Défense de L’Esprit des lois

Pierre Rétat

1The Défense de L’Esprit des lois is a response to the accusations of impiety raised by the periodical Nouvelles ecclésiastiques against L’Esprit des lois: the long review which appeared in its pages, in the issues dated 9 and 16 October 1749, was in itself a novelty, since the Jansenist gazette, devoted since its origins to news of the resistance to the bull Unigenitus, the persecutions undergone, and the theological controversies, for the first time took up a profane work with such a degree of interest. The violent and unnuanced condemnation bore on Books I (definition of law, natural laws), III (“virtue”), XIV (suicide in England; monachism), XVI (polygamy “affaire de calcul”, according to the original title of chapter 4), XXII (usury), XXIII (the foundations of marriage), XXIV (Bayle declared a “great man”, praise of the Stoics), XXV (pride as motive of attachment to religion, toleration). It was pronounced intransigently, in the name of “Revelation” and “holy writ”.

2Montesquieu lost no time responding since the Défense, published at the beginning of February 1750, must have been completed before the end of December 1749. The work presents in several respects a paradoxical character. It is absolutely exceptional, if not unique, for a recognized author like Montesquieu to respond to an article in the press, especially when it comes from a clandestine gazette inspired entirely by esprit de parti. Nor does Montesquieu ever designate it by name. Moreover, the title “Défense de” belongs essentially to the literature or religious controversy, and it is obvious that in the first part Montesquieu meant to imitate the form of scholastic dispute by objections and responses. He who openly denied he was a “theologian” thus borrowed ironically an exercise in theological form.

3This first part contains a general reply where Montesquieu affirms his respect and love for the Christian religion; he cites all the texts in L’Esprit des lois which he judges fitting to testify to it. In the second part he follows the critic in the order of his accusations and thus justifies in succession what he had said about polygamy, climate, toleration, celibacy, marriage, and usury. The third part is a break with the two previous ones: Montesquieu rises above the debate and delivers general “reflections” on the criticism, its motivations and excesses, and on the methodical and philosophical meaning he gives to L’Esprit des lois.

4As much as he had to fight hand to hand against his “critic” (he never refers otherwise to the ecclesiastical gazetteer) in the first two parts, with a prudence that does not exclude sharp movements of derision, but which often constrains him to use periphrases, as much does he, in the third part, free himself from the minutiae and ponderousness of the dispute to raise the debate to its highest level.

5Montesquieu wrote the Défense to attempt to put an end to the theological quarrel being waged against him, and anticipate the ecclesiastical censures he feared. The violence and extremism of the Jansenist gazetteer offered him an easy target: he can thus make his critic’s folly take the blame for the folly of theology which his desire to remain attached to his religion forbids him to denounce directly. The greater part of the Défense bears the mark of this awkward position until, in the final part, theology is itself dismissed and the autonomy of the “human sciences” proclaimed.

6The Défense is followed by two very brief “Clarifications on L’Esprit des lois”, studiously separated from the rest. There Montesquieu responds to the objection of “some persons” about the notion of “virtue” and to that of the Mémoires de Trévoux on a point of historical criticism. He thus manifests clearly the choice he has made of reserving the theological debate for the Jansenists. The Jesuits, who nevertheless had, in the Mémoires de Trévoux, equally criticized L’Esprit des lois from a religious point of view, but in a conciliatory tone of voice (“Letter to F[ather] B[erthier] J[esuit]”, April 1749), accepted the implicit pact which was being offered them, and replied only on the same historical detail (15 February 1750). The Jansenists tried to reopen the dispute (Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, 24 April and 1 May 1750); Montesquieu did not reply, but let La Beaumelle do so in his place (Suite de la Défense de L’Esprit des lois, 1751).


I. Text

Original edition, Paris: Huart et Moreau, 1750, in-12 (« À Genève, chez Barrillot et Fils ») [http://books.google.fr/books?id=QO89AAAAcAAJ] (Bibliothèque de l’université de Gand – Ghent University Library, BIB.ACC.032769)

OC, t. VII, 2010 (ed. Pierre Rétat, accompanied by texts that were at its origin).

II. Critique - Criticism

Charles-Jacques Beyer, “Montesquieu et la censure religieuse de L’Esprit des lois”, Revue des sciences humaines, 1953, p. 105-131.

Mark Waddicor, Montesquieu and the Philosophy of Natural Law, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970.

Catherine Larrère, “La Défense de L’Esprit des lois et les ‘sciences humaines’”, Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755), Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9 (2005), p. 115-130.