Georges Benrekassa

1For Montesquieu, the notion of “moderation” as it was habitually used by the moralists of his time held little interest. His genius was to give it a value and a much more precise and more important meaning, both in terms of its origins and in the framework of a thought on powers and power that gave it a unique scope. But that does not prevent the principle of moderation from posing a problem analogous to that of political virtue, a source of misunderstandings that persisted well beyond the ugly quarrels of the time. We are at the boundary, difficult to set definitively, of virtues proper to the individual, and those that regulate relations in the political world, whether one is a minor participant or major actor. And we must never lose sight of the fact that what Montesquieu says a little forcefully when speaking of the abbé de Saint-Pierre, who wanted so much to group some “good people” together to carry out his projects: it is the laws that make them what they are, and first one must think about the laws (Pensées, no. 1876).

2Must one absolutely distinguish the principle of moderation, such as it appears in book III of L’Esprit des lois, in the typology of governments, as a motor and regulator of aristocracy, from the principle of moderation that enables establishing the essential division between moderate states and despotisms? Their assimilation is not possible, but the detour is instructive. Two remarks are necessary: there is between the principle of moderation of aristocratic republics and the other principles of governments – virtue, honor, fear – a considerable difference. The latter are both principles of preservation, destined for corruption, but are not also the motors of an historical dynamic. Whereas the principle of moderation in aristocratic government serves to re-establish an equality which is contrary to the nature of government (V, 8). It is in now first of all a “virtue”, it is a principle of preservation established by the laws, and a principle that contradicts a logic inscribed in the nature of government – of society. But it is difficult to say that it is not also, in some respect, a moral virtue. It is moreover on this occasion that Montesquieu specifies vigorously what is not moderation for him, and rejects the constant confusion of moderation and the mediocrity that is accompanied by compromises: “Moderation is thus the soul of those [aristocratic] governments. By that I mean the moderation that is based on virtue, not the kind that comes from cowardice and lethargy of soul” (“La modération est donc l’âme de ces gouvernements [aristocratiques]. J’entends celle qui est fondée sur la vertu, non pas celle qui vient d’une lâcheté et d’une paresse de l’âme”, III, 4).

3It is by reference to these two characteristics that one can reflect on the fundamental distinction, which reveals all of its importance starting in book V of L’Esprit des lois, between moderate governments and despotisms. In fact, we should see that there is an important and logical progression, from one stage to the next; that what could be a simple principle of neutralization in moderation becomes an active principle of a superior order, and how the “virtue” it wants to call upon and test must escape by the nature of things from getting bogged down in mediocrity.

4It is at the end of chapter 14 of book V that Montesquieu gives his most precise definition of moderation and moderate government. The moderate government is “a masterpiece of legislation which chance rarely makes and prudence is rarely allowed to make” (“chef-d’œuvre de législation que le hasard fait rarement, et que rarement on laisse faire à la prudence”). It is an art of mastering the forces so that they will not harm each other and will develop in concert. One cannot really say of moderation what one can say of virtue, “love of the republic”: “It is a sentiment and not a string of knowledge” (“C’est un sentiment, et non une suite de connaissances”, V, 2). Moderation is at once mastery of time, perception and understanding of relationships, calculation of relations, appreciation of the possibilities. This definition ought not be isolated from two essential questions that cut across book V, and from the general problematics of political power. How can the laws permit, and ought they to, the principle of government to find its full efficacity? Why is the mode of exercise of power in some way more important than its structure? Power has no reality unless it is thought through and exercised in accordance with a certain conception of its regime and its economy, which prevents if from self-destruction and allows it to realize itself and, as Montesquieu says clearly, the powers can have in them possibilities of degenerating if only their external structure is attended to: thus from monarchy to despotism, of which, he says, we must consider that the basic conception is the same.

5It is one thing to think about despotism, and the illusion of unlimited power endlessly confronted with its failures and its contradictions, and finally with the impossibility of existing as it would like to define itself; it is something else to think about its opposite. So there is no simple theory of the moderate state, and yet it does not exist only by the simple practice of moderation: intermediate bodies, balance and separation of powers, fundamental laws, “tribunate” or equivalent powers, testify to the importance of the institutional apparatus – which is however never in itself decisive. Here appear, it seems to us, two difficulties, which moreover are not specific to Montesquieu alone, for we find them at the heart of other major political works of the era. The art of combining and tempering the powers, of “putting them in a position to stand up” to each other (V, 15) would presuppose in fact a legislator of a rare kind… Not just honest, virtuous, lucid, and rational, but capable of being both at the heart of his object and absent from it, and from the conflicts that cross it. It is with respect to these conflicts, moreover, that the second difficulty arises. Beginning in chapter 11 of Romans, Montesquieu demystified an old conventional theme of political “moderation”: concord, and turned it upside down: the “union” in a political body can exist “where one can see nothing but disturbance”. Then how to institute a good relation between the functioning of power in time and the balance of the society that one must take care not to fracture?

6In these conditions, if there is a variety of constitutional dispositions that assures “moderation”, it is not linked to a type of government. It can even happen, as is said at the beginning of book XI of L’Esprit des lois, that the constitution is moderate, and that does not imply in itself the moderation of the government (in the modern sense of that term). As is shown by the analyses of moderate states like England (a republic hidden in the form of a monarchy), or even the French monarchy delivered from absolutism (XIX 5, 6, 27), it is in the last analysis in the nation’s social dynamic that are developed simultaneously original manners, its own mores, and laws adapted to the national genius, which guarantees moderation for a time, as well as the apparatus that forbids the abuse of power.

7But there is no moderate government that is a happy production of conjuncture. It always depends first on the application of the laws, and on the spirit in which they are conceived. It is the law that governs, in the sense that, as Montesquieu often says, it is not man who wreaks violence on man. And above all, we must again get beyond an illusory conception of the efficacity of power: “Men must not be led by extreme means […]” (“Il ne faut point mener les hommes par les voies extrêmes […]”, VI, 12). And to him that sometimes requires “moderating the law in favor of the law itself, by pronouncing less rigorously than it does” (“modérer la loi en faveur de la loi même, en prononçant moins rigoureusement qu’elle”, XI, 6). The moderation of punishment, especially, is here to be the indispensable pendant of the limitation on incriminations: books VI and XII of L’Esprit des lois echo each other. Not only must one not overuse the “government resource”, but it is the essential condition of existence of a citizenry. There we find the symmetric position to the one expressed in chapter 14 of book V. It is not always easy to articulate that in convincing fashion with the rigorous description of a moderate government in history. If the English constitution accepts to moderate the law, it is to protect the lords from dangerous accusations. And chapter 15 of book VI on the moderation of punishments in Rome clearly shows that it is an ideal based on the existence of a social balance of which he was to show the precariousness in book XI.

8The thought and principle of moderation in Montesquieu take us far from Ciceronian moderatio, an adaptation of the Greek sôphrosunè. But something essential from it remains: the abandonment of the illusion of absolute mastery, and the necessary invention of governing which there is no way of mastering absolutely. It is thus inevitable to return somehow to moral virtue. When in chapter 1 of book XXIX we read: “I say this and it seems to me that I have written this book just to prove it: the spirit of moderation must be that of the legislator […]” (“Je le dis, et il me semble que je n’ai fait cet ouvrage que pour le prouver : l’esprit de modération doit être celui du législateur […]”), this is not a bland encouragement of prudence. In fact the entire work of politics rests on the conscience of the imminence of absolute evil, and there is no political good in itself, absolutely speaking. What then is to be done, and by whom? One of the finest passages in L’Esprit des lois and the most revealing of the difficulty which Montesquieu wanted to resolve by giving at every opportunity the absolute priority to the “disposition of things”, is found at the end of chapter 41 of book XXVIII: “Through a misfortune attached to the human condition, great moderate men are rare” (“Par un malheur attaché à la condition humaine, les grands hommes modérés sont rares”). Virtue is in a sense easier to practice in its rigor, because it is easier “to follow its force than to stop it”. And even those who love virtue “love themselves so much” that it is a good idea to be wary of them. The extreme forms of enjoyment of power and personal “glory” carry such weight that it is hardly possible to find an exercise of public power with really pure intentions, eager to do good “well”. Montesquieu’s merit is not to stop at this observation, as a “moralist” might have done.


Robert Derathé, “La philosophie des Lumières en France: raison et modération selon Montesquieu”, Revue internationale de philosophie 21 (1952), p. 275-293.

Henry Vyverberg, Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment, Cambridge (Massachussets), 1959.

Sheila Mason, Montesquieu’s Idea of Justice, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

Walter Kuhfuss, “‘Moderation’: Die Ideologisierung eines politischen Begriffs im Französischen”, Romanische Forschungen 87 (1975), p. 442-481.

— “La notion de modération dans les Considérations de Montesquieu”, in Storia e ragione, Alberto Postigliola ed., Naples: Liguori, 1987, p. 277-292.

Georges Benrekassa: “‘Modéré’, ‘modération’, ‘modérantisme’”, in G. Benrekassa, Le langage des Lumières, Paris: PUF, 1995.

Céline Spector, “Montesquieu et l’histoire: théorie et pratique de la modération”, Le Sens du devenir historique, Bertrand Binoche and Franck Tinland ed., Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2000, p.53-75.