Quarrel over L’Esprit des Lois

Claude Lauriol

1What is understood by the appellation “querelle de L’Esprit des lois”, which has become traditional, the criticisms provoked by the work beginning with its publication in 1748 and Montesquieu’s responses. We can dismiss the reactions of the civil society that mostly concerned the work’s composition, the quality of its documentation or certain political affirmations, to look only at the attacks of ecclesiastical origin, the only ones against which Montesquieu defended himself openly. Thus the farmer general Dupin objected to the questioning of brokers and the French monarchy’s ineptitude in serving the interests of trade in his Réflexions sur quelques parties d’un livre intitulé “De l’esprit des lois” (1749). Abbé de La Porte, judging the work disordered and obscure, undertook to recompose it by giving it a methodical order in his Observations sur “L’Esprit des lois”, ou l’art de lire ce livre, de l’entendre et d’en juger (1750). Abbé de Bonnaire published “L’Esprit des lois” quintessencié par une suite de lettres analytiques (1751), which aimed to summarize it, the better to refute it. The Encylopedist economist Véron Duverger de Forbonnais gave an Extrait du livre “L’Esprit des lois”, chapitre par chapitre, avec des remarques sur quelques endroits particuliers de ce livre et une idée de toutes les critiques qui en ont été faites (1753).

2As an institution, the Church reproached Montesquieu for reasoning as if there had been no Revelation, not distinguishing among religions the only true one, giving reason to doubt he was genuinely Christian. These attacks were developed in parallel in two theatres, Paris and Rome. This religious dimension places the quarrel among the great Enlightenment battles; Voltaire understood it thus at least for a while, and the adversaries of L’Esprit des lois are the same as those of the Encyclopédie. Its outcome remained ambiguous: the Vatican finally put the work on the Index, but that measure was not echoed in Paris where neither the Assemblée du Clergé nor the Sorbonne, after an interminable procedure, resolved to publish their condemnation.

3It is not possible to account here for the whole gamut of reactions provoked by L’Esprit des lois, nor even the complexity of the three ecclesiastical procedures that took place simultaneously over several years. To get an idea of them, the reader will find below a chronology of the principal facts, which omits isolated individual initiatives and limits itself o the attacks coming from the Church as an institution. For more complete information, the reader may consult the studies mentioned in the bibliography.

– April: the Jesuit periodical, the Journal de Trévoux, finds that L’Esprit des lois is unfair to religion, directly or indirectly, and politely asks the author for some clarifications.
– 9 and 16 October: the Jansenist paper Nouvelles ecclésiastiques cries scandal and violently attacks Montesquieu, accused of being a partisan of natural religion, a Spinozist, an adversary of Christianity.

– January: Montesquieu worries about the denunciation of L’Esprit des lois to the Congregation of the Index
– 1 February: the Duke de Nivernais gives Cardinal Passionei a “Memoir on L’Esprit des lois”.
– Early February: Montesquieu publishes Défense de L’Esprit des lois, à laquelle on a joint quelques éclaircissements, principally aimed against the attacks of the ecclesiastical newspaper.
– 15 February: the Journal de Trévoux reproaches Montesquieu with having eluded theological discussion in his Défense.
– 11 March: Montesquieu sends 12 copies of his Défense to the Duke de Nivernais.
– 25 March: Cardinal Passionei acknowledges reception of Monsignor Bottari’s remarks on L’Esprit des lois.
– 17 April: Cardinal Passionei writes to Monsignor Bottari that he has had his observations on L’Esprit des lois translated into French.
– 24 April and 1 May: Nouvelles ecclésiastiques accuses Montesquieu, an “impious man” who “vomits forth blasphemies”, of having made his case worse with his Défense.
– 14 May: in his Remerciement sincère à un homme charitable, Voltaire takes the defense of Montesquieu and any philosophe attacked by a man of the Church.
– May: motion of censure of 13 propositions in L’Esprit des lois by the Theology Faculty of the Université de Paris (Sorbonne).
– 2 June: Montesquieu sends Cardinal Passionei his reflections on Monsignor Bottari’s observations.
– 24-27 July: the General Assembly of the French Clergy calls the king’s attention to certain antireligious writings.
– 1 August: the Sorbonne begins its examination of L’Esprit des lois.
– 26 August: the General Assembly of the French Clergy turns its attention to another work.
– 6 September: Monsignor Bottari has asked the Congregation of the Index for a new delay to examine Montesquieu’s responses to his observations.
– November: La Beaumelle publishes the Suite de la Défense de L’Esprit des lois, ou examen de la réplique du gazetier ecclésiastique (it is labelled Berlin, 1751).
– 10 December: thanks for the intervention of the duc de Nivernais, the secretary of the Congregation of the Index receives the order not to allow deliberation on L’Esprit des lois.
– 15 December: the Congregation of the Index hears the report of Monsignor Bottari, which concludes that L’Esprit des lois be banned, but does not deliberate. A censure motion is asked of a new reviewer, the reverend father Galli.
Dello spirito delle leggi [...], tradotto del franzese in toscano con alcune note dei traduttori. In Napoli, per Giovanni Simone.
– P.-D. Concina, Theologia christiana dogmatico-moralis, Rome.
– Cardinal Giacinto Sigismondo Gerdil, Virtutem politicam ad optimum statum non minus Regno quand Reipublicae necessariam esse.

– 22 March: the reverend father Galli being ill and unable to complete his mission, the reverend father Emaldi is designated as new censor for L’Esprit des lois.
– 17 August: the censure of 19 propositions taken from L’Esprit des lois is approved by the Sorbonne.
– 1 September: the Sorbonne delays publication of the censure of the 19 propositions taken from L’Esprit des lois.
– 29 November: the Congregation of the Index places L’Esprit des lois on the list of forbidden books.
– 1 October: the pope orders the publication of the decree of the Congregation of the Index.
– 2 October: order is given by the pope to the Congregation of the Index not to publish the decree forbidding L’Esprit des lois.
– J.-B. Gaultier, Les Lettres persanes convaincues d’impiété.

– 2 March: publication of the decree of the Congregation of the Index condemning L’Esprit des lois along with twenty other works.
– 4 June: Nouvelles ecclésiastiques denounces the Suite de la Défense de L’Esprit des lois, which it attributes to Montesquieu, “the blasphemies of a man demon-possessed”, “capable of causing the destruction of a state”.
– 17 June: the Sorbonne adopts a censure motion on L’Esprit des lois in 13 points which it proposes to publish promptly.
– 1 July: the supervisor of the Sorbonne puts the censure of L’Esprit des lois back on the agenda.
– 17 July: the Sorbonne approves a report in favor of the condemnation of L’Esprit des lois.
– 18 July: the Sorbonne modifies its censure motion, removing four propositions and adding eight.
– 1 August: minutes of the deliberations of the Sorbonne judging that seventeen propositions must be censured.

– 15 June: the Sorbonne in plenary session orders that the censure already pronounced on 1 August 1752 be published as soon as possible (it would not be).

9The slowness of these procedures that dragged out and sometimes were never completed would be better understood if we had better knowledge of the complexity of ecclesiastical law in Paris as well as Rome, and of the confused play of hidden political or religious stakes acting on the institutions entrusted with overseeing the orthodoxy of certain of their members. The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques alone has a constant attitude: it calls incessantly for the condemnation of this impious work and denounces the procrastination of the Faculty of Theology. One suspects that the theologians of the Sorbonne were not unanimous, and that they were undergoing contradictory pressures some of which were coming from the government in Versailles in function of Louis XV’s policy with respect to the Church. These pressures were striking on the procedure of the Congregation of the Index in which the Duke de Nivernais, ambassador of the king of France, openly intervened. As in Versailles, the stakes for the Faculty of Theology and the Vatican remain confused.

10The propositions of L’Esprit des lois which the censors attacked constituted a sort of common fund from which French Jesuits or Jansenists and Roman prelates drew without great variations. They prove in their eyes that Montesquieu did not grant Christianity the share it was due, and that he believed he could replace the teachings of Revelation with the feeble lights of reason. Only the tone with which these observations are made varies, sometimes courteous and sometimes violent, the words used to characterize the errors identified, and the place occupied by the person of Montesquieu, sometimes treated harshly, sometimes recognized for his moral greatness and his genius, and distinguished from his work.

11Here are as examples some of the passages from L’Esprit des lois identified as contrary to the comme teaching of the Church or liable to dangerous interpretation: virtue being declared superfluous in a monarchy, the affirmation that human laws have no need to judge crimes against the Divinity as long as they remain unseen, the justification of suicide in England by the nature of the climate and its analysis among the Romans, the explanation of polygamy by natural circumstances, the denunciation as tyrannical of the law that gives the right of repudiation to men and not women, the affirmation that the religion of the Indians is “indestructible”, the legitimation of lending at interest, the critique of the institution of monasticism and the approval given to Henry VIII for having suppressed this “idle nation” in England, the influence accorded to climate over religion itself, over its practices and its propagation, the affirmation of the political principle that a new religion should not be allowed into a state but one already established should be tolerated, the condemnation of the celibacy of priests, a judgment favorable to Julian the Apostate, the support given to the emperor Montezuma [Mochtezuma] for asserting that the Mexican religion alone was good for Mexicans, the condemnation of the wealth of the bishops under the French kings of the first race, the praise of England for having managed better than any other state in deriving benefit from religion, the denunciation of the superstition of Agobard when his empire was divided, the criticism of the Inquisition.

12All these criticisms, even those that seem to bear only on details, refer to fundamental questions, questions of personal, familial, social or political morality, questions relative to the relations between religion and the state, problems relative to the Christian religion compared to other religions and the legitimacy of the missionary enterprise. Until the Calas affair,these same passages were to be repeated in the controversy opposing adversaries and partisans of the civil toleration of Protestants.

13Montesquieu’s attitude facing the charges against him appeared hesitating. He disarmed easily, it seems, through personal intervention or that of his friends, the threats of banning by French civil authorities. He did not respond directly to the Journal de Trévoux, but he defended himself vigorously against the sharp attacks of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. Several times he asserted his tranquility with respect to the Sorbonne censure, persuaded that it would not be confirmed, but he took great care to provide the Roman prelates with the clarifications they called for. He showed himself ready to make the required corrections, he sent them copies of his Défense in which he asserted he was reasoning as a jurisconsult and historian, not as a theologian. This humility did not however lead him to yield on the essentials of his contribution to political thinking: to examine all religions, including Christianity, in the relation they maintain with their physical, historical, political and social environment, as well as in their aptitude to contribute to peoples’ happiness. The corrections promised by Montesquieu were not to be effected in any of the editions published while he was alive. Only the posthumous edition of 1757-1758 would incorporate a certain number of them.

14Montesquieu seems to have abandoned this apparent submission and this dilatory tactic which sometimes appear too deft, to adopt a more offensive attitude through intermediaries. This is what we see in his relations with La Beaumelle, whom he received in Paris in 1750, when he discovered this young Huguenot’s bold thought and vigorous style. He provided him with documents for the redaction of the Suite de la Défense de L’Esprit des lois; he understood at least the tone of the manuscript from his frequent interviews with the author (readings were given for his son the baron de Secondat). He manifested the satisfaction he felt in reading it once it was printed; he disclaimed authorship only late and for tactical reasons, and he kept his esteem and affection for the author until his death. We must leave behind a critical tradition that pictured La Beaumelle as a cumbersome ally of Montesquieu and reduced his work to misplaced clumsiness.

15Other questions still await satisfactory answers. Who denounced the work to the Congregation of the Index? What were the exact reasons why the procedure at the Sorbonne got mired down for four years? What was the implication of the Versailles government in these different procedures? Why did Montesquieu take the Sorbonne deliberations so lightly? Why was L’Esprit des lois put on the Index and the publication of the decree of condemnation suddenly accelerated? What was the nature of Montesquieu’s assurances given to the Sorbonne? What risks did the different procedures begun against his work make Montesquieu run? Did he not finally judge that being placed on the Index, which had become an entirely Italian matter, would have no consequences for himself? Can we not see in these various elements one of the reasons for his firmness?

16However that may be, the world of letters derived one benefit from this quarrel: the Défense de L’Esprit des lois that appeared at the beginning of February 1750 under the name of Barrillot in Geneva, but doubtless printed in Paris by Montesquieu’s usual booksellers, Huart and Moreau. As D’Alembert was to say eloquently in his Éloge de Montesquieu (Encyclopédie, V, 1755): “This work, by its moderation, the truth, the finesse of pleasantry that prevail in it, must be regarded as a model of the genre. Montesquieu, charged by his adversary with horrible imputations, could easily have made him odious; he did better than that, he made him foolish. If we should credit the aggressor with some good he did without meaning to, we owe him eternal gratitude for providing us with this masterpiece.”

17It presents itself as a combat between “the author” (Montesquieu always speaks of himself in the third person) and “the critic”, in which we should recognize above all the ecclesiastical journalist. It testifies to Montesquieu’s mastery in handling scathing irony; it makes the sincere indignation provoked by the personal attacks to which he was subjected perceptible, but it is also sustained by an extremely skillful dialectic. The Défense is neither a retraction nor a profession of Catholic faith. Montesquieu presents himself as a man of letters who believes and loves the Christian religion, and rejects accusations of atheism, Spinozism and deism. But he does not reject natural religion, since it is commonly said that Christianity constitutes the perfection of natural religion and it serves to prove the existence of God against the atheists. He uses three principal arguments: he wrote not a work of theology but a book of law, he envisages religions as human institutions and could thus treat Christianity only in passing, he is the victim of an obtuse critic incapable of the slightest effort to understand him.

18The Défense is divided into three sections. The first shows that Montesquieu is indeed a Christian. The passages taken from his book show that he distinguishes the spiritual world from the material world, that he attacks atheism, that he speaks of God the creator, that he asserts that justice was anterior to positive laws and that belief in God is the most important of natural laws. Contrary to what his accuser pretended, far from presenting Bayle as a great man, he opposed the famous paradox and never made reference to Pope’s system. In the second part, Montesquieu refutes the accusations brought against him on particular points like polygamy, climate, toleration, celibacy of priests, usury. In part three, taking the high road, he gives a lesson in criticism: the part must be distinguished from the whole and ideas which he has not overtly stated must not be attributed to the author.

19There is no point in criticizing the efficacy of this Défense on the church censors, trying to distinguish adversaries and partisans of L’Esprit des lois among them, or evoking muted struggles. From the standpoint of the guardians of orthodoxy, the method of Montesquieu was theologically inacceptable for the Church of that time. Whatever their intellectual pleasure as friends of letters, Monsignor Bottari, a declared admirer of L’Esprit des lois, the reverend father Emaldi, more open than his predecessor to European letters, the cardinals in the Congregation and Benedict XIV himself, who passed for a modernist, could only decide on censure.


Défense de “L’Esprit des lois”, OC, t. VII, Pierre Rétat dir., 2010.

Enrico Dammig, Il movimento giansenista a Roma nella seconda metà del secolo XVIII, Vatican, 1945.

Lucien Bérard, “L’Esprit des lois devant la Congrégation de l’Index”, Revue des Deux Mondes, August 1949, p. 608-633.

Lucien Bérard, Conférences du IIecentenaire de "L’Esprit des lois", Bordeaux, 1949, p. 279-285.

Jean Brèthe de La Gressaye, ed., L’Esprit des lois, Paris, 1950, I, introduction, p. LXII-LXXXV.

Charles J. Beyer, “Montesquieu et la censure religieuse de L’Esprit des lois”, Revue des sciences humaines, 1953, p. 105-132.

Paola Berselli Ambri, L’Opera di Montesquieu nel Settecento italiano, Florence: Olschki, 1960.

Françoise Weil, “L’Esprit des lois devant la Sorbonne (1750-1754)”, Revue historique de Bordeaux, 1962, p. 183-191.

Salvatore Rotta, “Montesquieu nel settecento italiano: note e ricerche”, Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica, Giovanni Tarello dir., Geneva, 1971, 57-209 (on line sur le site Eliohs [http://www.eliohs.unifi.it/testi/900/rotta/rotta_montesettit.html]).

Antonio Rotondò, “La censura ecclesiastica e la cultura”, Storia d’Italia, V, I documenti, Turin: Einaudi, 1973, p. 1397-1492.

Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu, Paris: Mazarine, 1986.

Claude Lauriol, “De l’autorité de Montesquieu dans le débat sur la tolérance civile des protestants”, in La Fortune de Montesquieu: Montesquieu écrivain, Bordeaux: Bibliothèque municipale, 1995, p. 225-237.

Claude Lauriol, La Beaumelle et le “Montesquieusisme”: contribution à l’étude de la réception de “L’Esprit des lois”, Cahiers Montesquieu 3, Naples: Liguori, 1996.

Louis Desgraves, Chronologie critique de la vie et des oeuvres de Montesquieu, Paris: Champion, 1998.

Claude Lauriol, “La condamnation de L’Esprit des lois dans les archives de la Congrégation de l’Index”, Montesquieu œuvre ouverte ? (1748-1755), Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples: Liguori, 2005, p. 91-102.

Bibliographical reference

Lauriol Claude , « Quarrel over L’Esprit des Lois », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : https://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/dem-1377637845-en/en