Education, Instruction

Robert Granderoute

1Like his century, Montesquieu was preoccupied with education and takes part in the confidence so characteristic of the Enlightenment in the power of education, he who, in a note to the Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, exclaims: “Who doubts that education is very useful?” (“Qui est-ce qui doute que l’éducation ne serve beaucoup ?”, OC, t. IX, p. 246). One immediately thinks of book IV of L’Esprit des lois. But this interest shows up elsewhere and earlier. Does not his Discours de réception à l’académie de Bordeaux (1716) rise against “the tyranny of ignorance”? With Usbek, whose travel is in part motivated by “the desire of learning” and contact with “the sciences of the West”, with Rica and Rhédi impatient to know the world, the fiction that subtends the Lettres persanes is not foreign to the notion of instruction. It is in the novel of 1721 that a method for transmitting “moral truths” (vérités de morale) is suggested: it consists in having recourse to the tableau, history, allegory, far from the paths of reason and abstraction (Letter [‣]). Generally speaking, there is a line of reflection on education throughout his work. If we look, for example in Romans, at the portrayal of the physical exercise of the youth under the Republic, in the Voyages at what is said about the Bologne Institute or the College of Modena (Voyages, p. 358-360, p. 370), or yet again if we turn to the texts which, like the Spicilège and the Pensées, accompanied Montesquieu throughout his life and intellectual work: the attention is then wilfully, through the play of extracts, quotations, judgments, hypotheses, brought back to the problem of instruction. Thus it is characteristic that the Spicilège should contain passages of orations delivered by the rector of the university of Paris on the occasion of the inauguration of free tuition in 1719 (no. 291), or that the Pensées should propose the following experiment: bring up a few children outside any sign of civilization to discover what language they would create, and to study nature in itself, then subject them to instruction and question them, once educated, about “what they have thought” (no. 158). An experiment which the eighteenth century will continue to dream of and which, in 1764, Guillard de Beaurieu pretends to relate it in L’Élève de la nature (see also Martin, 2010).

2It is not surprising that, like many of his contemporaries, Montesquieu is critical of the education of his time. Attached to paternal power, justified by the feebleness and dependence of childhood, conscient of the obligation which parents have to preserve the life they have given and thus the obligation incumbent on them to nourish and raise the child, he can only condemn the neglect of fathers and mothers which he observes about him. In this neglect, which he associates with the change in mores under the reign of Francis I, he sketches the progressive evolution until the 18th century and shows how, with the loosening of parental ties, education is no longer a preoccupation of the parents; how what relates to education, to natural feelings, comes to appear as “something base and common”: “Our mores have it that a father and mother no longer raise their children, no longer see them or feed them. We are no longer moved by the sight of them” (“Nos moeurs font qu’un père ou une mère n’élève plus ses enfants, ne les voit plus, ne les nourrit plus. Nous ne sommes plus attendris à leur vue”, Pensées, no. 143; see also no. 1272). For want of domestic education, there is the education of schools. But here also Montesquieu does not spare his criticism, he who, according to his son, declared his dissatisfaction with the training received in Juilly, where the methods were nonetheless known for their modernity (Shackleton). The Persian Letters ridicule the foolish quarrels that divide the University of Paris, mock the “false consequences” which the professional disputants draw from their reasoning, ironize over the learning of “five or six words of a dead language” and the masters who teach what they do not know (Letters [‣], [‣], [‣], [‣]…). Beyond these rather facile pleasantries, Montesquieu tends to reproach colleges, before La Chalotais, for dispensing an education for monks. He takes alarm when he reveals that in 1622 of sixty pupils of the Bordeaux Jesuits, thirty embraced the monastic life (Pensées, no. 180). In other words, the religious excel in taking advantage of the student’s “first fifteen minutes of chagrin, caprice or devotion” (“premier quart d’heure de chagrin, de caprice ou de dévotion”) to take possession of him and turn him away from society and procreation. At the very least, the child takes with him for having been at the college “a spirit of bigotry” (D’Alembert speaks of “devotion ill-understood” in the article “Collège” of the Encyclopédie, t. III, p. 635 b) and also a certain moral abasement under the effect of the system of denunciation instituted for the benefit of a wholly outward discipline (Pensées, nos. 180, 182, 218).

3Besides, Montesquieu criticizes the profusion of colleges, or rather of “demi-colleges” in the small cities – that is to say those that are not in full service and which indeed began their expansion around 1650 (Latin tutorials, humanities colleges with two or three tutors) – and he bases his criticism on the theme that would be so often put forward by the philosophes themselves, from Voltaire to La Chalotais: the education thus disseminated only makes ignoramuses and keeps the sons of farmers, artisans, and small merchants from the paternal professions without giving them valid access to any other employ. Rather than multiply these demi-colleges, it would be better if there were good academies in the main cities where “a certain youth” would be instructed in letters (Pensées, no. 183), for, insists Montesquieu, “it is pernicious to turn the common people in that direction” (“il est pernicieux de tourner le peuple de ce côté-là » (Pensées, no. 180). Montesquieu thus shares with many contemporary minds the fear of seeing the useful, indispensable manual trades abandoned. We might add that he who admires the young Romans training under the Republic to acquire strength and skill, deplores the negligence and scorn of his time for corporal education and subscribes to Sallust’s formula relative to the early Romans: Ingenium nemo sine corpore exercebat (“no one exercised the body without exercising the mind”, Pensées, nos. 122, 1524).

4The critical movement extends into the particular case of the education of women. The Lettres persanes extol the opinion of a “most gallant philosopher” (philosophe très galant, perhaps Fontenelle) according to which woman’s inferiority is linked to the mode of their education; between men and women, “the forces would be equal if the education were also” (“les forces seraient égales si l’éducation l’était aussi”). And the featured philosopher continues: “Let us test them in the talents which education has not weakened and we shall see whether we are so strong” (“Éprouvons-les dans les talents que l’éducation n’a point affaiblis et nous verrons si nous sommes si forts”, (Lettre [‣]). The author of L’Esprit des lois for his part underscores the paradoxical situation of the girl whose physical and moral faculties are completely bridled; she has, to repeat the suggestive enumeration, “a mind that dares not think, a heart that dares not feel, two eyes that dare not see, ears that dare not hear” (“un esprit qui n’ose penser, un cœur qui n’ose sentir, des yeux qui n’osent voir, des oreilles qui n’osent entendre”, EL, XXIII, 9). Is this not to suggest, beyond the constraint linked to her dependency, the absence of genuine education of a being given over to trifles and condemned to stupidity?

5Yet Montesquieu goes beyond this critical level. Let us first note that his conception of childhood imposes a very different form of education from the one then in practice. Childhood is presented as a state of weakness, even illness, which explains the child’s natural dependency on its father, prior to any convention. But the child is a flexible being. Endowed with organs which the slightest object affects, it is ready to be instructed and corrected. However, though he is endowed with reason, that reason is not yet shaped, and develops only slowly. Montesquieu underscores this progressive development of the brain as Nature provided: “[…] the end of his growth is ordinarily the point of greatest perfection he can attain to receive thoughts” (“[…] le terme de son accroissement est ordinairement le point de la plus grande perfection où il puisse être pour recevoir des idées”, Essai sur les causes, OC, t. IX, p. 265) ; a brain that was perfectly formed from the start would make the child lose this disposition for perfection. Before Rousseau, he shows himself to be sceptical about the range of mind that a child can manifest early on (Pensées, no. 1090). From the fact that the reason is not formed, it follows that education until the age of six or seven ought to be… negative. Preceding the author of book II of Emile, Montesquieu prescribes that the child be taught nothing, that he be allowed to amuse himself as the felicity of that age wishes. Insofar as, in conformity with the sensualist epistemology derived from Locke, the child receives notions all over via his senses, it suffices – and Rousseau in turn will so recommend – to present to him objects suited to him and to keep him from those that might harm him (Pensées, no. 1689). Montesquieu thus calls for the strict respect of nature which our art perverts, and strongly rules out, because it is inadequate, any attempt at abstraction and generalization. When the brain has reached a certain degree of development, positive education takes over and Montesquieu asserts that time is thereby gained; in fifteen minutes, more is achieved than in six months prematurely: Rousseau would not have it otherwise. In the framework of this active phase, Montesquieu insists on the necessity non only of extending and multiplying ideas, but also of “composing” them, putting them into proportion: one must establish a just relation between ideas and things, or else the eminent faculty of comparison is vitiated and one falls into stupidity or even madness (Essay on the causes, OC, t. IX, p. 247 and ss.). It is clear that through the wish he conceived of seeing parents relearn their educational duty, through the attention he gives to the proper state of childhood, through the will he asserts of following nature’s prescriptions, through the delay of instruction he does not hesitate to apply, Montesquieu appears as an innovative thinker and prefigures the doctrine of Rousseau.

6However, in the great work he approaches the problem of education in its relationship with politics, the laws governing education being called upon to adapt to each of the three types of government identified, or more exactly to the principle that powers each of them (EL, IV). These laws, which vary according to whether it is a monarchy, a despotic state or a republic, are considered as the first in order of importance, even if they are not deemed sufficient to assure the proper functioning of the regime, since it is the whole of the institutions and mores that must adapt to the nature and principle of each. The purpose is to arouse, develop, and maintain in children’s souls their attachment to the principle that makes the government act, live and prosper. Given that this principle that must be reinforced is a feeling, a passion, and not knowledge, education is defined as being a moral thing, even is if it does not target man as such, but concerns the member of one or another political regime.

7Insofar as fear is the principle of despotism, education is reduced more or less to nothing. Helvétius affirms this clearly: in a despotic state, “there is nothing to teach, and consequently no teaching” (De l’esprit, Discours IV, ch. 17 [Paris, 1758, p. 638]). That is because fear is not taught: it is an elementary reaction, unreflected, immediate and bound to reproduce itself endlessly. He who lives under such a regime knows nothing but extreme obedience, which supposes ignorance and abasement. At most he needs to learn “two or three notions” (EL, V, 14). Montesquieu rightly observes that under this type of government, every house is separate; whereas education supposes communication, intercourse among individuals. Characterized by void and lack of distinction, since almost all political structure is absent, despotism asks only for slaves, in short, according to the formula that shines with the fire of antithesis, it demands that one make “a bad subject so as to make a good slave” (“un mauvais sujet pour faire un bon esclave”, EL, IV, 3). Master and disciple are moreover identical since the former is part of the body of the nation and partakes of its ignorance. Yet suppose instruction were introduced? The vital principle loses hold: Montesquieu puts forward the example of contemporary Muscovy. Over against this servile education, which is the quasi-negation of education, is the recognized power of education in the framework of the republic. If indeed the principle of this regime is virtue, in other words, according to a definition recalling the Roman republic, “the love of law and country” (“l’amour des lois et de la patrie”, EL, IV, 5), the preference given to the public interest over personal interest, education finds its place, for such a virtue, which is moral, whatever Montesquieu says, implies a difficult effort, a genuine asceticism, in other words, it requires a real and long apprenticeship. The child is called upon to renounce himself, to quiet his desires and his own interests, to yield in all circumstances to the general will, to live, think and act only for the country. This conversion of the being into a public man exclusively devoted to the good of the community, which puts into play the influence and model of fathers, old men, senators (for their example is the means most apt to transmit the passion of the universal) and which includes a whole life long (it is an endless education), is achieved at the level of the collectivity and makes individuals dissolve, so to speak, into the state. Would it not then be under the direction and control of the state that this type of education should be carried out? The example put forward of the Spartans, which leads to the love of equality and frugality, another face of the virtue analyzed in book V, can give us to understand this, but Montesquieu, unlike Rousseau, who is very clear on this point in his article “Political Economy” in the Encyclopédie (V, [‣]), does not opine openly. It is true that this reflection on republican education tends to be inscribed under the sign of an embellished past to which the memory of the Romans of the Republic is close, for Montesquieu deems this regime suited to small states where the education of a people is something like the education of a family, and not to the large modern states of Europe in the 18th century.

8With the monarchy which characterizes these large states, education is recognized as equally powerful. The honor that motivates them is a complex passion which implies reflection and culture. But education here has neither the unity nor the coherence that characterizes republican education. The school of honor is essentially dispensed by worldly society. Now before he enters that society, the child has received a double education that targets the opposite direction. Family and college indeed transmit values marked by moral and religious spirit: the child notably learns to forget himself. The worldly school, which is the principal one, teaches on the contrary the preference of the self, the will to impose and distinguish oneself, the cult of ambition and self-love. For honor, bound to a privileged class, to the prejudices and the vanity of that class, is not virtue; far from submitting to its imperatives, it is what informs and denatures it in function of its own requirements. Noble in appearance, it is in reality morally base, it is “false” (EL, III, 7). Under cover of high and great designs, it depends on motivations not inspired by a straightforward intention; moreover, it tolerates, when need be, blameworthy methods and behaviors: hypocrisy, ruse, adulation, sycophancy… So if the idea is to produce an honnête homme, one must take care not to use the expression in a sense of moral rectitude and one is not surprized in this respect at the indignant reactions of Jesuits as well as Jansenists. However, as fanciful and morally suspect as it is, honor nonetheless has its rules and its laws and it is those the young man must learn and cultivate. Montesquieu, in presenting this apprenticeship in the code of honor, no doubt is thinking above all about the French reality: that of the court, the seat of politeness and delicacy of taste with all that implies that is artificial and impure, that of the academies which the young nobles frequent. As it is thus analyzed on the threshold of the study of the relations between political and constitutional laws and all the factors that come together to structure a nation, the object of education is to form the slave, the citizen or the subject. In his perspective of public efficacity, Montesquieu is interested only in “civil” education. Authors of plans of education in the second half of the century will not fail to take advantage of this contribution, showing that the reforms they propose take into account elements tied to the nature and principle of the political regime.

9Elsewhere, Montesquieu was not oblivious to a particular and particularly important chapter of education in his century, that of the prince’s education. We know that the Pensées contain a certain number of “Reflections on the prince” that found no place in Romans, the Esprit des lois or Arsace (nos. 1983-2003). Observing the practices of his time, Montesquieu deplored the poor education given to princes in general and tended, in this respect, to question the responsibility of their masters. For these had the flaw of being “drunk”, dazzled by their grandeur and could therefore not make their disciples feel “what they did not feel themselves” (Pensées, no. 534): how indeed could they transmit the essential lesson of human virtue? Moreover, if they incited the princely pupil to be human, as justification they knew how to invoke only the notion of utility, which is the most fragile of reasons. Among these poor masters, Montesquieu places the Marshall of Villeroi constantly speaking to Louis XIV “of his subjects and never of his peoples” (Pensées, no. 1167). This is a sort of anti-education in the eyes of Montesquieu, who wants a governor with elevated views, allied to science and knowledge of the world, and who, as an enthusiastic reader of Telemachus, imaged a prince’s education under the sign of the Fénelonian principles of the king’s love for his people and the reciprocal attachment of the people for their king, the practice of virtue and moderation, the quest for public felicity… as they are expressed or implied in the passages left out of his Discours de réception à l’Académie française and which refer to the education of the young Louis XV (Pensées, no. 299). Montesquieu is aware that this ideal is difficult to attain, for if he recognizes the success of the Duke of Burgundy’s education, he knows that success was the fruit of an exceptionally fortunate combination of circumstances (thanks notably to the harmony that prevailed among his masters), besides the fact that the duke was the grandson of the king and not the dauphin for Montesquieu was inclined to consider the education of a dauphin impossible (Spicilège, no. 769). Without entering into the detail of the method and content of a prince’s education, he puts the accent on two points: the necessity for a prince to travel and to travel early, for that is a means for him to accustom himself to docility (Pensées, no. 521) and the importance of the study of history seen through a philosophical angle, independent of all pedantry and all prejudice. As conscious of the stakes attached to the formation of a prince who serves as a rule for his subjects as of the value of his magnum opus, Montesquieu comes around to suggesting that L’Esprit des lois, which is “a book of politics”, could be the book for the prince desirous of learning “the great art of reigning” (EL, XII, 27). With pride, he takes pleasure in opposing his substantial work to those “vague exhortations” which princes are fed and which are made up of stereotyped formulas on the neccessity of being a great prince, of making his subjects happy… (Pensées, no. 1864). In L’Esprit des lois, the prince would find the proper principles to guide him and help him work for the public good. And Montesquieu cannot help, in one of his letters to abbé Venuti, reporting, even if it is somewhat “fatuous” on his part, something that “publicly known”, which is that the king of Sardinia has read his work, given it to his son, the Duc de Savoie, who has read it twice; that his governor, the Marquis de Breil, said to his disciple “that he wanted to read it his whole life long” (22 July 1749; OC, t. XX)… One is tempted to quote here one of the “stanzas” of the famous Preface: “If I could have it that those who command increased their knowledge of what they ought to prescribe […], I would deem myself the happiest of mortals” (“Si je pouvais faire en sorte que ceux qui commandent augmentassent leurs connaissances sur ce qu’ils doivent prescrire [...], je me croirais le plus heureux des mortels”).


Robert Derathé, “Le livre IV de L’Esprit des lois et le problème de l’éducation publique”, Pädagogische und Didactische Reflexionen, Festschrift für Martin Rang, Frankfurt-am-Main and Berlin, 1966, p. 26-31.

Corrado Rosso, Montesquieu moraliste. Des lois au bonheur, Bordeaux: Ducros, 1971.

Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu:a critical biography, Oxford, 1961.

Robert Granderoute, “Montesquieu et L’Esprit des lois dans le discours pédagogique du XVIIIe siècle”, La Fortune de Montesquieu:Montesquieu écrivain, Actes du Colloque international de Bordeaux (18-21 January 1989), Louis Desgraves dir., Bordeaux: Bibliothèque municipale, 1995, p. 195-205.

Pierre Hartmann, “Éducation et aliénation dans Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit”, RHLF 96 (1996), p. 71-97.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “L’Esprit des lois: une lecture Ad usum Delphini?”, in Le Travail des Lumières, Mélanges offerts à Georges Benrekassa, Paris: Champion, 2002, p. 157-171.

Diana J. Schaub, “The regime and Montesquieu’s principles of education”, in Montesquieu and the spirit of modernity, David W. Carrithers et Patrick Coleman dir., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 2002, p. 77-100.

Christophe Martin, Éducations négatives: fictions d’expérimentation pédagogique au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2010.

Bibliographical reference

Granderoute Robert , “Education, Instruction”, translated by Philip Stewart, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: