Discourse on Cicero

Pierre Rétat

1“I wrote this discourse in my youth”, writes Montesquieu in a late note at the top of the manuscript. The hand of secretary B designates the period 1715-1718; it may have been written earlier, and some date it back as far as 1709.

2Montesquieu added that this discourse could “become good” if he suppressed its “panegyric air” and entered into greater detail about Cicero’s works and their historical circumstances.

3The title Discours announces the rhetorical stance which he wanted to give to his text. The style is dense, allusive and vigorous. But just as striking is the personal tone with which he infuses it: “Cicero is of all the Ancients the one […] whom I would most like to resemble […]. I feel him drawing me into his enthusiasms and lifting me in his gestures.” (“Cicéron est de tous les anciens celui […] à qui j’aimerais mieux ressembler […] Je sens qu’il m’entraîne dans ses transports et m’enlève dans ses mouvements.”) “Panegyric” perhaps, but even more a testimony to an intellectual and moral encounter in which “heart” and “mind” are engaged.

4Montesquieu’s Cicero is the “liberator of country and defender of liberty”. His eloquence, which Montesquieu evokes only with respect to political speeches, goes hand in hand with the “courage” of the accuser Mark Anthony; Brutus, by invoking his name after the murder of Caesar, gives him “the most magnificent praise which any mortal has ever received”. Montesquieu also participates in the movement to rehabilitate Cicero that characterized the 18th century, although even he sometimes subsequently made less favorable judgments regarding him.

5He has no less praise for Cicero the philosopher. He recognizes in him two great merits: to have freed philosophy from a foreign language and made it “common to all men, like reason” (which is implicitly to lend to Cicero the attributes of Descartes); to have confounded all philosophers by making them destroy each other through the sceptical method (which reminds one of Bayle).

6One recently-found manuscript at La Brède (Notes sur Cicéron, to appear in vol. XVII of Œuvres complètes), which has preserved Montesquieu’s reading notes that were originally in his copy of Cicero, reveals not only an early state of part of the discourse, it also shows the importance of ancient sources, of the scepticism of De natura deorum and De divinatione, in the formation of Montesquieu’s philosophy and its relationship with religion. We find evident echos of it in the Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion.



BM Bordeaux, https://selene.bordeaux.fr/in/imageReader.xhtml?id=BordeauxS_B330636101_Ms2099_001&pageIndex=1&mode=simple&highlight=montesquieu%20cic%C3%A9ron&selectedTab=thumbnail.

First publication

Mélanges inédits (1892), p. 1-11.

Critical edition

OC, t. VIII, p. 117-132 (ed. Pierre Rétat).


Patrice Andrivet, “Montesquieu et Cicéron: de l’enthousiasme à la sagesse”, Eclectisme et cohérence des Lumières (Paris: Nizet, 1992), p. 25-34.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La référence antique dans les œuvres de jeunesse: de la rhétorique à l’histoire des idées”, Cahiers Montesquieu 5 (1999), p. 79-87.