Spirit, General Spirit

Céline Spector

Emergence of the concept

1The concept of general spirit is one of the most important and most original in L’Esprit des lois, the one which Hegel, in homage to Montesquieu, made the keystone of his philosophy (Principes de la philosophie du droit, trans. R.Derathéxe "Derath", Paris: Vrin, 1989, §3, p.64-65). Its elaboration was progressive: the common character of nations appears as early as De la politique (a short work traditionally dated 1722-1723, but with no serious justification: see OC, t. VIII, p. 506-507, et l’édition en ligne, C. Volpilhac-Auger éd., MBE, 2021 [[‣]]) as the derivative and partial form of a “universal soul” that becomes more particularized under the action of a specific causality. Now the “spirit” thus conceived as a collective result in turn becomes a cause of individual acts, to the point of governing behavior anterior to government: “In all societies that are merely a unity of minds, a common character is formed. This universal soul adopts a manner of thinking which is the effect of an endless chain of causes, which multiply and combine from one century to the next. Once the tone is given and received, it alone governs, and everything that sovereigns, magistrates, and peoples can do or imagine, whether it appears to collide with or follow this tone, is always connected with it, and it dominates until it is totally destroyed. The spirit of obedience is generally shared here. Hence, rulers can more easily dispense with skill. This spirit governs for them and, whatever ill, good, or equivocal action they commit, they will always succeed equally well” :

(“Dans toutes les sociétés qui ne sont qu’une union d’esprits, il se forme un caractère commun. Cette âme universelle prend une manière de penser qui est l’effet d’une chaîne de causes infinies, qui se multiplient et se combinent de siècle en siècle. Dès que le ton est donné et reçu, c’est lui seul qui gouverne, et tout ce que les souverains, les magistrats, les peuples peuvent faire ou imaginer, soit qu’il paraît choquer ce ton ou le suivre, s’y rapporte toujours, et il domine jusques à la totale destruction.
L’esprit d’obéissance est généralement répandu ici. De là, les princes sont plus dispensés d’être habiles. Cet esprit gouverne pour eux et, quelque chose qu’ils fassent de mal, d’équivoque, de bien, ils iront toujours au même but”, italics added).

2The spirit of peoples is thus conceived in a relation of favoring or resisting political acts. That a nation’s character could support tyranny is doubtless not excluded. Thus in Romains, where the expression “general spirit” first appears under Montesquieu’s pen, the tyranny of emperors is assumed to come from “the general spirit of the Romans” who abandoned their freedom to bear an arbitrary government without losing their ferocity (XV; OC, t. II, p.199). But general spirit does not denote the singular essence of a nation. It is the effect of variable causality. Thus it can also, at a later stage of history, constitute a limitation of power. In the Byzantine empire, absolute despotism could never take over: “There is in every nation a general spirit, on which power itself is founded; when it collides with that spirit, it collides with itself, and necessarily ceases” (XXII, p. 27). Montesquieu highlights the importance of the customs, rites and religious traditions that oppose the extension of sovereign power: at its first formulation, the general spirit is the simple result of “received examples”, forging mores that “prevail as imperiously as laws” (XXI, p. 263). In Romains, recourse to the concept of general spirit thus begins a reflection on the relations between power and society. A Spirit of obedience or of resistance, the general spirit constitutes both the foundation and the limitation of submission.

3To the original equivalence of the concept of general spirit and that of mores, Montesquieu’s later works were however to substitute a more complex characterization, within which mores were to occupy an ambivalent position – one cause among others and the result of an ensemble of causes that act upon peoples: “For there is in each nation a general character, for which each individual character is more or less responsible. It is produced in two ways: by physical causes that derive from the climate […] and by moral causes which are the combination of laws, religion, mores and manners, and that sort of emanation of the manner of thinking, of the air and foolishness of the court and the capital that spread abroad” (“car il y a, dans chaque nation, un caractère général, dont celui de chaque particulier se charge plus ou moins. Il est produit de deux manières : par les causes physiques qui dépendent du climat […] et par les causes morales qui sont la combinaison des lois, de la religion, des mœurs et des manières, et cette espèce d’émanation de la façon de penser, de l’air et des sottises de la cour et de la capitale qui se répandent au loin”, Essai sur les causes, OC, t. IX, p. 254, l. 625-630; written between 1736 and 1739, published in 1892). The Persian Letters had already maintained an analogous theory by playing on the opposition between the French and Persian spirits, presenting ironically certain national characters or identifying the physical and moral causes of global depopulation (LP, [‣], [‣], [‣] to [‣]). The “general character of a nation” is formed by the conjunction of natural factors, social factors and political factors (in Persia, “the characters are very uniform, because they are forced” ([LP, [‣]], with servitude reinforcing fear). The relations between the sexes are, in France, at the origin of the banter that affects, upstream, civil and military functions [LP, [‣]] ; certain general passions, like the love of glory, can also form the spirit of a nation – imagination, education, and the political conditions that modify an inherent tendency in human nature (LP, [‣]-[‣]). In the process of a people’s formation, the role of the pyramidal diffusion of manners and mores is decisive (LP, [‣]). But the “general education” mentioned in the Essay on the causes obviously is not dependent on the sole will of a legislator or prince. The identity of a community is formed on the basis of physical and moral considerations: individuals subjected to the same causes are endowed with similar mores. The perilous passage from individual psychology to collective psychology depends on a sensualist definition of spirit, which undergoes the influence of physical causes (essentially climate and nutrition that depends on the nature of the terrain) as well as moral causes.

4It remained to think through the articulation of these physical and moral causes, which does not reduce to determinism. First, the causes can be in a competitive position, opposition but also support, one serving as a relay to the other. That is what Montesquieu was to expose in one of his Pensées: “I well know that, if moral causes did not interrupt the physical ones, these would emerge and act to their full extent. I further know that if the physical causes had the strength to act alone (as when peoples live in inaccessible mountains), they could soon destroy the moral cause: for often the physical cause requires the moral cause in order to act” (“Je sais bien que si des causes morales n’interrompaient point les physiques, celles-ci sortiraient et agiraient dans toute leur étendue. Je sais encore que si les causes physiques avaient la force d’agir par elles-mêmes, comme lorsque les peuples sont habitants de montagnes inaccessibles, elles ne détruisissent bientôt la cause morale, car souvent la cause physique a besoin de la cause morale pour agir”, no. 811). Secondly, if “the complication of causes that make up a people’s general character is very great” (Essay on the causes, p. 255), the primacy of the moral causes is none the less affirmed, at least in civilized nations (for savage nations remain dominated by nature and climate): “the moral causes make up more of the general character of a nation and decide more of the quality of its spirit than the physical causes” (“les causes morales forment plus le caractère général d’une nation et décident plus de la qualité de son esprit que les causes physiques”, p. 257). That the moral causes force the physical causes is again shown by the contrast established between peoples further south and further north, whereas Asiatics, dominated by “timidity”, are inclined to obey, Europeans “have a boldness that inclines them to scorn life and property in order to command others”. The political use of the general character of peoples reappears here: because those who exercise power always go on until they encounter limits, the command is tyrannical among oriental nations, moderate among northern nations (pp. 258-259). Religion, adopted by peoples in function of their national genius, itself influenced by the climate, can in turn reinforce the spirit of independence or submission. Thus the Protestant religion, adopted by the independent northern peoples, reinforces their political freedom, whereas the Catholic religion, retained by the submissive southern peoples, contributes even more to their submission. It is in reality “education” in a broad sense (specific education in the family, general education in society) that allows one to conceive the acquisition of a common culture by a people: laws, customs, religious precepts, form of government, and accepted examples contribute to the formation of the national character and to conferring on it dominant traits or passions. The role of the imitation and communication of passions, spirits and characters is determinant (pp. 423-424). On this head Montesquieu invokes the role of the court and the capital: “I call a nation’s genius the mores and character of spirit of different peoples steered by the influence of a single court and a single capital” (“J’appelle génie d’une nation les mœurs et le caractère d’esprit de différents peuples dirigés par l’influence d’une même cour et d’une même capitale”, Pensées, no. 348). This reflection on the formation of a people takes clearer shape as the work progresses. In his Pensées, Montesquieu, without mentioning the “general spirit”, for the rhapsodic enumeration of the Essay on the causes substitutes the precise determination of the “things” capable of governing men. Between two entries transcribed a few years apart (Pensées, no. 542, between 1731 and 1734, and Pensées, no. 854, between 1734 and 1738), the state point of view (“states are governed by five things”, my italics, as in the following quotations) yields to an anthropological perspective (“men are governed by five things”; repeated in L’Esprit des lois, XIX, 4: “several things govern men”, our emphasis in both instances). In Pensées (no. 542), Montesquieu insists on the interdependence of causes and on the “dissonance” provoked, because of the inertia of mores, by any modification of their equilibrium and coherence (“All these things have a mutual relation to each other. If you change one, the others follow only slowly, which causes a sort of dissonance everywhere” [“Ces choses ont toutes un rapport mutuel les uns aux autres. Si vous en changez une, les autres ne suivent que lentement, ce qui met partout une espèce de dissonance”]); in no. 854 of the same collection, on the other hand, he asserts the preponderance of one of the factors in national spirit, a variable preponderance according to the countries and times: “Depending on whether, in each nation, one of the causes acts more strongly, the others yield to the same degree. Climate dominates almost alone among savages, manners govern the Chinese; laws tyrannize Japan; mores used to dominate the tone in Rome and Lacedaemonia; and religion is now everything in southern Europe” (“Selon que, dans chaque nation, une de ces causes agit avec plus de force, les autres lui cèdent d’autant. Le climat domine presque seul sur les sauvages ; les manières gouvernent les Chinois ; les lois tyrannisent le Japon ; les mœurs dominaient autrefois le ton dans Rome et Lacédémone ; et la religion fait tout aujourd’hui dans le midi de l’Europe”, a stance merely refined in L’Esprit des lois, at a time when this last phrase disappears). Climate, absent from the first definition, which mentions only moral causes (religion, general maxims of government, specific laws, mores, manners), later intervenes as the first term in the enumeration, preceding manners, mores, religion and laws; as for the “examples of past things”, they make their appearance in L’Esprit des lois beside the “maxims of government”, present in the earlier version but absent in the second. Should we see Montesquieu hesitating on the status to attribute to politics and the will of the governors in the formation of the national character? We should in any case emphasize the surprising flattening introduced between the factors: climate “governs” men just as religion or government. The neutrality of the formulas (“Men are governed by…”, “Five things govern men”) must not obscure their theoretical stakes: Montesquieu tends to eliminate the specific and eminent role of the political order as well as minimize the role of will (divine and human) in history.

The nation or the people? The general spirit in L’Esprit des lois

5In L’Esprit des lois, reflections thus elaborated converge in the definition of the general spirit: “Several things govern men: climate, religion, laws, maxims of government, examples of past things, mores, manners, which make up a resultant general spirit. As one of these causes acts more strongly in each nation, the others yield to the same degree” (“Plusieurs choses gouvernent les hommes : le climat, la religion, les lois, les maximes du gouvernement, les exemples des choses passées, les mœurs, les manières ; d’où il se forme un esprit général qui en résulte. À mesure que dans chaque nation, une de ces causes agit avec plus de force, les autres lui cèdent d’autant”, XIX, 4). The general spirit is the effect of the composition of different causes, their gradual variation or their compensation; it integrates the physical and the moral, that cannot be conceived in autonomous fashion. The duality of the causes (physical and moral) yields ground to the idea of a union of heterogeneous factors of which the cohesion, attested in the mores, is the fruit of geography and history. The general spirit (a synonym of spirit of the nation, character or genius of nations) results from the joint influence of different causes which makes way for the existence of a dominant one. In the absence of an a priori hierarchy between these causes, the spirit is determined as a sum of forces or a chemical mixture, by the relative strength or proportion that prevails among its components.

6Thereby Montesquieu substitutes a notion of the heterogeneity and complexity of the nation for a homogeneous and unified notion of the people. The singularity of the general spirit is owing to the fact that it is neither purely natural, nor purely artificial, but integrates natural and artificial components within the fundamental parameters of the social. This new conception of social totality has been interpreted as the beginning of a sociological point of view (Aron and Manent more than Durkheim). Whence it remains to understand the constitution of the unity of a diversity, since the diverse “things” that govern men are situated on the same level, without apparent hierarchy or explicit subordination. Whence proceeds the unity, if it is not the legislator’s will? Unlike Rousseau, Montesquieu does not derive the formation of a new totality endowed with a common sensitivity (the “people”) from a founding contract, nor does he invoke the legislator’s transcendence. This eclipse of the contract (passingly mentioned in book I, ch. 3, as well as in book XXVI, ch. 15) and, with a few exceptions, of the mythical figure of the legislator, appears clearly when L’Esprit des lois declares that “insofar as, in each nation, one of these causes acts more strongly, the others yield to the same degree” (XIX, 4). The unification of the heterogeneous appears to be simply the effect of the prevalence of certain components over others: one society will be rather dominated by religion, another rather by laws, another by climate… What matters here is that the general spirit does not simply result from a political or juridical unification, but from the joint influence of different causes that give rise to the existence of a dominant one. The alchemical connotation of spirit – the produce of the distillation by which the specific properties of a whole emerge from those of its parts – allows one to envisage a non-subjective principle, a non-intentional order, the non-substantial unity of a people (Markovits, 1997).

General spirit and the legislator’s moderation

7However, in moving from the description of national characters to the explanation of the causes at the origin of their existence and their evolution, could Montesquieu abstain from producing an evaluation and defining a model of humanity in function of which the nations are to be judged? To be sure, the “people’s natural temperament” elicits singular norms that do not seem amenable to judgment by the measure of a universal nationality or morality (“Let us therefore not compare Chinese morality with that of Europe”, XIX, 20). But we must not let the relativism of the formula conceal the judgments of value formulated by Montesquieu. The peoples are notably judged by their capacity to contribute to the power of the state – which means, among the moderns, to the economic production and to exchanges. The contrast of the character of the Spanish and of the Chinese is in this regard illuminating: whereas the Spaniards’ singular “mixture” of good faith and sloth made them lose the conduct of their own trade, the “mixture”, among the Chinese, of an excessive desire of gain and a prodigious activity allowed them, over against European competition, to hold onto the Japanese trade. The theory of the general spirit thus allows us to disqualify a moral or political evaluation that would not take into account the social utility of collective qualities or flaws, identifiable a posteriori: “The various characters of nations are mixed with virtues and vices, good and bad qualities. The fortunate mixtures are those from which much good comes, and often they would not be suspected; there are those from which much evil comes, and which also would not be suspected” (“Les divers caractères des nations sont mêlés de vertus et de vices, de bonnes et de mauvaises qualités. Les heureux mélanges sont ceux dont il résulte de grands biens, et souvent on ne les soupçonnerait pas ; il y en a dont il résulte de grands maux, et qu’on ne soupçonnerait pas non plus”, XIX, 10). Montesquieu does not dissolve the diversity of general spirits into the unity of a teleological history; he is content to evaluate the effects of the national dispositions on economic prosperity, the modern form of power. The theory of the general spirit is addressed to the legislator desirous of civilizing or moralizing the mores of a people thanks to the constraint of laws: such an authoritarian act would abolish freedom while depriving the state of the public economic benefits associated with certain private human vices (cupidity, vanity). Thus is understood the reprise of the Mandevillian paradox, henceforth integrated into the theory of the general spirit: that moral vices can be political virtues, “this is what those who make laws that conflict with the general spirit must not ignore” (“c’est ce que ne doivent point ignorer ceux qui font des lois qui choquent l’esprit général”, XIX, 11).

8The theory of the general spirit is thus inscribed in the heart of the philosophy of moderation extolled by L’Esprit des lois. The multiplicity of factors that make up the character of a nation allows him to relativize the status of the juridical, insisting on the necessary adaptation of commands to usages, of “established” laws to the “inspired” manners and mores, that depend more on the general spirit: “it is as dangerous, and more so, to overturn the general spirit, as to change a particular institution” (XIX, 12). Moreover, the law cannot be defined solely by the sovereign’s will. Freedom as the persuasion of one’s safety is not obtained simply by the legal protection of rights attached to the individual; it assumes the respect of collective customs deposited over time, and risks being obliterated by the “tyranny of opinion” that offends a people’s manners of thinking (XIX, 3). Conscious and voluntary action of the political should no doubt not be minimized: through the maxims of government, laws and even accepted examples, the general spirit in large part integrates the political past. By insisting on the importance of a large capital in the general spirit of a nation (“It is Paris that makes the French”, Pensées, no.1903), Montesquieu does not omit the political factors that oversee the formation of national unity. But he calls for the adaptation of power to society: “It is the legislator’s business to follow the nation’s spirit, when it is not contrary to the principles of the government; for we do nothing so well as when we do it freely, and in accordance with our natural genius” (“C’est au législateur à suivre l’esprit de la nation, lorsqu’il n’est pas contraire aux principes du gouvernement ; car nous ne faisons rien de mieux que ce que nous faisons librement, et en suivant notre génie naturel”, XIX, 5). If certain peoples owe most of their spirit to the voluntary action of legislators (thus in Sparta or China, where the laws, mores and even religion and manners were deliberately conceived in such a way as to bring about the warlike or pacific ends of the state: XIX, 16-20), others draw their dominant passions and the traits of their national character from the contingencies of geography and history, such that no single intention can oversee the process. Privileging the “muted, imperceptible” action of the legislator (VI, 13) to the detriment of the constraint necessary for modifying the general spirit of a nation is thus to reinforce moderation and preserve the conditions for political freedom.

9Are we to conclude that Montesquieu opposes the natural “life” of a people to the political art? In reality, the philosopher yields nothing to the organicist or vitalist temptation. To be sure, the general spirit refers back to the generation of laws: “[…] in every country a sort of generation of laws comes into being. Peoples, like each individual, have a body of notions, and their overall manner of thinking, as that of each person, has a beginning, a middle and an end” (“[…] il se forme dans chaque pays une espèce de génération de lois. Les peuples, comme chaque individu, ont une suite d’idées, et leur manière de penser totale comme celle de chaque particulier, a un commencement, un milieu et une fin”, Pensées, no.1794); but this definition does not generate an organicist vision of a people’s history. As Francine Markovits writes, “the general spirit is generic without being a life principle, a unity without being an intention, historically singular without implying the tribunal of universal history; it indeed says how a people is formed, it does not say that a will of spirit, whatever its true subject, forms it” (“Montesquieu: l’esprit d’un peuple, une histoire expérimentale”, p. 51). The spirit of a nation is neither a subject of history nor an occult quality, it incarnates nothing more than the result of a conjunction of independent variables. The real, in this sense, is rational: the general spirit, which can be completely decomposed into simple elements, contains no “principle” irreducible to analysis. Though the general spirit is a totality, it does not refer back to any “subject” of its manifestations: the spirit is without any organic character, both synchronically (the conjunction of variables is not dependency of the organs with respect to the whole) and diachronically (a nation’s future is not a life, but a succession of precarious re-orderings of the principles (Binoche, 1999). That is what distinguishes the general spirit from the Volkgeist of which Herder, Savigny or Hegel will make a cardinal concept, often attesting Montesquieu himself (Binoche, Markovits).


Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: a critical biography, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1961, ch. XIV.

Jean Ehrard, L’Idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle [1963], Paris: Albin Michel, 1994, p. 718-736.

Raymond Aron, Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique, Paris: Gallimard, 1967, ch. 1.

Francine Markovits, “Montesquieu: l’esprit d’un peuple, une histoire expérimentale”, dans Former un nouveau peuple?, J. Boulad-Ayoub, ed., Presses Universitaires de Laval, L’Harmattan, 1996, pp. 207-236, reprinted in Lectures de L’Esprit des lois, Céline Spector and T. Hoquet, dir., Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2004, pp. 65-99.

Marc Crépon, Les Géographies de l’esprit, Paris: Payot, 1996, ch. 2.

Francine Markovits, “Althusser et Montesquieu : l’histoire comme philosophie expérimentale”, in Actuel Marx: Althusser philosophe, Paris: PUF, 1997, pp. 31-74.

Bertrand Binoche, “Ni Hegel, ni Montesquieu?”, Kairos 14 (1999), pp. 9-27.

Céline Spector, “Des Lettres persanes à L’Esprit des lois : Montesquieu, parcours d’une œuvre”, 1748: l’année de “L’Esprit des lois”, Catherine Larrère and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, (ed.), Paris: Champion, 1999, pp. 117-139.

Carlo Borghero, “Libertà e necessità: clima ed ‘esprit général’ nell’Esprit des lois”, in Libertà, necessità e storia: precorsi dell’“Esprit des lois” di Montesquieu, Domenico Felice (ed.), Naples: Bibliopolis, 2003, pp. 136-201.

Francine Markovits, Montesquieu. Le droit et l’histoire, Paris: Vrin, 2008.