1Influenced, in his formative years, by stoic thought, then by jusnaturalists, and postulating the unity of the human race in several of his writings, Montesquieu was led to develop in his work the concept of equality in its different forms.
2The equality of the virtuous Troglodytes in Lettres persanes partakes of the traditional myth of the golden age. Happiness there is associated with the equality that derives from community of goods and frugality (LP, [‣]). In the apologue, political participation, social equality, reciprocity as the base of a viable society are imagined to illustrate the moral question of the link between happiness and virtue (ibid.).
3While natural equality founds a morality defining men’s duties with respect to others and therefore the notions of equity and justice, it cannot be maintained without laws which establish and favor it (EL, VIII, 5). That is why, parallel to the myth, concrete societies illustrate the advantages of political and social equality: Usbek cites the Swiss and Dutch republics, demographically and economically prosperous thanks to “the equality of the citizens, which ordinarily produces equality of fortunes (“l’égalité des citoyens, qui produit ordinairement l’égalité des fortunes”, LP, [‣]). Montesquieu also examines in the past societies which, by their institutions, have reconciled legal and social equality. The ancient republics will serve as examples in the typology of governments in L’Esprit des lois to illustrate this conciliation which is aspired to in the democratic regime (EL, V) through the equal sharing of land, a regulation of donations, dowries, successions and contributions (V, 5; Pensées, no. 185, prior to 1731), sumptuary laws (V, 4) and censure of morals (V, 7). The Roman Republic drew its strength from the equality between citizens, first based on the sharing of land, and subsequently lost it when wealth and inequality had corrupted it (Romains, III; OC, t. II, p. 106). The love of democracy is defined as that of equality (EL, V, 3); it is the basis of patriotic virtue, which causes one to sacrifice his own interest for that of the res publica, because the only recompense expected and the only distinction that can be acquired is the glory procured from the recognition of his fellow-citizens (ibid). Merit thus establishes an inequality justified by its utility. The other inequalities compatible with democratic government are those derived “from the nature of democracy and from the very principle of equality”, when a system of compensation is in place to re-establish an effective equality where formal equality and real inequality are observed (V, 5).
4The principle of the republic becomes corrupted when, in the democratic regime, the inequality that follows on luxury is introduced and then aristocracy is instituted. A commercial republic must then see to the distribution of the wealth acquired by merchant activities (V, 6). An equal sharing of the land is moreover not possible in certain democracies. To avoid their corruption, it is then necessary to call on tradition and the respect for different forms of authority (V, 7). When those authorities are contested, when one wants to level all functions and be equal even to those whom one must obey, that is “the spirit of extreme equality”, another corruption factor for the democratic principle (VIII, 2). “As far removed as the sky is from the earth, is the true spirit of equality from the spirit of extreme equality. The first does not consist in having everyone command, or no one commanded; but in obeying and commanding one’s equals. It does not try to have no master, but to have only equals for masters” (“Autant que le ciel est éloigné de la terre, autant le véritable esprit d’égalité l’est-il de l’esprit d’égalité extrême. Le premier ne consiste point à faire en sorte que tout le monde commande, ou que personne ne soit commandé, mais à obéir et à commander à ses égaux. Il ne cherche pas à n’avoir point de maître, mais à n’avoir que ses égaux pour maîtres”, VIII, 3). Equality in democracy is therefore relative, according to the antique model of citizenship: it exists between citizens, but does not call into question the father’s, husband’s or master’s relations of authority and power (VIII, 3). The spirit of extreme equality favors tyranny and then democratic equality is succeeded by despotic equality: “Men are all equal under a republican government; they are equal under a despotic government; in the first case, it is because they are everything; in the second, it is because they are nothing” (“Les hommes sont tous égaux dans le gouvernement républicain ; ils sont égaux dans le gouvernement despotique : dans le premier, c’est parce qu’ils sont tout ; dans le second, c’est parce qu’ils ne sont rien”, VI, 2). Despotism, contrariwise to monarchy, is not based on inequality but on equality in servitude.
5It is through honor, which favors distinctions and social differentiation, and thus inequality, that monarchy preserves itself from such equality of despotism, to which absolutism is kin. Luxury, prerogatives, privileges of intermediate bodies are therefore necessary to this type of government (V, 9), in which “no one aspires to equality; […] each one […] tends toward superiority” (“personne n’aspire à l’égalité ; […] chacun […] tend à la supériorité”, V, 4). Political inequality assures an equilibrium of interests and thus moderation, which distinguishes other regimes from despotism. Social inequality corrects itself by luxury itself, which redistributes to the poor in the form of wages, wealth hoarded by an inegalitarian system (VII, 4).
6The mention of a “spirit of extreme equality” in L’Esprit des lois troubles the modern reader who might see in it a justification, not only of patriarchy but also of slavery: “Women, children, slaves will be submissive to no one. There will be no more values, no more love for order, in short no more virtue” (“Les femmes, les enfants, les esclaves n’auront de soumission pour personne. Il n’y aura plus de mœurs, plus d’amour de l’ordre, enfin plus de vertu”, VIII, 2). Montesquieu however clearly specifies the incompatibility of slavery and democracy (XV, I). He therefore devotes the first nine chapters of book XV to refuting the justifications contained in the different theories of the origins of slavery. It is because “all men are born equal” that “slavery is unnatural”, even if he allows that “in some countries [slavery] is based on a natural reason” (XV, 7). The rationality of a practice, understood in the light of a whole situation including physical and political causes and mores, does not constitute a justification that would suspend moral judgment. Montesquieu also decries those who deny natural equality and justify slavery by the difference of customs (XV, 3) or outward appearances (XV, 5). It is on the contrary servitude, a moral cause, that produces the infirmity alleged to justify servitude: “It happens that slavery abases, crushes and destroys the spirit, whereas freedom shapes, lifts and fortifies it” (“Il arrive que l’esclavage abaisse, accable et détruit l’esprit, tandis que la liberté le forme, l’élève et le fortifie”, Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, OC, t. IX, p. 259). In addition to the laws, other factors favor equality or enslavement: climate (XVII, 3), the nature of the terrain (XVIII, 2), religion. Montesquieu opposes the religion of servitude, Islam, to Christianity (Pensées, no. 503), which postulates the equality of men before God; slavery is therefore incompatible with the evangelical message, which Montesquieu reformulates ironically with regard to blacks: “Those people could not possibly be men; because if we assumed they were men, we would begin to believe that we are not ourselves Christians” (“Il est impossible que ces gens-là soient des hommes ; parce que si nous les supposions des hommes, on commencerait à croire que nous ne sommes pas nous-mêmes chrétiens”, EL, XV, 5).
7By virtue of this very equality before God which implies a principle of reciprocity, Christians must treat those who profess and practice another religion as equal. That is what the Jewish author of the “Most humble remonstrance to the inquisitors of Spain and Portugal” reminds us of on the occasion of the burning of a young Jewess in Lisbon at an auto- da-fe: “you want us to be Christian, and you do not wish to be” (“Vous voulez que nous soyons chrétiens, et vous ne voulez pas l’être”, EL, XXV, 13). But the principle of reciprocity, though affirmed in the Gospel, also derives from natural law and applies to all religions. It is thus all forms of proselytism and intolerance that are considered as noxious (LP, [‣]); EL, XXV, 9). In this regard, Montesquieu’s position respecting Jews is significant and can hardly be grasped by qualifications of “philosemite” or “antisemite” which have sometimes been assigned to him: he unambiguously condemns the persecutions of which the Jews have been the victims (EL, XXV, 13; Pensées, no. 913), but also their intolerance and proselytism (LP, [‣]). While he has little regard for Jewish theologians and commentators on sacred texts (Essay on the causes, OC, t. IX, p. 257-258), that is because he sees in them a consequence of the long captivity of the Jewish people which took them far from the living sources of its traditions. Far from attributing what he deems their ignorance and obscurantism to a physical cause that would be in contradiction with natural equality, on the contrary he uses it as an argument to assert that “moral causes do more to form the character of a nation and are more decisive for the quality of its spirit than 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”, OC, t. IX, p. 257).
8Nor does sexual difference, any more than skin color or religious affiliation, have any effect on natural equality, and it should not deny women equality before the law. The Lettres persanes compared the enslavement of Persian women and the freedom of Parisian women observed by the two Asian travelers. Rica, who wondered “whether natural law subjects women to men” reports the words of a “most gallant philosopher”, perhaps Fontenelle or the feminist Poullain de La Barre: “Nature never dictated such a law. The ascendency we have over them is a real tyranny; they only allowed us to take it because they are more gentle than we are, and consequently more humane and reasonable. […] The strength would be equal if education were also. Let us test them in talents which education has not weakened, and we will shall whether we are the stronger” (“La nature n’a jamais dicté une telle loi. L’empire que nous avons sur elles est une véritable tyrannie ; elles ne nous l’ont laissé prendre que parce qu’elles ont plus de douceur que nous, et par conséquent plus d’humanité et de raison. […] Les forces seraient égales si l’éducation l’était aussi. Éprouvons-les dans les talents que l’éducation n’a point affaiblis, et nous verrons si nous sommes si forts”, LP, [‣]). Yet the praise of the goodness and beauty of women requires Montesquieu to assert that they enjoy a form of equality conferred by their “natural advantages”, a sort of compensation which would dissuade them from claiming equality with men (Pensées, no. 1726; copied between 1748 and 1750). The situation of women varies with governments (EL, VII, 9), climates (EL, XVI, 2), morals. If Rica observed that women’s authority goes hand in hand with civilized morals, (LP, [‣]), Montesquieu sees in the progress of women’s gallantry and liberty factors of corruption of the French nation and a characteristic of monarchies (Pensées, no. 1272, 1275 et EL, VII, 9). Book VII of L’Esprit des lois underscores the link between luxury, public incontinence, and the liberty of women’s morals. In republics, women, “free by law” (“libres par les lois”) must be “captive by morals” (“captivées par les mœurs”) for their chastity is indispensable to the order of a popular state and is opposed to luxury, which is incompatible with the love of equality. Despotism denies natural equality by instituting slavery and in addition denies the laws of modesty when, in Muslim states, the sexual slavery of women is practiced (XV, 12). Montesquieu recognizes then that women as human beings had the right to be free since slavery is no more justified for them than for men. But he considers the domestic subordination of women to be in keeping with reason and nature (VII, 17) and he affirms that nature “has distinguished men by strength and reason” (“a distingué les hommes par la force et par la raison”, XVI, 2). If women are excluded from citizenship in republics, they can still, according to him, govern an empire as well in moderate states as in despotic ones since their weakness favors gentleness and moderation (EL, VII, 17).
9Equality in Montesquieu’s work also takes on a spiritual sense which belongs to the Christian tradition: men are equal before pain (Pensées, no. 2122), before death (EL, XXV, 7). There is an equality of souls (Pensées, no. 1059). In addition, the relativism of individual happiness (LP, [‣]; Pensées, no. 30, copied before 1731), the opposition between material goods and the real goods that are virtue, health, peace… (Histoire véritable, OC, t. IX, p. 180) contribute to dissociating happiness from social condition and the reduction of inequalities of power and wealth. This relativism of Montesquieu invites an accusation of conservative traditionalism.
10Understanding the notion of equality in Montesquieu probably implies letting go of a contemporary tendency to idealize the concept, to valorize equality in all its forms, even when it is thought to be out of reach. For Montesquieu the democratic equality of the ancient republics belongs to the past. The factual inequalities tied to different regimes and different mores are evaluated by him according to their degree of adaptation to other elements of social functioning, in their ability to assure stability, moderation and freedom. It nonetheless remains true that for him, the natural equality of men founds the principle of reciprocity, which in turn justifies rights (toleration, freedom) which he recognizes for all human beings, and which are called the rights of mankind.
Bernard Magné, “Une source de la lettre persane 38: l’Égalité des deux sexes de Poullain de La Barre”, RHLF, 1968, p. 407-414.
Corrado Rosso, Mythe de l’égalité et rayonnement des Lumières, Pisa: Libraria Goliardica, 1980.
André Delaporte, L’Idée d’égalité en France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: PUF, 1987.
Catherine Larrère, Actualité de Montesquieu, Paris: Presse de Sciences Po, 1999.