Georges Benrekassa

1Montesquieu contributed only one text to the great dictionary, but we can still count him in the category of collaborators of the Encyclopédie, as abundant as is reduced the share of the nobility in general: the parlementarians or high “officers”, like de Brosses or Turgot, educated or erudite, moreover almost always authors of articles that were not directly related to the social function of their origins. Up to a point, they partake of the ambiguities of the “monumental” function of the Encyclopédie, the glory of France and a work of combat. All the texts that are placed at the head of the first six volumes are texts that address the defense or promotion (or attack) strategy of the Encyclopédie. And it could seem that Montesquieu was principally a magnificent attraction. But it would be a mistake to reduce him to that role. D’Alembert’s very elegant and intelligent eulogy at the beginning of Vol. V ends, to be sure, on a well-calculated affirmation of sponsorship: “We regard the interests which M. de Montesquieu took in this dictionary, all the resources of which have so far lain in the courage and emulation of its authors, as one of the most honorable recompenses for our work. All persons of letters, according to him, ought to be eager to participate in this useful enterprise […]”. But the eulogy is a sovereign evocation of the person and the work which have no equal in the writings of the time. And Montesquieu’s contribution is authentically a “monument”. The article “Goût” (‘Taste’) – the Essay on Taste – is a major text, and its presentation by Diderot at the end of the article “Encyclopédie” is more than a solemn recognition of legacy. “M. de Montesquieu has left us in dying fragments on taste”… If the Encyclopédie published it in an “imperfect” state, as D’Alembert had said, it was because it really did perpetuate the great man’s glory, by way of an exchange.

2The most important relations between Montesquieu and the encyclopedic enterprise need to be envisaged much more broadly, and more precisely: the Encyclopédie testifies first in unique fashion to the current interest of L’Esprit des lois, and the multiple aspects of its reception in the “philosophical” milieu. To be sure, the dictionary does take account of Montesquieu’s other works. Jaucourt occasionally refers to the Persian Letters in highly intelligent ways, evoking the personality of Usbek-Montesquieu, as D’Alembert was already doing, with respect to the self-satisfaction of the just man (article “Équité”). As for Romans (“Roman history for philosophers and statesmen”, as D’Alembert put it), it serves as a basis, and even as sole source for his article “Roman (Empire)”, and represents the sole source “philosophical” source.

3We can first gauge the role, in the same register, of the utilization (one could say the exploitation) of L’Esprit des lois as information resource. For many Encyclopedists, that work placed within reach, in a clear and incisive manner, facts and analyses that have the advantage of going together and go far beyond all that the contemporary historical and political literature could offer. We only have to look at the way Diderot sets forth very clearly, with the help of the first eight chapters of the great work, a study of aristocratic government in twenty-three points. Jaucourt’s articles on political theory, like “Démocratie” or “Monarchie”, are faithful syntheses of books II, III and IV. Even the articles on fiefs and “feudal government”, in a dictionary which is ideological very far removed from Montesquieu’s points of view on these domains, feed on the final books. Jaucourt’s article “Fief” ends with a eulogy of Montesquieu that casts light on his inspiration. Montesquieu is a “theoretical author” on fiefs, who held the “ends of the thread” and “entered the labyrinth” which he illuminated. Jaucourt uses Diderot’s favorite metaphor for describing the work of the Encyclopedist. It is then up to Boucher d’Argis to do the article “Fief (Jurisprudence)”.

4Sometimes Montesquieu is enrolled in a certain type of combat, a bit beyond his intentions. This is the case with “Christianisme”, which was long attributed to Diderot, in which some bad faith models of reasoning are used which L’Esprit des lois applies to quite different domains. But in the long run that is fairly rare. On the essential questions the properly political convergences ought not to be minimized, provided one sees that they are situated at such a general level that it is hardly compromising, whether it is a matter of unduly assimilating monarchical to paternal power (“Autorité politique”), the condemnation of slavery as absolute alienation (“Citoyen”), the idea that religious precepts cannot take precedence over natural law (“Célibat”, “Christianisme”), or despotism as a lawless regime (“Autorité politique”): they refer to Montesquieu’s authority, but ten others could be used.

5However, his thought can be used, and served, faithfully. This applies especially to justice and mores in their relationship to political regimes. One can refer to the articles “Crime”, “Lèse-majesté”, “Lois criminelles”, where Jaucourt gives a very fine synthesis of books VI and XII, and finally of Montesquieu’s whole philosophy of law. It is interesting that in the Encyclopédie book XII is in a way more important than book XI of the Encyclopédie, and thus political freedom – security that protects the citizen in the detail of law rather than political freedom brought about by a constitution. We must here remark that it is perhaps as instructive (and surprising) for us to see how Montesquieu’s thought can be confronted or combined with other sources of inspiration, as in Saint-Lambert’s article “Législateur”, which also refers to Hume. In “Peines” (‘punishments’, by Jaucourt) it is in an even more surprising manner that Montesquieu’s perspective is paired with Burlamaqui’s Principes de politique, with respect to reserving the share and role of the sovereign in the exercise of the power to punish.

6In these conditions, it is not unexpected that we are led to think that what there is the most to learn about is, in a first phase of critical judgment, in the points of contestation and even of conflict that one is likely to find it. In two ways:
– The first concerns, in more modernized terms, the possibility of a contradiction between a universalist political morality (in the broadest sense), and a desire to elucidate theoretically what seems somewhat too compromised with a certain form of acceptation of facts. We could take as examples two cases traditionally debated, where Jaucourt marks his distance with his master’s point of view. The article “Esclavage” (‘slavery’) refers enthusiastically to Montesquieu and repeats many of his arguments, in particular against jurisconsults who base the right to slavery on specious reasoning. But when he wants to extend the reasoning of L’Esprit des lois to a general condemnation of slavery in the name of noble principles, showing “that it affronts human freedom, is contrary to natural and civil law, offends the forms of the best governments, and finally is in itself useless”, who would not see that he goes beyond the difficulties with which Montesquieu measures himself? The article “Question” (‘Torture’) has a similar inspiration,but in a somewhat different register. Jaucourt, after the technical article by Boucher d’Argis, undertakes an indictment in which he takes up all the traditional arguments against torture, citing Montaigne at length, but never Montesquieu. Yet he has read him and uses literally certain sentences. The point is to sustain the point of view of humanity per se, and the historical and juridical argumentation of Montesquieu that links the practice of torture to a use of inquisitorial procedure privileging confession is of no interest to him. That is too bad.
– The second manner appears at first glance to question only concrete political options, sometimes even of “technical” character, but which in fact engage essential choices of social philosophy. The problem of just and efficacious taxation is a good example, and the discussion is organized throughout the dictionary around book XIII of L’Esprit des lois. The network, very explicitly underscored, which makes it possible to link “Impôts” (‘Taxation’, by Jaucourt) and “Ferme du roi” (‘the royal tax farm system’), “Finance”, “Financier”, all three by Pesselier, testifies to the presence of Montesquieu’s thought at the heart of a debate that finally concerns the whole social order; and this debate finds its conclusion in the article “Vingtième” (‘the 5% tax’, by Diderot and Damilaville), which is like the political conclusion of the great dictionary. It is known that book XIII takes a clear position in fiscal matters, in favor of taxes and the tax agency, against the farm system and direct deductions. The question debated by all was double: what just tax, justly and efficaciously collected, is it possible to reconcile with a “free constitution”, and with the maintenance of a social equilibrium? Also envisaged are, beyond the expected judgment of the “partisans”, the drawbacks of the system that are able to favor excessive controls of the central power… Ultimately what emerges from a dense debate is a new idea of social contractuality and of the contributions of each person to the maintenance of the res publica. This is perhaps much more important for the political future of France than such and such a political article.

7If we go on to a second phase of critical judgment, it will appear that the right distance for gauging Montesquieu’s relation to the Encyclopédie is through a reflection on the misunderstanding it manifests: what it was not able to read in L’Esprit des lois and is capital for us in the interpretation of the work.

8The question of the understanding of “the spirit of law” and what law means for Montesquieu is what it most surprising and most important, with respect to the attention we pay to the epistemology of the sciences of society which he founded. Everything having to do with this domain is by Jaucourt. We will deal just with the essential article. The absence in the article “Loi” of any reference to the initial definition of law as relation has to be placed in relation with the very particular valorization of the final definition of book I (“Law is human reason insofar as it governs all the peoples on earth”). In fact that coexists with a definition of political law as commanding law: “We can define law as a rule prescribed by the sovereign for its subjects […]”. And Jaucourt makes a sort of synthesis that raises many problems in the article “Loi politique”: “Political laws are those that shape the government one wishes to establish; civil laws are the ones that maintain it” (this is Montesquieu); and: “Thus political law is the particular case where human reason applies itself for the interest of the state that governs” – that is not Montesquieu at all. There is a level of rationality of laws that is at the very least foreign to Jaucourt.

9Other examples could be given. Let us take just what is preserved or exploited of book XIX of L’Esprit des lois. The Encyclopédie here walks in company with all the contemporaries on this point, which for us is of essential importance: the conception of causality in history, determinations of the general spirit, etc. What we find in the Encyclopédie is very poor and very limited. Saint-Lambert’s article “Manières” does not go beyond what remains in Montesquieu of the first conception of the “difference of geniuses”… And the conceptions of a multiple and “circular” causality, of historical totalities, and of the differentiation of levels of the social require in order to develop their originality another epistemological configuration than those which are at work in the great dictionary.


Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences et des arts (1751-1772) [http://enccre.academie-sciences.fr/encyclopedie/], notably the articles “Besoin”, “Charges (vénalité des)”, “Crimes”, “Esclavage”, “Fermes du roi”, “Finances”, “Financier”, “Goût”, “Lèse-majesté”, “Loi”, “Loi civile”, “Lois criminelles”, “Législateur”, “Manières”, “Peines”.

Pierre Hermand , Les Idées morales de Diderot, Paris: PUF, 1923.

Jacques Proust, Diderot et l’“Encyclopédie”, Paris: Armand Colin, 1962, re-ed. Albin Michel, 1995.

Jean Ehrard, “L’Encyclopédie et l’esclavage: deux lectures de Montesquieu”, Enlightenment Essays in Memory of Robert Shackleton, Oxford, 1987, reissued under the title “Deux lectures de l’esclavage” in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots. Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 247-256.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Les Considérations sur les Romains lues par l’Encyclopédie”, in La Fortune de Montesquieu. Montesquieu écrivain (conference of the tricentennial), Bordeaux, 1995, 129-142.

Georges Benrekassa, “L’Esprit des lois dans l’Encyclopédie: de la liberté civile à la contribution citoyenne, des droits subjectifs au pacte social”, in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 253-274.

Georges Benrekassa, “Fiscalité et ordre social de L’Esprit des lois à l’Encyclopédie: bénéfices des médiations informatiques”, in Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie, 31-32 (April 2002), https://journals.openedition.org/rde/3103.

CatherineVolpilhac-Auger, “Pénélope devant la toile: les Considérations sur les Romains de Montesquieu lues par l’Encyclopédie”, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie, 31-32 (April 2002), p. 177-187.

Céline Spector, “Y a-t-il une politique des renvois dans l’Encyclopédie? Montesquieu lu par Jaucourt”, Corpus, revue de philosophie, 51 (2006), p. 215-248 [https://revuecorpus.com/som51.html le pdf du volume].