Customs, mœurs, manners

Céline Spector

[Translator’s note: elsewhere in this dictionary the term mœurs, which often if not always seems to refer to something like a society’s intrinsic or inherited values, has been translated wherever possible by mores and sometimes by customs, manners or even morality. The centrality of all these terms to the present article, however, made it impossible to do anything but leave the term in French so that its relationship to those other terms can better be evaluated by the reader.]

1As much as the project to systematize law, the will to make sense of mœurs is fundamental to L’Esprit des lois: “First I examined men and I believed that, in the infinite diversity of laws and mœurs, they were not driven solely by their fantasies” (“J’ai d’abord examiné les hommes et j’ai cru que, dans cette infinie diversité de lois et de mœurs, ils n’étaient pas uniquement conduits par leurs fantaisies”, Preface). The satirical perspective of the Lettres persanes (confrontation of Parisian and Persian mœurs) is followed up by the comparison of national customs – sketched thanks to the utilization of travel narratives – and their explanation by physical or moral causes. Montesquieu takes into account the polysemia of mœurs: in the first place, mœurs express collective opinions and passions and describe not only a society’s needs, but also the nature of its pleasures and aversions (its tastes). As the Effects which result from a plurality of causes (geographical or historical, natural, social or political), mœurs determine in turn behavior within a social group or nation. As a first approach, this yields a veritable circle of mœurs: opinions and passions, once contracted, produce a momentum which the mœurs reproduce in the form of a second nature (XIV, 4) – a “habit”-pli (Pensées, no. 934). From this follows the given character of mœurs, which appear as customs. Simple or refined, virtuous or corrupt, the mœurs constitute the obstacle or adjuvant which the legislator encounters. Mœurs are more native than laws: thus among the earliest Romans “the mœurs sufficed to maintain the allegiance of slaves; no laws were needed”. Later, “as there were no more mœurs, laws were required” (XV, 16). Thus is posed the crucial problem of the political domain, that of the relationship it is proper to institute between the types of norms that determine behaviors, between regimes of constraint that govern men, in a word, between laws and mœurs: ought the political art to inform the mœurs or be content with a regulated adaptation – the laws attempting no more than to follow the mœurs derived from nature and history?

Mœurs in the “principle”

2The reflection on mœurs first appears at the moment when the relationship between “nature” and “principle” of each government is exposed. Between the institutional structure of a regime and the dominant passion that must motivate men within it, the relationship is dialectic: to obey power and the laws supposes certain mœurs, which must themselves be formed and maintained by political art and law. Here Montesquieu breaks with a universalist perspective: each constitution is preserved thanks to the mœurs which are proper to it, and becomes corrupted when those mœurs are no longer adequate.

3The republic is the only regime that requires pure mœurs. “Virtue”, the principle of democracies, but also to a lesser degree “moderation”, the principle of aristocracies, presuppose the goodness of mœurs: “Love of country leads to the goodness of mœurs, and the goodness of mœurs leads to love of country” (“L’amour de la patrie conduit à la bonté des mœurs, et la bonté des mœurs mène à l’amour de la patrie”, V, 2). Montesquieu borrows from Machiavelli the idea of a dialectic between good laws and good mœurs: “When a people has good mœurs, the laws become simple” (XIX, 22; VI, 11; see Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, I, 18). Only the love of country assures the preservation of republican institutions, constantly threatened with corruption (VIII, 11). But to this first movement, which goes from mœurs to laws, a second is added, in the opposite direction: in democracies – the case of aristocracies is more complex – the laws in turn must promote virtue by sustaining the love of equality and frugality (agrarian laws, sumptuary laws, and laws of succession). Still, the legal conditions remain insufficient if they are not accompanied by institutions to educate the citizen (IV, 4-8). The political virtue invoked by Montesquieu implies a renunciation of oneself and one’s dearest interests (IV, 5), which can only be obtained at the price of a censure of mœurs: the censors entrusted with the “repository of mœurs” must “re-establish whatever has been corrupted in the republic, take note of tepidness, judge negligence and correct mistakes, as laws punish crimes” (“rétablissent dans la république tout ce qui a été corrompu, qu’ils notent la tiédeur, jugent les négligences et corrigent les fautes, comme les lois punissent les crimes”, V, 7). The Areopagus had a child put to death for putting out its bird’s eyes: “please note that what is involved here is not condemnation for a crime but a judgment of mœurs in a republic founded on mœurs”(V, 19). This importance ascribed to mœurs again appears clearly in the role that is ascribed to them, as a complement to the laws or even in place of them, in the ordering of the body politic; when the agrarian laws cannot establish the equality of fortunes, the mœurs supplement the laws.

4The instauration of the chain of pyramidal subordination anchors political discipline in a moral discipline: the effect of the subordination of the young to the old, of children to their parents, of women with respect to their husbands, is to sustain the senate’s authority. In democracies, the preservation of this hierarchy of obedience is the condition of the state’s survival, and “there is much to be gained, with respect to mœurs, by keeping old customs” (“il y a beaucoup à gagner, en fait de mœurs, à garder les coutumes anciennes”, V, 7). Eunomy cannot be separated from isonomy (Larrère, 1994).

5Despotic and monarchical states, on the other hand, persist in the absence of good mœurs. Despotism, the principle of which is fear, requires servile practices to maintain itself: education there must be “nil” in order to train an obedient slave (IV, 3). As for monarchies, honor there inspires singular mœurs, linked to the normativeness of its code. On the worldly stage, the reign of false appearances, virtues are noble, mœurs are frank, and manners polite, so as to satisfy the desire of distinguishing oneself which is the motivating force of this regime. Virtues, in the first place, are not moral virtues, based on duties toward others, but social virtues, having to do with duties towards oneself. Valorizing great and extraordinary acts rather than reasonable or good ones, the honor code allows, under certain conditions, adulation, ruse and gallantry, for which reason “mœurs are never so pure in monarchies as in republican governments” (“les mœurs ne sont jamais si pures dans les monarchies que dans les gouvernements républicains”). Mœurs properly so called betray the distance that exists, in this regime, between motives and acts, subjective intentions and social results: frankness is not desired for itself, but for independence and the courage it causes to be admired. Finally, manners also translate the conversion of private vices into public virtues; proprieties that lead men to enjoy themselves proceed from the pride and need to distinguish oneself (IV, 2).

6The corruption of mœurs thus seems largely to characterize, in the West, “our modern times” (IV, 6). Ought they to be deplored? Commerce, if it softens barbarous mœurs, “corrupts pure mœurs” (XX, 1). The allegory of the Troglodytes already seems to suggest as much: only a just community prospers, but the virtuous anarchy that functions in a small, autarkic society is no longer appropriate to a great state where the economy takes off; man then prefer to obey laws, “less rigid” than mœurs (LP, [‣]). Meanwhile, the primacy of law over mœurs can equally appear as a gain, once it makes it possible to define a space of freedom which is outside the purview of power. What seemed to be a flaw on monarchy or merchant societies can then turn into a trump: there is no more need for a legislative arsenal to maintain equality and frugality, nor of a moral discipline in order to correct mistakes and preserve virtue. To be sure, penal moderation, the condition of the citizen’s freedom, is equally required in republics and monarchies: “In these [moderate] states, a good legislator will be less concerned to punish crimes than to prevent them; he will seek more to give mœurs than to inflict tortures” (VI, 9). The severity of punishments is avoided by the recourse to mœurs, themselves founded on the fear of accusation which political virtue, like honor, favors. But in democracies, the judgment brought to bear on mœurs is necessarily arbitrary (dependent on the judge’s assessment, without pejorative connotation), regulated by opinion rather than by law. And so it is with the domestic tribunal, which maintained mœurs: “The penalties of this tribunal had to be arbitrary, and indeed were: for whatever relates to mœurs, whatever relates to the rules of modesty, can hardly be included under a code of laws. It is simple to regulate by laws what one owes to others; it is difficult to include all one owes to oneself” (“Les peines de ce tribunal devaient être arbitraires, et l’étaient en effet : car tout ce qui regarde les mœurs, tout ce qui regarde les règles de modestie, ne peut guère être compris sous un code de lois. Il est aisé de régler par les lois ce qu’on doit aux autres ; il est difficile d’y comprendre tout ce qu’on se doit à soi-même ”, VII, 10). Montesquieu underscores by contrast the advantage of an economic regulation in monarchies and merchant societies, where moral discipline is not required. No doubt that a nation like France could “contain the women, make laws to correct their mœurs” but “who knows whether one would not lose a certain taste that could be the source of the nation’s wealth and a civility that attracts strangers to her” (“contenir les femmes, faire des lois pour corriger leur mœurs », mais « qui sait si on n’y perdrait pas un certain goût qui serait la source des richesses de la nation et une politesse qui attire chez elle les étrangers”, XIX, 5)? The spirit of the nation, however frivolous and immoral, contributes to the power of the state.

Customs and general spirit

7In book XIX, L’Esprit des lois thus tackles the question of the relation of laws to the general spirit of a people. The concept of mœurs, at first substantially equivalent to that of general spirit (the general spirit results from the “examples received”, forging les mœurs which “reign as imperiously as the laws”, Romans, XXI, OC, t. II, p. 263) becomes ambivalent: the general spirit, being a result of the composition of physical and moral causes, is realized in the form of mœurs (the character of a nation), but the mœurs are also one factor among others within the general spirit (XIX, 4). The latter results from an ensemble of physical and moral causes, which leads us not to overestimate the role of the juridical: law is only one factor among others in the formation and regulation of a people. As Montesquieu writes in a response to critics subsequent to the Défense de L’Esprit des lois, “the nations thus have their different characters and different mœurs. What do I conclude from that? Here is what I conclude: that those who give laws to the nations of the world must give laws appropriate to those mœurs and characters” (“les nations ont donc leurs caractères différents et leurs mœurs différentes. Qu’en ai-je conclu ? Voici ce que j’en ai conclu : c’est que ceux qui donnent des lois aux nations du monde doivent les donner assortissantes à ces mœurs et à ces caractères”, OC, t. VII, p. 345). It is therefore important to take into account the natural causality that operates on the mœurs: the temperature of the air, dilating or contracting the nervous extremities, affects the individual’s sensitivity to pleasures and pains and gives rise to inclinations, needs and tastes. Physical determinations constitute the point of departure for a moral qualification (in terms of courage, confidence, candor, or contrariwise of cowardice, passivity and lasciviousness) and of a political qualification, in terms of freedom or servitude. Morality [la morale] is no longer a transcendent entity, calling for the obedience of men’s free will and the acquiescence of their reason. Vices and virtues are dependent on the climate: “You will find in northern climates people who have few vices, substantial virtues, much sincerity and candor. As you move toward southern countries, you will seem to be going farther from morality [la morale] itself: more lively passions will multiply crimes; each person will seek to take every advantage of others that can favor those very passions. In temperate countries, you will see peoples who are inconstant in their manners, even in their vices and in their virtues; the climate is not sufficiently distinctive to fix even them” (“Vous trouverez dans les climats du nord des peuples qui ont peu de vices, assez de vertus, beaucoup de sincérité et de franchise. Approchez des pays du midi, vous croirez vous éloigner de la morale même : des passions plus vives multiplieront les crimes ; chacun cherchera à prendre sur les autres tous les avantages qui peuvent favoriser ces mêmes passions. Dans les pays tempérés, vous verrez des peuples inconstants dans leurs manières, dans leurs vices même, et dans leurs vertus ; le climat n’y a pas une qualité assez déterminée pour les fixer eux-mêmes”, XIV, 2). Politics depends just as strictly on men’s natural temperament: indolent, dejected and cowardly subjects are inclined to bear servitude; courageous subjects, on the contrary, are more resistant to conquests or abuses of power; they show themselves ready to defend their freedom. Thus excessive heat engenders not only political servitude but also civil and domestic servitude (books XIV-XVII). The causality at work in mœurs is one of continuity between the physical and the moral, which extends from mœurs to laws: “it is the different needs in different climates which have fashioned different manners of living, and these different manners of living have fashioned various sorts of laws” (“Ce sont les différents besoins, dans les différents climats, qui ont formé les différentes manières de vivre, et ces différentes manières de vivre ont formé les diverses sortes de lois”, XIV, 10).

8Are we to conclude from this that men’s customs derive rather from nature than from politics or history, and depend on necessity instead of will? Montesquieu, it is clear, is far from attributing to physical causes the power of determining mœurs integrally and universally. Attacked by his censors, he will even maintain that “the book L’Esprit des lois shows the perpetual victory of morals [la morale] over climate, or rather, in general, over physical causes” (Explications données à la faculté de théologie, OC, t. VII, p. 247). When he writes that “the domination [empire] of the climate is the first of all empires” (XIX, 14), Montesquieu means “first” chronologically, and not by order of importance. Physical causes dominate especially among savage peoples, who live in a nature rather than in a culture (Book XVIII; see XIX, 4). In this respect, the reflection on the modes of subsistence allows him to sketch a genesis of civilization, from nomadic peoples (savage or barbarous, living by gathering, hunting or breeding) to civilized [policés] peoples, farmers and traders. Whereas the former regulate themselves by mœurs, the latter give rise to law so as to settle quarrels relative to property (XVIII, 13).

9This new role attributed to law leads us next to wonder whether the possibility should be excluded that a legislator might break with the “nature of things” to inform the existing fabric of manners and mœurs and make of an indolent nation a productive one, of a barbarous nation a civilized one. According to what mode does one conceive of political intervention within practices and traditions deposited over time? In a sense, only the despotic state excludes all change in manners and mœurs: “It is a capital maxim, that the manners and mœurs of a despotic state must never be changed; nothing would be more promptly followed by a revolution. For in these states, there are no laws, so to speak; there are only mœurs and manners; and if you overturn that, you overturn everything” (“C’est une maxime capitale, qu’il ne faut jamais changer les mœurs et les manières dans l’État despotique ; rien ne serait plus promptement suivi d’une révolution. C’est que, dans ces États, il n’y a point de lois, pour ainsi dire ; il n’y a que des mœurs et des manières ; et, si vous renversez cela, vous renversez tout”, XIX, 12). But even in this case – that of Eastern nations – Montesquieu does not exclude the possibility that political art could force nature: when a people’s heedless mœurs prevent it from providing for its needs, the art of governing must modify behavior by playing one passion against another or making use of beliefs (XIV, 5-9). This is a universally valid precept, even if moderate governments will more easily apply it: political art must reform prudently, for a people “always knows, loves and defends its mœurs more than its laws” (“connaît, aime et défend toujours plus ses mœurs que ses lois” (X, 11); “mœurs contribute even more than do the laws to a people’s happiness” (“les mœurs contribuent encore plus au bonheur d’un peuple que les lois”, Pensées, no. 32). That is why Solon’s reply to those who asked whether the laws he had given to the Athenians were the best, ought to be heard by all legislators: “I have given them, he replied, the best of those they could tolerate” (XIX, 21). Because “laws are established”, whereas “mœurs are inspired”, because the former derive from a “particular institution” whereas the latter “depend more on the general spirit”, the art of governing ought to adapt to the singular practices of peoples (XIX, 12).

10Customs therefore constitute a genuine source of law: in Book XXVIII of L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu means to rehabilitate customs by seeking the sources of French law in barbarous jurisprudence; far from deriving from arbitrary habits without foundation, customs are endowed with their immanent rationality. The spirit of freedom or moderation which Montesquieu hopes to see preserved in the monarchy depends precisely on the conservation of customs and privileges. Thus is explained the insistence on the history of French law, characterized by the persistent opposition of distinct normative regimes: it is in the lacunae of hegemonic territorial law that customs as “supplement” to laws were first constituted, up to the time when, in the reign of Pépin le Bref and under the influence of ignorance, “customs which [at first] had taken shape [with] less force than the laws” came to be take the place of laws (XXVIII, 12). For the domination of customs, according to Montesquieu, is not synonymous with anarchy and chaos. It is the accord of jurisprudence and mœurs which is the ultimate criterion of rationality – thus with respect to the judicial combat: “I say therefore that, in the circumstances of times when the test of combat or the test by hot iron and boiling water were in use, there was such an accord of these laws with the mœurs that these laws produced fewer injustices than they were unjust; that the effects were more innocent than the causes; that they shocked equity more than they violated its rights; that they were more unreasonable than tyrannical” (“Je dis donc que, dans les circonstances des temps où la preuve par le combat et la preuve par le fer chaud et l’eau bouillante furent en usage, il y eut un tel accord de ces lois avec les mœurs que ces lois produisirent moins d’injustices qu’elles ne furent injustes ; que les effets furent plus innocents que les causes ; qu’elles choquèrent plus l’équité qu’elles n’en violèrent les droits ; qu’elles furent plus déraisonnables que tyranniques”, XXVIII, 17). Opposed to the notion of a codification of law consecrating a priori universal and rational principles, critical with respect to projects of uniformization deriving from Roman law considered as ratio scripta (as with the unification of customs under the aegis of a dominant custom [Bart, 2002]), Montesquieu nonetheless does not interpret law as deriving from the instincts and living spontaneity of a people: he seems to reconcile the will to preserve jurisprudence as an expression of the traditions which have fashioned from the beginning the national character, and the notion of a pragmatic evolution of law, attentive to social transformations. The great merit of St. Louis was precisely to set this evolution going without proceeding to an abstract codification contrary to the general spirit of his times: moderation of the political depends on its succeeding in inciting men to the integration of Roman law into customs. Subsequently, customs until them “preserved in the memory of old men” were written down and constituted an essential source of law: “This is the great era. Charles VII and his successors had diverse local customs written down, in the entire realm, and prescribed formalities that should be observed at their redaction. Now as this redaction was done by provinces, and as, in each seigneury, they came to set down in the provincial general assembly the written and unwritten practices of each place, they sought to make the customs more general, as much as could be done without harming the individual interests which were reserved. Thus our customs took on three characters: they were written, they were more general, they received the seal of royal authority” (“Voici la grande époque. Charles VII et ses successeurs firent rédiger par écrit, dans tout le royaume, les diverses coutumes locales, et prescrivirent des formalités qui devaient être observées à leur rédaction. Or, comme cette rédaction se fit par provinces, et que, de chaque seigneurie, on venait déposer dans l’assemblée générale de la province les usages écrits ou non écrits de chaque lieu, on chercha à rendre les coutumes plus générales, autant que cela se put faire sans blesser les intérêts des particuliers qui furent réservés. Ainsi nos coutumes prirent trois caractères : elles furent écrites, elles furent plus générales, elles reçurent le sceau de l’autorité royale”, XXVIII, 45).

11The importance of customs is therefore opposed to legislative volunteerism: the law cannot legitimately enter into conflict with men in order to fashion them to suit its ends, by justifying violence (even symbolic) in the name of procuring a present or future political good. The mœurs are linked to a people’s beliefs, manners of thinking and feeling, which the legislator cannot run up against without being guilty of a “tyranny of opinion” (XIX, 3). The political, in a word, must take advantage of an instrument distinct from the law in order to act profoundly on the substantial fabric of shared practices and habits. The intermediate status of mœurs, at the juncture of interiority and exteriority, at the articulation of the individual and the social, at the pivot of the private and public, imposes a singular political approach, which avoids imposing the “power” of the law: it is more appropriate to modify manners and mœurs by the example of other manners and other mœurs than by law. Peter the Great’s mistake is witness to this: the art of governing must promote a gentle modification of men that acts like nature “in a muted and inconspicuous way” (VI, 13); it must incite by example the changing of manners instead of constraining by the fear of sanction (XIX, 14).

Laws, mœurs, manners

12L’Esprit des lois thus introduces an original three-way division: to the classical couple of laws and mœurs is added the concept of “manners”, which until now belonged to the domain of moralists and treatises on civility. The regulation that takes place short of the juridical sphere henceforth includes two distinct modalities, according to whether it concerns the interiority or exteriority of behaviors: “Mœurs and manners are practices which the laws have not established, or could not, or did not wish to establish. There is this difference between laws and mœurs, that the laws regulate more the actions of the citizen, and the mœurs regulate more the actions of man. There is this difference between mœurs and manners, that the former relate more to inner behavior, the latter to the outer” (“Les mœurs et les manières sont des usages que les lois n’ont point établis, ou n’ont pas pu, ou n’ont pas voulu établir. Il y a cette différence entre les lois et les mœurs, que les lois règlent plus les actions du citoyen, et que les mœurs règlent plus les actions de l’homme. Il y a cette différence entre les mœurs et les manières, que les premières regardent plus la conduite intérieure, les autres l’extérieure”, XIX, 16). By dint of this assumed rift between being and appearing, the moralist perspective of the Traité des devoirs (Pensées, nos.1270-1271) is superseded. It matters little that the proprieties, which serve to make society agreeable, do not translate sincere feelings: among virtuous peoples, they are established to “constrain vices” and among peoples with vicious mœurs, to “prevent them from being suspected”. “A slight homage which vice renders to virtue”, manners can, according to the circumstances, be an aspect of moral reform or of dissimulation (Pensées, no. 1904). Even if the politeness of mœurs remains preferable to that of manners (EL, XIX, 27), Montesquieu does not subscribe to the criticism of hypocrisy and false appearances: the art of pleasing is fundamental to the social bond (Pensées, no. 464).

13Manners thereby can constitute a relatively autonomous domain. The laws, the mœurs and the manners no doubt entertain a strange relation of “representation” (XIX, 16); but they must not for that reason be confused: “Only singular institutions thus confuse things which are naturally separated, laws, mœurs, and manners” (XIX, 21). The examples of Sparta and China illustrate this principle. In Lacedaemon, the absence of civility combined with the fact that the laws informed the mœurs, to the benefit of a purely martial virtue: “The purpose of Lycurgus, whose institutions were harsh, was not civility, when he fashioned manners: what he had in mind was the bellicose spirit with which he wished to imbue his people” (“Lycurgue, dont les institutions étaient dures, n’eut point la civilité pour objet lorsqu’il forma les manières : il eut en vue cet esprit belliqueux qu’il voulait donner à son peuple”, XIX, 16). As for China, the extreme politeness of its manners (following its “rites”), equally translated the conflation of normative regimes, desired by the political so as to discipline the people for work and to keep it obedient (XIX, 17-20). Now this conflation, according to Montesquieu, is harmful to freedom: the legislator ought not to enact rules about “indifferent things” that are more a matter of manners than law (XIX, 14). A sphere of civil liberty is thus sketched out within the domain authorized by the laws.


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Raymond Aron,xe "Aron" Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique, Paris: Gallimard, 1967, ch. I.

Sheila Mary Mason, Montesquieu’s Idea of Justice, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975, ch. IV.

Georges Benrekassaxe "Benrekassa", “Philosophie du droit et histoire dans les livres XXVII et XXVIII de L’Esprit des lois”, in Le Concentrique et l’Excentrique, Paris: Payot, 1980, ch. V. Georges Benrekassa, xe "Benrekassa"Montesquieu: la liberté et l’histoire, Paris: Librairie générale française, 1987, ch. V et VII.

Catherine Larrère, “Droit et mœurs chez Montesquieu”, Droits, no. 19, 1994, p. 11-22.

Georges Benrekassaxe "Benrekassa", “Mœurs comme ‘concept politique’, 1680-1820”, in Le Langage des Lumières, Paris: PUF, 1995, esp. p. 59-62.

Bertrand Binoche, “Montesquieu et la crise de la rationalité historique”, Revue germanique internationale 3 (1995), p. 31-53.

Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à “De l’esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: PUF, 1998.

Jean Bart, “Montesquieu et l’unification du droit”, Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 137-146.

Céline Spector, “‘Il faut éclairer l’histoire par les lois et les lois par l’histoire’: statut de la romanité et rationalité des coutumes dans L’Esprit des lois de Montesquieu”, Généalogie des savoirs juridiques: le carrefour des Lumières, M. Xifaras ed., Bruxelles: Bruylant, “Penser le droit”, 2007, p. 15-41.