1It was in the salon opened by Mme Du Deffand in 1747 that Montesquieu met Jean Le Rond D’Alembert (1717-1783). Between the philosopher of about sixty and the young mathematician, one of the pillars of the salon, was formed, probably around 1750, a relationship marked by amicable esteem. On D’Alembert’s part, it is evidenced by the laudatory allusion in the Discours préliminaire of the Encyclopédie: “A judicious writer, as good a citizen as great a philosopher, he has given us a work on the principles of law which is decried by a few Frenchmen and esteemed by all of Europe” (t. I, 1751, p. xxxii). Montesquieu was not unmoved by this homage, especially at a time when he was weathering the assaults of the adversaries of L’Esprit des lois, and he asked Mme Du Deffand on 15 July 1751 to thank D’Alembert for the “mention” in the “preface” (i.e., the Discours), adding: “I owe him thanks as well for writing that elegant preface” (“[…] je lui dois encore un remerciement pour avoir fait cette préface si belle”). In 1753, D’Alembert reprinted his Discours in Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie, took up the earlier appreciation and reinforced it, because, he confided to Mme Du Deffand, the author “deserves it” and “is persecuted”: L’Esprit des lois “will be an immortal monument to the genius and virtue of its author and of the progress of reason in a century the middle of which will be a memorable period in the history of philosophy” (quoted by Robert Shackleton, p. 44). Montesquieu then addressed D’Alembert directly, repeating his high regard for the Discours (16 November 1753). Not long before, on 12 October 1753, following Buffon’s election to the Académie Française, he did not disguise from Mme du Deffand, who was working at the time towards D’Alembert’s election, that he desired as much as she and even more than the most closely concerned, to see him elected, for, he confessed, “I am the chevalier of the order of merit” (“je suis le chevalier de l’ordre du mérite”). On 13 September 1754, he engaged himself openly in favor of his candidacy, but, absent from the capital, he could not vote. D’Alembert was nonetheless elected on 28 November 1754. Yet the two men did not meet at the Academy: Montesquieu returned to Paris only in time to die.
2Invited in 1753 by D’Alembert, who was eager to acquire the participation of the greatest writers of the century, to collaborate on the Encyclopédie, Montesquieu expressed his satisfaction, but declined to do the two articles proposed: “Democracy” and “Despotism”– “On those matters I have drained my brain of everything that was there” (“J’ai tiré sur ces articles de mon cerveau tout ce qui y était”), he wrote (16 November 1753). Might the explanation conceal a desire to stay in the background at a time when the government was giving the collective work a difficult time? He offered to write the article Goût [‘taste’]. It was actually to be written by Voltaire, but to be followed by the Essai which Montesquieu had left “incomplete”.
3In 1755, D’Alembert had the idea of opening the fifth volume of the Encyclopédie with the eulogy of the man who had died on the previous 10 February. It was composed with the aid of information supplied by Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, and which was to be reprinted at the beginning of the edition of Montesquieu’s Œuvres in 1758, he retraces Montesquieu’s career; in it he traces his travels, evokes the man (and his conversation, the attraction of which he must have appreciated), and of course the writer. While pointing out, not without finesse, the interest of the Persian Letters and Romans, he pauses over L’Esprit des lois and shows with perceptive lucidity that it has an order beyond its apparent disorder, as is confirmed by the long “Analysis”, confined to a note, which purports to delineate the method observed and sketch the framework of the work. He also shows that the reproach of obscurity was moot for the shrewd reader, and that the work was not anti-Christian, as some pretended. Above all, he underscores the book’s “philosophical” aspects and salutes the “citizen spirit” that motivated the author.
4D’Alembert, when he comes to Montesquieu in his Histoire des membres de l’Académie française depuis 1700 jusqu’en 1771, refers back to his “Éloge” of tome V, and the few corrections made to it do not modify the earlier portrait of the philosopher-writer as a “benefactor of humanity”.
Charles Jacques Beyer, “D’Alembert et Montesquieu ‘persécutés’”, Studi Francesi, 1966, p. 83-84.
Robert Condat, “Le manuscrit d’une lettre de Montesquieu”, Littératures 13 (Autumn 1985), p. 144-149.
Robert Shackleton, “D’Alembert et Montesquieu: leurs rapports”, Jean D’Alembert, savant et philosophe: portrait à plusieurs voix. (philosophe. Portrait à plusieurs voix.) Actes du colloque organisé par le Centre international de synthèse (15-18 June 1983), Éditions des Archives contemporaines, 1989, p. 41-53.
Laetitia Perret, “Montesquieu philosophe? deux éloges de Montesquieu”, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’“Encyclopédie” no. 42 (2007), http://rde.revues.org/3952.
— “Le succès paradoxal d’une préface militante: l’‘Éloge de Montesquieu par D’Alembert’”, in L’Art de la préface au siècle des Lumières, Ioana Galleron dir., Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007, p. 69-77.