The Dictionary

A new edition

Five years after the first edition of the Dictionnaire électronique Montesquieu (February 2008), the time has come to update it, for those five years have seen the publication of many studies that needed to be taken into account in order to remain faithful to the spirit of the Dictionary, which is to place the most recent achievements of research at the disposition of the public.

Most of it is owing to Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes, of which this Dictionary constitutes an essential extension. Since February 2008 four new volumes have appeared, and two others have been completed and will soon be in press. It was essential to take note of these three thousand pages.

Moreover, the Œuvres complètes enterprise is sufficiently advanced to draw on future volumes for which the text has already been established. Thus no reference will any longer be made to previous editions: the text of the Œuvres complètes under way (Voltaire Foundation, then ENS Éditions / Classiques Garnier) is henceforth the sole edition of reference.

Rare are the articles of the first edition which have not benefitted from the recent progress of the Œuvres complètes, to which must be added numerous publications (colloquia, theses, monographs, articles) which have contributed to our knowledge and complemented our bibliographies. Another consequence of such work has been the enrichment of the Dictionary by new articles to which yet others will be added over time thanks to the flexibility of an on-line edition.

But the principal innovation of the 2013 edition is that it is now entirely accessible in English. A new public is thus envisioned, for which Montesquieu is part of an intellectual and cultural patrimony extending beyond the boundaries of the French language. The Dictionnaire électronique Montesquieu, rechristened in 2013 Dictionnaire Montesquieu without change of mission, thus acquires new means and a new horizon.

An instrument for research

A Montesquieu Dictionary is intended for all who are interested in Montesquieu’s work and thought, and desire to know them better: students and researchers of all disciplines, anyone seeking a better understanding of the major inflections of the history of ideas and the foundations of modern thought.

Emphasis has been placed on topics and works so as to make an extraordinarily rich, nuanced and often complex body of thought genuinely accessible. We have attempted to cover all its aspects, from its juridical foundations to a fully constituted esthetics, via the essential axes of moral and political philosophy, the philosphy of knowledge or historical and economic thought. The biography, centered on precise points, has not been overlooked. Thematic groupings (Religion, Esthetics, History, Antiquity, Justice, etc.) make it possible to follow paths that can be extended and differentiated as the Dictionary is enriched (as this second edition already testifies).

The specificity of this work is indeed to break with the tradition of research tools in print, which at the outset had furnished its model. Only an on-line edition could provide all the flexibility needed for gathering the most complete information possible, taking research progress into account, and better respond to readers’ expectations through progressive development.

It was also necessary to take advantage of the availability and ease of access of electronic publications: thus each bibliographical reference to the Revue Montesquieu, issues 1 to 7 of which are fully accessible on-line ([‣]) enables the reader to obtain a PDF version of the corresponding article. The bibliographies also furnish electronic addresses for books, articles and documents in open access.

A Montesquieu Dictionary nevertheless claims a full and complete scientific authority that derives from the internationally recognized competence of its contributors and its close relation with the enterprise of the complete works.

Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes

Begun by Jean Ehrard and directed since 2005 by Pierre Rétat and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, this edition draws on an international team of more than forty scholars. Thirteen volumes have been published between 1998 and 2012, with eight others in the works ([‣]).

The first eleven volumes were published by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford:

  • Correspondance I, 1998 – vol. XVIII
  • Considérations sur les Romains et Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, 2000 – vol. II
  • Spicilège, 2002 – vol. XIII
  • Œuvres et écrits divers I, 2003 – vol. VIII
  • Introductions générales et Lettres persanes, 2004 – vol. I
  • Collectio juris, 2005 – vol. XI et XII
  • Œuvres et écrits divers II, 2006 – vol. IX
  • Geographica, 2007 – vol. XVI
  • De l’esprit des loix (manuscrits), 2008, vol. III et IV

The following volumes have been or will be published by ENS Éditions in Lyon and Classiques Garnier in Paris:

  • Défense de l’esprit des lois, 2010 – vol. VII
  • Mes voyages, 2012 – vol. X
  • Correspondance II, 2014 – vol. XIX
  • Correspondance III, 2021 – vol. XX

Scheduled are (in order of publication):

  • Extraits et notes de lecture – vol. XVII
  • Pensées – vol. XIV et XV
  • Correspondance IV – vol. XXI
  • L’Esprit des lois, imprimé – vol. V et VI
  • Index et addenda – t. XXII

Based upon a return to manuscripts, reinforced by the extraordinary contribution of the dation and bequest of Jacqueline de Chabannes (1994-2004, manuscripts and books), and supported by extensive bibliographical research, the edition has completely renewed Montesquieu studies by offering rigorously established texts accompanied by introductions and annotation the value of which can be gauged by A Montesquieu Dictionary.

From Œuvres complètes to A Montesquieu Dictionary: principles of the edition


References are henceforth to the edition Œuvres complètes for all texts appearing in the published volumes but also in those to come (Mes pensées, L’Esprit des lois, Correspondance 1747-1755, Extraits et notes de lecture II), against which all quotations and referrals have been verified: it was impossible to continue using the editions in circulation, often defective (in particular for the Pensées) or insufficient, and indispensable to benefit as much as possible from work completed and soon to be available.
This choice also makes it possible to indicate when necessary the variants between various editions of L’Esprit des lois, of which the base text for the Œuvres complètes is that of the first edition, corrected in accordance with indications by Montesquieu between 1750 and 1753; for the Pensées, in cases where it is deemed important, the date of transcription of the passage cited or mentioned is equally indicated.


References take into account the editorial choices relative to each volume. The numerotation of Lettres persanes is that of the edition of 2004 in tome I of the Œuvres complètes and the edition by Philip Stewart which derives from it (Classiques Garnier, 2013), which follows that of the original edition of May 1721. For the reader’s convenience, we have added in parentheses or brackets the numbering of the posthumous edition of 1758, which had been followed by all subsequent editions up to 2004.
Likewise, the numerotation of the chapters of L’Esprit des lois is that of the first editions, 1748-1750 (base text of the edition in preparation) followed in parentheses or brackets by that of the posthumous edition of 1758, also reproduced systematically by all publishers, despite the doubts that cloud a work which Montesquieu had not completed at his death and which he was far from ready to deliver to the printer as it was.
We adopt the numerotation of the Pensées in keeping with the manuscript, which will be that of the edition in preparation. It had appeared in the Louis Desgraves edition (directed by André Masson, Paris: Nagel, t. II, 1953), repeated by Desgraves en 1991 (Paris: Robert Laffont, Bouquins). There was no reason to imitate or even indicate the numerotation of the Roger Caillois edition (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1949-1951), obsolete because it follows the thematic order introduced in the first edition (Barckhausen, 1899-1901).
As for the correspondence, the date ascribed to the letters has often had to be modified to take recent research or research under way into account; their definitive numerotation could be introduced only for those which figure in volumes XVIII (1700-1731) and XIX (1731-1747); for the rest only the date and name of the correspondent are given, which will make it possible to find them easily once these volumes have been published.


In the Œuvres complètes, spelling and punctuation are those of the manuscripts or editions that serve as base texts. They are systematically modernized and harmonized in the Dictionary so that it may fulfill its role as an instrument of research.


We have kept use of abbreviations to a minimum, yet some remain indispensable, notably for simple references. They are the same ones used in the Œuvres complètes and which have become conventional:

OC Œuvres complètes (edition under way, Voltaire Foundation then ENS Éditions / Classiques Garnier)
Catalogue Catalogue de la bibliothèque de Montesquieu à La Brède, published by Louis Desgraves and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, with the collaboration of Françoise Weil, Cahiers Montesquieu 4 (1999); beginning with the end of 2013, this edition will be superseded by an on-line edition complemented by a data base (ENS de Lyon)
EL L’Esprit des lois [The Spirit of Law], 1748
LP Lettres persanes [Persian Letters], 1721
Romains Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence

A short Glossary

In these translations, the title of L’Esprit des lois has often been left in French. Though in English it is conventionally called The Spirit of the Laws, the sense of the title is better rendered, despite the plural in the original, as The Spirit of Law.
The titles of Mes Pensées and the Spicilège likewise remain in French throughout. Le Temple de Gnide is usually translated as The Temple of Gnidus and Lettres persanes as Persian Letters.

Mœurs is generally translated as “mores”, but in some contexts “customs” or “way of living” will do, and sometimes the meaning seems to call for morals or morality.

A Cartesian metaphor for the body, which is purely mechanical in its structure and operations.

Âme is sometimes translated as “mind” because “soul” in English has such religious connotations, and is not easily used, for instance, as it is in French in discussing esthetics. Elsewhere, esprit is often rendered as “mind”, though in some contexts it is better understood as “spirit” and sometimes “wit”.

This term can apply in French, and frequently does, to an “object” of love, i.e. a loved one, and is not limited strictly to things.

A regional supreme court; there were parlements in many provincial capitals, but the most important was in Paris. Not to be confused with the English parliament, which is a legislature.

A magistrate in the parlement.

Rapports, a fundamental concept in Montesquieu, as at the beginning of L’Esprit des lois: “Les lois […] sont les rapports […].”


Catherine Volpilhac-Auger
École normale supérieure de Lyon and Institut universitaire de France