Essay on taste

Céline Spector

[Translator’s note: In order to maintain a distinction between âme and esprit, throughout this article âme is translated as ‘soul’ and esprit as ‘mind’, even though soul is not normally used this way in English, and esprit can just as well mean ‘spirit’.]

1Montesquieu’s Essai sur le goût dans les choses de la nature et de l’art [‘Essay on taste in things of nature and art’] is appended to the article “Goût (Grammar, Literature, Philosophy)” which appeared posthumously and uncompleted in volume VII of the Encyclopédie in 1757. Following an article by Voltaire comes a “fragment on taste” by Montesquieu, as Diderot and D’Alembert call it. It was re-issued in 1783, in a somewhat different version furnished by Jean-Baptiste de Secondat. It is important in this regard to distinguish the fifteen sections of the text published in the Encyclopédie from the fragments added later, beginning with the Plassan edition of 1796-1797 (“On rules”, “Pleasure based on reason”, “On the consideration of the best situation”, “Pleasure caused by games, falls, contrasts”) and repeated beginning with the Lefèvre edition in 1816.

2The dating of the composition remains problematic: a letter from Montesquieu to D’Alembert on 16 September 1753 refuses his proposal that he write the articles “Democracy” and “Despotism” for the Encyclopédie, and proposes a contribution on “Taste”. But lacking a manuscript, there is no certainty about the order of the fifteen sections that make up the article, nor especially about the genesis of which might have been a real “essay on taste”. The only indications available are scattered through the Pensées (see Annie Becq’s introduction, OC, t. IX, p. 465-472 ; see also online edition, C. Volpilhac-Auger éd., MBE, 2021 [[‣]]). Nevertheless, the manuscript of several additional sections subsists (Bordeaux municipal library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

Taste as a measure of the pleasures of the soul

3By defining taste in a general way (without considering whether it is good or bad, just or not) as “what attaches us to something by feeling” (“ce qui nous attache à une chose par le sentiment”, OC, t. IX, p.490), Montesquieu avoids reticence concerning the very project of a definition. Although taste is related to feeling, and is consequently “something very obscure” (Pensées, no.272), it can be the object of a rational iniquiry. To be sure, there exists no quality in itself, and beauty, like usefulness or agreeableness, can consist only in a certain relation (Pensées, no.410). But the comprehension of taste acquires its meaning in the identification of the relations of propriety with the subject and object of perception: “The sources of the beautiful, the good, the agreeable, etc., are thus in ourselves; and to seek the reasons is to seek the causes of the pleasures of our souls” (“Les sources du beau, du bon, de l’agréable, etc. sont donc dans nous-mêmes ; et en chercher les raisons, c’est chercher les causes des plaisirs de notre âme”, p.487).

4However, if taste is relative to us, it does not for that dissolve into the diversity of subjective sensations or into the plurality of cultures. The relativist procedure of L’Esprit des lois even seems abandoned here to the benefit of a universalist, normative approach. Taste consists in the measure of pleasure that each thing should give to the soul, and just taste apprehends the proper measure of pleasure that each thing should give to the soul: pleasures that give it curiosity, notions of its grandeur, of its perfections, the pleasure of embracing all of a general idea, of comparing, etc. From the identification of the causes of the soul’s pleasure can then be deduced the norms that allow the artist to please, and the spectator to modify, in the appropriate instance, his “natural taste”, thanks to an “acquired taste”. This reasoning appears several times: “the soul loves”, thus art must, devoted to giving pleasure, meter those pleasures.

5In the article “Goût”, Montesquieu thus affirms the rootedness of pleasures of the soul in the configurations of senses and in the structure of human attention. Not only does sensorial acuity determine the nature and intensity of the pleasures that are within man’s measure, but the extension of the faculties circumscribes the normative space of the rules of art, which must be proportionate to those aptitudes. Since the soul, by reason of its union with the body, is endowed with limited attention or “penetration”, it can only appreciate a certain kind of natural or artistic object: those that satisfy its nature – which is to know – without humiliating it by making it aware of its finiteness. The soul, being made for thinking, will take more pleasure in things that exercise its faculties and prevent it from sliding into boredom, a foreboding of “oblivion”; but the constitution of its organs being such that its capacity of perception and the duration of the “contention” of which it is capable are restrained, art will have to adjust to the measure of that attention and its aptitude to perceive relations.

6The whole approach of the Essay on Taste is thus inscribed between two hazards. Without yielding to skeptical doubts, Montesquieu accounts for the universality of the judgment of taste, and the soul’s preference for an esthetics that can be called classic: whether he appeals to ancient references to illustrate literary pleasures (Homer, Suetonius, Florus, Seneca), or avows his preference for the simplicity of Racine against the pomp of Corneille, for Greek architecture against the Gothic, or affirms his predilection for grace (Raphael, Corregio, better than Veronese), or nobility (Michelangelo, Jules Romain)… But far from any idealism as from any finalism, the article simultaneously emphasizes the contingency of norms of taste. What is pleasing to the soul is based on the “arbitrary” structure of its constitution, on the particular form of the organs of the brain and senses: “one organ more or less in our machine would have made for different eloquence, different poetry” (“un organe de plus ou de moins dans notre machine aurait fait une autre éloquence, une autre poésie”, p. 489).

The pleasures of the soul

7The nature of the soul and its operations thus allows us to define the objects of our enjoyment, without making of beauty the exclusive object of taste – games of chance also give rise to pleasures of the soul.

8The article “Goût” is not a treatise on the beautiful, but an analysis and explication of the pleasures proper to the soul. In the first place, as the principal faculty of the soul is to compare, it must be able to exercise these faculties without excess fatigue. Thus Montesquieu tries to make sense of its apparently contradictory pleasures: how can one at the same time love order and variety, symmetry and contrasts? “This requires considerable explaining” (p. 496). Now the search for “reasons” (which are also “causes”) invariably sends us back to the corporal – mechanical – rootedness of the human mind. The pleasure derived from order and variety is explained by physiological reasons: “If the part of the soul that knows likes variety, the part that feels seeks it just as much: for the soul cannot long sustain the same situations, because it is bound to a body which cannot bear them” (p. 497). Man thus finds himself placed between two contrary imperatives. On the one hand, his attention is aroused by multiplicity (in space) and the unforeseen (in time); but on the other, it risks being humiliated by confusion: the mind needs to bring diversity back to unity in order to find pleasure in knowing. Whereas diversity and novelty animate the mind and bring it out of its languor, order and regularity facilitate the apperception and foreseeing by avoiding fatigue and confusion. Thus the rule of composition that imposes symmetry in the work is understood in the light of the very activity of the gaze as a “sense of the mind” (Casabianca). On the one hand, the asymmetric object cannot be grasped all at once by the gaze: “As the object one is to see all at once must be simple, it must also be unique, and its parts must all relate to the principal object: that is also why we like symmetry: it all makes for a whole” (p. 496). On the other, an excess of symmetry is displeasing, like contrasts that are “too sharp”(Pensées, no. 399). Montesquieu also gives a rational explanation of the love of variety and the pleasure of surprise: the soul tires of unity and uniformity, its dominant passion is curiosity, which makes it constantly active. The mind is essentially desire of knowing; that is why “the soul is always seeking new things and never rests” (“l’âme cherche toujours des choses nouvelles et ne se repose jamais”, p. 616; see Pensées, no. 288). Theatre is pleasing thanks to the events it stages and the peripeteia it brings about: suspended and uncertain, the soul cannot anticipate what it ought to have foreseen (pp. 498, 514). Paradoxically, surprise can also come from the fidelity and naturalness of an imitation, which is more and more striking as one examines it, and leads, as before a Raphael, to admiration; or from the soul’s astonishment, at St. Peter’s in Rome, for example, before the contrast between the immediate visual impression (mediocre) and the progressive passage to immensity (pp. 504-505). In both cases, the esthetic experience of surprise does not refer to an instantaneous amazement, but supposes a deepening of perception or reflection. If at first sight the mind is not struck as it should be, that is because it is not deploying sufficient activity to perceive the relations and grasp them at once; only the exercise of comparison enables the eye, actively governed by the spirit, to achieve adequate comprehension.

9The Essay on Taste is thus based on a certain conception of human nature. By the esthetics of surprise that responds to the mind’s natural curiosity, Montesquieu impugns any contemplative conception of the Good: the soul is incessant movement, disquiet, or desire; it must be occupied by the pursuit of an object, and its pleasures measured to counter boredom (Pensées, no.1675). The order sought in nature or in art is therefore not static –a spatial arrangement of the quantity of perceived elements. It is discovered in a temporal progression which maintains the movement of the mind: “as all things are in a chain where each idea precedes one and follows another, one cannot like to see something without desiring to see another; and if we have not that desire for the latter, we would have taken no pleasure in the former” (“comme toutes les choses sont dans une chaîne où chaque idée en précède une et en suit une autre, on ne peut aimer à voir une chose sans désirer d’en voir une autre ; et, si nous n’avions pas ce désir pour celle-ci, nous n’aurions eu aucun plaisir à celle-là”, p. 491). All the art of surprise consists in knowing how to sustain desire in a state of alert, which explains the taste for the je ne sais quoi, as for games of chance, punctuated by unexpected events: “this disposition of the soul that always impels it toward different objects causes it to enjoy pleasures that come from surprise” (“Cette disposition de l’âme qui la porte toujours vers différents objets, fait qu’elle goûte tous les plaisirs qui viennent de la surprise”, p. 498). Yet pure mobility is not suited to the mind either: the constant renewal of surprise must be modulated with respect to its finitude. The pleasure of discovery and surprise, which gives rise to nervous tension, must be associated with a pleasure of release. As sustained effort provokes the “attrition” of the soul, it is good to “distribute the work, so to speak” by not soliciting constantly the very organs or the same nervous fibers. Even if, unlike Burke, Montesquieu does not have a physics of the soul underlying his “metaphysics” of taste, the double imperative of tension and nervous release is at the origin of the principles of his “paradoxical” esthetics (Spector, 2005). Between two extremes by excess and deprivation, the soul must be able to enjoy a happy medium: “Our soul is weary with feeling; but not to feel is to succumb to an oblivion that overwhelms it. This can all be remedied by varying its modifications; it feels, and does not become weary” (“Notre âme est lasse de sentir ; mais ne pas sentir, c’est tomber dans un anéantissement qui l’accable. On remédie à tout en variant ses modifications ; elle sent, et elle ne se lasse pas”, p. 498).

A rationalist esthetics?

10This conception of art which provides the pleasures of the soul “within certain limits” leads one to wonder about the relations, within the judgment of taste, between reason and feeling. In the esthetics of feeling theorized by Dubos, the separation is clear: art is to touch and move the heart rather than gratify reason. In his correspondence with J.-J. Bel, author of a Dissertation où l’on examine le système de M. l’abbé Dubos touchant la préférence que l’on doit accorder au goût sur la discussion pour juger des ouvrages de l’esprit, Montesquieu was already emphasizing that if discussion does not enable one to judge the beauties of Virgil or Ovid, the voice of the heart and the public are not sufficient either: the fate of works of the mind is entrusted to those in the profession, who have both feeling and discussion. At this point Montesquieu confessed he did not have time to allow his thought to mature, and he recommended adoption of an “intermediate system” (letter to J.-J. Bel, 29 September 1726, OC, t. XVIII, no. 236, p. 267-268). In the article “Goût”, on the other hand, the author’s matured thought seems to incline towards a form of rational determination of the merits of art. Pleasure experienced before nature or art seems tied to an intellectual satisfaction: the pleasures of the soul alone are pleasures of order and knowledge – the mind applying itself notably to purely intellectual things that can provide it with infinite felicity (pp. 488, 490). But these pleasures, which come most often to the soul through the mediation of the senses, in reality come from a form of enjoyment of oneself: the soul applauds itself for “its extension and penetration” (p. 493); the pleasure it feels depends on the fulfillment, thanks especially to sight, of its desire to “flee the boundaries” and its will to extend, like a divinity, “the sphere of its presence” (p. 491). According to Montesquieu, “our soul is made for thinking” (p. 491), for which reason art must satisfy this cognitive pleasure – that of the apprehension of a general idea, of comparison, or even totalization. Before architecture, literature or painting, the soul is then far from passively undergoing exterior stimulations. Its pleasures consist precisely in composing and decomposing, in multiplying its sensations, in actively extending its capacities for comprehension. In esthetic pleasure, the soul enjoys itself, its existence, its perfections, the pleasure of “embracing all of a general idea”, of “seeing” a great number of things, of comparing, joining and unjoining ideas (p. 488). The relation to nature or art connects the soul with the extension of its faculties, with the composition of the order it implants in things (to the point of acquiring the feeling of mastering the perceptive infinite by synthesizing it), but also with its powerlessness to ordain and foresee everything – which is why the soul simultaneously loves ordered gardens and wild landscapes where variety is ordered. If the arrangement of a garden is preferable to the tangle that nature sometimes presents, it is because it makes this extension of the faculties possible, for which the mind is all the more grateful because it perceives the art deployed in pleasing it (p. 491). From this point of view, the pleasure obtained by works of the mind is not to be understood differently from the pleasure given by nature or landscape painting: “What ordinarily makes a great thought, is when one thing is said that causes a large number of others to be seen, and when we are made to discover all at once something we could only hope after much reading” (“Ce qui fait ordinairement une grande pensée, c’est lorsque l’on dit une chose qui en fait voir un grand nombre d’autres, et qu’on nous fait découvrir tout d’un coup ce que nous ne pouvions espérer qu’après une grande lecture”, p. 492). Before qualitatively ordered quantity, the soul enjoys the easy extension of its faculties of apperception and reasoning, it takes pleasure in the mobility of the gaze and the mind which exerts itself so as to place into relation the parts and the whole. Despite the sensualist anchorage of his thought, Montesquieu thus excludes all reductive monism: the soul seems to enjoy the pleasures proper to itself, which remain different from those of the body.

11This conception of esthetic pleasure leads us to underscore the profound metamorphoses which Montesquieu has made the so-called “rationalist” esthetics undergo. To be sure, the hypothesis of an evolution between the different strata of the text making up the article “Goût” is not excluded. Picking up after 1753 the pages composed before 1728, did Montesquieu not add chapters “that are little like the earlier ones” with respect to their less abstract and more rationalist character (on the je ne sais quoi, the progression of surprise, the beauties that result from a certain uneasiness of the soul), which could be linked to the experience of his travels (Shackleton, p. 106)? The opposition of rationalism and sensualism, however, seems almost untenable. In the first place, Montesquieu rejects all substantial dualism. The duality of soul and body is functional, the pleasure of knowing and pleasure of feeling are but one and the same thing: “for although we oppose idea to feeling, nonetheless when it [the soul] sees something, it feels it” (p. 490). Among delicate eaters, taste extended as a sense of flavor, relative to pure appreciation, becomes by its extreme refinement a form of activity of the mind. As for the soul’s desires, which give rise to its pleasure, they can be assimilated to erotic desires, arising in the movement provoked by what hides and avoids one’s perception. The charm and grace of the je ne sais quoi incline to love women whose grace is associated with modesty, as much as to the esteem of works of the imagination. In both cases, the attraction takes place in the absence of beauty and regularity: it is precisely the disparity between apparent ugliness and dissimulated grace, the surprise of the unknown, of the invisible and unforeseeable that charms (pp. 501-504). Pleasure, finally, is not always provided by the apprehension of the True or the Good, any more than by the Beautiful: it can arise from the fact that the soul finds itself disoriented and remains ignorant, incapable of foreseeing; it can even proceed, in comedy, from our “natural meanness” which enjoys seeing the embarrassment of certain characters (pp. 514-516).

12In this perspective, any idealist or Platonist conception of art appears discredited. The finality of art is pleasure and not an introduction to higher truths. The perfection of the arts derives from their aptitude for “presenting us things in such a way that they give us the most possible pleasure” (p. 489), and the best writers are doubtless “those who have aroused in the soul the most sensations at the same time” (p. 499). Over against the geometers, whose attention to the exactitude of rules stifles emotion (LP, [‣]), Montesquieu emphasizes the importance of the finesse and delicacy of taste, independent of true knowledge. The Essay goes so far as to maintain, not without paradox, that by reason of the union of body and soul, “we almost love only what we do not know” (p. 489). As evidence, esthetic pleasure can be based on illusion, as in the case of St. Peter’s dome; it comes from surprise and even – more amazingly – from the “embarrassment” of the soul, when, faced with antitheses or contrasts, it cannot manage to reconcile what it sees with what it has seen. Correlatively, when Montesquieu maintains that “what gives us pleasure must be based on reason” (p. 512) and not sin against common sense, according to the classical esthetic rule, he is not for that excluding the possibility that the pleasure of operas may require their book to be implausible, since fable, and not history, is being put into music and song; here the reinforcement of the supernatural is more “natural”, and more “reasonable” (p. 514). The Borromean Islands in Lago Maggiore are, to Montesquieu, “the most enchanted abode on earth”: the soul there recalls with pleasure the “marvels of romance, where, after passing over rocks and through arid countries, you find yourself in a place made for fairies” (“merveilles des romans, où, après avoir passé par des rochers et des pays arides, on se trouve dans un lieu fait pour les fées”, p. 505). Ultimately, the article does not explain natural taste by any philosophical knowledge: “At first it seems that it would be enough to know the various sources of our pleasures to have taste, and that, when one has read what philosophy has to tell us about it, one has taste, and can boldly judge works. But natural taste is not a knowledge of theory; it is a prompt, exquisite application of even the rules one does not know” (“On croit d’abord qu’il suffirait de connaître les diverses sources de nos plaisirs pour avoir le goût, et que, quand on a lu ce que la philosophie nous dit là-dessus, on a du goût, et que l’on peut hardiment juger des ouvrages. Mais le goût naturel n’est pas une connaissance de théorie ; c’est une application prompte et exquise des règles même que l’on ne connaît pas”, p. 490). Only acquired taste can modulate this spontaneous feeling by refining it. Pleasure can then issue from certain “accessory notions” attached to the initial perception of things; it can find its origin in prejudices and passive formations that determine judgement without its knowledge.

Pleasure as a mixture

13In this lies no doubt one of the article’s principal originalities: the delicacy which it sketches as perfection of taste is owing neither to inborn discernment, nor to a social propensity (which the letter to Bel already excluded), but to a capacity for the composition and decomposition of sensations, which allows pleasures to increase by refining them. Even if taste is a form of the mind linked to “a certain delicate pleasure of worldly people”, it does not require exceptional gifts and does not seem to testify to aristocratic distinction. The ambition of this article is therefore well anchored in the encyclopedic context: Montesquieu hoped to contribute to forming taste, thanks to the knowledge of its sources. What is the refinement of taste? In the case of art as in that of flavors, it is about the aptitude for “composing” pleasures for oneself by associating with raw sensorial data “accessory” elements that modulate its nature: “Delicate people are those who, to each idea or each taste, add many accessory ideas or tastes. Crass people have nothing but a sensation; their soul knows neither how to compose nor decompose, they neither add or subtract to what nature offers: whereas those who are delicate in love compose for themselves most of love’s pleasures. Polyxena and Apicius brought to the table many sensations unknown to us vulgar eaters, and those who judge works of the mind with taste have and have created for themselves endless sensations that other men do not have” (“Les gens délicats sont ceux qui, à chaque idée ou à chaque goût, joignent beaucoup d’idées ou beaucoup de goûts accessoires. Les gens grossiers n’ont qu’une sensation ; leur âme ne sait composer ni décomposer ; ils ne joignent ni n’ôtent rien à ce que la nature donne, au lieu que les gens délicats dans l’amour se composent la plupart des plaisirs de l’amour. Polyxène et Apicius portaient à la table bien des sensations inconnues à nous autres mangeurs vulgaires ; et ceux qui jugent avec goût des ouvrages d’esprit ont et se sont fait une infinité de sensations que les autres hommes n’ont pas”, p. 501). The apprehension of a plurality, composed and recomposed, taste will then be all the more delicate that the faculty of comparison inherent in the soul is able to establish finer nuances and more accurate evaluations. The relations between “natural taste” and “acquired taste” are thus illuminated. The acquisition of taste relates to an education of sensitivity, already evoked in the Essay on the causes : “Education does not multiply our notions without multiplying as well our manners of sensing. It increases the soul’s sense, refines its faculties, makes us find those light and delicate differences that are imperceptible to those who are poorly endowed or raised” (“L’éducation ne multiplie pas nos idées sans multiplier aussi nos manières de sentir. Elle augmente le sens de l’âme, raffine ses facultés, nous fait trouver ces différences légères et délicates qui sont imperceptibles aux gens malheureusement nés ou élevés”, OC, t. IX, p. 249). Still the idea of a culture of taste invites inquiry. Does it not suggest that the judgement of taste is constituted on the basis of the rhapsodic matter of sensation in the mode of an intentional unity, that the experience of esthetic reception is allied to a wilful, subjective construction, to a conscious elaboration of the connection of the sense data to an organization or an information of the sensitive from a basis of material traces (Brugère, 2000)?

14However, Montesquieu does not defend a purely volitional approach to esthetic contemplation. On the one hand, taste is not a unified feeling, enclosed in the instantaneity of its reception, but the result of a mixture with multiple ingredients. As in chemistry, it is the dosage that matters here: “It must be noted that a feeling does not ordinarily have a single cause in our soul. It is, if I dare use this term, a certain dose that produces its power and variety” (p. 499). The composition from which taste derives results from the formation of an admixture that transforms diversity and contrasting sensations to the point of making them into a unique feeling. By introducing multiplicity, even opposition, into the very heart of the judgment of taste, Montesquieu breaks with the instinctive conception that prevailed until then, whether feeling is considered, with Crousaz, as the rapid equivalent of the operations of reason, or it is envisaged, as Dubos does, as an autonomous capacity for discernment: “[…] each object,” writes Montesquieu, “gives us a feeling which is composed of many others, which sometimes weaken each other and clash” (“[…] chaque chose, écrit Montesquieu, nous donne un sentiment qui est composé de beaucoup d’autres, lesquels s’affaiblissent et se choquent quelquefois”, p. 500). Here we have an essential characteristic of the mind of which taste is a form (that which relates to the delicate pleasure of worldly people): far from being a principle, the mind appears as a result.

15The genesis of the feeling of pleasure and pain attributed to the soul is thus conceived, in certain respects, as a passive genesis. The Essay on the causes attributed women’s taste to a mechanical consent rather than to a judgment of a mind able to discerning merit. The introduction, in the article “Goût”, of the theme of the idea, of “accessory” taste or feeling, which is linked to the “principal feeling”, pursues this analysis. The thesis appears at first with respect to surprise, which can be produced either by the thing, or by the manner of perceiving it, when the subject sees the thing “with an accessory idea that surprises us”. The accessory then designates the circumstantial connotation: “such is in a thing the accessory idea of the difficulty of making it, of the person who made it, or the time when it was made, or the manner in which it was made, or some other circumstance that attaches to it” (“Telle est dans une chose l’idée accessoire de la difficulté de l’avoir faite, ou de la personne qui l’a faite, ou du temps où elle a été faite, ou de la manière dont elle a été faite, ou de quelque autre circonstance qui s’y joint”, p. 498-499). Now it is the invocation of the accessory idea that allows one to account for the passive associations, founding the unity of the experience: “thus a thing which has pleased us still pleases us, for the simple reason that it has pleased us, because we add the former idea to the new one. Thus an actress who has pleased us on stage still pleases us in a room; her voice, her declamation, the memory of seeing her admired, perhaps even the idea of the princess, added to her own: all this makes a kind of admixture that forms and produces pleasure” (“ainsi une chose qui nous a plu nous plaît encore par la seule raison qu’elle nous a plu, parce que nous joignons l’ancienne idée à la nouvelle. Ainsi une actrice qui nous a plu sur le théâtre nous plaît encore dans la chambre ; sa voix, sa déclamation, le souvenir de l’avoir vu admirer, que dis-je ? l’idée de la princesse, jointe à la sienne, tout cela fait une espèce de mélange qui forme et produit un plaisir”, p. 500). Whether it be the love of a woman or of a work – the example of the actress allows the superposition of the two – pleasure is thus explained by a theory of the association of ideas and affective connections. Tastes are formed in the singular history of the subject, and determine his or her perception of the world: “We are all full of accessory ideas” (“Nous sommes tous pleins d’idées accessoires”, p. 501).

Genius and rules

16The esthetics of the article “Goût” thus appears ordered by the legality of reception. But the soul fundamentally finds the order that the artist had instilled in his work. That is why the genius is he who anticipates the pleasures of the soul and the effects of its compositions. This creation must remain free, despite the rules: creative subjectivity illustrates itself by its capacity to rise above the rules, and flaunt the canons knowingly, to the point of creating, like Michelangelo, “a separate art for each work” (p. 509). From the artist’s standpoint, taste thus appears as the instance of regulation of the rules, which determines the opportuneness of their application. For Montesquieu as for Nicole (preface to the Recueil de poésies chrétiennes et diverses, 1671, in La Vraie Beauté et son fantôme, p.143-145), respect of the rules does not suffice to satisfy taste. Genius is the true master of knowledge of the singular, and creates the rules of propriety destined to please for each of its works: “it creates itself, so to speak, for the current need”, “feels the just relation which is between things and itself”, “feels what others merely know” (Essai sur les causes, p.252). And so it is that concern for the true does not stand in the way of pleasantness: thus “art gives the rules, and taste the exceptions; taste reveals to us in what conditions art must subjugate, and when it must be submissive” (“l’art donne les règles, et le goût les exceptions ; le goût nous découvre en quelles occasions l’art doit soumettre, et en quelles occasions il doit être soumis”, p. 512).



Fragments : Bordeaux, bibliothèque municipale, Ms 2194; BNF, NAF 717


“Fragment sur le goût”, Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, t. VII, 1757, p.

Essai sur le goût, OC, t. IX, 2006, p. 459-517; text established by Pierre Rétat, presented and annotated by Annie Becq; new édition, C. Volpilhac-Auger éd., MBE, 2021 [].

Works contemporary with Montesquieu

Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, La Logique ou l’art de penser, 1662, Paris: Gallimard, 1992 (Catalogue, no.

Pierre Nicole, Recueil de poésies chrétiennes et diverses, 1671, in La Vraie Beauté et son fantôme, Paris: Champion, 1996.

André, le père Yves, Essai sur le Beau, 1673, Paris: Guérin, 1741 (Catalogue, no.

Jean-Pierre de Crousaz, Traité du Beau, 1715, Paris: Fayard, 1985.

Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, 1719, Paris: École normale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1993.

Fontenelle, Réflexions sur la poétique, 1742, Œuvres complètes, t. III, Paris: Fayard, 1989.

Charles Batteux, Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe, 1746, Paris: Aux amateurs de livres, 1989.

Critical bibliography

Annie Becq, Genèse de l’esthétique française moderne […], 1680-1814, Pisa : Pacini, 1979, republication Paris: Albin Michel, 1994, p. 344-351, p. 421-425.

Robert Shackleton, “Montesquieu et les Beaux-Arts”, Atti de Vo Congresso internationale di lingue et letterature moderne, Florence, 1955, p. 248-253, reprinted in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, David Gilson and Martin Smith ed.,1988, p. 103-107.

Charles Beyer, “Montesquieu et le relativisme esthétique”, Oxford, SVEC 24 (1963).

Charles Beyer, Essai sur le goût, introduction and notes, Geneva: Droz, 1967.

Jacques Proust, “Poétique de l’Esprit des lois”, Spicilegio moderno 9 (1979), p. 3-17, reprinted in J. Proust, L’Objet et le texte: pour une poétique de la prose française du XVIIIe siècle, Geneva: Droz, 1980, p. 295-311.

Jean Starobinski, “À propos de Montesquieu”, in Essai sur le goût, postface and notes by Louis Desgraves, Paris: Seuil, 1994, p. 89-101.

F. Brugère, Le Goût. Art, passions et société, Paris: PUF, 2000, p. 68-73.

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

Pierre Rétat, “La publication des derniers fragments de l’Essai sur le goût”, Revue Montesquieu 6 (2002),

Annie Becq, “Les Pensées et l’Essai sur le goût”, Revue Montesquieu 7 (2003-2004),

Jean-Patrice Courtois, “Les principes de l’Essai sur le goût”, in Montesquieu, œuvre ouverte? (1748-1755, Catherine Larrère, dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, 2005, p. 165-191.

Céline Spector, “L’Essai sur le goût de Montesquieu: une esthétique paradoxale”, in Montesquieu, œuvre ouverte? (1748-1755), Cahiers Montesquieu 9, 2005, p. 193-214.

Annie Becq, introduction to Essai sur le goût, OC, t.IX, 2006, ed. Pierre Rétat, p. 461-486.

Montesquieu: du goût à l’esthétique, ed. Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Bordeaux: PUB, “Mirabilia”, 2007.