In praise of sincerity

Pierre Rétat

1Unlike most of Montesquieu’s academic discourses, the manuscript of this one has been preserved in the papers of La Brède. Several indices (among which the hand of secretary B) situate it in 1717.

2Its tone is highly rhetorical. To exalt sincerity by opposing it to the complaisances of false politeness in private life and to base flattery in the intercourse of princes and the mighty, is to deal in worn-out commonplaces. The only originality then consists in the ingeniousness with which the oratorical exercise is carried out.

3Montesquieu is pretty good at it. He feigns to embrace the subject with a passion which is that of his own sincerity: the Academy forces him to sing the praise of a virtue which he cherishes, he will be the “painter” after working “his whole life” on being the “portrait”.

4It begins with a subtle thought: sincerity is the true “wisdom” sought by ancient philosophy, since it alone makes it possible to practice, indirectly and thanks to others, the dictum: “know thyself”.

5After which the two parts of the discourse (sincerity makes the honest man in private life, it makes the hero in the intercourse of the great) unwind amplifications and studied contrasts. Divine Providence having made man sociable and capable of telling others the truth, he who does not practice this virtue is opposing God’s design. Or: God measures the happiness or unhappiness of peoples by the success of flattery in the princes’ courts. Nothing is forgotten to ornament these arguments: references to the Bible, to the beauty of Antiquity, Homer, Euripides, Ovid, Virgil. Now we are offered the marvelous portray of triumphant sincerity (virtue and true friendship then prevail, the well-counseled prince brings happiness to his peoples), now the deplorable portrayal of the opposite vices (complaisance as “this century’s virtue”, the “base courtier”). The exhortation and final vision call for a return to the golden age.

6Usbek will try in vain to practice sincerity, and will be forced to leave the court and his country (Persian Letters, [‣]); and in the Pensées Montesquieu will deplore the “universal conspiracy” against princes “to hide the truth from them” (no. 1995).



Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux,

First publication

Mélanges inédits (1892), p. 13-27.

Critical edition

OC, t. VIII, p. 133-145 (ed. Sheila Mason).