Lorenzo Bianchi

1If we take the classical definition of atheism as absence or negation of God, we must state that Montesquieu always observed an entirely negative and critical attitude with respect to atheism. This refutation, constant throughout his life, also allows us better to understand his position with respect to different philosophical or religious questions, such as materialism or deism.

2For Montesquieu, the existence of God is self-evident and even requires no demonstration, but in fact is corroborated by the principle of causality, which proves the existence of divinity: “As for M. Bayle’s atheists, the least reflection suffices to cure a man of atheism. He has only to consider the heavens, and he will find there an invincible proof of the existence of God. He is not excusable when he fails to see the Divinity depicted in everything about him: for once he sees effects, he must perforce admit a cause” (“Quant aux athées de M. Bayle, la moindre réflexion suffit à l’homme pour se guérir de l’athéisme. Il n’a qu’à considérer les cieux, et il y trouvera une preuve invincible de l’existence de Dieu. Il n’est point excusable lorsqu’il ne voit point la Divinité peinte dans tout ce qui l’entoure : car, dès qu’il voit des effets, il faut bien qu’il admette une cause”, Pensées, no. 1946). For Montesquieu as for Newton, the order and constitution of the world refers us necessarily to a cause, therefore to the existence of God: As we have always seen, when we see some watch or other machine, that some artisan who has made it, in the same way, when we see the world, we judge that some superior being who has made it. As we see that everything that occurs in the world has a cause, and we see that matter exists, we judge that there is some other being which causes the existence of matter. (Pensées, no. 1096 : “Objections which atheists can make, and to which I shall respond”).Comme nous avons toujours vu, lorsque nous voyons quelque montre ou quelque autre machine, que c’est quelque artisan qui l’a faite, de même, lorsque nous voyons le monde, nous jugeons que c’est quelque être supérieur qui l’a fait. Comme nous voyons que tout ce qui se fait dans le monde a une cause, et que nous voyons la matière exister, nous jugeons qu’il y a quelque autre être qui est la cause de l’existence de la matière. (Pensées, no 1096 : « Objections que peuvent faire les athées, et auxquelles je répondrai »)
In these conditions, if philosophers have put forward from time to time the hypothesis of atheism – as in Bayle’s case – it can only be a pure “sophism”, very dangerous for society.

3But Montesquieu the Cartesian, the Montesquieu who maintains “that it is certain even that before M. Descartes philosophy had no proofs of the immateriality of the soul” (“qu’il est même certain qu’avant M. Descartes, la philosophie n’avait point des preuves de l’immatérialité de l’âme ”, Pensées, no. 1946), in order to combat atheism also has recourse to Pascal’s argumentation: “M. Pascal’s argument: ‘You gain more by believing and you gain nothing by not believing’, very good against atheists. But he does not establish one religion rather than another” (“L’argument de M. Pascal, ‘Vous gagnez tout à croire et ne gagnez rien à ne pas croire’, très bon contre les athées. Mais il n’établit pas une religion plutôt qu’une autre”, Pensées, no. 374). The condemnation of atheism therefore does not resolve the problem of the choice among religions, of which Montesquieu, his whole life long, would try to grasp the political and social function.

4Despite the refutation of atheism, Montesquieu accepts, at least in his youth, some materialist hypotheses. In the Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle (1719), a writing where he exposes his observations about certain animals and plants, he criticizes the preformist theory of the “moderns” and comes to the notion of a “general movement of matter” which can explain all the phenomena of the vegetation of plants” solely by means of the laws of matter and motion. Thus he formulates the heterodox hypothesis of a spontaneous generation of matter, declaring himself to be a disciple of Descartes and even “a strict Cartesian”: “[…] those who follow the opinion which we embrace can rightly claim to be strict Cartesians, whereas those who allow a particular providence of God in the production of plants that is other than the general movement of matter are attenuated Cartesians who have abandoned their master’s rule” (“[…] ceux qui suivent l’opinion que nous embrassons peuvent se vanter d’être cartésiens rigides, au lieu que ceux qui admettent une providence particulière de Dieu dans la production des plantes, différente du mouvement général de la matière, sont des cartésiens mitigés qui ont abandonné la règle de leur maître”, Essai d’observations sur l’histoire naturelle, OC, t. VIII, p. 213). We find this same notion of the movement and organization of matter in a passage of the 1720s: “One can say that everything is animated, everything organized. In the slightest blade of grass one can see millions of brains. Everything dies and is born incessantly. So many animals that have been recognized only by chance must indeed lead us to expect others. The matter which has had a general movement, by which the order of the heavens was formed, must have particular movements which impel it toward organization” (“On peut dire que tout est animé, tout organisé. Le moindre fil d’herbe fait voir des millions de cerveaux. Tout meurt et renaît sans cesse. Tant d’animaux qui n’ont été reconnus que par hasard doivent bien en faire soupçonner d’autres. La matière qui a eu un mouvement général, par lequel s’est formé l’ordre des cieux, doit avoir des mouvements particuliers qui la portent à l’organisation”, Pensées, no. 76). Thus Montesquieu, who never accepted atheism, distinguishes it from the materialism to which he seemed close in his youth.

5Atheism in itself is unsustainable from the philosophical point of view, but too often the accusation of atheism is mistakenly formulated against new philosophical systems by the apologists of religion: “I do not know how it happens that it is impossible to form a system of the world without being immediately accused of atheism: Descartes, Newton, Gassendi, Malebranche. All that is accomplished is to prove atheism and give it strength, by creating the impression that atheism is so natural that all systems, however different from each other, always tend toward it” (“Je ne sais comment il arrive qu’il est impossible de former un système du monde sans être d’abord accusé d’athéisme : Descartes, Newton, Gassendi, Malebranche. En quoi on ne fait autre chose que prouver l’athéisme et lui donner des forces, en faisant croire que l’athéisme est si naturel que tous les systèmes, quelque différents qu’ils soient, y tendent toujours”, Spicilège, no. 565).

6The idea, close to deism, that the existence of God requires neither philosophical proofs nor theological debates is put forward in the Persian Letters: “My dear Rhedi, why so much philosophy? God is so lofty that we do not even see his clouds” (“Mon cher Rhedi, pourquoi tant de philosophie? Dieu est si haut que nous n’apercevons pas même ses nuages”, LP, [‣]). And if the existence of God is always assured, religion is reduced to pure morality: one is neither a better Christian nor a better citizen for arguing endlessly about religion, “for, under whatever religion you live, observance of the laws, the love of men, and piety towards one’s parents are always the first acts of religion” (“car, dans quelque religion qu’on vive, l’observation des lois, l’amour pour les hommes, la piété envers les parents, sont toujours les premiers actes de religion”, LP, [‣]). Religion thus manifests its civil and moral function and Montesquieu puts the idea of God into a relationship with that of justice: “If there is a God […] he must necessarily be just. […] Justice is a relation of proportion […]; this relation is always the same, whatever being considers it, whether it be God, an angel, or indeed a man.” (“S’il y a un Dieu […] il faut nécessairement qu’il soit juste […] La justice est un rapport de convenance […] ce rapport est toujours le même, quelque être qui le considère, soit que ce soit Dieu, soit que ce soit un ange, ou enfin que ce soit un homme”, LP, [‣]).

7Although from his earlier writings, like the Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion (1716), Montesquieu defended the necessity of religion, he engaged in a systematic critique of atheism only in L’Esprit des lois and, in particular, in the pages where he condemns the paradoxes of Bayle. There he places religion among the various elements that govern men and make up the “general spirit” (EL, XIX, 4), while observing that in his analysis of the social function of religion he is not “a theologian, but a political writer” (EL, XXIV, 1). Religion is thus a constant factor in every society, which determines the form of its government. It follows from this that the Baylian hypothesis of a society of atheists is false and something of a sophism. In the course of two chapters (EL, XXIV, 2 et 6), Montesquieu – who devotes two books (XXIV and XXV) of L’Esprit des lois to the relationships between religion and the laws in civil society – critiques Bayle’s idea according to which such a society is possible. Bayle pretends to prove “that it is better to be an atheist than an idolater; which is to say, in other words, that it is less dangerous to have no religion at all than to have a bad one”, but “this is nothing but a sophism” (“qu’il vaut mieux être athée qu’idolâtre ; c’est-à-dire, en d’autres termes, qu’il est moins dangereux de n’avoir point du tout de religion, que d’en avoir une mauvaise […] ce n’est qu’un sophisme”, EL, XXIV, 2). For Montesquieu, “to say that religion is not a repressive motive because it does not always repress, is to say that the civil laws are not a repressive motive either. It is poor reasoning against religion to gather in a large tome a long enumeration of the evils it has produced, if one does not do likewise for the good things it has done” (“dire que la religion n’est pas un motif réprimant, parce qu’elle ne réprime pas toujours, c’est dire que les lois civiles ne sont pas un motif réprimant non plus. C’est mal raisonner contre la religion, de rassembler dans un grand ouvrage une longue énumération des maux qu’elle a produit, si l’on ne fait de même celle des biens qu’elle a faits”). Moreover, religion is very useful to rulers, for it is “the only restraint that those who do not fear human laws can have” (“le seul frein que ceux qui ne craignent point les lois humaines puissent avoir”). The problem then is to know “what is the least evil, the occasional abuses of religion, or that there be none at all among men” (“quel est le moindre mal, que l’on abuse quelquefois de la religion, ou qu’il n’y en ait point du tout parmi les hommes”). Incidentally, Montesquieu is persuaded that “to diminish the horror of atheism too much onus is placed on idolatry” (“pour diminuer l’horreur de l’athéisme on charge trop l’idolâtrie”, EL, XXIV, 2).

8Bayle’s other paradox specifically concerns the Christian religion: “M. Bayle, after insulting all religions, affronts the Christian religion: he dares to suggest that true Christians would not create a state capable of lasting” (“Monsieur Bayle, après avoir insulté toutes les religions, flétrit la religion chrétienne : il ose avancer que des véritables chrétiens ne formeroient pas un État qui pût subsister”, EL, XXIV, 6). On the contrary, “the principles of Christianity, well engraved in the heart, would be infinitely stronger that the false honor of monarchies, the human virtues of republics, and the servile fear of despotic states” (“les principes du christianisme, bien gravés dans le coeur, seraient infiniment plus forts que ce faux honneur des monarchies, ces vertus humaines des républiques, et cette crainte servile des Etats despotiques”). Bayle has “not known the spirit of his own religion” (“méconnu l’esprit de sa propre religion”), and has not “known how to distinguish the orders for the establishment of Christianity from Christianity itself, nor the precepts of the Gospel from its counsels” (“su distinguer les ordres pour l’établissement du christianisme d’avec le christianisme même, ni les préceptes de l’Évangile d’avec ses conseils”, EL, XXIV, 6).

9If Bayle’s paradoxes are absurd, and if atheism for Montesquieu is an insupportable hypothesis, religion, which occupies a central place in human society, can be the object of different sentiments: “The pious man and the atheist are always talking about religion; the one speaks of what he loves, and the other of what he fears” (“L’homme pieux et l’athée parlent toujours de religion ; l’un parle de ce qu’il aime, et l’autre de ce qu’il craint”, EL, XXV, 1). And it is beginning with these first words of the first chapter of Book XXV condemning atheism that he analyzes in the next fourteen chapters the role of religion in the state.

10In the Défense de l’Esprit des lois Montesquieu, who defends himself against accusations of Spinozism and deism, returns to atheism, which he distinguishes from natural religion, the latter furnishing him with principles for refuting the former: “I […] say that to confuse natural religion with atheism is to confuse the proof with what one wants to prove, and the objection to error with the error itself; it is to remove the powerful weapons we have against that error” (“Je […] dis que confondre la religion naturelle avec l’athéisme, c’est confondre la preuve avec la chose qu’on veut prouver, et l’objection contre l’erreur avec l’erreur même; que c’est ôter les armes puissantes que l’on a contre cette erreur”). On the contrary, natural religion can “prove revelation against the deists” and “prove the existence of God against the atheists” (“prouver la révélation contre les déistes » and « prouver l’existence de Dieu contre les athées”, Defense of The Spirit of Law, I, ii, tenth objection; OC, t. VII, p. 85-86).

11This refutation of atheism contains, moreover, a notion of religion specific to Montesquieu. According to Shackleton – who criticizes Sergio Cotta’s hypothesis of a Montesquieu who is, after all, a Catholic – the President inclines rather for deism, even if he never totally abandons Christianity, to which in L’Esprit des lois he attributes a moderating fonction in society (EL, XXIV, 3).

12Montesquieu, even if he occasionally yielded to materialist temptations, did not cease to criticize atheism his whole life long, and always considered religion as a social necessity the “repressive motive” (motif réprimant) of which he appreciated. Spurning atheism, Montesquieu nevertheless adopts with respect to religion an historical and political approach which is clarified in L’Esprit des lois. There religion is placed in the middle of a complex network of “physical and moral” causes and is analyzed as a social phenomenon which determines the forms of government. Thus, despite the critique of Bayle’s paradox of the atheists and despite the author’s personal conviction, close to deism and far removed from any atheism, Montesquieu, through his analysis of the relations between nature, history, mores and laws, situates himself at the heart of the movement which is critical of religion in the Enlightenment by assigning to it a social status, conditioned by natural (climate) and historical causes.


Sergio Cotta, Montesquieu e la scienza della società, Torino: Ramella, 1953; “La funzione politica della religione secondo Montesquieu”, Rivista internazionale di filosofia del diritto, 43 (1966), p. 482-603.

Roger Caillois, “Montesquieu et l’athéisme contemporain”, in Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas,1956, p. 327-338.

Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux, 1956, p. 287-294, reprinted in Robert Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, ed. D. Gilson and M. Smith, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 109-116.

Lorenzo Bianchi, “Montesquieu naturaliste”, Montesquieu: les années de formation (1689-1720), Cahiers Montesquieu 5, 1999, p. 109-124; “Histoire et nature : la religion dans L’Esprit des lois”, in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 289-304.

Denis de Casabianca, “Des objections sans réponse? À propos de la tentation matérialiste de Montesquieu dans les Pensées”, Revue Montesquieu 7 (2005),