Relations [Rapports]

Denis Casabianca

1The notion of relations [rapports] is central to L’Esprit des lois both for the role it plays in the definitions of laws in book I and for the use Montesquieu makes of it throughout the work. But the notion seems elusive, because he uses “all the possible meanings” (Courtois, p. 68) of the word in his research, and introduces the term in the first chapter with a metaphysical vocabulary and context of which no trace is to be found in the remainder of the work. One can tell that it is essential to Montesquieu’s discourse about laws, but it is difficult to understand the ensemble of its apparitions. Relations are everywhere present and that is precisely what makes their order disappear. One can be tempted to hang onto the initial definition of laws, but such a reversion to the order of the first chapter is insufficient insofar as its interpretation is extremely open. That comes from the fact that the notion of relation, in the context of the first chapter, can be understood in all the senses, and can refer as well to a traditional metaphysical structure as to a revolutionary scientific vocabulary. While we must, to be sure, examine the redoubtable first chapter (Goldzink, p. 107-119), we must not think that in this place in the text a “theory of the law-relation” is fully set forth. In this first book, the term rapports (here always in the plural) intervenes in two important instances: in the initial definition of laws in the first chapter and in the “final” definition of the spirit of law, which communicates the sense of Montesquieu’s enterprise (EL, I, 3). The notion of relations concerns both what laws are and what the spirit of law is. So we must first examine the movement that leads from one definition to the other to illuminate the author’s “design”.

2Beginning by abruptly defining laws “in their broadest meaning” (“dans la signification la plus étendue”) as “necessary relations that derive from the nature of things” (“rapports nécessaires qui dérivent de la nature des choses”, EL, I, 1), Montesquieu posits the univocal and universal quality of the law. He thus reduces the traditional distinction that was made among imperatives, which apply to free beings, and constant correlations, which go along with inanimate things ; by putting “necessary relations” (rapports nécessaires) forward, he seems to reverse the pre-eminence of moral obligation in favor of physical necessity. Montesquieu was to be reproached for this conflation: “a law is not a relation, and a relation is not a law” (“une loi n’est pas un rapport, et un rapport n’est pas une loi”, Destutt de Tracy, Commentaire sur “L’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, 1811 [Caen: Université de Caen, 1992, p. 1]). Given the cosmological context in which this definition is stated, this voluntary change of meaning is perceived as a polemical intention and a materialist bias. “Laws of relations! Is that conceivable?… Yet the author did not change the ordinary definition of laws without design” (“Les lois des rapports ! Cela se conçoit-il ?… Cependant l’auteur n’a pas changé la définition ordinaire des lois sans dessein.”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, first objection, OC, t. VII, p. 72). The shock came not so much from the idea that nature has its laws as the fact that categories reserved for material bodies were being applied to the created being and to God. The theologians at the Sorbonne compare this definition to what is said about climate beginning in book XIV, or rather those books are read on the basis of this initial interpretation as an attempt to reduce legislations to material determinations, unavailable to evaluation from a moral standpoint since all transcendent finality has been voided in book I. Religion seems to be the target of such an apparatus, since it is itself studied according to the variety of climates. For them it is the expression “necessary relations” that leads to the accusation of Spinozism (Montesquieu indeed notes the association of ideas in Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part one, OC, t. VII, p. 73). This conception of law would lead to depriving man of God and his freedom; it would be fundamentally immoral and anti-religious.

3It is only in a second phase that a strictly physical interpretation of “relations” and the “law-relation” (loi-rapport), taken from their metaphysical context, appeared, even if one can see its origin in 18th-century readings. What was condemned by the “theologians” was then the admiration of the “sociologists”, those who, like Comte, saw in Montesquieu a precursor of the social sciences: “from the beginning, by this admirable preliminary chapter where, for the first time since the original flight of human reason, the general idea of law is finally directly defined” (“dès le début, par cet admirable chapitre préliminaire où, pour la première fois depuis l’essor primitif de la raison humaine, l’idée générale de loi se trouve enfin directement définie”, 47th lesson of Cours de philosophie positive, Paris: Flammarion, 1995). The theologian finds the “change in definition” suspect, he who promotes a science of politics sees in this novelty the very sign of modernity (Althusser, p. 31). The application to societies of the “Newtonian” category of law produces a new vision of history. The paragraph of the first chapter on the movement of bodies appears as the physicist’s anchorage of the text (EL, I, 1); it enables us to understand the relations according to relations of causality and to require a search for the “causes”, physical or moral, of the social phenomena in the rest of the work. These words of praise have a counterpart: we have to observe that Montesquieu maintains at the same time a traditional definition of law, when he speaks of “relations of equity” for example (“scientific law disappears behind law-order” (“la loi scientifique disparaît derrière la loi-ordre”, Althusser, p. 38). It would then fit into the tradition of natural law, whether this twist be interpreted as a refuge or as an ideological “bias”. We would then have a perspective of objective and modern study of social phenomena, the opposite of a normative perspective, inherited from jusnaturalism; a double project and a two-faced author, Montesquieu scientific and moralist.

4These two readings suppose a restriction of meaning opposed to the breadth of the signification that Montesquieu gives in his definition: whether to praise or accuse him, the reading is always critical, in other words it reproaches Montesquieu for maintaining a false sense of law. Yet if he defines laws as relations, that is because he thinks that this definition enables him to understand the ensemble of laws without confusing them in the process, and the chapter moreover attempts to indicate how it is that the relations which various beings have with the laws are not the same. In other words, there is no way everything can be brought back to the “constancy” and “uniformity” that characterize the material world. To the theologians who accuse him of Spinozism, Montesquieu recalls how relations, in the case of man, suppose no fatalism and, on the contrary, he means to counter Hobbes’s immoralism (Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, p. 73). This reminder also shows that Montesquieu, who is aware of the discoveries of the sciences, is not for that reason setting out to study societies scientifically. The paragraph on the material world must not be read as if it presented that paradigm of any study of phenomena. If we see it in the context of the movement of the chapter, we observe that the situation of man does not have the constancy of the physical world; as for the notion of uniformity, it will serve to qualify the despotic regime, and not the order of all human societies. Nor does the paragraph present a “method” to be transposed from one domain to another. Finally, we should note that the category of causality is not present: the term is absent from book I, and the example Montesquieu takes distinguished itself from the texts of Malebranche (whose formulation is nevertheless the closest) in carefully avoiding the paradigm of shocks, which allows one to assign the denominations of cause and effect. Montesquieu sticks with the relation between “one moved body and another moved body” (“un corps et un autre corps ”, EL, I, 1; italics added, as in all subsequent quotations). On the other hand, the idea of necessity refers back very clearly to the paradigm of rational mechanics, accomplished in Newton’s Principia mathematica. Still, the purpose is not to expose a physicist’s theories but to express an exigence of scientificity for the study of phenomena (Charrak 2013).

5One could them be tempted to see rather a Malebranchist source in this definition of the laws, since Malebranche speaks both of “relations of grandeurs” (rapports de grandeurs) and of “relations of perfections” (rapports de perfections), which enables us to examine the whole range of laws that Montesquieu presents (Assoun, p. 173-175). This is something like Hume’s reading (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals [1751], section III, part two, Paris: Flammarion, 1991, p. 100). This alert reader of Newton does not, like the sociologists, pick up on the “Newtonian” category of law-relation, but he reproaches Montesquieu, through the notion of relation, for a rationalist theory of morality that seems to echo Malebranche or Clarke (A Discourse concerning the being and attributes of God, the obligations of natural religion, and the truth and certainty of the Christian revelation [1706], III, §1). The context of Creation evoked in this first chapter can invite one to a metaphysical reading of the definition: it presents the nature of beings, which enables us to identify our duties according to our station. But it could also have been understood on the basis of the modern jusnaturalists who refer to reason and to the ensemble of created beings, and begin with the nature of man, his reasonable and sociable character, to elaborate their theory of law. The presentation of relations that characterize the state of nature in EL, chapter I, 2 could be situated in this perspective. Then we can compare the initial definition with that of Grotius (On the Law of War and Peace, I, 1, §10) or of Pufendorf (De jure naturæ et gentium [1672], I, 6, §18).

6Thus, in this definition of laws as relations very different traditions intersect, and it seems risky to think that Montesquieu is not aware of it; but we can imagine that we cannot entirely assimilate his approach to that of his predecessors, so numerous and contradictory are the possible references. No doubt this play in the text allows Montesquieu to situate himself with respect to opposite traditions and, by utilizing a common discourse, and also in deflecting it, to present an original approach to positive laws. But this really does not appear until the last chapter of book I. That is why in the first chapter, this presentation of relations, in a context that evokes a “chain” of beings, can lend itself to displaced readings, depending on what expression of the text one chooses. For example, Bonnet’s reading, which compares Montesquieu to Newton (letter of 14 November 1753), is remarkable for it shows how the text offers itself to a shifting meaning. He merely means to “correct” Montesquieu’s definition, by getting rid of the much-decried “necessity” (letter of 1 April 1754). But Montesquieu “keeps” his definition and refuses Bonnet’s modifications because “the laws of the universality of beings are not consequences of nothing, but produce innumerable consequences” (“les lois de l’universalité des êtres ne sont des conséquences de rien, mais produisent des conséquences sans nombre”, letter of 6 May 1754). The relations are consequences of nothing: such a declaration could pass for a confession of atheism. In fact, it posits the primary existence of relations. In this sense, the first chapter is not an ontology (a theory of being), but a discourse on the various beings that are defined only by their relations. The idea that the consequences of these relations are “innumerable” does not express a metaphysics of the infinite that has always seemed suspect to Montesquieu (Pensées, no. 1946). The consideration of relations does not open onto a contemplation of the whole universe in its harmony. The chapter does not really present a ladder of beings and an overall order of Creation. Montesquieu situates orders of relations by presenting specific spheres of rationality that do not exactly coincide. Each ensemble of relations defines different modes of being: the wisdom of God, the necessity of material bodies, the morality of intelligent beings, the feelings of animals, and the complexity of man. If laws are necessary relations, the assorted beings obey them more or less, according to their own nature in function of the nature of the things from which they derive. Man comes last in this chapter, as if he were not really situated, or as if he could situate himself only after approximations, comparisons with intelligent beings, animals, etc. The chapter’s successive frameworks always show man in between. He appears as the one whose relations are the most composite, whence his unstable position and his quality of “flexible” being (EL, preface). He is the one whose indetermination is maximal: thus he must invent supplemental legalities.

7This chapter that opens on the definition of laws “in the broadest sense” thus does not expose a “theory” of the law-relation as a scientific or theological model that could be uniformly imposed on all beings. In this presentation, the unstable situation of man leaves him to himself, or rather to the philosophers and legislators (since in the list that Montesquieu gives at the end of chapter I, 1, the theologian is not mentioned), to men whose reason would be capable of enlightening himself for his conduct (EL, preface). The laws that man gives to himself are the exercise of his reason (this is the second definition of law “in general” and positive laws: EL, I, 3). They manifest his freedom and his imperfection, his capacity for conducting himself and the difficulties he has in conducting himself because of his ignorance (Spicilège, no. 391); ignorance of self, of his human condition, and ignorance of what he should do, of his particular situation. By passing from the definition of the law “in its broadest meaning” (“dans la signification la plus étendue”) to that of “positive laws”, Montesquieu has narrowed his project: he means to enlighten the legislative reason by studying “the spirit of law”, in other words by examining all of the relations that constitute it. The relations than have a new meaning; it is the relations that laws have with the constitution, climate, etc. They intervene to specify the political problematic of the work (the question of the “government most in conformity with nature” such as it is presented in I, 3), and they introduce the design of L’Esprit des lois (ibid.). By changing “the ordinary definition of laws” (I, 1), presenting them as relations rather than as commands, Montesquieu opposes a voluntarist conception of law. He departs from a tradition of legal philosophy that examines its foundations (which also involves questioning the origin of sovereignty from a political point of view) to enter into a renewed approach to “positive laws” in situ.

8Montesquieu does not mean to study the laws in themselves as an autonomous whole, the goodness of which he would evaluate according to their conformity with principles. He is not collecting positive laws like a catalogue of juridical cases that indicates jurisprudence. Nor is he elaborating a juridical “system” (a theory of natural and positive law) as the modern jusnaturalists would do, even if his approach can be called systematic since he means to examine laws “in all these views” (“dans toutes ces vues”, EL, I, 3); “We can say that the subject is immense, since it embraces all the institutions that are accepted among men” (“On peut dire que le sujet en est immense, puisqu’il embrasse toutes les institutions qui sont reçues parmi les hommes”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part two, “Idée générale”, OC, t. VII, p. 87). It is because the positive laws are studied in situ that the notion of relations is central. But the relativism that their examination presupposes does not lead to moral skepticism nor to a dispersion of the study of laws into the singularity of situations. Indeed, if diversity is primary for someone who observes human societies (EL, Preface), it is not irreducible. Which is to say that one can judge the value of positive laws, one can evaluate the efforts made by human reason to legislate, and one can account for laws as they exist. For that, one must examine all the relations, for they only have meaning if they are understood taken all together. This relational approach makes sense because “everything is tightly interconnected” (“tout est extrêmement lié”, EL, XIX, 15). It is not a metaphysical thesis, but a principle that must guide the examination of positive laws, and also the practice of laws, for the legislator who wants to institute appropriate laws will have to pay attention to all these relations. That is why the object of Montesquieu’s study is the spirit of law: “I will examine all these relations: together they form what we call the spirit of law” (“J’examinerai tous ces rapports : ils forment tous ensemble ce qu’on appelle l’esprit des lois”, EL, I, 3). The spirit enables him to pass from the diversity of relations to the intentional unity that results from it: the act of relating the juridical sphere with the different factors and the grasping of all the relations make it possible not only to account precisely for the particularity of laws, but also to relate them to each other, really to compare them, which supposes never separating what is examined, not isolating the factors. This principle of totality plays a methodical role: Montesquieu is not satisfied with observing the diversity of laws, he accounts for them systematically, and he can then propose an accurate evaluation of positive laws (EL, XXIX, 11).

9We need to consider the list of relations that Montesquieu draws up just before the definition of the spirit of law (EL, I, 3). There is no way to summarize this list without betraying it, without losing in the process an aspect that we also must not forget to take account of. If the diversity of the movements of bodies can be understood on the basis of a single form, if all the material changes manifest some constancy, that is surely because they are only relations of mass and speed (which are measurable) to consider (EL, I, 1). The “innumerable” relations that must be examined by the person who studies positive laws shows the distance separating the material world and the history of human societies (see a crossed-out passage in Book XXIX of the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. IV, p. 747: “we have seen throughout this work that laws have relations without number to things without number. To study jurisprudence is to seek these relations. Laws follow them and, as they vary endlessly, they are continually modified” [“On a vu dans tout cet ouvrage, que les lois ont des rapports sans nombre à des choses sans nombre. Étudier la jurisprudence, c’est chercher [c]es rapports. Les lois suivent ces rapports et, comme ils varient sans cesse, elles se modifient continuellement.”]). The list of these relations or “explanatory addition” to the title, often justifies the innovative character of L’Esprit des lois, since each “human science” can consider Montesquieu as a precursor for drawing attention to one relation or another. But by breaking down this list into so many specific studies which one could make on social reality, we lose sight of what is the true subject of Montesquieu’s study: the whole of relations or the spirit of law. So the difficulty is to know whether such a list is programmatic and to specify its status: if it is clear that relations are not presented as raw data, it is difficult to understand exactly the nature of the order adopted in this presentation. The attempts at interpretation that have tried to relate this order of relations to an outline of the work are not entirely satisfactory. One targets groupings that seem to correspond to books or to parts but the order is never identical and certain points can refer to multiple books. The distinction made between relations with nature and the principle of governments and the “other relations that seem more specific” (“autres rapports, qui semblent plus particuliers”, EL, I, 3) show that the list orders the research, but can in no way serve as a “summary”.

10We find ourselves confronted with similar difficulties if we compare this list and that of the chapter which defines the general spirit (EL, XIX, 4). The comparison seems justified by the echoes that exist between the two texts, yet it is not certain that the function of the two “definitions” is the same. Moreover, the spirit of law as subject of the work is not the general spirit of a nation; even if these concepts can be connected insofar as they are essential to the realization of a single design. In both cases the spirit results from a composition of variables which it unifies, but they are presented as “causes” for the general spirit and not as “relations”. If the general spirit is constituted in the history of a nation, if it is an effect that in part defines the conditions and limits of legislative action, the spirit of law appears only in a certain way of considering the positive laws that also includes the relations they may have with the general spirit. The spirit of law is the appropriate way to see laws: indeed one could think that the diversity of relations, like so many points of view brought to the laws, leads to a dispersion of the gaze. For those who note the absence of an overall plan, the list in book I, chapter 3 prefigures the work’s increasing disorder. The spirit of law is precisely what keeps the examination of relations from being limitless and is unified in an approach that presupposes a design, an overview that grasps all relations at once: “It is in all these views that they must be considered” (“C’est dans toutes ces vues qu’il faut les considérer”, EL, I, 3). The metaphor of the gaze, as the sense of relations, underscores the fact that grasping the spirit of law permits the proper perception of the relations through which it is possible to understand the situation, and to act appropriately, it is a glance at the whole: “only those gifted with the genius to perceive the entire constitution of a state are in a position to propose changes” (“ il n’appartient de proposer des changements qu’à ceux qui sont assez heureusement nés pour pénétrer d’un coup de génie toute la constitution d’un État”, EL, Preface).

11The thought of relations as it is presented in I, 3 is not just a description of the positive laws in their reality. It also presupposes a judgment about the laws without which legislative action would make no sense. But for Montesquieu this evaluation is indissociable from the study of laws. The list of relations that constitute the spirit of law is meant to narrow the problematic of the government “most in keeping with nature” (“le plus conforme à la nature”), and the meaning of the imperative of congruity, by specifying to what laws “must be relative”, to what they “should relate” (“doivent se rapporter”, EL, I, 3). Therefore it is not relevant here to speak of the range of relations presented as a “system of causes”. The idea of congruity does not exclude that of causality (“since the author distinguishes these institutions, let him examine those that are most congruous with society, and to each society; let him seek their origin; let him discover their physical and moral causes”, Défense de L’Esprit des lois, part two, “Idée générale”, OC, t. VII, p. 87). But as the respective part of each cause in a system is more or less variable, the notion of congruity allows him to indicate this play of determinations by relating them to the harmonies or disharmonies that may exist. It also indicates the possibles, in other words where legislative intervention might play. It exerts a thought of the local that enables one to guide legislative action: how to adapt laws to complex determinations, both taking them into account and taking advantage of them? Finally, it allows an evaluation of laws in situ, which supposes perspicacity and the sense of nuances (ibid.).

12It must be observed that the term rapport is everywhere present in L’Esprit des lois in multiple forms: rapport, avoir du rapport à, dans le rapport à, se rapporter à [‘relation, have a relation with, in relation to, to relate back to’]. A precise study of the occurrences allows for classification of the different types of usage (Courtois, p. 56-69). The term makes it possible to spot analogies, it can even qualify a proportion, whether with respect to a defined and measurable relation that could be precisely determined, or a relation that supposes a nuanced analysis, it allows one to fix limits between which variations are possible, and allows one to measure the degree of constraint, the more or less, with which the legislator is confronted. Montesquieu “uses all the possible meanings, listed in all the dictionaries put together if not by just one, from the analogical meaning to the proportional one, by way of the simple meaning of liaison” (Courtois, p. 68). If the term is ever-present, that it because it refers to an activity of the mind that is exerted everywhere: that of relating. “Ideas are linked to each other” (“Les idées se tiennent les unes aux autres”, Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, OC, t. IX, p. 249). Thought is nothing but this movement of the mind that enables relating ideas to each other and comparing them (“The faculty of comparing, which is the great faculty of the mind” [“La faculté de comparer, qui est la grande faculté de l’âme”], ibid., p. 252), proportioning them. “Now the more or less of ideas, the more or less precision put into their relations, must greatly diversify minds” (“Or le plus ou moins d’idées, le plus ou moins de justesse que l’on met dans leur rapport, doit beaucoup diversifier les esprits”, ibid., p. 248). A good education will consist in the exercise of this “principal faculty” (ibid., p. 249).

13Should not the very form of L’Esprit des lois then be understood in function of this principal activity, since we have seen that the very grasp of the spirit of law, as an ensemble of relations, presupposed its exercise? If the list of relations does not dominate the work’s summary, it does give a reduced model of it: a view of the whole which ought to open onto a reading of the parts. In L’Esprit des lois too “everything is tightly interconnected”: the work does not merely present the various relations, but contains them. That is why the principles of the work’s composition appear as the reverse side of the principles of reading that Montesquieu gives in his preface: read the “entire book”, link, while searching, relations among truths, the famous “chain”, and recomposing the disconnected (the “intermediary ideas” that Montesquieu did not state, and which the reader must connect because “ideas are linked to each other”), and see “with a certain range”, do not get involved with one aspect to the point of abandoning “all the others” (EL, Preface). The search for the “chain” of the work (Ehrard, p. 179-186) should provoke an activity of linkage in the reader. What we have then is a formative form, a work that prepares one for the spirit of law by obliging the reader to relate: “The idea is not to make people read, but to make them think” (“Il ne s’agit pas de faire lire, mais de faire penser”, EL, XI, 20). Montesquieu composed L’Esprit des lois as would an artist (Correggio?) attentive to the “overall”: “I do not think I have wholly wanted for genius” (“je ne crois pas avoir totalement manqué de génie”), he admits (EL, Preface). Should we wonder if we hear there the echo of Montesquieu’s considerations on esthetics and taste? The Essay on taste also presents a thought on relations: relations between things and our soul (what causes its pleasure, arouses its curiosity, etc.), and relations that exist in the works (rules of composition of what makes for order, variety, surprise). It is true that in an author “everything is tightly interconnected”, since everything relates to the life of his mind, to his procedure which is the mark of his thought.


Louis Althusser, Montesquieu, la politique et l’histoire (1959), Paris: PUF, 1974.

Paul-Laurent Assoun, “Les sources philosophiques du concept de loi dans l’Esprit des lois: Montesquieu et le malebranchisme”, in Montesquieu: “De l’Esprit des lois”, la nature et la loi (collective), Paris: Ellipses-Marketing, 1987, p. 169-179.

Jean Goldzink, “Sur le chapitre 1 du livre I de L’Esprit des lois de Montesquieu”, in Montesquieu: “De l’Esprit des lois”, la nature et la loi, Paris: Ellipses-Marketing, 1987, p. 107-119.

Jean Ehrard, “Esthétique et philosophie des Lumières: la ‘chaîne’ de L’Esprit des lois”, Lendemains 62 (1991), reprinted in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots, Geneva : Droz, 1998, p. 179-191.

Jean-Patrice Courtois, Inflexions de la rationalité dans «L’Esprit des lois», Paris: PUF, 1999.

André Charrak, “Le sens de la nécessité selon Montesquieu. Essai sur le livre I, chapitre 1 de ‘L’Esprit des lois’”, Revue de métaphysique et de morale 75 (2013/1),