Genovesi, Antonio

Philippe Audegean

1Abbé Genovesi (1713-1769) is a figure of the first order in the Neapolitan, Italian and European Enlightenment. Professor at the University of Naples from 1741 to his death, he first taught metaphysics, then ethics beginning in 1745. In 1754, he obtained a chair created for him under the designation “di commercio e di meccanica”, and then became the world’s first professor of economics. This promotion crowned the efforts of Bartolomeo Intieri, a Tuscan entrepreneur who encouraged the reforms carried out by the Bourbon monarchy and participated in the diffusion of new ideas. Around him was formed a circle which, only a few months after the publication of L’Esprit des lois, read and discussed it passionately.

2Although all had an essentially didactic calling, Genovesi’s works fall into two groups. The Latin Metaphysics of the first period (1743-1752) does not manifest the audacity of the later works and almost all the works written in Italian. Outside of a Logic, itself reduced to a theory of language, his Enlightenment manuals after that take on practical questions: morality, natural law, economy, history of mores; they give a large place to the empiricism inherited from Locke, to modern jusnaturalism, and to theories of the “gentle commerce”. The object of sincere and fervent admiration, L’Esprit des lois y is often cited there as a work of reference; yet Genovesi does not spare his criticisms, contemplated since the discussions around Intieri, against a work which he judges excessively systematic.

3Genovesi played not the slightest role in the first Italian edition, a partial one, of L’Esprit des lois (Naples, 1750). At his death, he left a copy of the French text (the Richer edition of 1757) annotated in his own hand, probably from 1765 on. The Neapolitan bookseller Domenico Torres takes from it the substance of the Notes which he published in 1777 in the third Italian edition of L’Esprit des lois, based on the translation published in Venice, with the false rubric of Amsterdam, in 1773. These Notes accompany the progress of the text at irregular intervals up to book XXI. They enjoyed considerable fortune in Italy, since they were constantly reprinted in the margins or as an appendix of Montesquieu’s book, until Sergio Cotta’s critical edition in 1952. Of essentially critical character, these Notes condense the objections thought through by Genovesi throughout his work. According to Enrico De Mas, the most important have to do not with the content of L’Esprit des lois, but with Montesquieu’s method, the originality of which the Neapolitan philosopher is one of the first to have grasped. All the same, he reached an examination of that method only in the framework of a basic critique aimed at the spirit of system which, in his mind, constantly kept Montesquieu separated from the nature of things: this book which ought justly to be celebrated as a “code of the human race” is nevertheless also a “novel of the human race”.

4Genovesi’s Notes privilege two groups of texts, the very ones the themes of which had attracted the attention of the first Neapolitan readers.

51) The climate theory. The Logic accuses Montesquieu of committing an “accident sophism”: from a purely accidental principal he draws essential consequences for mores and institutions, and which are moreover refuted by many counter-examples; but it still recognizes his merit in taking up the lesson of Locke, in not dissociating the moral and civil sciences from the sciences of nature. Genovesi knows then that L’Esprit des lois does not examine the ethical and juridical value of legislation, and is seeking only their cause. However, the Notes reproach him for ignoring, among the causes, the dynamics of self-interest, and submitting morality to blind forces devoid of intelligence. By ignoring the fact that the causes are more moral than natural, Montesquieu also commits a political mistake, for he deprives men of the mastery of their destiny. But no law is absolute, and the motor of history is indeed private initiative and the light of reason: political progress will therefore proceed from the renaissance of letters and sciences.

62) The question of republican virtue. The tripartition of L’Esprit des lois (republic, monarchy, despotism) is too rigid: established out of pure spirit of system, it is refuted by historical reality. For having underestimated the power of self-interest, Montesquieu showed himself excessively confident about human virtues: but no government can do without either fear, nor honor, nor virtue. It is all the more impossible to determine a priori the number of forms of government that each form depends on the physical and spiritual conditions of a given people. Finally, Montesquieu attributed to institutions a determining causal role that mores alone possess. Now the problem is not so much the forms of government as the men who govern: the best government is the one in which the best men govern. The true political question is thus that of the progress of mores.


Enrico De Mas, Montesquieu, Genovesi e le edizioni italiane dello “Spirito delle leggi”, Florence: Le Monnier, 1971.

Eluggero Pii, Antonio Genovesi: dalla politica economica alla “politica civile”, Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1984.

Salvatore Rotta, “Montesquieu nel Settecento italiano: note e ricerche”, Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica, G. Tarello ed., vol. I, Bologne: Il Mulino, 1971, p. 55-209, esp. p. 206 and ssq. (online on the Eliohs website :

Paola Zambelli, La formazione filosofica di Antonio Genovesi, Naples: Morano, 1972.

Eluggero Pii, Antonio Genovesi. Dalla politica economica alla ”politica civile”, Florence: Olschki, 1984.

Piero Venturelli, “Considerazioni sui lettori di Montesquieu (XVIII-XX secolo)”, 1 (1999).

Girolamo Imbruglia, “Due opposte letture napoletane dell’Esprit des lois : Genovesi e Personè”, Montesquieu e i suoi interpreti, Domenico Felice dir., Pise: ETS, 2005, vol. I, p. 191-210.

Bibliographical reference

Audegean Philippe , « Genovesi, Antonio », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :