Céline Spector

On the arts as a whole

1In Lettres persanes, the contradictory debate between Rhedi and Usbek rules out initially any attempt to overcome the antinomy between advantages and disadvantages to the development of sciences and the arts. Their progress, according to Rhedi – “arts” being understood here as “techniques” – does not really contribute to a nation’s power : “[…] almost all monarchies have been founded on the ignorance of the arts and have been destroyed only because they were too much cultivated” (“[…] presque toutes les monarchies n’ont été fondées que sur l’ignorance des arts et n’ont été détruites que parce qu’on les a trop cultivés” (Lettres persanes, [‣]). To this nostalgic position Usbek opposes rival theses: far from weakening peoples, the development of luxury and the arts toughens them on the contrary through the labor and ingenuity they require. The rise of the arts contributes to the circulation of wealth and the power of the state (LP, [‣]). It would no doubt be tempting to discredit this critical posture to the benefit of the praise of culture. But if Montesquieu does not fear to assert that “the great difference there is among the great nations and uncivilized peoples is that the latter applied themselves to the arts and sciences while the former neglected them entirely” (“la grande différence qu’il y a entre les grandes nations et les peuples sauvages, c’est que celles-ci se sont appliquées aux arts et aux sciences, et que les autres les ont absolument négligés”; Discours sur les motifs qui doivent nous encourager aux sciences, 1725, OC, t. VIII, p. 495), certain articles in the Pensées testify to a real affinity with the first questioning (nos. 86, 223). In The Spirit of Law, perfecting of the arts will appear as the necessary effect of economic development, independently of any moral judement: “The effect of trade is wealth; the consequence of wealth, luxury; that of luxury, the perfection of the arts” (“L’effet du commerce sont les richesses ; la suite des richesses, le luxe ; celle du luxe, la perfection des arts”; XXI, 6).

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

2On the question of the progress of the fine arts, Montesquieu’s position in the Quarrel seems polemical with respect to the Moderns. To be sure, primitive and poor peoples attached to the necessities of subsistence must do without the arts and long await their “progress” as tributary of wealth and “good laws” (Pensées, no. 206). But the rational order of the universe is co-relative with a disenchantment with the world (no. 112). If religion, by the nature of the representations it promotes or prohibits, plays a determining role in the perfecting or stagnation of art, the argument does not automatically play in favor of the Moderns. On one hand, the cult of images which the Catholic religion allows “has much contributed to the renewal of art amongst us, which that same cult had maintained among the Greeks” (“a beaucoup contribué à renouveler l’art parmi nous, que ce même culte avait entretenu chez les Grecs”): the European extension of Protestantism is said to have deprived the world of a quantity of beautiful works ([‣])[On the Gothic manner]; apparently written about 1734, the piece was not to be published until 1896). But at the same time the rise of Christianity brought a decline of the poetic spirit. Because the passions and the imagination were less solicited by the marvelous, Montesquieu declares himself “persuaded that good poetry was extinguished along with paganism” (Pensées, no. 2252). In De la manière gothique the progress of the arts are termed not linear but cyclical. The “different degrees through which an art passes from its birth to its perfection, and from its perfection to its disappearance” (“différents degrés où passe l’art depuis sa naissance jusqu’à sa perfection, et depuis sa perfection jusqu’à sa perte”) can be found among both the Ancients and the Moderns, from the grand masters of Greece and up to the Late Empire and Renaissance and mannerism, which according to Montesquieu translates the “decadence” of art. Further still, it is indeed the rediscovery of Antiquity which made possible the modern renaissance of the fine arts. The Greeks had carried “the three arts based on draftsmanship to their perfection”, as well as tragedy, of which the moderns did no more than maintain the rules, and “the only two genres of epic poetry” which they still know. In this sense, the perfecting of the arts owes nothing to linear evolution. The rapidity with which the Greeks perfected art contrasts with the long decadence of the Middle Ages until such a time as seeing the Ancients opened the mind of Michelangelo and his contemporaries (Voyages, p. 301). What was true for the plastic arts also applied to tragedy: “It is not the length of time that prepares the arts; they arise all at once from a certain conjuncture” (“Ce n’est pas la longueur des temps qui prépare les arts ; ils naissent tout à coup d’une certaine circonstance”, De la manière gothique.

3According to Montesquieu, works ought not be judged by a standard of “good taste” reserved to modern authors; such an attitude, as the partisans of the Ancients said, is equivalent to neglecting the adequacy of cultural forms to peoples’ mores (Pensées, no. 2179; see also no. 143). In the Quarrel concerning the arts, Montesquieu adopts an aerial view: “I have no predilection for ancient or modern works, and all the disputes on this front prove to me only that there are very good works among the Ancients as among the Moderns” (“je n’ai aucune prédilection pour les ouvrages anciens ou nouveaux, et toutes les disputes à cet égard ne me prouvent autre chose, si ce n’est qu’il y a de très bons ouvrages, et parmi les Anciens, et parmi les Modernes”); “I admit my taste for the Ancients. Antiquity charms me” (“J’avoue mon goût pour les Anciens. Cette Antiquité m’enchante”); “I like to see quarrels among the Ancients and Moderns: it makes me see that there are good works among the Ancients and the Moderns” (“J’aime à voir les querelles des Anciens et des Modernes : cela me fait voir qu’il y a de bons ouvrages parmi les Anciens et les Modernes ”: nos. 1315, 111-112; see also nos. 87-91, 101-102, 108-134, and 2178-2181). The Pensées also testify to the pleasure gleaned from reading the Ancients, who “capture at once the grand and the simple” and attain the sublime, unknown to the Moderns (nos. 117, 112). The refusal to decide is patent even in The Spirit of Law: it is finally in Athens, France being its modern equivalent, that Montesquieu will perceive “taste and the arts taken to such a point that pretending to surpass them will always imply a failure to know them” (“le goût et les arts portés à un point, que de croire les surpasser sera toujours ne les pas connaître”, XXI, 7).

4From travels in Italy to the Encyclopédie article “Goût” (‘taste’)

5Montesquieu’s reflection on the arts is, however, far from limiting itself to this theoretical quarrel. His travels in Italy play a crucial role in the formation of his way of seeing works: “Since I have been in Italy, I have opened my eyes to arts I knew nothing of; it is a completely new and unknown country to me” (“Depuis que je suis en Italie, j’ai ouvert les yeux sur des arts dont je n’avais aucune idée ; c’est un pays inconnu entièrement nouveau pour moi”, to Mme de Lambert, 26 December 1728; OC, t. XVIII, letter 339). Without retracing the progress of discoveries to which his notes, not all of which have come down to us, testify, we can particularly note that to a small number of observations retained from his stay in Vienna, despite the initiation thanks to the chevalier Jacob, to whom Montesquieu owed “an idea of the art of painting” (Spicilège, no. 461) will be added the abundance of Italian notes taken from Venice to Rome by way of Padua, Milan, Pisa and above all Florence (Ehrard 1965). In the plastic arts, his predilection is constant for compositions that manage to integrate variation into order: Montesquieu’s admiration runs from “grand simplicity” (Voyages, p. 584) to nobility and majesty attributed to the natural, and not to excess, a source of confusion.

6The esthetics formulated in the Essay on taste allows us to explain why the mind values both order and variation, symmetry and contrasts, despite the apparent contradiction. The object of taste is the mind’s pleasures, and is understood both in function of the sensorial apparatus and of the configuration of human attention. Esthetic pleasure relates to the mobility inherent in curiosity, and is obtained (provisionally) only by surprise: “It is therefore the pleasure an object gives us that points us towards another; that is why the mind always seeks new things and never rests. Thus we are always sure to please the mind to which we show many things, or more than it had hoped to see” (“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. Ainsi, on sera toujours sûr de plaire à l’âme lorsqu’on lui fera voir beaucoup de choses ou plus qu’elle n’avait espéré d’en voir, [‣], 2020 ; OC, t. IX, p. 491). The beautiful is doubtless just a relation, relative to the psycho-physiological organization of man (Pensées, no. 410). Since our constitution is “entirely arbitrary”, any modification of our sensorial apparatus or our faculties of attention ought to produce a disruption in the arts: “If our eyesight had been weaker and more blurry, it would have occasioned fewer moldings and more uniformity in architectural members; if our eyesight had been sharper and our mind able to take in more things at once, architecture would have required more ornaments […]. I know that the relations between things would have remained the same; but the relation they have with us having changed, the things which in the present state make a certain effects on us no longer would; and as the perfection of the arts is to present to us things such that they give us the most possible pleasure, there would have to have been some change in the arts, since there would be some in the most appropriate manner to give us pleasure” (“Si notre vue avait été plus faible et plus confuse, il aurait fallu moins de moulures et plus d’uniformité dans les membres de l’architecture ; si notre vue avait été plus distincte, et notre âme capable d’embrasser plus de choses à la fois, il aurait fallu dans l’architecture plus d’ornements […] je sais bien que les rapports que les choses ont entre elles auraient subsisté ; mais le rapport qu’elles ont avec nous ayant changé, les choses qui dans l’état présent font un certain effet sur nous, ne le feraient plus ; et comme la perfection des arts est de nous présenter les choses telles qu’elles nous fassent le plus de plaisir qu’il est possible, il faudrait qu’il y eût du changement dans les arts, puisqu’il y en aurait dans la manière la plus propre à nous donner du plaisir”, [‣], 2020 ; OC, t. IX, p. 489">, emphasis ours). But if the arts depend so strictly on the contingent organization of the human “machine”, that does not make them free from rules. Esthetic pleasure is produced by the compatibility of works with the measure of the senses and attention, which tires in the presence of confusion and unordered multiplicity, but also wearies from repetition. The beautiful in art is thus what appeals to the mind thanks to the optimal exercise of the (sensorial and intellectual) faculties it engenders; pleasure arises from a happy medium between the two excesses of fatigue and boredom, owing to excessive variation or too great a uniformity. In this way, the rules of art coincide with the sum of formal procedures capable of supplying the thinking spirit, which feels a pleasure toed to its good operation (Spector 2002).

7Montesquieu’s travel notes, again put to use in the article “Taste”, confirm this necessity of a happy medium between order and variation. On one hand, the eyes seek a certain harmonious arrangement of relations, desirous to see “a whole order” in the work. On the other, the mind means to recuperate variation within order and diversity within unity. Composition is the art of well arranging the parts so that the mind can grasp the relations; it must make it possible to grasp the “whole together” without confusion. This fact explains the importance ascribed to drafting, which assures the distinction of forms: “Ignorance of design extends to the whole” (“L’ignorance du dessin se répand sur tout », De la manière gothique, p. 98). The “strength of design” (force de dessin”) of the Florentine painters is contrasted with the supposed grossness of the Flemish colorists like Rubens (Pensées, no. 398). In Florence, Montesquieu admires to be sure Titian’s Urbino Venus, which makes visible “the flesh and the body itself” (Voyages, p. 578), takes note of some works of Veronese, a Da Vinci, appreciates Andrea del Sarto, and praises mannerists (Pontormo, Rosso); but his predilection, as we have seen, goes to the “great and simple”.

8What goes for painting also goes for architecture, where the overabundance of ornaments and profusion of details impedes grasping of the whole. Gothic “bad taste” is disqualified for this very reason: “[…] one cannot see the whole at once” and too much variation leads to uniformity (Spicilège, no. 461). And so in Naples (Voyages, p. 301, 304) or San Lorenzo: the baroque bad taste breaks up the simplicity and perfection of the proportions without finding a measure, and “the whole together gives no pleasure” (p. 237-238). In the Essay on taste Montesquieu accounts for his preference for Greek architecture with respect to Gothic architecture, although the latter seems uniform and the former quite varied. For where Greek architecture allows the mind to see “precisely what it can see without tiring” while still exercising its faculties, Gothic architecture disorients the mind through the confusion of ornaments, over which the eye glides without pausing (p. 494). The Gothic, for this reason, is “the taste of ignorance”: “when one does not know the true beauties, one at first imagines that the multiplicity of ornaments will lend grace, and that beauty will increase in proportion to the number of things that make up the whole […]. Only great geniuses are spontaneously capable of the great and simple” (“lorsqu’on ne connaît pas les véritables beautés, on s’imagine d’abord que la multiplicité des ornements donnera de la grâce, et que la beauté augmentera à proportion du nombre des choses qui composeront le tout… Il n’y a que les beaux génies qui soient d’abord capables du grand simple”, Voyages, p. 546).

9It is evident that simplicity is not uniformity or “often disagreeable” absolute regularity (Pensées, no. 1131), but the subordination of the parts to the whole and the details to the overall effect. If pleasure arises from the discovery of new relations that sustain curiosity, the new must be linked to what is already perceived. Simplicity is inscribed in the continuity of a single dynamic of the gaze or thought and sometimes presupposes a psychological or optical illusion, as in Rome’s St. Peter’s (Essai sur le goût, p. 504; Voyages, p. 272; see Casabianca). Montesquieu’s remarks relative to sculpture reveal the nature of the dynamic order which is sought in art. Here appears the exigency of a rendition of flesh (magistrally accomplished by Bernini: , p. 239, 294) and an expressive intensity: “thus, when [the sculptor] has put the proportions into his figures, when the drapings are lovely, he has accomplished nothing if he does not put them into action, if the position is hard, for sculpture is naturally cold” (“ainsi, quand il [le sculpteur] a mis les proportions dans ses figures, que ses draperies sont belles, il n’a rien fait s’il ne les met pas en action, si la position est dure car la sculpture est naturellement froide”, Pensées, no. 399). If the proportions found the harmony, the animation of matter must still be added to the “beauty, grandeur, and nobility of the contours” (Voyages, p. 560). Meant to find the happy medium between the requirement for symmetry and for contrasts, the sculptor must be able to bring the marble alive, to give it “fire and movement” (Pensées, no. 399). More than painting, which yields itself up at once, sculpture calls for the mobility of vision, and the work must please from all viewpoints (Voyages, p. 296; see Pensées, no. 400). Curiosity must equally be satisfied in works of the mind: what makes for a beautiful literary work “is when you say a thing which brings to mind many others, and you enable all at once the discovery of what we could hope for only after long reading” (“c’est lorsqu’on dit une chose qui en fait voir un grand nombre d’autres, et qu’on fait découvrir tout d’un coup ce que nous ne pouvions espérer qu’après une grande lecture”, Essai sur le goût).

10These reflections lead to the formulation of an ideal of the beautiful: art imitates nature, but beautiful nature, and we shall not rule out ultimately that art imitates art. The Venus dei Medici defines the proportions of a lovely woman and not the reverse (Voyages, p. 570-571). If Raphael is “admirable”, it is because he “imitates nature”, creating, without striking, “the effect of the true” (Voyages, p. 265-269): “It is as if God was using Raphael’s hand to create with” (“Il semble que Dieu se sert de la main de Raphaël pour créer”, p. 273; see Essai sur le goût). Art can exceed nature in perfection by selecting the best and by playing, in representation, on the pleasures of the imagination: “I am more moved when I see a beautiful Raphael painting that shows me a woman naked in her bath, than if I saw Venus emerge from the water. That is because painting shows us only women’s beauties, and nothing of what can make the flaws visible. You see all that is pleasing, and nothing that can diminish the pleasure” (“Je suis plus touché quand je vois une belle peinture de Raphaël qui me représente une femme nue dans le bain, que si je voyois Vénus sortir de l’onde. C’est que la peinture ne nous représente que les beautés des femmes, et rien de ce qui peut en faire voir les défauts. On y voit tout ce qui plaît, et rien de ce qui peut dégoûter”, Pensées, no. 203). Thanks to the quality of the design, the disposition of the figures and the chromatic shadings, even in the absence of chiaroscuro (Voyages, p. 265-269), Raphael holds beauty itself up for us to see, “which comes from the imitation of nature as it is, and not the painter’s way of doing it” (“ce qui vient de l’imitation de la nature telle qu’elle est, et non de la façon que le peintre y met”, Voyages, p. 273; see also p. 286). Avoiding affectation, he incarnates the ideal of grace, simplicity, naturalness and ordered variation. It is still true that Montesquieu appreciates power as much as grace, Michelangelo as much as Raphael (EL, XIX, 27). The traveler gives homage to the nobility, the simplicity and the “grand taste” of the architect, the sculptor and the painter (Essai sur le goût, p. 507; Voyages, p. 301). A visit to the Sistine Chapel inspires admiration, notably for the Last Judgment: “Nothing gives a grander idea of Michelangelo’s genius than this painting, and I do not believe that Raphael’s Loges are any better […]. Moreover these paintings have a majesty, a power in the positions, and a grand manner that arrests the mind” (“Rien ne donne une plus grande idée du génie de Michel-Ange, que cette peinture, et je ne crois pas que les Loges de Raphaël valent mieux […] Du reste il y a dans ces peintures une majesté, une force dans les attitudes, une grande manière qui étonne l’esprit”, Voyages, p. 278). More than anyone else, Michelangelo understood that the application of rules requires discernment, a knowledge of the singular that characterizes genius: “Thus art gives the rules, and taste the exceptions; taste reveals to us when art must overcome, and when it must submit” ([‣], OC, t. IX, p. 511-512). No doubt we must not overestimate the dogmatic assertion borrowed from Vitruvius which says that the architectural orders are permanent “because they are not arbitrary beauties that can be supplemented by others. This is taken from nature, and I could easily explain its physical reason, and some day shall” (“parce que ce ne sont pas des beautés arbitraires qui puissent être suppléées par d’autres. Cela est pris de la nature, et il me serait facile d’expliquer la raison physique de ceci, et je le ferai quelque jour”, Pensées, no. 882). The canons are not absolutely rigid; the artist must know when to inflect the rules as the subject requires. Thus Michelangelo had “excellent taste and always did, in every case and place, what needed to be done to provide pleasure” (Voyages, p. 587).


Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu critique d’art, Paris: PUF, 1965.

Robert Shackleton, “Montesquieu et les beaux-arts”, in Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson et Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 103-107.

Annie Becq, Genèse de l’esthétique française moderne, 1680-1814, Pisa: Pacini, 1979 ; republished Paris: Albin Michel, 1994, p. 421-425.

Céline Spector, “Une théorie matérialiste du goût peut-elle produire l’évaluation esthétique?”, Montesquieu, de L’Esprit des lois à l’Essai sur le goût”, Corpus 40 (2002), p. 167-213.

Céline Spector, “L’Essai sur le goût de Montesquieu: une esthétique paradoxale », Cahiers Montesquieu 9 (2005), p. 193-214.

Denis de Casabianca, Montesquieu. De l’étude des sciences à l’esprit des lois, Paris: Champion, 2008.