Carole Dornier

1If virtue is a concept essential to the work and thought of Montesquieu, the word is nevertheless marked by polysemia and equivocations. Virtue is first defined in opposition to the contrary forces it combats. In the Lettres persanes, it appears in Usbek against the corruption of the court of Ispahan and flattery: “I appeared at court […] I dared there to be virtuous” (“Je parus à la Cour […]. J’osai y être vertueux”, LP, Letter [‣]). Usbek’s attitude seems to be a practical application of the Éloge de la sincérité, a short work written in the years preceding the publication of Montesquieu’s novel (OC, t. VIII, p. 137-145). To tell the truth, at the risk of displeasing, even to princes and against the courtiers, to accept to hear truths about oneself, such seems to be one of the definitions of virtue, which takes its meaning in a critique of a society of false appearances, where untruth, flattery and dissimulation play a major role. Virtue is opposed to vices and the dominant values of the court. In an academic paper presented in 1725, De la considération et de la réputation, Montesquieu confronts apparent glories and prestiges with a consideration solidly established upon virtue, especially if it is conflated with patriotism (ibid., p. 458). The Rica of the Persian Letters associates virtue with naturalness and modesty, since it counters the ruses of vanity and arrogance (LP, Letter [‣]). The seraglio plot, in the novel, gives the word a very restrictive application: it is thus synonymous with feminine chastity, shame and modesty, qualities of Roxane evoked by her husband (LP, Letter [‣]), and its loss concerns women only. The word, in this restricted sense, is flawed by an equivocation, heavy with consequences: it designates both what is freely preserved or what is observed by constraint. Usbek himself underscores this when writing to Zachi: “You may tell me that you have always been faithful to me. But could you not be? […] You vaunt a virtue that is not free” (“Vous me direz peut-être que vous m’avez toujours été fidèle. Eh ! pouviez-vous ne l’être pas ? […] Vous vous vantez d’une vertu qui n’est pas libre”, LP, Letter [‣]). The expiring and triumphant Roxane, in the last letter in the collection, will deny the name of virtue to the fidelity that was imposed on her: “You ought to thank me still for the sacrifice I made to you: […] for my having profaned virtue, by suffering my submission to your fancies by that name” (“Tu devrais me rendre grâces encore du sacrifice que je t’ai fait : […] de ce que j’ai profané la vertu, en souffrant qu’on appelât de ce nom ma soumission à tes fantaisies”, LP, Letter [‣]). If women’s virtue should be free in order to exist, it is also, so to speak, natural, and it reappears, even among those Western women whom Usbek judges so harshly: “They all carry in their heart a certain character of virtue that is engraved there, which comes with birth, and which education weakens, but does not destroy” (“Elles portent toutes dans leur cœur un certain caractère de vertu qui y est gravé, que la naissance donne, et que l’éducation affaiblit, mais ne détruit pas”, LP, Letter [‣]). Montesquieu jokes about Asians who “consider women’s chastity but as the impossibility of failing” (“ne regardent la chasteté des femmes que comme l’impuissance de faillir”, Pensées, no. 695). But he was to establish a link between attention to women’s chastity and republican virtue (EL, VII, 9), as he was to underscore that their freer conduct is a sign of the corruption of mores that has taken over the French monarchy (Pensées, no. 1272).

2The question of the naturalness of virtue is treated in a much broader way as justice and drive for the common interest. It is thus at the center of the apologue of the Troglodytes, a fable which answers the moral questions raised by Mirza to Usbek: “Whether men [are] happy through the pleasures and satisfactions of the senses or by the practice of virtue”, and “whether they are born to be virtuous” (“Si les hommes [sont] heureux par les plaisirs et les satisfactions des sens, ou par la pratique de la vertu […] s’ils sont nés pour être vertueux”, LP, Letter [‣]). The fable puts two opposed theories to the test: that of Hobbes, who considers man evil by nature, that of Shaftesbury who considers virtue as natural to man. The violence, egoism and betrayal of the first Troglodytes make society impossible and produce the destruction of those mean people. Thus those who follow nothing but their own interest are doomed to misfortune and destruction. Yet there is nothing natural about the virtuous and happy society that succeeds them. The two family heads, who are at its origin, have been enlightened by the spectacle of the ruin of their people and present it as an example to their children whom they attempt to raise for virtue, as the multitude that was to arise from these survivors was to do, who would perpetuate that education (LP, Letter [‣]). Virtue consists in seeing one’s own interest in the common interest; it is supported by natural religion, frugality, equality, women’s sense of shame, an ability to take up arms to defend one’s people. If the virtue follows a “natural penchant” (penchant de la nature), it is no less a yoke that becomes heavy as society grows. A source of happiness according to the apologue, it remains constantly threatened by the attraction of the passions: ambition, cupidity, immoderate taste for pleasures. To satisfy these passions, which they know to be destructive of their society, the good Troglodytes are ready to abandon their sovereignty and deliver themselves into the power of a single man who will by his laws impose on them what they no longer want to impose upon themselves. Virtue here is not defined as excellence of the person linked to a particular behavior, but as a quality necessary to the functioning of the City: the ideal of virtuous anarchy makes the political institutions unnecessary since the mores serve in lieu of laws. The fragility and precariousness of this collective happiness are inscribed in the story’s epilogue, with the saddened speech of the venerable old man, chosen to be king, who announces the end of this political golden age and the entry into the history of the abandonment of virtue and of participation in government (LP, Letter [‣]).

3As early as 1725, Montesquieu defines virtue as “a general affection for humankind” (“une affection générale pour le genre humain”, Discours sur l’équité, OC, t. VIII, p. 480). This meaning of the term as concern for the happiness of others and the collective good is based on the Stoic notion of the unity of humankind, which implies a hierarchy of duties. Clearly placed under the patronage of Cicero and Zeno’s sect, the Traité des devoirs, a projected but abandoned work of which only a review remains (OC, t. VIII, p. 437), here appears as a systematized attempt to give definitions of the praxis of virtues based on the Stoic postulate. Justice is a virtue that subsumes all the others and fixes this hierarchy of duties: “Most virtues, […] are only particular relations, but justice is a general relation; it concerns man himself, it concerns him with respect to all men. […] All individual duties cease when one cannot fulfill them without harming the duties of man” (“La plupart des vertus, […], ne sont que des rapports particuliers, mais la justice est un rapport général ; elle concerne l’homme en lui-même, elle le concerne par rapport à tous les hommes. […] Tous les devoirs particuliers cessent lorsqu’on ne peut pas les remplir sans choquer les devoirs de l’homme”, ibid., p. 438). The same idea was to be repeated in the famous formula: “If I had known something that was useful to me and would be detrimental to my family, I would cast it out of my mind […]” (“Si j’avais su quelque chose qui m’eût été utile et qui eût été préjudiciable à ma famille je l’aurais rejeté de mon esprit […]”, Histoire véritable, OC, t. IX, p. 186 ; see also Pensées, no. 741). It was to be expressed differently and more radically in an opposition of patriotism and friendship which is a commonplace of the moralities of enlightened self-interest: “If men were perfectly virtuous, they would have no friends” (“Si les hommes étaient parfaitement vertueux, ils n’auraient pas d’amis”, Pensées, no. 1253). The assertion is nuanced by the example of the role of friendship and social bonds in ancient Rome: “The citizens were bound to each other by all sorts of chains” (“Les citoyens tenaient aux citoyens par toutes sortes de chaînes”, ibid.). Friendship is just one of the forms taken by sociability, without which there is no virtue. From this definition of virtue as sense of justice and the interest of humankind flows its use mostly in the singular and in an abstract and absolute sense (la vertu). This is what marks both the influence of the Ancients and the secularization of the concept, where the Church tends to use the term in the plural (les vertus) or qualified by another term (vertu de chasteté, vertus théologales). Religion itself becomes in a sense subordinated to this conception of virtue. Book XXIV of L’Esprit des lois, by emphasizing the benefits and superiority of Christianity, nevertheless contains a vibrant homage to Stoic morality (XXIV, 10), which emphasizes the predominance of ethical preferences over doctrinal truths.

4Beginning with the Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion (1716), Montesquieu insists on the social function of Roman religion and sees the Romans’ genius in this capacity for making belief and worship serve the requirements of the state. Still, admiration for Roman patriotism must not hide an original attitude of demystification of the virtue of the Ancients. To be sure, Montesquieu opposes the wealth and corruption of Carthage to the equality and poverty of the Romans, which assure their attachment to their country: “While in Rome public functions were obtained only by virtue […], everything the public could give to individuals was sold in Carthage” (“Pendant qu’à Rome les emplois publics ne s’obtenaient que par la vertu […], tout ce que le public peut donner aux particuliers se vendait à Carthage”, Romains, IV, p. 110). We think, comparing the Ancients’ spirit of sacrifice with our base motives, that “we are seeing other men than us” (ibid., III, p. 105; see Pensées, no. 221). But emptied of its moral substance, that Roman virtue is more like the Machiavellian virtù, a capacity for acting in the face of circumstances, prudence that permits one to master chance, its only purpose being the greatness of Rome. It comes from the institutions, which guaranteed freedom, the balance of powers, an indestructible attachment to country. It thus plays as an element in the general spirit of the nation permitting historical intelligibility, and not as the quality of great men as celebrated by historians like Bossuet and Vertot. Moreover it is in no way confused, as it was in the Traité des devoirs, with the idea of justice and the Stoic concern for the unity of humankind : “The Romans, accustomed to disdain human nature in the person of their children and their slaves, could hardly know that virtue which we call Humanity” (“Les Romains, accoutumés à se jouer de la nature humaine dans la personne de leurs enfants et de leurs esclaves, ne pouvaient guère connaître cette vertu que nous appelons Humanité”, Romains, XV, p. 200). It acted to the detriment of other peoples, by the pillage of conquered nations, the borrowing of customs, beliefs, arts and techniques. Roman patriotism, which supposed the sacrifice of oneself in the service of the state and conquest, did not, on the other hand, survive the growth of Rome. If other factors explain the decline of the Empire – the progress of Epicureanism that sapped religious belief, the ambitions of Caesar and Pompey, the abandonment of the republican division of political power – the extension of conquered territory was the major cause of the fall of the Empire, an extension incompatible with the general spirit of the Roman republic. We can see, beginning with the Considérations, the link taking shape between small territories and republican governments founded on virtue, whatever the ambiguity of the term, on the one hand, and great territories, monarchy and corruption on the other. The author’s reflection during this period on the political and economic history of modern Europe compared to the history of Rome (Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, Romains, Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle) led him to evaluate the role of exchanges and trade in the evolution of states and the general spirit of modern nations.

5With L’Esprit des lois, the influence of Mandeville on Montesquieu becomes more clear, which contributes to a nominalist use of the terms virtue and vice. The notion that private vices could make for public virtues, according to the famous formula of the Fable of the Bees, thus displaces the question of the moral intention, of the individual against the collectivity, so to speak, dissolves the question of moral Good into that of the economic Good (general prosperity) and, in Montesquieu, into that of the political Good (moderation and freedom). “All the political vices are not moral vices, and […] not all moral vices are political vices” (“Tous les vices politiques ne sont pas des vices moraux, et […] tous les vices moraux ne sont pas des vices politiques”), he writes in the book of L’Esprit des lois which he devoted to morals (XIX). Unlike Mandeville, however, Montesquieu does not use the word virtue to designate a collective harmony produced by the interplay of individual passions. The good functioning of the monarchy, the regime that best suits the vast territories and merchant nations of modern Europe, is not to be confused with virtue. The word is reserved for the principle of republican government which is defined in a play of opposition to the other two principles: the honor of monarchies and the fear of despotic governments. In the Foreward introduced in the posthumous editions (1757-1758), Montesquieu was to clarify: “It is not a moral virtue, nor a Christian virtue, it is a political virtue” (“Ce n’est point une vertu morale, ni une vertu chrétienne, c’est la vertu politique”). But elsewhere he wrote: “Here I am speaking of political virtue, which is moral virtue, in the sense that it aims at the general good, very little of individual moral virtues, and not at all of that virtue that relates to revealed truths” (“Je parle ici de la vertu politique, qui est la vertu morale dans le sens qu’elle se dirige au bien général, fort peu des vertus morales particulières, et point du tout de cette vertu qui a du rapport aux vérités révélée”, EL, III, 5, note). This ambiguity is not surprising if we remember Montesquieu’s care to avoid moral condemnation of monarchy.

6He postulates elsewhere, beginning with the Traité des devoirs, in part under the influence of Stoicism, an indissoluble link between justice and virtue, between morality and concern for the common good. Love of the common good is therefore, from this point of view, necessarily moral. Republican virtue is first virtue of the citizen, the equal of those who share that citizenship. It presupposes equality by laws elaborated with the citizens’ help, and to which they are submissive. It also presupposes a relative material equality, resting on frugality. Montesquieu thus defines republican virtue as love “of country and equality” (EL, Foreward), “of laws and country” (EL, IV, 5), “of the republic” (V, 2), “of equality” and of “frugality” (V, 3). Virtue is “that principle that is defined by love of the government of which it is the principle” (Binoche, 1998, p. 115). In the aristocratic state, virtue becomes moderation (EL, III, 4). There is nostalgia for this principle of virtue which modern merchant nations seem to have relegated to a forgotten past: “The Greek politicians, who lived in the popular government, recognized no other force that could sustain them than that of virtue. Today’s speak to us only of factories, trade, finance, wealth and even luxury” (“Les politiques grecs qui vivaient dans le gouvernement populaire ne reconnaissaient d’autre force qui pût les soutenir [editions prior to 1757 : le soutenir] que celle de la vertu. Ceux d’aujourd’hui ne nous parlent que de manufactures, de commerce, de finances, de richesses et de luxe même”, EL, III, 3). Thus defined as the attachment of everyone to equality before the laws of the republic which suppose participation in the authority and its distribution, virtue implied a refusal of corrupting relations and became, in this meaning of the word, exclusive of the development of commerce. Republican virtue implies, to be sure, a certain ruggedness, even ferocity; the citizen is a warrior. Trade on the other hand makes the mores gentler, but, asserts Montesquieu after Plato, it “corrupts pure morals” (“corrompt les mœurs pures”, EL, XX, 1). By producing wealth, luxury and the perfection of the arts, it undermines republics dependent on equality, frugality and civic participation. This corruption is observed, following the Voyages, in Italian republics (OC, t. X, p. 296). But L’Esprit des lois produces interesting counter-examples that stress the fact that it is less trade that corrupts the republics than inequality. Switzerland, the Lowlands, the German republics and England, a republic hidden beneath a monarchical form (EL, V, 19), are not corrupt. The spirit of commerce, distinguished from the quest of luxury, “brings with it the spirit of frugality, economy, moderation, work, wisdom, tranquility, order and rule” (“entraîne avec soi celui de frugalité, d’économie, de modération, de travail, de sagesse, de tranquillité, d’ordre et de règle”, V, 6). We can find this spirit in Holland and in the New World, among the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Jesuits of Paraguay (IV, 6). There can exist, in modern republics, “a spirit of commerce, work and virtue” (VII, 2). Opposite the military, bellicose republics of Antiquity are the merchant and pacific republics that practice an economical and not a luxury trade (XX, 4), the same trade that, being “the profession of equal men” (V, 8), is deployed in “the government of many” (XX, 4). Monarchy, on the contrary, favors “war and aggrandizement ; the spirit of the republic is peace and moderation” (IX, 2). Montesquieu is moving here toward dissociating republic, poverty and war on the one hand, monarchy, trade and peace on the other. To Spartan virtue, free from trade and wealth as a source of corruption but threatened by the spirit of extreme equality (VIII, 3), L’Esprit des lois juxtaposes the virtue of the honest merchant republics with “Protestant” mores. This virtue is the enemy of despotism through the necessity of guaranteeing the independence of movable capital (XX, 4), but it is threatened by the inequality that comes from the accumulation of wealth (V, 6). One can perceive a certain tension, even a contradiction between these two models of virtue.

7What is certain is that Montesquieu associates them with republics. By writing that “virtue is not the principle of monarchical government” (“la vertu n’est point le principe du gouvernement monarchique”, III, 5), he had scandalized those who saw there a tacit moral condemnation of that political form. To say moreover that “political virtue exists in the monarchy, although honor is its driving force” (“la vertu politique est dans la monarchie, quoique l’honneur en soit le ressort”, EL, Foreward), implies that it is not necessary, and thus that it is indifferent to this type of government. There is more: honor, the principle of the monarchy, requires distinctions and thus inequality, incompatible with political virtue, which is love of equality. To assert moreover, as does Montesquieu, that all virtue can be found in monarchy, even political virtue, without being its motivating force, is tantamount to supposing that this type of government can do without all virtue, moral, Christian, and political. The principle of monarchy being honor, in what measure is it a virtue or on the contrary a “private vice” contributing, as a ruse of reason, to the common good? The Persian Letters again associate honor and virtue, evoking that honor which, in Rome, in Athens, in Lacedaemon, “alone paid for the most signal services” (LP, Letter [‣]). The praise of suicide among the Romans underscores the author’s fascination for a certain form of heroism (Romans, XII, p. 181-182). But this honor of democracy is different from the “prejudice of each person and each station” (EL, III, 6) that defines the honor of monarchies. A questioning of the aristocratic ethic and heroic values, of a certain definition of honor, had already been formulated in the Dialogue de Xantippe et de Xénocrate (circa 1727), which sketched in contrast the republican virtue of Lacedaemon: “Glory separates us from the rest of men; but virtue joins us to them, and thereby realizes our true happiness. Our laws, which hamper all the passions, particularly constrain those of heroes. Honor is not an imaginary being among us, invented to serve humans’ greatest errors […]. The exact observance of the laws is honor for us […]” (“La gloire nous sépare du reste des hommes ; mais la vertu nous y réunit et, par là, elle fait notre vrai bonheur. Nos lois, qui gênent toutes les passions, contraignent surtout celles des héros. L’honneur n’est point parmi nous un être chimérique, inventé pour servir aux plus grandes erreurs des humains, […]. L’exacte obéissance aux lois est l’honneur parmi nous […]”, OC, t. VIII, p. 579-580). But even this quest for glory could be considered as a virtue, when it is the bravery of the all-warlike nobility which has contributed “to the greatness of the realm” (EL, XX, 22). Now the author of L’Esprit des lois asserts earlier: “In monarchies, politics accomplishes great things with as little virtue as it can” (“Dans les monarchies, la politique fait faire les grandes choses avec le moins de vertu qu’elle peut”, III, 5). It is on the contrary the false honor of personal ambition, based on others’ opinions, characteristic of the courtier, a manifestation of pride indifferent to the public good, which is the principle of monarchy. The mores of merchant monarchies are composed of refinement, civility and gallantry, corrupt morals, in particular by the influence of women (XIX, 8). Just as “honor stands in lieu of political virtue […] and represents it everywhere” (“l’honneur prend la place de la vertu politique […] et la représente partout”, III, 6), manners and proprieties supplant duties, civility replaces probity (XIX, 16). A control of appearances and outward manifestations of comportment, corresponding to the general spirit of certain nations, among which China constitutes an extreme pole, are substituted for moral conscience (XIX, 4). Despotism as pure abandonment to the passions is contradictory to all virtue as to all freedom. It is the political form of corruption, a slope toward which governments slide by forgetting themselves and sleeping (EL, I, 1; XIV, 13). Another definition of virtue becomes apparent with despotism: mastery and training of the passions and conducts, self-effort, engagement of the individual for values that impose that he surpass himself and are the conditions of the social bond, evoked with respect to friendship in Rome: “The bonds that separated man from himself to attach him to another were the case of great acts. Without that everything is ordinary, there is nothing but base interest, which is really only the animal instinct of all men” (“ces liens qui détachaient l’homme de lui-même pour l’attacher à autrui faisaient faire les grandes actions. Sans cela tout est vulgaire, et il ne reste qu’un intérêt bas, qui n’est proprement que l’instinct animal de tous les hommes”). For such is “the natural effect of arbitrary power […] to individualize interests” (Pensées, no. 1253). Whatever the meaning that Montesquieu gives to it, virtue is always different from abandonment of immediate self-interest (EL, V, 17-18; VII, 4; IX, 6) from isolation (IV, 3), the unforeseeable (V, 14), that characterize despotism. Virtue as self-constraint is, paradoxically, one of the conditions of freedom, provided we stress that the “great passions” of renunciation are not more reliable, by themselves, than individual passions. Republican virtue is “a renunciation of oneself” (IV, 5); it presupposes a social control exerted by the citizens on each other (IV, 7), an interiorization of the constraints which the analogy with the monastic life, in the context of the times, contributes to devaluing (V, 2). It is therefore fortunate that this passion for virtue is counterbalanced, in moderate regimes, by the harmony of interests and unity in division, ruses of the reason that assure happiness “which alone is true peace” (Romans, IX, p. 157). And yet, Montesquieu’s entire work seems animated by this quest for virtue, indissociable from the quest of knowledge, which presupposes, despite all, a certain confidence in human reason: “It is in seeking to instruct men that one can practice the general virtue that includes the love of all” (“C’est en cherchant à instruire les hommes que l’on peut pratiquer cette vertu générale qui comprend l’amour de tous ”, EL, Preface).


Corrado Rosso, Montesquieu moraliste, des lois au bonheur, Paris: Ducros, 1971.

Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à De l’esprit des lois, Paris, PUF, 1998.

Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots. Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Genève, Droz, 1998, « Rome enfin que je hais […] », p. 55-65 ; « La « chaîne » de L’Esprit des lois », p. 179-192.

J. G. A. Pocock, Vertu, commerce et histoire. Essai sur la pensée et l'histoire politique au XVIII e siècle, Paris, PUF, 1998.

Marc Regaldo, La Religion de Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Académie Montesquieu, 1998, p. 112-122.

Céline Spector, “Vices privés, vertus publiques : de La Fable des abeilles à L’Esprit des lois”, in Montesquieu and the Spirit of Modernity, David W. Carrithers et Patrick Coleman ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2002, p. 127-157.

Marco Platania, Montesquieu e la virtù. Rappresentazioni della Francia di Ancien Régime e dei governi repubblicani, Turin : UTET, 2006.