Jean Terrel

1“War must be undertaken in such a manner that it seems one desires nothing but peace” (translation of a text of Cicero [De officiis, I, 23] copied by Montesquieu [Spicilège, no. 694]). After many others (see for example Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis [On the law of war and peace], III, 25, §2), Montesquieu makes of war a means at the service of an end that is superior to it, while nevertheless avoiding the lyrism of peace and the pathos of the miseries of war.

2Peace is a natural law. It is an anthropological observation and not a normative assertion: if we take ourselves fictionally back to a former state and which comes prior to the establishment of societies, men are sentient beings who think first of preserving themselves and have their weakness uppermost in mind: “Then people would not look for ways to attack each other, and peace would be the first natural law” (“On ne chercherait donc point à s’attaquer, et la paix serait la première loi naturelle”, EL, I, 2).

3With the establishment of societies and the wars that result from them, peace changes definition and no longer results from fear: “as the principle of despotic government is fear, the end is tranquility; but it is not peace, it is the silence of those cities which the enemy is about to occupy” (EL, V, 14; see also Pensées, no. 809). Peace cannot be bought (Romains, XVIII; Pensées, no. 362), it is won because one is able to conquer or at least long defend oneself from the enemy. The project for enduring peace in Europe attributed to Henri IV was “bad had it been considered in itself; the first barbarians to come alone would have conquered Europe” (“mauvais si on l’avait envisagé en lui-même ; les premiers barbares auraient subjugué l’Europe”, Pensées, no. 188): the war ethos of the Ancients or the barbarians of the North is thus favorable to freedom; the most horrendous civil wars can have beneficial effects when peace returns and the forces are once more united (Pensées, no.187; see also no. 463). The object of war may be at the same time victory (EL, I, 3) and peace (Pensées, no. 1814): in order to “make peace”, you have to be able to defend yourself, while respecting nonetheless the rules of the law of peoples which allow you to suspend the use of force when it is no longer necessary: you must declare war, not poison wells and springs, not assassinate the monarch in his court, respect heralds and ambassadors.

4The result, it seems, is a minimal and negative definition of peace: with the general state of war among nations, there can be more or less extended moments when the balance of power makes it possible to suspend open and declared war. From this standpoint, princes “are governed by force; they can continually force and be forced” (EL, XXVI, 20, our italics). That is not all: in the Europe of Montesquieu’s time where no state can pretend to hegemony, out of a simple policy of balance “everyone maintains a disordered number of troops”: “as soon as one state augments what it calls its forces, the others suddenly increase theirs”, so that “what is called peace is this effort of all against all” (“sitôt qu’un État augmente ce qu’il appelle ses forces, les autres soudain augmentent les leurs […] on nomme paix cet état d’effort de tous contre tous”, Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, XXIV; OC, t. II). If this effort maintains the balance, “because it exhausts the great powers” (ibid., note [n]), it ruins Europe, poor with the whole world’s wealth. Genuine peace is thus neither silence nor a conquered country, nor the balance of forces, nor what a well-founded law of peoples allows one to obtain among nations (regulated wars, suspended by treaties), it presupposes the taming of mores which is the effect of Christianism when rightly practiced, and above all of commerce, which inclines to peace (EL, XX, 1-2) because “knowledge of the mores of all nations has spread everywhere” and one breaks with a logic in which every reinforcement of one weakens another, or at the least threatens to do so. Europe is now just one nation (or even one state) composed of several provinces (Monarchie universelle, XVIII; Pensées, no. 318, anterior to 1731). It is not that a plurality of states is no longer necessary, nor even that all reasoning beings constitute a single society: the old cosmopolitics is inscribed in new relations where the opulence of the one makes for that of the other.


Catherine Larrère, “Montesquieu et l’idée de fédération”, in L’Europe de Montesquieu, ed. Alberto Postigliola and Maria-Grazia Bottaro-Palumbo (dir.), Cahiers Montesquieu 2, Naples: Liguori, 1995, p. 137-152.

Bibliographical reference

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