Céline Spector

1On the question of substantive dualism and the spirituality of the soul, Montesquieu’s Pensées manifest two antagonistic viewpoints. On the one hand, the materialist temptation almost surfaces with respect to the famous hypothesis from Locke about thinking matter: “M. de Saint-Aulaire quite rightly says: ‘We say: “We cannot understand how matter could think; therefore we have a soul that differs from matter”. Therefore we draw from our ignorance a reason to make ourselves a substance more perfect than matter’” (“M. de Saint-Aulaire dit fort bien : ‘‘Nous disons : ‘Nous ne pouvons comprendre que la matière pense ; donc nous avons une âme différente de la matière’”, Pensées, no. 712). To the thesis, attributed to atheists, according to which matter has the capacity to organize itself, to feel, even to think, Montesquieu surely intends to respond; but he finds the elements to be lacking (no. 1096). Thus he rejects but does not refute the supposedly Spinozist conception of the corporeality of the soul (no. 1266); thus he affirms without further details that the notion of the nature of the soul and its “real distinction from the body” have only been established since Descartes (no. 1677). With no pretension to deciding the delicate question of the “materialist temptation” in Montesquieu, we have therefore to conclude that traditional metaphysical questioning there remains unresolved. Speculative interrogation can henceforth have a sense only to the extent that it is an aspect of a practical interest that assigns it a solution: it is the undesirable practical consequences of materialism that lead to contending the soul’s immateriality, even more than Cartesian proofs (nos. 57, 349, cf. no. 1946).

2Montesquieu’s reflection on the soul therefore leaves the field of abstract metaphysics (the question of the dualism of substances and the union of the soul and the body, the theory of the faculties of the soul) to rejoin that of sensualist metaphysics that comes from Locke, defined as the genesis of ideas and the analysis of the operations of the soul [Spector, 2005]. The soul is understood as the topical center of a network of relations; it is only the nervous center of the body’s communication of movements, situated “in our body, like a spider in its web”. What then matters is the easy “communication” of movements at the heart of the nervous system: “the sentiment of the mind is almost always a result of all the different movements that are produced in the various organs of our body” (Essai sur les causes, OC, t. IX, p. 240).

3The image of the spider in its web, which comes from Chrysippus, does not however have the same meaning as in Helvétius, Diderot, or La Mettrie: in Montesquieu, the passage from inert matter to sensible matter, from passive sensibility to the activity of judging (“Perceptions, ideas, memory, are always the same operation, which comes from the sole faculty which the soul possesses of feeling” [ibid., p. 232]), assumes complex mediations. Sensation, in this instance, is not given as an impression which the soul receives passively; the principal activity of the soul is comparison: “The principal faculty of the soul is to compare” (ibid., p. 252). Active apprenticeship of judgment occurs through experience: “The soul is therefore a philosopher which is beginning to learn, learns to judge from its very senses and the nature of the signals they are intended to provide to it. First it receives a sensation, and next it judges, adds, corrects itself, calibrates one sense by another; and based on what they are saying, learns what they were trying to tell it” (“L’âme est donc une philosophe qui commence à s’instruire, qui apprend à juger de ses sens mêmes et de la nature des avertissements qu’ils doivent lui donner. Elle reçoit d’abord un sentiment, et, ensuite, elle en juge, elle ajoute, elle se corrige, elle règle un de ses sens par un autre ; et, sur ce qu’ils lui disent, elle apprend ce qu’ils ont voulu lui dire”, Pensées, no. 1341).

4Montesquieu’s ambition, however, is not so much to elaborate a theory of human understanding, in the tradition of Locke, as to propose a natural history of the soul and a genesis of its sensibility, which explains the attention granted to the organic foundations of the life of the mind. The theory of ideas explored in the Essai sur les causes allows us to specify the meaning of the influence of the physical determinations linked to the climate and the nature of the terrain, as well as that of the moral causes, relative to mores, customs, religion, etc. The flexibility and force of “fibers” are placed at the origin of the variety of minds: the rawness and rigidity of fibers, due to the soil or nutrition, numb the brain and make it incapable of subtlety and variety. But contrariwise, too great a flexibility and too much delicacy lead to inconstancy and capriciousness (Essai sur les causes, p. 232). Neither too much nor too little: the structure of human attention requires physiological conditions conducive to the liveliness and exercise of judgment. In addition to the multiplicity of general, physical factors (air, wind, etc.) there are individual organic variations; the state of mind depends not only on the disposition of the brain, but on the particular functioning of each “machine” (p. 237). Abuse of wine, sleep or pleasures: moderation here, as elsewhere, is the condition of good exercise of the faculties. However educated it may be, the soul, “very limited”, remains under the influence of the habits and dominant passions which affect one’s cognitive power as well as practical dispositions. In addition to these constitutive relations of the union of the soul and body, there are additionally those that come from the union of men amongst themselves; far from constituting a separate and independent entity, the soul exists only implanted in a relational fabric which gives it form. Through the “intercourse” that men maintain, they communicate ideas as well as character (p. 259-260). The process of formation is endless: all practices (reading, travel, professions, life style, etc.) constitute systems of exchange through which takes place, throughout its existence, the education of the mind.

5The soul thus comes to be defined not as a substance but as an activity. The mind is the locus where are produced associations of ideas and feelings borne by the structure of expectation of desire – curiosity. The article “Goût” [taste] in the Encyclopédie attempts to determine the sources of specific pleasures of the soul (the idea of its grandeur, its perfections, its pleasure at seeing a great number of things, comparing, combining and separating ideas): “these pleasures are in the nature of the soul, independently of the senses, because they belong to every thinking being: and it is quite unimportant to inquire here into whether our soul has these pleasures as a substance united with the body, or as separate from the body […]” (“Ces plaisirs sont dans la nature de l’âme, indépendamment des sens, parce qu’ils appartiennent à tout être qui pense : et il est fort indifférent d’examiner ici si notre âme a ces plaisirs comme substance unie avec le corps, ou comme séparée du corps […]”, [‣], 2020 ; OC, t. IX, p. 488). Without worrying about substantial distinctions, Montesquieu passes from the mechanical order to sensory manifestations, from the movements of fluids and fibers to the movements of the soul (Casabianca, 2008). There is no solution of continuity between the man who feels and the man who thinks: “The soul knows through its ideas and its feelings […]” (“L’âme connaît par ses idées et par ses sentiments […]”, p. 491). Although the soul is “made for thinking” (p. 491), such an assertion can no longer be understood in either a Cartesian or a Malbranchian framework: the mind cannot be abstracted from the senses so as to arrive at truth by pure understanding. Henceforth, thinking comes down to “perceiving” (ibid.). If the soul can feel, it never does so independently from the body (Pensées, no. 798; see also no. 157).

6Beyond the theoretical domain, the consequences are felt from a practical perspective. The soul, impelled by an insatiable curiosity which makes it pass from one idea or desire to the next, is constantly disposed to seek pleasure in controlled variety and movement: “it is thus pleasure which an object gives us that steers us to another; that is why the soul is constantly searching for new things, and never rests” (“C’est donc le plaisir que nous donne un objet qui nous porte vers un autre ; c’est pour cela que l’âme cherche toujours des choses nouvelles, et ne se repose jamais”, [‣], 2020 ; OC, t. IX, p. 491). Far from leaving the role of stimulating activity to the soul’s restlessness, Montesquieu in this way manages to counter Pascal’s pessimism. Thanks to the inherent movement of its search for felicity, “the soul does not linger over its inquietudes enough to be affected by them, nor over its delight to tire of it. Its movements are as gentle as its repose is animated, which prevents it from falling into the kind of languor that dispirits us and seems to predict our obliteration” (“l’âme ne reste pas assez sur ses inquiétudes pour les ressentir, ni sur sa jouissance pour s’en dégoûter. Ses mouvements sont aussi doux que son repos est animé ; ce qui l’empêche de tomber dans cette langueur qui nous abat et semble nous prédire notre anéantissement”, Pensées, no. 69). Uniformity of movement, as any other uniformity, is a source of lassitude. The soul values variety in accordance with the structure of its attention: “If the part of the soul that knows likes variety, that part which feels seeks it no less: for the soul cannot long bear the same situations, because it is bound to a body that cannot bear them” (“Si la partie de l’âme qui connaît, aime la variété, celle qui sent ne la cherche pas moins : car l’âme ne peut pas soutenir longtemps les mêmes situations, parce qu’elle est liée à un corps qui ne peut les souffrir”, [‣], 2020 ; OC, t. IX, p. 497). The primacy granted to action (extension in the broadest sense) has its basis in a “manufacturing” conception of the soul: “the soul is an eternal worker, which toils endlessly for itself” (“l’âme est une ouvrière éternelle, qui travaille sans cesse pour elle”, Pensées, no 1675).

7Thus the question of freedom is raised. If Montesquieu sometimes evokes, in the wake of Descartes, the existence of free will (“The soul brings about its own determination” [LP, [‣]; see EL, I, 1]), he nonetheless insists on the natural and social influences which affect the use of will: “Our machine accustoms our soul to thinking in a certain way, accustoming it to think in another. And so it is that the physical domain might find a place in the moral domain, by making us see how the disposition to human vices and virtues depend upon the mechanism” (“Notre machine accoutume notre âme à penser d’une certaine façon, elle l’accoutume à penser d’une autre. C’est ici que la physique pourrait trouver une place dans la morale, en nous faisant voir combien les dispositions pour les vices et les vertus humaines dépendent du mécanisme”, Pensées, no. 220). The soul’s sensibility to pleasure and pain, the nature of its needs and proclivities, is notably related to climate (EL, book XIV); the diversity of “characters of the mind” and of “passions of the heart” (XIV, 2) hence provides the bedrock of the legislator’s art.


Denis de Casabianca, Montesquieu: de l’étude des sciences à “L’Esprit des lois”, Paris: Champion, 2008.

Denis de Casabianca, “Des objections sans réponse? À propos de la tentation matérialiste de Montesquieu dans les Pensées”, Revue Montesquieu 7 (2005), p. 135-156.

Céline Spector, “Montesquieu et la métaphysique dans les Pensées”, Revue Montesquieu 7 (2005), p. 113-133.