, among others, Spinoza, and considers that one can take from the history of the Hebrews not a model, but rather profitable lessons for understanding political problems in general. Thus no privilege accorded to Jewish laws, neither positively nor negatively. Moreover those laws are considered as human institutions and on a strictly human plan. The consideration of Jewish laws as an expression of a theocracy is thus discretely excluded. In fact, according to the figural situation, the Judaic laws can be related and measured by the spirit of democratic, aristocratic, monarchical or despotic government. There is therefore never an overall judgment on the government of the ancient Jews, but only a scale, where the good and bad laws are distributed on each side, relatively to the suitability or not with the nature of such and such a government.

3From the perspective of the egalitarian spirit of democracy, one observes that “the law that commanded that the closest relative should marry the female heir” (EL, V, 5), so as to maintain “the equal sharing of land” (ibid.) is a good one. In the framework of a despotic government when polygamy is instituted, the Mosaic law requiring that the first wife not see her conditions of existence reduced by the following one, though less accomplished than Mahomet’s, which imposes an absolute equality, is for that no less in conformity with the law “of equality of treatment” naturally deduced from that of “the plurality of wives” (EL, XVI, 7). Just as “the laws of Moses” were very wise with respect to the right to asylum, for they avoided abuse and the “gross contradiction” (EL, XXV, 3) of the protection of great criminals. They were the expression of prudence itself, when they ruled with respect to lepers and imposed isolation (EL, XIV, 11), and those laws ought to be renewed, by the legislator concerned for public health, in the framework of the struggle against syphilis. Finally, contrary to the laws of the Christianized Romans (EL, XXIII, 22), the Hebraic principles favored the propagation of the species (Pensées, no. 1942, transcribed between 1751 and 1754), and these principles still work for modern Jews, since their faith in the Messiah to come encourages every family to have many children (LP, [‣]).

4On the other hand, it is foolish to extend the law of the Sabbath to the prohibition of defending oneself in case of aggression (EL, XXVI, 7). The Hebrews paid dearly this confusion of religious precepts with those of natural law, insofar as it directly provoked their defeat at the hands of Pompey. In another order of ideas, a pinch of barbarity appears in the case of the legislation on slaves, for despotic governments that institute it with relative legitimacy, in Montesquieu’s eyes, because of the climate and the political principle (fear), must however establish it in a gentle manner if they wish to make it tolerable or even desirable. But on the subject of slaves, “the law of Moses was very harsh” since it prescribed that the master could cause his slave to die without being prosecuted, on the sole condition that the death not immediately follow on ill treatment. “What a people would be one for which civil law had to be set free of natural law!” (EL, XV, 16 [17]). That is at bottom the most severe attack which Montesquieu reserved to the Jews, and we can consider that it is particularly moderate when we know how most other authors treat them. In the long run, the scourge of the scale weighing the Hebrew laws leans generally to the good side.

5As for the “modern” Jews (from the diaspora), Montesquieu is very sensitive to their situation as the eternally persecuted. He returns often to this subject: the cruelty with which all the nations have treated the Jews is contemptible. The Romans scorned them and sent them to people Sardinia along with criminals (LP, [‣]). The Visigoths discriminated against them in humiliating fashion: they forced them to distinguish themselves by their religion while preventing them from following the precepts of that very religion (EL, XXIX, 16). Philippe le Long expelled them from France under the pretext that they poisoned the springs “by means of the leprous” (EL, XII, 5). This “public hatred” (ibid.) was again horribly illustrated until the 18th century by the Portuguese and Spanish inquisitors, who treated them not so much as enemies of the Christian religion as their own personal enemies (EL, XXV, 13). This hatred sometimes turned against the persecutors themselves: it is probable that the Visigoths lost Provence because of the Jews (or the Romans) who, persecuted, made of that province a refuge and appealed to the Saracens (EL, XXVIII, 7). However, it was possible to hope for a progressive exit from this awful era, insofar as Europe was beginning to understand the advantage of toleration, the nature of true attachment to religion, and to distinguish that attachment from persecutional zeal (LP, [‣], in fine; see also Pensées, no. 2159).

6But the most singular and troubling aspect of the persecution that has struck the Jews is that it was not foreign to the development of trade. This phenomenon is the occasion of one of the most remarkable chapters in L’Esprit des lois (XXI, 16 [20]) and we need to pause there to conclude. If the Hebrew nation was not a trading nation, insofar as it was “solely devoted to agriculture” (EL, XXI, 6) and developed only an occasional luxury trade, tied to conquest, on the other hand the modern Jews had been more or less forced to trade, since the Aristotelian principles relative to political economy, adopted by medieval Europe, left to Jews alone the possibility of lending with usury. Now trade does not live with credit: someone had to provide that. All at once the Jews, disgraced by all, behaved in dishonest fashion, as would any other man have done in such a situation: they had a monopoly, they organized and, a concession of Montesquieu’s to the public hatred, were “enriched by their exactions” (EL, XXI, 16 [20]). The princes did not fail to see in them an easy source of pillage, for if the priests and lords were protected from taxes by their privileges, the Jews were defenseless. They were treated atrociously. But Montesquieu employs here, by anticipation, a dialectic of negativity: from the denial of human rights can come the means of consolidating those rights. The Jews, indeed, persecuted everywhere, invented the letter of credit, a determining invention for all mankind, thanks to which violence can be eluded, since “the richest merchant [had] only invisible holdings, that could be sent anywhere, and left no trace anywhere” (ibid.). To be sure, evil is not always the source of a good: the dark “speculations of scholastics” destroyed trade and brought nothing but grief, but sometimes the evil turns into its opposite, and that is what happened with the princes’ shameless avarice. The ignoble situation that was inflicted on modern Jews is also what made them, in fact, the authors of what is, in the eyes of Montesquieu, one of the greatest benefits for mankind: the development of international trade, thanks to which mankind can ultimately be definitively cured of Machiavellism.


Lorenzo Bianchi, “Montesquieu e la religione”, in Leggere “L’Esprit des lois”: stato, società et storia nel pensiero di Montesquieu, Domenico Felice ed., Naples: Liguori, 1999, p. 203-228.

Dieter Gembicki, “Le Moyen Âge de Montesquieu”, Le Temps de Montesquieu, 2002, p. 363-376.

Jean Mondot, “Les Juifs dans les écrits de Montesquieu”, Montesquieu et l’Europe, Jean Mondot, Régis Ritz et Christian Taillard ed., Académie Montesquieu, diff. William Blake and Co. – Les Belles Lettres, 2006, p. 41-58.

Girolamo Imbruglia, “Le problème de la sécularisation chez Montesquieu. Théocratie et politique”, Débats et polémiques autour de L’Esprit des lois, C. Volpilhac-Auger ed., Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques 35 (2012/1),

Bibliographical reference

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