The Temple of Gnidus

Carole Dornier

1Designated by Montesquieu himself as a novel (Pensées, no. 1438), this short prose narrative of mythological and gallant inspiration, composed of seven cantos, presents itself, according to its preface, as the translation of a Greek poem. The poet-narrator recounts his love for the chaste Thémire and that of his companion Aristhée for the virtuous Camille, in the city of Gnidus dedicated to the cult of Venus. The three first cantos appear as a hymn to the Gnidian Venus, the allegory of chaste, tender, and sincere love. This celebration of the goddess opens with a description of Gnidus and the surrounding countryside, of the palace of Venus and its gardens, then of its temple. The poet pays homage to the Gnidian cult, in an allegorical opposition between a lustful love and the delicate sentiments of the goddess’s adepts. The two protagonist couples incarnate the tender love extolled by the Venus of Gnidus. The story of the first of these lovers, the narrator, son of Antilocus, develops, in canto four, a moral picture of the corrupt morals of the Sybarites. The poet expresses his aversion for their debauchery and lasciviousness. At the end of an initiatory journey in the different loci of the cult of Venus, he is informed by a dream that he will find the love that suits him in Gnidus. The story of Aristhée, in canto five, is first a long praise of Camille, then the description of the nuanced manifestations of the lover’s feelings and the expression of the intensity of this passion. Next comes the relation of a test, that of jealousy, allegorically represented by the descent of the poet and Aristhée into a dark den inhabited by a monster. The jealous delirium of the two heroes is appeased by a sacrifice in honor of Bacchus. In the last canto, each of them finds his belle. The son of Antilocus draws Thémire into a solitary wood, peopled by satyrs and nymphs, but the erotic atmosphere suggestive of the epilogue maintains propriety. The brief narrative piece that follows, relating the story of Céphise and Cupid, is separate from The Temple of Gnidus. It too is presented as a translation from the Greek, “by the same author”. With its brevity, its autonomy and conventional thematics, it imitates the prose translation of a disciple of Anacreon.

2For a rather long time Montesquieu denied authorship of this frivolous production (OC, t. XVIII, nos. 119 and 1222, 1725; t. XIX, no. 482, 1738) which was however his most often published and translated work. After the success of the Persian Letters, the author frequented the society assembled by the Marquise de Prie, mistress of the prime minister, the Duke de Bourbon, at the château de Bélébat, and that of Chantilly at which Mademoiselle de Clermont did the honors. To believe Guasco, the latter is the person who inspired the work or unofficially the one to whom it is dedicated (OC, t. XIX, letter 519, note b). The Temple of Gnidus would then be an example of panegyric literature celebrating the charms of a great lady, of worldly poetry favored by small societies, places for meeting and diversion. In the wake of the translations of Anacreon and Sappho by Anne Dacier and Gacon, of the poetry of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau and Houdar de La Motte, it testifies to a taste for amorous poetry of ancient inspiration. The title, according to a long poetic tradition, implicitly compares the work to an edifice raised in praise of an abstraction or a persona. The place that is evoked, like the work itself, is a monument to the glory of chaste and tender love, celebrated in the city of Karia and takes on a metonymic and moral dimension. The preface mocks the documentary exactitude of erudite translators to the benefit of a conventional Antiquity which is of a piece with worldly leisure. The whole relates an initiatory process which makes it possible to attain, after trials, exalted, tender, delicate and mtual love in Gnidus, illustrating a model of the art of pleasing that unites the gallants of the Great Century and the Moderns frequented by Montesquieu at the moment he wrote The Temple of Gnidus. The delicacy of love, the charms of chastity and the dangers of jealousy were questions discussed in Mme de Lambert’s circle. The story, rather thin in events, is the opportunity of deploying a range of procedures characteristic of an esthetic of variety and the heterogeneity of genres and tones. The praise of grace and poetic prose are part of the same implicit critique of regularity. The influence of “modern taste”, that of the guests of Mme de Lambert, can be detected in bold metaphors such as “their gaze wandered and died” (“ses regards errèrent et moururent”, OC, t. VIII, p. 395). Montesquieu is inspired by Fénelon’s style in The Temple of Gnidus: the pseudo-translation, by the constraints of fidelity to the original, justifies the abandonment of rhyme and attention to musicality. Montesquieu borrows from the author of the Adventures of Telemachus a semantics of plenitude, clichés of the locus amœnus, stereotypical images, Latinisms but also certain episodes or scenes: the country around Gnidus suggests Calypso’s grotto. The Sybarites much resemble the Cypriots whom Telemachus flees. Fénelon evoked the cult rendered to Venus on the island of Cyprus and described the goddess’s temple. To the dream of Telemachus in which Venus appears to him corresponds the dream of the son of Antilocus. But the lesson of The Temple of Gnidus is very different from that of the famous pedagogical novel. For Mentor, love provokes betrayals and bitterness and demands that one flee. In Montesquieu, the gracious figures of Camille and Thémire, unambiguously desired by their suitors, are not dangerous, deceitful nymphs. The Temple of Gnidus exalts a chaste sensuality, a refined and sensitive art of loving, an esthetic of grace and variety that will be theorized in the Essay on Taste.



Two-page part of preface, Bordeaux, Bibliothèque Municipale: ms. 1988/1.


Paris: Simart, 1725 (with Céphise et l’Amour): approbation granted by the book police on 29 January 1725 and anonymous publication in Paris by Nicolas Simart, between 26 and 31 March of the same year.

New edition, “London”, 1742.

Critical edition, text established by Cecil Courtney, presented and annotated by Carole Dornier; bibliography by C. Courtney, OC, t. VIII, Pierre Rétat (ed.) , p. 323-428.


Albert Chérel, Fénelon au XVIIIe siècle en France (1715-1820): son prestige, son influence, Paris: Hachette, 1917.

François Gébelin, “La clef du Temple de Gnide d’après la correspondance de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux, Delmas, 1956, p. 83-87.

Nivea Melani, Montesquieu minore: dai “Dialogue” a “Lysimaque”, Naples: Liguori, 1969.

Jeannette Geffriaud-Rosso, Montesquieu et la féminité, Pisa: Goliardica, 1977, p. 378-411 and Appendix, p. 445-449.

George Benrekassa, Montesquieu, la liberté et l’histoire, Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1987, p. 64-66.

Roger Marchal, Madame de Lambert et son milieu, Oxford : Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 89, 1991.

Carole Dornier, «Montesquieu et l’esthétique galante», Revue Montesquieu 5 (2001), p. 5-21.

Philip Stewart et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Histoire véritable et autres fictions, Paris: Gallimard, « Folio Classique », 2011, introductions.