Letters from Xenocrates to PheresLettres de Xénocrate à Phérès

Pierre Rétat

1Xenocrates wrote five letters to Pheres to tell him what he knew about Alcamenes, the “reigning prince in Sicyon”.

2The allegory was not obscure: Alcamenes is the Regent, Philippe d’Orléans (regent from 1715 until the crowning of Louis XV in October 1722). The first letter, the longest, deals with his character; the second with his love life; the third with Law’s system; the fourth with his conduct in the wars of Louis XIV; the fifth with his death (“Alcamenes just died”). This last letter ends with a praise of the new king, Louis XV, and wishes for a happy and peaceful reign.

3The antique names are pure instruments of transposition which Montesquieu uses sometimes elsewhere (another Xenocrates dialogues with Xanthippus, and Sicyon is the location of an episode in Histoire véritable). The Pensées preserve an early version (no. 173), where Montesquieu had first chosen the name of Pisistratatus to designate the Regent; the text was continuous, entirely in the past, and nothing was said of the Regent’s death (December 1723).

4The manuscript copy that has come down to us is a late one (secretary V, 1754) and was doubtless made in view of the new edition of the Lettres persanes which Montesquieu was preparing, to which he wanted to add some of his youthful works. A text on the Regent suited this intention. Everything leads us to suppose that Montesquieu wrote it in 1723-1724.

5The portrait of the Regent, made by juxtaposition of brief formulas, deliberately antithetical, playing on fine nuances of vocabulary, aims at expressing the man’s singularity, the situations in which he has found himself (during commands he exercised in Italy and Spain), and giving him an extraordinary and enigmatic character. Certain distinctions are of a subtlety that is difficult to capture. Beyond the effect of amazement and perplexity, sought and admirably attained, the judgment borne on the Regent is deeply favorable to him, and highlights the aspects by which he deserves paradoxical sympathy. It is the taste for complexity, uncertainty, and paradox that seems to have attracted Montesquieu to the Regent, as he attracts him at the same time to the Sulla of the Dialogue between Sulla and Eucrates.

6The Lettres from Xenocrates to Pheres are also part of a group of texts that oppose a portrait full of praise in allegorical form to the Regent’s black legend (Jomand-Baudry, 2003).



BNF, NAF 15551, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10073916c/f76.item-49.

First publication

Mélanges inédits (1892), p. 191-200.

Critical edition

OC, t. VIII, p. 291-305 (ed. Sheila Mason).


Jean Ehrard, “La Régence”, in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 110-120.

Régine Jomand-Baudry, “Le Kam d’Anserol et autres variations allégoriques”, Le Régent entre fable et histoire, ed. Denis Reynaud and Chantal Thomas, dir., Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003, p. 121-131.