Gabrielle Radica

1The opposition between Rousseau and Montesquieu has been endlessly worked over and reformulated, serving all sorts of causes. To Montesquieu the modern, apologist of luxury, honor, and the advantages of monarchy, Rousseau the ancient has been opposed, apostle of civic virtue and the republic on a human scale. Montesquieu would be the concrete, realistic thinker, whereas Rousseau would suffer from a tendency to abstraction inherited from Locke (Vaughan, I, p. 296). More technically and precisely, French historiography recognizes in these two authors very different sources of constitutional inspiration: whereas Montesquieu is considered as having inspired a freedom that is established through a separation of powers and certain formal guarantees (even if in L’Esprit des lois, XI, 6 he rather extolled a distribution of powers and examined several sorts of guarantees for freedom), Rousseau federates the partisans of popular sovereignty, the voice of which was moreover very quickly covered by the Sieyesian conception of national sovereignty.

2To this are added certain filiations established in simplifying or anachronistic fashion, Rousseau finding himself connected to the French Revolution (he who feared revolutions as much as Montesquieu), to the political left, to the Convention, to the Terror, finally to totalitarianism (Lester G. Crocker, I. Marejko, J. Talmon, E. Traverso), whereas Montesquieu quite often figures among the inspirers of a contemporary liberal tradition. As for Durkheim, if he saw in these two authors “precursors of sociology” (in his 1892 thesis), it was to oppose the inductive path of Montesquieu to the more deductive one of Rousseau.

3Although nearly contemporaries (Rousseau was born about twenty years after Montesquieu), and having acquaintances in common, the two thinkers never met nor corresponded. Rousseau had, however, read, studied and abundantly discussed Montesquieu’s work as early as the publication of the Persian Letters.

4It was around 1745-1746 that Rousseau, who still had published nothing, was hired by the Dupins to carry out the tasks of a secretary. As soon as L’Esprit des lois was published in 1748, farmer general Claude Dupin undertook with his friends and his wife to compose a refutation. Jesuit fathers Berthier et Plesse joined in the task. At first very few copies (eight, it is said) were printed with no named author, Réflexions sur quelques parties d’un livre intitulé “de l’Esprit des loix” (2 vol., Paris: Benjamin Serpentin, 1749). Then the book was reworked and published under the title Observations sur un livre intitulé: “de l’Esprit des loix” (n.p., n.d., 3 vol.). Mme Dupin also used Rousseau to defend the cause of women in a work in which Montesquieu is regularly discussed (on the Salic law, the Voconian law).

5For these different tasks Rousseau not only read Montesquieu closely and copied him, but he also read his sources: Le Bouler and Lafarge have identified a hundred or so readings in philosophy (Aristotle, Plato, Bayle), law (Theodosius, Justinian, Domat, Barbeyrac, Grotius, Noodt and all sorts of works, Codes, Digests, royal decrees, common law, dealing with public and civil law), general or specialized history (Livy, Dubos, Fleury, Rapin de Thoyras), geographical descriptions (Du Halde), carried out in this context, on which Rousseau wrote up notices.

6Opinions differ on the role Rousseau might have played in this refutation of the Dupins, a simple secretary writing under the dictation, or an inspirer and interlocutor. Probably, even if he differed on many points from Montesquieu, Rousseau did not recognize himself either in the criticisms of the farmer general or his wife, the former imbued with the principles of monarchy, the latter with the principle of equality between the sexes, but not equality between estates. It is thus rather in texts signed by Rousseau than in drafts in his hand at the Dupins’ that we can and must reconstitute a dialogue extended throughout his work with Montesquieu. On the other hand, if Rousseau asserts in his Confessions, IX (Œuvres complètes, t. I, p. 404) that the project for the Institutions politiques went back to his trip to Venice in 1743, it is quite likely that the great historical and political culture which he was able to acquire in his employment by the Dupins confirmed his vocation as a political thinker at a time when music, chemistry and poetry shared his time.

A critical disciple

7The consensus is that we observe in Rousseau the conjunction of an overt and repeated admiration for Montesquieu and an effort to set himself apart from this “famous” man. Rousseau criticizes the apology of luxury and trade made by Montesquieu among others (first Discourse). If he picks up on Montesquieu’s definition of virtue, he recalls after Claude Dupin, after Voltaire and many others, that civic virtue is necessary in all states and not only in what Montesquieu calls republics, because it relates us directly to the general will and not to the government (and Montesquieu did not manage to distinguish correctly between the government and the sovereign). “That is why a famous author gave virtue as principle for the republic; for all these conditions could not subsist without virtue: but for failing to make the necessary distinctions, this fine genius has often lacked exactness, sometimes clarity, and has not seen that the sovereign authority being everywhere the same, the same principle must be present in any well-constituted state, more or less it is true, according to the form of government” (Contrat social, III, 4, Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 405). We should add that in intermediary bodies Rousseau saw obstacles that interpose themselves between the general will and the citizens and not, like Montesquieu, means of defending political freedom. He is equally reserved on the benefits of the English constitution (Contrat social, III, 15, p. 430: “The English people thinks it is free, it is quite mistaken” [“Le peuple anglais pense être libre, il se trompe fort […]”]). The list of points of disagreement could be extended.

8But Rousseau equally agrees with Montesquieu on decisive questions, notably the critique of despotism. Robert Derathé counts three other points of agreement. First, the famous critique found in the second Discourse, of Hobbes’s anthropological usteron proteron, that flaw in reasoning that consists in projecting on man in the state of nature an aggressiveness and ambition that can only come from society, seems to be a development of Esprit des lois, I, 2 (see Rousseau, second Discourse, Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 153 and sq.); moreover, Rousseau adopts Montesquieu’s purely political manner of approaching religion, and wonders in the first of his Lettres de la montagne (Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 707) that chapter 12 of Book IV of the Contrat social on civil religion, is attacked whereas Montesquieu, who had all the same shown him the path (see for example L’Esprit des lois, XXIV et XXV) was not so harshly attacked. Finally, and the point deserves some study, Rousseau adopts a method learned from Montesquieu, consisting in recognizing the concrete singularity of political situations, paying attention to the various causes, physical, moral, climatic, geographical, religious, juridical, that weigh on governments and on mores, and ultimately determine human nature (First Discourse, Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 43 ; [ L’influence des climats sur la civilization], Fragments politiques in Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 529 et sq.; Contrat social, III, 8). Thus Rousseau discovers in Montesquieu how much history and circumstances can make human nature and its moral possibilities vary (cf. Romains, III: “We would believe, reading ancient history, we were seeing other men than ourselves”; Pensées, no. 221, and Contrat social, III, 12, Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 425: “The people assembled, they will say! What an illusion! It is an illusion today, but it was not one two thousand years ago: have men changed in nature? The limits of the possible in moral matters are less tight than we think: it is our weaknesses, our vices, our prejudices that narrow them”).

9A combined examination of the method and principles of Rousseau will allow us to organize and explain these different breaks and reprises.

“What must be” and “what is”

10Examining in book V of Emile which readings will teach political law to his pupil, so useful when searching for a country to settle in and be happy, Rousseau asserts that this discipline “is yet to be born”. Indeed, the principles of Hobbes and Grotius are insufficient and false. “The only modern in a position to create this great and useless science would have been the illustrious Montesquieu. But he would never have treated the principles of political law; he was content to treat the positive law of established governments, and nothing on earth is more different than those two studies” (Œuvres complètes, t. IV, p. 836).

11Rousseau reproaches Montesquieu for describing “governments such as they exist” without giving himself the means of judging them. The opposition seems clear, but one must search for what led Rousseau to reduce Montesquieu to being a descriptive author, a simple observer. Does Montesquieu not clearly condemn “public law” beginning in the Persian Letters (Letter [‣]), that “science that teaches princes how far they can violate justice without damaging their interest”, the principles of which are corrupted “by the passions of princes,

12the patience of peoples, the flattery of writers”? Could Rousseau ignore the fact that Montesquieu criticizes slavery and political servitude (EL, XV), he who assimilates his analyses in book I, chapter 4 of the Contrat social? Could he have missed the transparent denunciations of despotism that threatens the French monarchy in the Persian Letters and L’Esprit des lois, whereas Du Contrat social (III, 6) gives the portrait of monarchy which is very close to such foils?

13Even more, Rousseau seems to find in Montesquieu’s method a path different from the sterile jusnaturalism of Grotius and Hobbes which only brings back political servitude under cover of judging the fact by natural law. The general will is a purely political criterion that allows one to judge the legitimacy of established governments while doing without the false authorities of history and nature. Rousseau is thus desirous of knowing and observing these governments which he wants to judge. The proximity with Montesquieu seems great precisely where Rousseau would like to deny it.

14Robert Derathé explains this distance by different methods. According to him, Du Contrat social shows as it unfolds a growing influence of this method of Montesquieu’s: the study of mores, of the size of governments, of Roman institutions, but in the last analysis, these concrete considerations subsist in his work “as a foreign element”. Yet it is not in Du Contrat social that this concrete method is most fully exercised, since in it Rousseau deals only with “principles” of political law. And Rousseau lacked the courage to finish Les Institutions politiques in which he would have applied these principles. The confrontation of a political law yet to come with the study of positive law carried out by Montesquieu, a confrontation that calls for the text of Emile, V, can thus only be done in hypothetical mode.

15Furthermore, the reasons for adopting Montesquieu’s method are serious for Rousseau. The critique of Emile calls for a deepening of the role of Montesquieu’s method, a genuine integration with Rousseau’s and not its abandonment: We have to know what must be in order to judge well of what is. […]
Before observing, we must make rules for our observations: we must make a scale to gauge the measures we take. Our principles of political law are this scale.
Our measures are the political laws of each country. Our elements are clear, simple, taken immediately from the nature of things.
(our italics, Œuvres complètes, t. IV, p. 836-837).

16Now “making rules for our observations” is certainly what, in Rousseau’s eyes, Montesquieu was no better able to do that Hobbes or Grotius. They had passed off despotism as a right confirmed by nature, but Montesquieu passed off his preferences, inclinations, and interests as facts that can no longer be criticized or evaluated under the pretext that they are facts, which is a way of legitimizing them. From Rousseau’s point of view, one can only say that Montesquieu stopped midway through, describing facts and leaving to others the burden of evaluating them, extracting material that others would shape. His observations were rather vitiated at the root by the refusal to search first for “what should be”.

17What does Rousseau do? He repeats Montesquieu’s concern for the suitability of laws to the situation and to the nature of things (Contrat social, II, 11): as with Montesquieu, laws must be relative to the nature of the country, the terrain, the laws, religion, etc. But what is new and non-exclusive of that, they must also be suited to their own nature as laws (F. Guénard). By relating laws to all the criteria cited by Montesquieu, but also to what he calls by the same term as Montesquieu, the “nature of things”, and which now designates the principles of political law, Rousseau deepens the research into the relations of suitability begun by Montesquieu, and extends it to a questioning of legitimacy that was certainly not Montesquieu’s. Instead of reducing Montesquieu’s teaching to relativism, as those who understand him from the standpoint of natural law never fail to do, Rousseau extends the notion of the suitability of laws to the question of political legitimacy and means to bring it out of relativism.

18If we accepted then to adopt a rule before making the same observations as Montesquieu, we would first establish the rights of peoples, according to Rousseau, and we would judge the history of governments by that scale. But “the people grants neither chairs nor pensions nor seats in Academies” (Emile, V, Œuvres complètes, t. IV, p. 837) and Montesquieu defending such rights would no longer be Montesquieu.

Power and freedom

19Despite common objects -- the denunciation of despotism and Hobbism, the revendication of a freedom protected by law against exterior wills -- the two authors differ in their way of thinking about the principles of politics, and notably the relationship of freedom and power. Whereas for Montesquieu freedom is a psychological result (the feeling of security) obtained by various conditions (the constitution, moderation of punishments, the ease and freedom in which the mores are left, etc.), whereas according to him individuals are always subordinated to power without appropriating it to themselves, able only to moderate it, Rousseau conceives freedom as submission to the general will.

20Developing a uniform theory of popular sovereignty expressed by the general will, Rousseau did not expect sovereign power to be limited by any balance of powers, but rather by the structure proper to the general will which by its nature cannot require things harmful to justice (“On the limits of sovereign power”, Contrat social, II, 4). The general interest is objective and the same for all to Rousseau. No such like in Montesquieu, according to whom many regimes can function without even the representation of a common good (EL, III, 7).

21For this reason, Rousseau reduces the accounting in Montesquieu of the diversity of forms of government, and government becomes but a necessary but dangerous intermediary body between the people and the sovereign.

22Montesquieu’s pluralism (pluralism of the objects of government, of forms of government, of figures of freedom) is thus moderated by the uniformity of the principles of political law established by Rousseau. A chapter of Du contrat social (II, 11) entitled “Of the various systems of legislation”, in the guise of taking up the pluralist text of L’Esprit des lois, XI, 5, “On the object of various states”, in reality fixes two principal objects for any state, freedom and equality, whereas Montesquieu observed directly the plurality of the objects of governments, freedom appearing as an object among others, that of the English government. These two principle objects are to Rousseau only “modified” by other considerations linked to the climate, inhabitants, etc., and are never subordinated to other objects. When Rousseau asserts that “freedom not being a fruit of all climates is not within reach of all peoples. The more one contemplates this principle established by Montesquieu, the more one feels its truth. The more one contests it, the more one affords the opportunity to establish it by new evidence” (Contrat social, III, 8; Œuvres complètes, t. III, p. 414), he never renounces, as does Montesquieu, positing freedom as the principal object of any state, but he recognizes that its development sometimes runs into insurmountable natural obstacles.

23Having become his admirer on the occasion of an undertaking of refutation, then failing to equal his breadth in the undertaking of his Institutions politiques, Rousseau was endlessly in contact with Montesquieu’s work, and owed to such close reading the fact that he remained less opposed to him than has often been said: his anthropological realism finally escapes the voluntarist abstraction of a Helvétius; his genetic and inductive method, the deductive reflections of a Pufendorf; and finally his differentiated uses of history, the nostalgia of antiquity of a Mably.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1959-1995, 5 vol.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Political Writings, ed. Charles E. Vaughan, Cambridge University Press, 1915.

Emile Durkheim, Montesquieu et Rousseau précurseurs de la sociologie, Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1953.

Alexis François, “Rousseau, les Dupin, Montesquieu”, Annales de la société Jean-Jacques Rousseau 30 (1943-1945), Geneva, p. 47-64.

Anicet Sénéchal, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, secrétaire de Mme Dupin, d’après des documents inédits, avec un inventaire des papiers Dupin dispersés en 1957 et 1958”, Annales de la société Jean-Jacques Rousseau 36 (1963-1965), p. 173-259.

Jean-Pierre Le Bouler and Catherine Lafarge, “Catalogue topographique partiel des papiers Dupin-Rousseau dispersés de 1951 à 1958”, Annales de la société Jean-Jacques Rousseau 39 (1972-1977), p. 243-280.

Robert Derathé, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la science politique de son temps (1950), re-ed. Paris: Vrin, 1995.

Robert Derathé, “Montesquieu et Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, Revue internationale de philosophie 9 (1955), p. 366-386.

Michel Launay, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et son temps, II, ch. 5 (V): “Le Discours sur les sciences et les arts: Jean-Jacques entre Mme Dupin et Montesquieu”, Paris: Nizet, 1969, p. 93-103.

Roger D. Masters, The Political Philosophy of Rousseau, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Corrado Rosso, Montesquieu moraliste, Bordeaux: Ducros, 1971, p. 283-316.

Victor Goldschmidt, Anthropologie et politique: les principes du système de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paris: Vrin, 1983.

Arthur M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: on the system of Rousseau’s thought, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Jean Ehrard, “Rousseau et Montesquieu: le mauvais fils réconcilié”, Annales de la société Jean-Jacques Rousseau 41 (1997), p. 57-77, reprinted under the title “Le fils coupable” in Ehrard 1998, p. 257-275.

Céline Spector, “Théorie de l’impôt”, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur l’économie politique, dir. B. Bernardi, Paris: Vrin, 2002, p. 195-221.

Florent Guénard, Rousseau et le travail de la convenance, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004, p.447-463.

Céline Spector, “Les principes de la liberté politique et la constitution d’Angleterre: Lettres de la montagne, VIII et IX”, Religion, liberté, justice, dir. B. Bernardi et al., Paris: Vrin, 2005, p. 193-210.

Bibliographical reference

Radica Gabrielle , « Rousseau », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :