Academic discourses

Pierre Rétat

1Sixteen texts have to do with Montesquieu’s activity as a member of the Academy of Sciences, Belles-Lettres and Arts of Bordeaux, between his Discours de réception (‘Inaugural oration’, 1 May 1716; he had been elected on 3 April) and the Réflexions sur les habitants de Rome, read in his absence in December 1732.

2We can distinguish several groups, which are in different documentary sites.

31. Academic discourses preserved in the collection of the Bordeaux academy, which at the Revolution were transferred to the municipal library. Ten of Montesquieu’s texts are grouped together in volumes III and VI of the enormous call number Ms 828 (107 volumes in all). These are the discourses delivered by Montesquieu either as academician, or (and most often) as director of the Academy, generally at the opening session at the end of November, or on 1 May, or on the feast of St. Louis on 25 August.
1 May 1716, Discours de réception
18 June 1716, Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion ;
15 November 1717, Discours de rentrée ;
1 May 1718, Discours sur la cause de l’écho ;
25 August 1718, Discours sur l’usage des glandes rénales ;
1 May 1720, Discours sur la cause de la pesanteur des corps ;
25 August 1720, Discours sur la cause de la transparence des corps;
20 November 1721, Observations sur l’histoire naturelle
15 November 1725, Discours sur les motifs qui doivent nous encourager aux sciences ;
25 August 1726, Discours contenant l’éloge du duc de La Force.

4When the Academy wanted to publish a collection of papers, in the early 1780s, and chose in particular those of Montesquieu, his secretary, Lamontaigne, wrote at the head of a volume (828/iii) this note where restriction mixes with veneration: “Although several of these pieces might appear not very important, it seems that the sole name of that immortal man ought to attach a sort of respect to them. Moreover one cannot keep from recognizing rather generally in them that original touch and vivacity of style of which all his works bear the imprint.” (“Quoique plusieurs de ces pièces puissent ne point paraître d’une certaine importance, le seul nom de cet homme immortel semble devoir y attacher une sorte de respect. On ne peut d’ailleurs s’empêcher d’y reconnaître assez généralement cette touche originale, cette vivacité de style dont tous ses ouvrages portent l’empreinte.”)

5These texts were revealed to the public in 1796 by the Plassan edition.

6With exception of the original papers (Dissertation sur la politique des Romains, Observations sur l’histoire naturelle, taken from an Essai d’observations of which the autograph manuscript dates from 1719), these are pieces of academic eloquence or reports on papers that competed for the annual prize, delivered before the winner’s paper if the prize was awarded (note that many titles were given by their publishers, the texts themselves bearing only “Discourse delivered to the Academy on…”). In 1718, for the anatomy prize founded by Montesquieu the previous year, no paper was selected on “the use of renal glands”; in 1720, no one having entered the contest, Montesquieu himself treats the subject of “the transparency of bodies”. It is in the function of director that he delivers the funeral eulogy of the Duc de la Force, the first protector of the Academy.

7We find in these speeches a defense and illustration of academic proceedings, very revealing of the scientific ideal that inspires and orients them. The Academy devotes itself to the “most abstract sciences” that make up “philosophy”: physics, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, chemistry. Far from giving in to discouragement after the age of great discoveries, that “first age of philosophy” that was the 17th century, it must pursue the movement initiated and prove that the provinces are as active as the capital.

8Montesquieu’s speeches bear the stamp of an ingenious nobility; they cultivate the art of allusion and erudite citation, drawn from ancient culture, even if most of them are simple reports; in them Montesquieu gives evidence of fairly advanced knowledge especially in anatomy and medicine. The language and the thought are dominated by the Cartesian or post-Cartesian model.

9It was the custom for speeches delivered at public sessions to be followed by “resumptions”, in other words (résumés) of the dissertations read by the academicians in their regular sessions. Those of Montesquieu contain two to four of them. The Plassan edition (1796), imitating in this the academic commission for the choice of texts, had not published them. They were first published in vol. III of the Masson edition (1955). The reading of these minuscule texts is to be recommended: there Montesquieu beautifully practices the art of the gracious compliment, of amusing praise, of amiable reticence, in which verbal art is deployed inseparably from academic sociability.

102. Other texts, which have not been preserved in the Academy papers, are known to us indirectly: the Mémoire sur le principe et la nature du mouvement, read by Montesquieu on 18 November 1723, and the resumption of which by a colleague and a learned journal have retained the trace; the Traité des devoirs, read on 1 May 1725, known by the review in a learned journal, and through the Pensées.

113. Finally, still other texts, merely mentioned in the registers of minutes of the Academy, have been preserved in the library at La Brède and were known late, at the end of the 19th century.
Éloge de la sincérité, probably delivered before the Academy in 1717, though there is no formal proof of it;
De la considération et de la réputation, 25 August 1725; a learned journal had given a review to the public in 1726;
The three Mémoires sur les mines, read by Montesquieu on 25 August and 2 December 1731 and 3 February 1732;
Réflexions sur les habitants de Rome, read in his absence at the opening session at the end of November or in early December 1732.



Œuvres de Montesquieu, ed. Plassan, year IV-1796, t. IV (published in November 1797); Mélanges inédits (1892); Œuvres complètes, dir. André Masson, t. III (1955), for the resumptions (ed. Xavier Védère).

OC, t. VIII and IX, dir. Pierre Rétat.


Pierre Barrière, L’Académie de Bordeaux, centre de culture internationale au XVIIIe siècle, Bordeaux: Brière, 1951.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “De Bordeaux à Nancy: Montesquieu et le mouvement académique”, in Stanislas et son Académie (250e anniversaire), Jean-Claude Bonnefont dir., Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 2003, p. 205-214.

Denis de Casabianca, De l’étude des sciences à l’esprit des lois, Paris: Champion, 2008.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Moi, je, Montesquieu… questions d’ethos”, in Entre belles-lettres et disciplines : les savoirs au XVIIIe siècle, Franck Salaün and Jean-Pierre Schandeler dir., Ferney-Voltaire: Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, 2011, p. 137-148.

“Formes du savoir”, Project “Académie”, Violaine Giacomotto dir., (Maison des sciences de l’homme d’Aquitaine); see in particular the inventory of Manuscrit 828, by Julien Cussaguet : []