Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

1Not only is classical antiquity familiar to Montesquieu, it offers him the very matter of his reflection: between the modern world and the ancient, he detects no discontinuity nor especially difference of status – whereas Voltaire looks with suspicion on everything that has come down to us from the authors of Antiquity. It is true that certain notions were unknown to the Ancients, such as a monarchy endowed with a legislative body made up of representatives of its citizens (EL, XI, 8) or the distribution of powers in a monarchy (EL, XI, 9); but that only makes it easier to observe them; it is even the sole guarantee of the pertinence of analyses which must not be the product of a given space and time, but attain the highest level of generality. In this capacity, the history of the Romans, without equal before or afterwards, particularly merits study, whereas the Greek republics constitute an excellent locus for study of republics, of which the Europe of Montesquieu’s time offered few examples. Thus Montesquieu applies what he announced in the Preface of L’Esprit des lois: “When I have been called back to Antiquity, I have sought to adopt its mentality, so as not to consider similar cases that are really different, and not to miss the differences of those that appear similar.” (“Quand j’ai été rappelé à l’Antiquité, j’ai cherché à en prendre l’esprit, pour ne pas regarder comme semblables des cas réellement différents, et ne pas manquer les différences de ceux qui paraissent semblables.”) One can see particularly in Book XXIX of L’Esprit des lois how Montesquieu plays on the resemblances and divergences, by comparing the better to distinguish between them a law of Syracuse and the System of Law, substitutions (a legal term for the replacement of one inheritor of an estate for another) among the Romans and the same practice in France, suicide at various times in Antiquity, the formalities of justice, etc. (ch. 6, 8, 9, 10).

2The morality of the Ancients constitute material particularly worthy of interest, and not their political systems alone; they offer a certain number of enigmas, which the modern observer is content to reject as so many proofs of the irrationality of ancient peoples, or not to try to explain. Montesquieu takes pleasure in resolving such difficulties: thus the importance of music among the Ancients (EL, IV, 8: “Explanation of a paradox of the Ancients with respect to mores”), or the surprising punishment of an Areopagite whose crime was killing a sparrow (EL, V, 19): “[…] this was not the condemnation of a crime, but a moral judgment in a republic founded on morality” (“[…] il ne s’agit point là d’une condamnation pour crime, mais d’un jugement de mœurs dans une république fondée sur les mœurs”). Geography enables surprising rapprochements, or rather contrasts, for the general spirit can be quite different between neighboring peoples: “One would not have better taken advantage of an Athenian by boring him than of a Lacedaemonian by entertaining him” (“On n’aurait pas plus tiré parti d’un Athénien en l’ennuyant, que d’un Lacédémonien en le divertissant ”, EL, XIX, 7). The very foundation of L’Esprit des lois, or one of its goals, is to explain that which at first appears inexplicable, contradictory or paradoxical. Still one must start with the principle that the ancient Greeks or Romans were no different from the Europeans of modern times, and that one can apply to their institutions, however bizarre they may appear (thus ostracism, EL, XXVI, 17), a principle of intelligibility. This explains in particular his interest for Homer, who to him is not simply a great poet: he introduces us into an irreducibly different world; thus it is as an observer of customs wrongly judged to be strange or even aberrant that Montesquieu takes notes on that author (Rotta); whence these two remarks typical of the interest he takes in him:
– “It seems to me that Homer mentions silver much less frequently than other metals; and it seems to me that gold was in more common use among them. I scarcely find him at all mentioning silver.” (“Il me semble qu’Homère parle beaucoup plus des autres métaux que de l’argent ; et il me semble que l’or était chez eux plus en usage. Je ne vois guère qu’il parle de l’argent”)
– “One can see that the Greeks, who had different mores and different common law than we do and a different religion, did not have the same notion of generosity as we do” (“On voit que les Grecs qui avaient d’autres mœurs et d’autres droits des gens que nous et une autre religion n’avaient pas la même idée de générosité que nous”, Bordeaux, BM, ms 2526/2, f. 5-6 ; OC, t. XVII, 2017, p. 595). Is it therefore the study of mores (perhaps today we would say of “mentalities”) that gives him the key to the Romans’ destiny? That is in any case what is said in a projected preface, ultimately rejected, for the Considérations: “The history of the Romans has been sought in their laws, their customs, their organization, in private letters, their treaties with their neighbors, the mores of the peoples with whom they dealt […] » (“On a cherché l’histoire des Romains dans leurs lois, dans leurs coutumes, dans leur police, dans les lettres des particuliers, dans leurs traités avec leurs voisins, dans les mœurs des peuples avec qui ils ont eu affaire […]”, OC, t. II, p. 315-316).

3One aspect in particular drew his attention: the “crime against nature”, mentioned on several occasions (EL, VII, 9 ; XII, 6) – though homosexuality was a sensitive subject, sternly condemned in the 18th century; Montesquieu, who does not attempt to excuse it in cities “where a blind vice ran rampant, and love took only one form” (“où un vice aveugle régnait d’une manière effrénée, où l’amour n’avait qu’une forme”, VII, 9), tries to understand it; he takes care each time to place it in its historical, social, and political context, and invokes Plutarch to explain, in a chapter in which he berates the “petty souls” (petites âmes) of women in monarchies, that they can take “no part” in “true love” in Greece (ibid.). The will to understand societies very distant chronologically or geographically from modern ones, and to explain each by the other: this intention motivates the entire work of Montesquieu.

4This implies no idealization on his part: to trust the Ancients is not to devote religious admiration to them, or to be devoid of critical spirit. Quite the contrary, Montesquieu never stops denouncing the treachery and the cruelty of the Romans. To be sure, they can appear as veritable models: “I feel confident in my maxims, when I have the Romans on my side” (“Je me trouve fort dans mes maximes, lorsque j'ai pour moi les Romains”), Montesquieu remarks when he is studying the juridical systems in various governments (EL, VI, 15). But if he admires them, it is in no case on a moral plane; he is above all impressed by the admirable efficiency of the Romans, by their manner of achieving their goal with a perfect economy of means and a sure awareness of their interests. If one wants to know how a people can achieve its ends, one must examine the Romans. Thus the passage from monarchy to republic, which has been lauded as coming from his aspiration to freedom: “One of two things was bound to happen: either that Rome would change its government, or that it would remain a small and poor monarchy” (“Il devait arriver de deux choses l’une : ou que Rome changerait son gouvernement, ou qu’elle resterait une petite et pauvre monarchie”, Romans, I; OC, t. II, p. 91). Rome’s ambition being clearly established from the start, everything gets going in a process that is unstoppable. Similarly, if it is traditional, in ancient historiography, to recognize the manner in which the Romans were able to adopt their enemies’ armament when it was superior to their own, it is specific to Montesquieu to see a methodical plan in that capacity for adaptation. For them all means are good; their fall would come from their failure to see their common interest, when the armies, emperors, senators, and people would begin to pursue only their individual interests – which is what happens when they turn into conquerors, or rather when the conquest goes beyond Italy, or even the limits of their small province: yet their vocation was precisely to be conquerors, since they were constantly at war with their neighbors… That is why the Romans deserve to be known: because from them derives a real knowledge of war and politics, and in talking about the Romans, one can talk about completely contemporary problems without the risk of censorship.

5But there are other features that attract Montesquieu, like the ancient art which he had discovered in Italy (though the digs in Herculanum had not yet begun, and he could not make the same observations as the president de Brosses a few years later). These things are mentioned in his Voyages (OC, t. X), thanks to a great lover of antique sculpture, the Cardinal de Polignac, whom he frequented in Rome in 1729, and [‣], in which Montesquieu raises questions about the reasons for which the Greeks had achieved perfection in the field of sculpture. Ancient techniques, like all that had been lost in the realm of works and thought, retain his attention, for one might hope to reconstitute this forgotten mastery. In Florence, the gallery of the Grand Duke (OC, t. X) now provided him many objects for admiration and reflection.

6Are we speaking of literature or art? “I confess that one of the things that has most charmed me in the Ancients’ works is that they capture the great and the simple, whereas among our moderns it almost always happens that in seeking the great, they lose the simple, or in seeking the simple, lose the great. It seems to me that I see in some lovely, broad countrysides, with their simplicity, and in others the gardens of a rich man, with groves and flowerbeds.” (“J’avoue qu’une des choses qui m’a le plus charmé dans les ouvrages des anciens, c’est qu’ils attrapent en même temps le grand et le simple, au lieu qu’il arrive presque toujours que nos modernes, en cherchant le grand, perdent le simple, ou en cherchant le simple, perdent le grand. Il me semble que je vois dans les uns de belles et vastes campagnes avec leur simplicité, et dans les autres les jardins d’un homme riche avec des bosquets et des parterres.”, Pensées, no. 117). This aptitude for the sublime comes from a “naïveté” which in turn seems now beyond reach. The disappearance of paganism finally entailed the impoverishment of poetry (Martin 2007): “We owe the cheerful air which is everywhere in fable to the country life that men lived in early times. We owe to it those happy descriptions, the naïve adventures, the gracious divinities, the spectacle of a state so different from ours as to be desired, and not so remote as to seem implausible; finally, the admixture of passions and tranquility. Our imagination laughs at Diana, Pan, Apollo, the Nymphs, the groves, prairies, and fountains. If the earliest men had lived as we in our cities, the poets could not have described for us what we see every day with disquiet, or feel with distaste.” (“Nous devons à la vie champêtre que l’homme menait dans les premiers temps cet air riant répandu dans toute la fable. Nous lui devons ces descriptions heureuses, ces aventures naïves, ces divinités gracieuses, ce spectacle d’un état assez différent du nôtre pour le désirer, et qui n’en est pas assez éloigné pour choquer la vraisemblance, enfin, ce mélange de passions et de tranquillité. Notre imagination rit à Diane, à Pan, à Apollon, aux Nymphes, aux bois, aux prés, aux fontaines. Si les premiers hommes avaient vécu comme nous dans les villes, les poètes n’auraient pu nous décrire que ce que nous voyons tous les jours avec inquiétude, ou que nous sentons avec dégoût.”, Pensées, no. 108; a passage repeated in Essai sur le goût ; see also Pensées, nos. 112, 114, 115). His reading of the poets continues late into his life: it is only after the publication of L’Esprit des lois that he takes careful notes on Homer, finds not only the material for a genuine history of mentalities, as we have said, but also where, like Pope, he admires the diversity of characters (Martin 2005). He simultaneously admires Vergil and Fénelon, thus demonstrating that he is far from pledging allegiance to the Ancients, and that in the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns he takes care not to adopt a purely doctrinal position (Martin 2005).

7Obviously one could study each aspect of the vast ancient literature which he knew so well (see the article “Latin writers”). For poetry let us take just Ovid, in whom he sees “nothing to eliminate”, for he does not possess “too much wit”, as was often said of him at the time (Pensées, no. 2180); or yet Lucretius, whose invocation to Venus he quotes at the beginning of Book XXIII of L’Esprit des lois, devoted to “population” – as the Invocation to the Muses, this passage does not appear in the manuscript prior to publication, and from all appearances was also added in the very last phase of writing (1747), when Montesquieu was feeling the need to relieve his reader and reinforce the “poetic” dimension of his work. History is obviously his chosen domain, beginning with Florus, who was the basis of the Historia romana dictated to him when he was schoolboy (OC, t. VIII), but especially frequently cites in the Essai sur le goût for his taste for the well-struck formula, to Tacitus, his guide as much for the early foundations of germanic society (and therefore of the French monarchy, which had its roots in the frankish nation) as for the denunciation of the law of lese-majesty under Tiberius. Eighteenth-century philosophy is more Latin than Greek, and Montesquieu is not about to grant too much to metaphysics; of Aristotle and Plato he retains mostly their political dimension, prefering to reread the Latin authors, Seneca – some – and Cicero – a great deal. The latter is assuredly the author most admired by Montesquieu, for he was at once a man of action and a philosopher, and what a philosopher! The one who does not let himself be impressed by a philosophical “sect”, and packs them all off together (Notes sur Cicéron, OC, t. XVII, and Discours sur Cicéron, OC, t. IX), and was himself a Stoic, among the most remarkable of them (Larrère). But he was also a statesman, and very simply a man, with his weaknesses, like those of his time: “We can see in the letters of a few great men of that time, which have been placed under the name of Cicero because most of them are his, the discouragement and despair of the early republicans at this abrupt revolution […]. And this is better seen in these letters than in the historians’ versions: they are the masterpiece of naïveté of people united by a common grief and an era when fake civility had not made the lie omnipresent; finally, we do not see in them, as in most modern letters, people who intend to deceive each other, but unhappy friends who strive to tell each other everything.” (“On peut voir dans les lettres de quelques grands hommes de ce temps-là, qu’on a mises sous le nom de Cicéron parce que la plupart sont de lui, l’abattement et le désespoir des premiers hommes de la République à cette révolution subite […]. Et cela se voit bien mieux dans ces lettres que dans les discours des historiens : elles sont le chef-d’œuvre de la naïveté de gens unis par une douleur commune et d’un siècle où la fausse politesse n’avait pas mis le mensonge partout ; enfin on n’y voit point, comme dans la plupart de nos lettres modernes, des gens qui veulent se tromper, mais des amis malheureux qui cherchent à se tout dire.”, Romains, XI ; OC, t. II, p. 174). Such familiarity which introduces one into the heart of history is what allowed Montesquieu distance himself appropriately from his enterprise in Romains as in L’Esprit des lois, and which enabled him to adopt the “spirit” of Antiquity.


Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Tacite et Montesquieu, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 1985.

“L’image d’Auguste dans les Considérations”, in Storia e ragione, ed. Alberto Postigliola, Napoli: Liguori, 1986, p. 159-168.

Tacite en France de Montesquieu à Chateaubriand, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 1993.

Patrick Andrivet, “Montesquieu et Cicéron: de l’enthousiasme à la sagesse”, Mélanges offerts à Jean Ehrard, Paris : Nizet, 1992, p. 25-34.

Représentations politiques de l’ancienne Rome des débuts de l’âge classique à la Révolution, thesis (part 4), Clermont-Ferrand II, 1993.

Salvatore Rotta, “L’Homère de Montesquieu”, in Homère en France après la Querelle, 1715-1900, ed. Françoise Létoublon and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Paris: Champion, 1999, p. 141-149.

Catherine Larrère, “Le stoïcisme dans les œuvres de jeunesse de Montesquieu”, dans Montesquieu. Les années de formation, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 5, 1999, p. 163-183.

Vanessa de Senarclens, Montesquieu historien de Rome: un tournant pour la réflexion sur le statut de l’histoire au XVIIIe siècle, Genève: Droz, 2003.

Christophe Martin, “Une apologétique ‘moderne’ des Anciens: la querelle d’Homère dans les Pensées de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 7, 2003-2004, p. 67-83.

“‘L’esprit parleur’: notes de lecture de Montesquieu sur Homère, Virgile, Fénelon et quelques autres”, in Montesquieu, œuvre ouverte ? (1748-1755), Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, 2005, p. 271-291., Pierre Rétat ed., 2006.

Christophe Martin, “‘Nos mœurs et notre religion manquent à l’esprit poétique’: la poésie des ‘temps héroïques’ selon Montesquieu”, Du goût à l’esthétique : Montesquieu, ed. Jean Ehrard et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Pessac: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007, p. 79-103.