Literary Genres

Annie Becq

1To raise with respect to Montesquieu’s writings the (modern) question of “literary genres” is equivalent to judging that the question – which moreover had no sense in the 18th century and singularly for Montesquieu who refused to isolate “philosophy”: “it is related to everything” (Pensées, no. 126l) – of the assignment of “works of the mind” like L’Esprit des lois to “philosophy” or “literature”, and can be understood as an inquiry into the situation, within discourses reputed to be “literary” in our day, of texts like The Temple of Gnidus or the “sort of novel” that the Persian Letters is, for which Montesquieu claims a founding role in the history of the epistolary novel. That is one of the elements of the historico-critical reflection of a Montesquieu theoretician whose Pensées provide many traces that can sustain inquiry that we have chosen to adopt to try to spell out and articulate these sketches and question Montesquieu himself on “literary genres”.

2Touching on poetry as versified and rhyming discourse whose status is vociferously contested, especially by La Motte, Montesquieu places it in parallel with prose in the same space of beauty (“beautiful prose […] beautiful verse”) from the standpoint of rhythm: “majestic river” for the one and the “forceful” springing up of the latter (Pensées, no. 2101), and it is from the standpoint of putting thought into relief (an aspect usually exploited to the advantage of prose) that he sees an “advantage” in the right to inversions (Pensées, no. 285) for a poetry that is the splendor of meaning rather than the jingle of words, not to mention the silent delectation that arises from the constraint imposed by verse (Pensées, no. 2101) – and not necessarily by rhyme since “rhymed verse is always found when one begins to emerge from early savagery” (Pensées, no. 599), as is “the overwrought, emphatic style” which he observed among the Portuguese, easier to practice than the “naive” style that appears in the following stage (Pensées, no. 554).

3It is indeed in historical perspectives that multiple, brief and scattered remarks take shape: on the epithets in poetry, the more or less necessity of which (Pensées, no. 123) is perhaps explained less by the requirement of a sort of essence than by “the superstitions of pagans, who believed that their gods wanted to be called by a certain name […]. So the poets had to go along. Heroes were treated as gods” (“la superstition des païens, qui croyaient que les dieux voulaient être appelés d'un certain nom [...] Il fallait donc que les poètes s'y accommodassent. Les héros furent traités comme les dieux”, Pensées, no. 134); on fables whose origin Montesquieu situates in the oral traditions: tales of “nurses of the earliest times” and of “old men amusing their grandchildren by the hearth” (“vieillards qui amusent leurs petits-enfants au coin du feu”, Pensées, no. 18), an anonymous background against which an Ovid can emerge (Pensées, no. 1337); on “fictions”, the “essence” of the “epic poem”, as Milton’s success in England shows “since religion there has passed for fiction” (Pensées, no. 1052). Besides, the “Christian system” – which so to speak did the Jews’ system one better by depriving the “very great agent” that is the single God of all “passion”, until such time as the “new philosophy that speaks to us only of general laws” should remove all particular character from him – could only contribute to “the loss of the sublime among us” (Pensées, no. 112). An acute sense that the production and success of “poetic genres” such as the epic depend on an ideological context, whereas the “dramatic poem”, the “nature” of which consists of “movement itself”: “everything in it is action” (whence the legitimacy of the three unities, according to Pensées no. 2076), does not suffer from the disappearance of the “pagan system”: “spectacle of the human heart […] it has less need for the supernatural (Pensées, no. 118), and the satisfaction of the senses and the imagination called for the invention of a modern “genre of spectacle” which is the opera, that draws its supernatural nature from fable (Pensées, no. 119).

4But tragedy is none the less affected by history since the “good situations” required by good tragedies are destined to be exhausted, just as the “good characters […] the distinctive traits” for comedies (the essence of which Montesquieu programs the examination, the vis comica, in action and discourse in Pensées, no. 1149); a kind of cyclic schema that implies the possibility of a renewal in function of those that affect “language”, “mores”, “circumstances” (Pensées, no. 287). How to understand these sorts of cycles? It seems that Greek Antiquity attained, in particular in the dramatic poem, a kind of perfection (Pensées, no. 129) and the “rapidity with which the Greeks went from bad to excellent” contrasts with the “slowness with which the French came as far as Venceslas and Le Cid (Pensées, no. 128): Montesquieu imputes the latter to the “ideas of Holy Scripture” unfortunately imported “into poetry” – a term that takes on a larger meaning in Pensées no. 120, which has the great merit of sketching the analysis of the socio-politico-ideological conditions of good “poetry”, with respect to the “five or six centuries” preceding the Renaissance: a sufficient population of authors, the prestige of poetry practiced by the nobility and an agent of qualification at princely courts, emulation, so many factors of a social order that can give rise to “geniuses” in Europe, but whose effect was cancelled by the ideological weight of Holy Scripture, which in turn the return of the Ancients’ texts would obliterate.

5Finally, the perspective of the abandoned project for a Traité des devoirs [‘Treatise on duty’] (“the attachment to the sciences and the search for truth” are one of the “four heads” under which Cicero “divided the honest”, according to Pensées, no. 1263) seems to have led Montesquieu to wonder about the (indirect) utility of what he indifferently calls letters, sciences, even philosophy, works of the mind in short, in a whole network of items in the Pensées which multiple connecting notes knit beginning with no. 1006 where the objection to Cicero is extended: “He thinks that a good citizen should rather spend his time for his country rather than pursue knowledge. But he does not acknowledge that scholars are very useful to their country” (“II croit qu'un bon citoyen doit plutôt s'employer pour sa patrie que de s'attacher à acquérir des connaissances. Mais il ne fait pas attention que les savants sont très utiles à leur patrie [...]”, Pensées, no. 1263); which leads to attempts to articulate the literary, in the broad classic sense, with the political, from the point of view of “prosperity”: if they are considered “from another standpoint”, we observe that the prosperity of letters is “infallibly the sign or the cause” of the prosperity of empires; whence the sketch of their trajectory in France, in the Roman Empire and then that of the califs and the Turks, following the schema employed in Romains, of unavoidable tipping from prosperity to decadence (whence the recognized privilege of the beginning of monarchies in Pensées, no. 779) the mechanism of which Montesquieu works to clarify in the relatively autonomous sector of French literature of his time: knowledge acquired with difficulty ends up seeming easy, even unworthy, whence much damage among writers and the public caused by the illusion of facility linked to pride (overestimation of oneself and scorn of others) which, given despite all the awareness of an inferiority, leads to the “passion for judging” but especially belittling. Proliferation of satires and parodies that discourage real talents, glorification of ignorance and thus the ruin of production and the degradation of taste, to which excess of “delicacy” also contributes.

6So many sketches of literary history in the modern sense and of a sort of “spirit of letters” that would have exposed its “reasons”, the incompletion of which we can regret.

Bibliographical reference

Becq Annie , « Literary Genres », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :