Céline Spector

1Honor is the “principle” of monarchies, the dominant passion common to the governed and the governors. Montesquieu proposes an original definition of it: “a prejudice of each person and each condition”, it is related to ambition, to the desire for preference and distinctions that incites men to accomplish great acts (EL, III, 6-7). Honor is thus opposed to fear, the principle of despotic states: it is unknown in those places where men, equal in their common servitude, can be distinguished only by favor, in return for unconditional submission (III, 8). It is equally distinguished from political virtue, reserved to citizens of republics: in monarchies, “the state subsists independently of love of country, of the desire of true glory, of self-renunciation, of the sacrifice of one’s dearest interests, and of all those heroic virtues that we find among the Ancients, and of which we have merely heard” (“l’État subsiste indépendamment de l’amour pour la patrie, du désir de la vraie gloire, du renoncement à soi-même, du sacrifice de ses plus chers intérêts, et de toutes ces vertus héroïques que nous trouvons dans les anciens, et dont nous avons seulement entendu parler”, III, 5). More traditionally, the Persian Letters considered honor as a recompense of virtue, understood as civic dedication (LP, [‣]). But L’Esprit des lois, by elaborating the notion of “principle”, created a furrow between love of country, “an always very painful renunciation” required by the Ancient republics, and honor which, “favored by the passions, favors them in return” (IV, 5). This difference entails that of the recompenses that are appropriate for the different regimes: whereas in republics virtue is its own reward, in monarchies, where each person “tends toward superiority” (V, 4), “honor alone reigns” and must be rewarded by preferences and distinctions (V, 18). In reality, the opposition between honor and virtue is not confined to a political dimension: the principles for evaluating honor are distinct both from moral criteria, considered as vulgar, and norms of law. Honor, qualified as a “bizarre” prejudice, legislates virtues, and decided the validity of all that is prescribed. Motivated by duties towards itself rather than towards others, it exercises its jurisdiction over principles, whether they have their source in religion, in politics, or in morality (IV, 2). However, this irrationality and immorality ought not to be deplored: the motivating force of monarchies economically substitutes for love of country, by leading the subjects to contribute, unknowingly and unintentionally, to the realization of the common good; honor, by inspiring the finest acts even at the risk of a life, can “lead to the goal of government as much as virtue itself” (III, 6-8). Between republican virtue, defined by voluntary subordination of the individual interest to the public interest, and despotic fear, which supposes the authoritarian stifling of interests, honor brings about the involuntary convergence of private interests and the public interest: “Honor is the motor of all parts of the body politic; it connects them by its own action; and it comes about that each individual serves the common good, believing he is serving his own interests” (“L’honneur fait mouvoir toutes les parties du corps politique ; il les lie par son action même ; et il se trouve que chacun va au bien commun, croyant aller à ses intérêts particuliers”, III, 7).

2Private vices, public virtues or moral vice, political virtue (XIX, 11): Montesquieu seems thus to apply to the definition of honor the Mandevillian paradox of the Fable of the Bees – a disjunction of the ends envisaged by the individual and the real effects that flow from his action, of the egoistic intentions and the social results. The indignation provoked among philosophical readers of L’Esprit des lois could thus hardly surprise: whether in the name of republican principles or in the name of a defense of absolute, enlightened monarchy, such a conception of honor could only shock minds accustomed, in the continuation of the Aristotelian tradition, to seeing honor defined as the “prize of virtue” (see Binoche, p. 118-121). By maintaining that honor “stands in for virtue and represents it everywhere” in order to conclude that “in well-regulated monarchies, everyone will be more or less a good citizen, and one would rarely find anyone who was a good man: for to be a good man, you have to intend it” (III, 5 and 6), Montesquieu exposed himself still more immediately to the thunder of his censors: “false honor”, based on egoism and ambition, seems irreconcilable with Christian virtue, and his definition risks appearing as a denigration of the French monarchy. But the additions of detail and the formal clarifications provoked by these attacks ought not to hide the main point: Montesquieu does not hesitate to maintain that the distinction between principles (honor and virtue) “is so fruitful that they almost make up my entire book” (Réponses à la Faculté de Théologie, OC, t. VII, p. 255).

“False” honor, but useful to the public

3However, this distinction leads one to wonder: ought one not to deplore the degeneracy of honor into frivolous savoir-vivre, the corruption of the knightly ethos into the purely worldly art of pleasing (IV, 2)? Mustn’t one consider the vestiges of that feudal ethic – the point of honor – as a dangerous illusion (Pappas, 1982)? On the one hand, the valorization of honor cannot be linked to that of military exploits. In the line of the aristocratic opposition to Louis XIV, heroism underwent great discredit: “glory, when it is all alone, enters into the calculation only of fools” (“la gloire, quand elle est toute seule, n’entre que dans les calculs des sots”, Pensées, no. 810; see also nos. 760-761). After the Dialogue of Sulla and Eucrates (about 1725), the Dialogue of Xantippe and Xenocrate (around 1727) thus challenges the “chimerical being” that honor is with its bloody consequences, in the name of a conception of virtue as strict obedience to the laws (OC, t. VIII, p. 580, l. 97). Whether it involves searching for certain signs of virginity where there can only be “chimerical” evidence (LP, [‣]), or the will to manifest the repository of honor in the dual, uniquely able to avenge the affront that can dishonor the entire family, the irrationality and injustice of the laws of aristocratic honor are patent (LP, [‣]). Romans does not hesitate to invoke with relation to the Romans’ heroic suicide “a sort of point of honor, perhaps more reasonable than the one that leads us today to slaughter our friend for a gesture or a word” (XII, OC, t. II, p.136), and the Essay on the causes causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères (between 1735 et 1739) was to attribute to southern peoples, who flee death to enjoy “real goods” (life, tranquillity, pleasures) a brain of much better temper than “those fools from the North, who sacrifice their life to vain glory, in other words who would rather live after them than with them” (OC, t. VIII, p. 258, l. 719-720). L’Esprit des lois was, no doubt, to return to the apparent irrationality of judiciary combat: the code of honor takes its sources from Germanic law, in perfect agreement with the mores of the warlike Franks (XXVIII, 17-24). But with the arrival of absolute monarchy, it was honor itself that risked being degraded into outer politeness and simple submission to the king, for which the courtier slavishly awaited his reward (LP, [‣]; EL, III, 5). The falsity of honor does not come solely from its prejudicial character: if the motivating force of monarchies relates to falsehood, that is above all because it is opposed to moral and religious virtues; based on the desire of distinguishing oneself, the social virtues which it occasions relate to simulacrum and false appearances (IV, 2).

4The falsity of honor, all the same, in no way leads to its invalidation as a political principle. Following Montaigne, Bayle, Fontenelle or Mandeville, Montesquieu puts the accent on the beneficial effects of illusion that makes it possible to content men’s vanity with only the symbolic coin of honors. In this there is a sort of ruse of reason: the desire for reputation and glory, whatever the vacuity of its object, is more effective for society than virtue itself, for its strength is that of the passions and the imagination. In the Persian Letters, the denunciation of honor as barbaric prejudice is thus accompanied by the appreciation of its political usefulness in the framework of an opposition between “gentle” and despotic, cruel and violent governments. The first point concerns the public use that can be made of symbolic rewards (honors) or the fear of infamy. According to Usbek, the “happy fantasy” of glory makes the French do willingly what the sultans obtain from their subjects only by making them constantly witness torture and rewards: the monarchical individual is capable of acceding to symbolic representations and interiorizing the norms out of “taste” (LP, [‣]). The motor power of self-interest inherent in honor rests precisely in this quest for symbolic rewards, converted by vanity into real satisfactions. The distribution of marks and insignia of prestige thus enables the monarch, “a great magician”, to provoke great acts at low cost (LP, [‣]); the “treasury of honor” makes up for all the others (EL, III, 7; V, 18). The usefulness of the imagination is extended, moreover, in the Persian Letters, in the domain of the distribution of punishments: because the calculation of individuals takes account of the fear of censure and infamy, the legislator can reduce torture, which contributes to the gentleness of the government (LP, [‣], [‣]). It is this same economy that will find its place in the heart of the monarchical art of governing in L’Esprit des lois, where the freedom of the citizen, understood as his impression of security, derives from such moderation (EL, VI, 9 and 12).

5The beneficial effects of honor particularly concern the maintenance of political freedom. As a “sacred treasure” independent of the monarch’s favor (it is “the only one of which the sovereign is not master, because he cannot be one without harming his interests”), honor, based on education to freedom, enables resistance to the arbitrary power of princes: “glory is never the companion of servitude” (LP, [‣]). By judging obedience, the driving force of monarchies keeps control over the possibility of an opposition to the sovereign’s wishes. When the intention is to forbid dueling, “honor, which always wants to prevail, revolts, and does not recognize laws” (LP, [‣]). In the name of a certain idea of his grandeur, the subject of monarchies can always refuse the ignominious orders of servile obedience. Even if it covets the distinctions distributed by the monarch, honor remains the judge of the acceptance of honors (public functions, magistracies) for “such is the oddity of honor that it takes pleasure in accepting none except when it so wishes, and in the manner it wishes” (EL, V, 19). The tendency to submission before the monarch, the source of honors, is tempered by the supremacy of the code of honor, which encourages independence and can lead to insubordination: “There is nothing in a monarchy that the laws, religion and honor prescribe so much as obedience to the prince’s desires; but that honor dictates that the prince must never prescribe for us an act that dishonors us, because it would make us incapable of serving him […].There is nothing that honor prescribes more to the nobility than to serve the prince in war […]. But by imposing that law, honor wants to be the judge of it; and if it finds itself offended, it requires or allows that we withdraw to our homes” (“Il n’y a rien dans la monarchie que les lois, la religion et l’honneur prescrivent tant que l’obéissance aux volontés du prince ; mais cet honneur nous dicte que le prince ne doit jamais nous prescrire une action qui nous déshonore, parce qu’elle nous rendrait incapables de le servir […] Il n’y a rien que l’honneur prescrive plus à la noblesse que de servir le prince à la guerre […] Mais en imposant cette loi, l’honneur veut en être l’arbitre ; et s’il se trouve choqué, il exige ou permet qu’on se retire chez soi”, EL, IV, 2; see Pensées, no. 1983). The desire to perpetuate one’s own greatness does not arouse only the desire to illustrate oneself through extraordinary acts and to expose oneself to the service of the state: it invites one to break loose from an absolute obedience the effect of which would be despotic corruption.

6L’Esprit des lois specifies the modalities of this occasional resistance or this regulated disobedience by articulating “nature” and “principle”: honor must above all motivate the intermediary powers, among them the nobility and the Parlement. The activating force [ressort] of monarchies then appears as a motive for action which, through its code, assumes the value of an obligation, and maintains an ambiguous relation with law. The extra-juridical legality of honor, made possible by the fixity of the laws and the constitution, in the mode of “rules followed and caprices sustained” (III, 8) can at the same time support the law and oppose it. On one hand, the laws of honor are conceived in the silence of the civil laws, or even in opposition to them (IV, 2>); on the other, honor’s energy is a source of loyalty that rational obligation could never arouse: “Even in the case where the laws are in force, they always have less than honor. Duty is a cool, deliberate matter; but honor is a lively passion, which is self-motivating and moreover linked with all the others. Tell subjects that they must obey their prince, because religion and the laws so command, and you will find men cool. Tell them they must be faithful to him, because they have promised to, and you will see them come alive” (“Dans les cas même où les lois ont de la force, elles en ont toujours moins que l’honneur. Le devoir est une chose réfléchie et froide ; mais l’honneur est une passion vive, qui s’anime d’elle-même et tient d’ailleurs à toutes les autres. Dites à des sujets qu’ils doivent obéir à leur prince parce que la religion et les lois l’ordonnent, vous trouverez des gens froids. Dites-leur qu’ils doivent lui être fidèles parce qu’ils le lui ont promis, et vous les verrez s’animer”, Pensées, no. 1856). Between anarchical disobedience and passive obedience, from that point on the judgment of honor opens onto a conditional obedience. The possibility of remonstrance or even withdrawal distinguishes between the servile obedience of despotic states and deliberate obedience – if not rational – of moderate monarchical states: “In moderate monarchical states, power is limited by what is its motivational force, by which I mean honor, which rules, like a monarch, over the prince and the people […]. Whence result necessary modifications in obedience; honor is naturally subject to oddities, and obedience will follow all of them” (“Dans les États monarchiques et modérés, la puissance est bornée par ce qui en est le ressort, je veux dire l’honneur, qui règne comme un monarque sur le prince et sur le peuple […]. De là résultent des modifications nécessaires dans l’obéissance ; l’honneur est naturellement sujet à des bizarreries, et l’obéissance les suivra toutes”, EL, III, 10).

7Such is then, in the main, the meaning of the honor that is “false” but publically useful: the conventional recompenses offered to noble ambition (titles, priorities…) are to be sure not very costly to the monarch, but as a counterweight, his power is limited by the orientation and allegiance of the privileged in the direction of the intermediary bodies, which confer on the nobles a status that does not emanate from the monarch. It is this counterweight to royal authority rooted in the subjects by the code of honor that makes it possible, in the face of the constant temptations for the abuse of power, to safeguard everyone’s freedom. The corruption of the monarchy occurs precisely “when honor has been placed in contradiction with honors, and it is possible to be at the same time covered with infamy and dignities” (VIII, 7), at the moment when the grandees, having been turned into courtiers, become the pure instruments of the prince’s will.

Honor and self-interest: the meaning of the “invisible hand”

8This reading, however, must not conceal the diversity of interpretations of honor. First, the extension of the principle is delicate to determine: is it reserved to the nobles who essentially form the “nature” of monarchy (the reason why the laws must function to “support the nobility whose honor is, so to speak, the child and the father”, V, 9: Althusser, p. 79-81) or does it extend to all conditions, reigning sovereignly “over the prince and the people”? Secondly, are the laws of honor substantial norms of conduct or procedural rules enabling each individual to give himself goals autonomously (Oakeshott, Mosher)? Third, can we see in the heterogenesis of the goals realized by honor (“it happens that each individual works for the common good, thinking he is working for his own”) an anticipation in a liberal spirit of the “invisible hand”? These three points involve the privileged links between honor and the nobility, the relation between honor and merchant interest, and finally the relation between honor and the sense of the public good. Interpreters who root honor in the military spirit of the sword nobility and see in the picture painted by Montesquieu a critique of the aristocratic ethic (Hulliung, Pangle) are opposed by those for whom the principle of honor is more imbued with the spirit of egoistic interest – characteristic of modernity – than the heroic desire for glory (Iglesias, p. 266). Is honor not conceived precisely in this double movement of democratic expansion and fixed defense of privileges (Mosher)? By maintaining that “the point of honor has entered all stations, each individual of the nation wishing to be honored by the others” (Essay on the causes, OC, t. IX, p. 256, l. 663-664), and by defining honor as the “prejudice of each person and each station” (EL, III, 6; italics added), Montesquieu allows a certain ambiguity to hover. Ought we to split the phrase and envisage differently the honor of persons and the honor of conditions (Binoche, 1998)? If the dominant passion that controls monarchies consists essentially in a desire of reputation and esteem, can we not see in it a simple individual aspiration?

9Without resolving the ambiguity, persistent in Montesquieu’s work (Rétat, 1973), we are forced to observe that honor remains rooted in bodies, and that its partiality differs in nature from that of material interest (Rosso, Kingston, Krause, Spector). Even if the man of honor must seek wealth in order to be able to uphold his rank, it is in England, where honor has disappeared with the intermediary bodies, or again in the despotic regime, just as atomized, that men are incited to act only by “the hope of the comforts of life” (EL, V, 18). In wishing to get rid of the rationality of aristocratic honor to make bourgeois economic rationality prevail, the monarchy risks losing the motivations behind its power and to founder into despotism: “all is lost”, says Montesquieu, “when the lucrative profession of the financiers manages through its wealth to be an honored profession”. Nothing is more contrary to the spirit of monarchy: “There is a prize for each profession. The prize of those who raise tributes is wealth, and the reward of this wealth is this wealth itself. Glory and honor are for that nobility that knows, sees, and feels as the real good only honor and glory” (“Il y a un lot pour chaque profession. Le lot de ceux qui lèvent les tributs est les richesses, et les récompenses de ces richesses sont les richesses mêmes. La gloire et l’honneur sont pour cette noblesse qui ne connaît, qui ne voit, qui ne sent de vrai bien que l’honneur et la gloire”, EL, XIII, 20).

10Therefore, the schema of involuntary convergence of interests conveyed by honor is distinguished from the economists’ “invisible hand”. If the monarchical state can prosper although no one is prepared to sacrifice himself for it, it is because education, under this regime, has forged men according to the code of honor. In L’Esprit des lois, the formation of the honnête homme presupposes the definition of the axiological principles that determine the attribution of praise and blame. As “the universal master which must everywhere lead us”, honor prescribes and forbids certain categories of action, and its criteria differ in every way from that of common morality: “men’s acts are thus not called good, but fine; not as just, but as grand; not as reasonable, but as extraordinary” (“On n’y juge pas les actions des hommes comme bonnes, mais comme belles ; comme justes, mais comme grandes ; comme raisonnables, mais comme extraordinaires”, IV, 2). The point of view of the aristocratic ethic valorizes processes of distinction that attest superiority over the common people: by pride, honor requires the nobility of virtues, directness in dealings and politeness of manners; it authorizes gallantry, ruse or adulation, provided these acts are tied to ideas of grandeur; finally, it allows one to vaunt his fortune but not his life, and especially forbids one to decline, which can provoke “courageous resistances” in the face of arbitrariness and abuse of power. It is thus impossible to assimilate the code of honor to pure procedural norms dissociated from all conception of the good: the supreme rules of honor trace, with respect to goods (life, powers, properties), a relatively strict code of conduct (IV, 2). Correspondingly, even if the social (politeness) and economic (luxury) consequences of the desire inherent in honor of distinguishing oneself are essential, the use of the concept of involuntary convergence of interests is first of all political. Thanks to honor, the subjects are not reduced to the status of servile instruments of arbitrary power; civic disobedience remains a possible horizon, and the great ambitions of some, however unconcerned they may be to forge the common good, contribute, according to Montesquieu, to the freedom of all.


Louis Althusser, Montesquieu: la politique et l’histoire, Paris: PUF, 1959, ch. IV.

Jean Ehrard, L’Idée de nature en France dans le première moitié du XVIIIe siècle, (1960), Paris, Albin Michel, 1994, p. 493-515.

Corrado Rosso, Montesquieu moraliste, Saint-Médard-en-Jalles [Bordeaux]: Ducros, 1971, p. 99-104.

Nannerl O. Keohane, “Virtuous Republics and Glorious Monarchies: Two Models in Montesquieu’s Political Thought”, Political Studies 20 (1972), p. 383-396.

Thomas Pangle, Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism: a commentary on “The Spirit of the Laws”, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973, ch. IV.

Pierre Rétat, “De Mandeville à Montesquieu: honneur, luxe et dépense noble dans l’Esprit des lois”, Studi francesi 50 (1973), p. 238-249 (rééd. 2019, Pierre Rétat, sous le signe de Montesquieu [http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article3290]).

Mark Hulliung, Montesquieu and the Old Regime, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, ch. II.

John Pappasxe "Pappas", “La campagne des philosophes contre l’honneur”, SVEC 205, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation (1982), p. 31-44.

Maria Carmen Iglesias, “L’Europe comme valeur: individualisme et liberté politique dans l’œuvre de Montesquieu”, L’Europe de Montesquieu, Maria-Grazia Bottaro-Palumbo et Alberto Postigliola ed., Cahiers Montesquieu, 2 (1995), p. 257-270.

Michael Oakeshott, De la conduite humaine, trans. O. Seyden, Paris: PUF, 1995, p. 246-252.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu, les “Lettres persanes”, Paris: PUF, 1997, p. 79-87.

Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à “De l’esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: PUF, 1998, p. 122-130.

Céline Spector, “L’Esprit des lois de Montesquieu: entre libéralisme et humanisme civique”, Revue Montesquieu 2 (1998), p. 139-161. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article157

Sharon Krausexe "Krause", “The Politics of Distinction and Disobedience: Honor and the Defense of Liberty in Montesquieu”, Polity, 31/3 (1999), p. 475-480.

Michael Mosher, “Monarchy’s Paradox: Honor in the Face of Sovereign Power”, Montesquieu’s Science of Politics, David Carrithers, Michael Mosher et Paul Rahe ed., Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p. 198-229.

Rebecca Kingston, “L’intérêt et le bien public dans le discours du parlement de Bordeaux”, in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 187-204.

Sharon Krausexe "Krause", Liberalism with Honor, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, ch. 2.

Céline Spector, “Vices privés, vertus publiques: de la Fable des abeillesà L’Esprit des lois”, in Montesquieu and the Spirit of Modernity, ed. David Carrithers and Patrice Coleman, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC, 2002 no. 9, p. 127-157.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu: pouvoirs, richesses et sociétés, Paris: PUF, 2004, ch. I.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu. Liberté, droit et histoire, Paris: Michalon, 2010.