God, gods

Pierre Rétat

1Montesquieu repeats in L’Esprit des lois that he is not a theologian but a “political writer”, and we know moreover how little esteem he had for theologians and for mystics, as is shown for example by the letter in Lettres persanes in which Rica visits the library at Saint-Victor (LP, [‣]). Let us not expect him, consequently, to reveal to us “the history of eternity” or the tenor of “books which are written in heaven” (LP, [‣]).

2But God is not for all that absent from his thought and his work. When he defends himself vigorously against his Jansenist critics against the charge of being a “Spinozist”, in other words an atheist, we can take him at his word: the Défense de L’Esprit des lois confirms in this respect many other texts. His belief in God is that of many of his contemporaries: it belongs to an intellectual context marked by Cartesian and post-Cartesian philosophy, by the critique of Bayle and the responses to which it gave rise, by all the ideas that then form a sort of vulgate of “natural religion”.

3If one can specify the features of Montesquieu’s God, a place must be made for this belief that is at once minimal and central, and for the particularities that get mixed in and complicate it; perhaps also ought one to try to penetrate to an imaginary of the divine: there one slips from God to the gods, which become indifferently the names and figures on which are projected the values and movements of sensitivity.

4We know from a statement by his son Jean-Baptiste that Montesquieu had written in 1711 a treatise in which he wanted to prove that pagan idolatry did not deserve everlasting damnation. What appears to subsist of it in the Pensées attests to the intention of articulating a discourse about God, which situates itself in the tradition of the “new philosophy” of Descartes and owes much to Bayle: the idea of a single God, a simple substance, inseparable from that of the spirituality of the soul, implements a purification that still leaves totally obscure the question of his attributes (Pensées, no. 1946).

5The Persian Letters still bear the trace of that first somewhat theological bent: Usbek, having turned “metaphysician”, speculates on the foreknowledge of God and the contradiction of the attributes lent to him. This curious “overflow” of his philosophy, confirmed by one of the Pensées (no. 1945), however ends in an act of ignorance and worship, and the God who appears in various places in the novel is always distant and abstract. “It has well been said that if triangles made a god, they would give him three sides” (“On a dit fort bien que si les triangles faisaient un Dieu, ils lui donneraient trois côtés”, LP, [‣]): this critique of anthropomorphism goes along with the representation of a humanity lost on an earth which is a “subtle, loose atom, which God perceives only because of the immensity of his knowledge” (LP, [‣]). This God is the first cause of the physical world, of which the philosophers have managed to find the “general, immutable, eternal laws” (ibid.), it itself obeys the order of the moral world, these “laws of congruity” in which “justice” consists: “were there no God, we ought still to love justice” (“quand il n’y aurait pas de Dieu, nous devrions toujours aimer la justice”, LP, [‣]). This supposition, which recalls that of Grotius, is purely fictive, but all the same suggests a possible ontological inferiority of God.

6Nothing proves that Montesquieu’s God changed subsequently through L’Esprit des lois. A few texts where a more Christian God is traced, more accessible to the heart, in Book XXIV or in the Pensées, have attracted as early as the 18th century the attention of apologists and enabled them to make Montesquieu speak against the materialist and atheistic “philosophes”. Their sincerity cannot be denied. When Montesquieu proclaims against Bayle the utility of belief in God and refutes his “paradoxes” about a society of atheists and the impossibility of a society of true Christians, he adopts a very clear and strong position which is the opposite of the radical forms of incredulity developing about him (Traité des devoirs, OC, t. VIII, p. 429-439; Pensées, no. 1993; EL, XXIV, 2 and 6).

7But the “nature of things” whence derive the “necessary relations”, at the beginning of L’Esprit des lois (I, 1), encompasses God as well as matter, angels and animals: and God is scarcely anything more than another name for order. In Books XXIV and XXV, the point of view from which Montesquieu envisages religion and the religious anthropology which he sketches are not devoid of ambiguous and disquieting potential: the one, spiritual God becomes a creation of human vanity, in the chapter “On the motive of attachment to various religions” (XXV, 2), as marvelously enveloped and subtle as that “On education in monarchies” (IV, 2). The journalist of Nouvelles ecclésiastiques was maybe the poorest possible logician, and Montesquieu had no trouble convicting him of contradiction, but he was not totally blind. To be sure, one can be a Christian without being an imbecile: but Montesquieu gives this proposition a singular extension.

8The God of universal legality satisfies reason. But what about the “senses” and the “imagination” the rights of which Montesquieu never forgets? This is where the gods of the Fable, excluded from this world by philosophy and monotheistic religions, get their revenge. “Our imagination laughs at Diana, Pan, Apollo, the nymphs […]” (Pensées, no. 108). The world then had a “cheerful air”, whereas “Mohammedanism and Christianity, made solely for the afterlife, destroy everything in this one” (Pensées, no. 1606). The gods are still there, at the dawn of societies as in the moments where are spoken with the greatest force pleasure or virtue: the good Troglodytes know and honor them (LP, [‣]), Le Temple de Gnide associates them with love and the Dialogue de Xantippe et de Xénocrate with the hero’s greatness of soul (OC, t. VIII, p. 575, 580): let us not see in this simple fictions transposed into an amiable or heroic antiquity, but the imperious necessity of an always lively imagination. Montesquieu himself confides to us that in exploiting his land, he wanted to obtain his fortune “directly from the hand of the gods” (Pensées, no. 973).

9Classical culture at that time inhabited the minds with a resonance of which we have no idea today. Cohabitation is therefore easy for God and the gods. We would be unwise to separate them. On reflection, this article seems to me a bit curt and offhand. But one can make use of God as one would not with his creatures. He is too great to take offense.


Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, “Mémoire pour servir à l’éloge de M. de Montesquieu”, in Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, Paris: Presses de l’université de Paris-Sorbonne, “Mémoire de la critique”, 2003 (p. 250).

Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu réuni à Bordeaux du 23 au 26 mai 1955, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 287-294.

Charles J. Beyer, “Montesquieu et l’esprit cartésien”, ibid., p. 159-173.

Mark H. Waddicor, Montesquieu and the Philosophy of Natural Law, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970, p. 177-181.