1According to the testimony, delivered in 1850, of the owner of manuscripts by members of the Entresol, Montesquieu read his Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate to them. Since then his name has remained attached to this ephemeral political club (1724-1731), but made famous by the quality of its members and the questions they debated.
2It was late, in the second half of the 18th century, that the Entresol was called a “club”, in keeping with the fashion spreading at that time for “English-style clubs”. Everything indicates that in the 1720s it was designated only as a “conference” or a “political academy”. We will nevertheless follow here the custom that has taken over.
3The club’s name came from the place where meetings were held, the mezzanine of President Hénault’s home on the Place Vendôme, where lived abbé Pierre-Joseph Alary, its founder and organizer. He was to move several times, and toward the end to a mezzanine at the Hôtel de Nevers, where the king’s library, of which he was one of the “guards”, was housed.
4The club had in all about twenty-five members, all sword or robe nobility except Alary, who was himself well introduced at court and in the house of Orléans. The more or less lengthy presence of well-known or even famous names is attested: the marquis d’Argenson, Bolingbroke, the marquis de Lassay, Ramsay, le count de Plelo, abbé de Saint-Pierre, the marquis de Balleroy. There they exchanged information about and discussed questions of international politics, commerce, finance, but no common political orientation is perceptible in the memoirs and (or) works which we know or have reason to think were read there. The members belonged to different circles of the royal or princely courts, and their sympathies went either to the old nobility or to the parlements, or yet again to absolute monarchy. So the Entresol appears to the historian’s eyes as a totally new association of political thinking and reflection in Old Regime France, promising and foreshadowing an autonomous and organized expression of public opinion; but at the same time it resists any precise analysis of its activities, since no document to this effect has come down to us, and we can gauge them only by its members’ writings, published afterwards, sometimes quite late, and almost always with no reference or indication relating to it.
5The resulting uncertainty, unless we go by vague hypotheses, is obvious in Montesquieu’s case. It is by no means sure, given the tenuousness of the evidence, that he read the Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate at the Entresol. Moreover, the marquis d’Argenson, source of almost all the available information, does not include Montesquieu in the list of members which he carefully drew up. He himself became a member in 1725, which could lead one to suppose that Montesquieu frequented the club before he was admitted, therefore in 1724, precisely the year when his correspondence bears the first trace of the dialogue. Robert Shackleton situates the reading at the club in 1727, which is to say based on the second trace found in the correspondence. But then why would d’Argenson have omitted Montesquieu’s name?
6The problem thus posed is insoluble for want of documents. In 1731, when the meetings of the club ceased upon Fleury’s intervention, Montesquieu was traveling in Europe. It is certain that his participation, if it is to be believed real, had to be brief. So it would be misleading to define the spirit of this “political academy” by the work of such an uncertain and ephemeral member. It is better to avoid begging the question. Besides, Montesquieu could meet the attested members in several Parisian societies, in particular at Mme Lambert’s. The hypothesis of his membership in the club, attractive as it appears, is therefore not essential to making Montesquieu a participant in the exchanges of ideas for which the club was, in the France of the time, the first non-institutional locus in modern form.
Nick Childs, A Political Academy in Paris, 1724-1731: the Entresol and its members, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2000:10.