1In his personal notes and in his correspondence, Montesquieu several times mentions his encounters with the Duc de Saint-Simon. On the other hand, the name of Montesquieu is never cited in the Memoirs, nor even in the duke’s known correspondence. The disdain of a peer of France for a provincial parlementarian, whose role is really modest in the great political play of the Regency? Perhaps. But how to explain his silence after the publication of the Persian Letters?
2This asymmetry immediately suggests the limits of their intellectual relations. At the time when Saint-Simon was beginning to write his Memoirs, around 1739, his role was accomplished. The Persian Letters, the Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence were not at the heart of his preoccupations. It was very different for Montesquieu, in quest of information about the reign of Louis XIV, about which he was planning on writing the political history in the early 1730s.
3The two men had some common relatives and networks of friends. The former were so distant that Saint-Simon himself seems not to have noticed, leaving this matter to twentieth-century genealogists (Shackleton, 1975). The networks of friends were more important. Friends of the Regent, they nevertheless belonged to different circles of his court: Saint-Simon never set foot in Chantilly or Sceaux, the preferred places of the young Montesquieu. Better known is their steadfast friendship for the Duc de Berwick, who quite reciprocated it and was for Montesquieu a trustworthy source for data on the duke’s life and deeds (Spicilège, no. 431). In this way, probably, were ties made between Montesquieu and the family of the Duc de Saint-Simon. The Duc de Berwick’s second wife, née Bulkeley, was a friend of Mme de Saint-Simon. In a letter to Montesquieu on 13 June 1725, Mme d’Herbigny – granddaughter of the Maréchal d’Estrades – notes an authorization requested of Mme de Saint-Simon to settle a matter of subletting of the apartment leased to Montesquieu on the Rue de Beaune in Paris (letter 125). An enigmatic reference, but one that proves that relations existed between the président and the Duke’s entourage before 1728, the year that marks the beginning of his travels in Europe.
4Subsequently, four encounters are attested, in May 1731 (“The Duc de Saint-Simon told me […]”, Spicilège, no. 570); in August 1734 (Spicilège, no. 657); during the summer of 1735 (“First you go to Ferté […]”, François de Bulkeley, Berwick’s brother-in-law, to Montesquieu, 11 June 1735, OC, t. XIX, letter 424); finally in the spring of 1736 (“Mme de Carignan has passed a stone. M. de Saint-Simon maintains that it was an ingot”, Montesquieu to Bulkeley, 22 May 1736, OC, t. XIX, letter 441) – informal encounters, perhaps, with Saint-Simon and Montesquieu living on the same street.
5Interpreters have emitted many hypotheses about the content of their discussions. At this game one always wins, especially when the hypothesis serves as proof. Let us restrict ourselves to documents. The most important is dated “At La Ferté this 13 August 1734” (Spicilège, no. 657), La Ferté-Vidame being the residence of the Duc de Saint-Simon. In this long passage, Montesquieu expresses himself neither on the person of his host nor on his political thought. The tenor of what he says is purely documentary: he goes to see Saint-Simon as one goes to search archives. Under his pen there are only anecdotes, narratives of court life under Louis XIV, various events, related without commentary. All the information that Montesquieu gives is found again in Saint-Simon’s Memoirs, but not exactly in the same form: sometimes details are added, sometimes the ideas diverge (for example, concerning the role of Mme de Maintenon in royal decisions, more disastrous to Montesquieu than to Saint-Simon). In short, though we do not know precisely what they said to each other in that month of August 1734, clouded by the death of the Duc de Berwick on 10 June, we know what Montesquieu remembered of it.
6Does the dryness of this account hide an historical and political influence less perceptible at first view? After all, the two men shared the same concern: reflection on the historical and political conditions that can prevent the arbitrary and despotic drift of the sovereign power – in particular French sovereignty. Both considered royalty as the form of government best adapted to France, on condition that its prerogatives be limited by adequate reforms; they also judged the Estates General as ineffective for that purpose. Moreover, they adhered to the Germanist historical influence that founded monarchy on the original conquest of the Romans (now called “Gallo-Romans”) by Frankish invaders of the 5th century.
7This undeniable intellectual similarity is however superficial. Indeed, if they belonged to the same noble world, one would never have been able to inhabit the political world of the other. The Jansenist Saint-Simon adores the violent historical origins of the French political body and considered them normative. The several dozen dukes and peers constituted the juridical descendants of the conquering nation: solitary at the summit of a socio-juridical pyramid, the duke and peers were the sole ramparts against the tyranny of kings and the sole guarantors of the freedom of all. Saint-Simon’s hostility toward the intermediary bodies, notably the parlements, is omnipresent, and never does he jubilate more than when he recounts their defeats. The critique of despotism culminates for Saint-Simon in the dream of a fixed political universe, where a strict and unchangeable social hierarchy echoes the unchangeable celestial hierarchy.
8Nothing of what constitutes the essence of the duke’s political thought influences, even subtly or polemically, the president’s reflection: whether we take state reform projects from the times of the Duke of Burgundy and the Regent or the principle of the venality of offices, the political role of the dukes and peers or the idea of nation, everything separates them: competences, methods, points of view, objectives. Moreover, we are not even sure that Montesquieu had access to the duke’s unpublished political and historical texts; he never cites Le Laboureur’s Traité de la pairie [‘Treatise on the peerage’], which was circulating in manuscript in the 1670s before being published in 1740, and which constitutes a work of reference for Saint-Simon. And it is rare that a reading of Montesquieu’s leaves no traces in his work.
9The only thing Montesquieu and Saint-Simon really had in common was the critical eye they cast on the Louis XIV monarchy. But if they were looking in the same direction, they were not seeing the same political reality and did not have the same horizon of expectation. The permanent indignation of the little duke against the modern world and his taste for verbal prolixity ill matched the effort for reflection and synthesis in Montesquieu. The encounter of the two intelligences was thus lukewarm, so excessive was the one, the other imbued with moderation, and rapidly gave way to indifference.
Corrado Fatta, “Montesquieu et Saint-Simon”, appendix II of L’Esprit de Saint-Simon, Paris: Corrêa, 1954, p. 237-243.
Robert Shackleton, “Saint-Simon et Montesquieu”, Cahiers Saint-Simon 3 (1975), p. 21-25, reprinted in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and the Enlightenment, David Gilson and Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 145-152.
Yves Coirault, “Le royaume et la nation: rencontres de Saint-Simon et de Montesquieu”, in L. Petroni and F. Malvani (ed.), Bologna Nationes. Atti della Natio Francorum, Alma Mater Studiorum Saecularia Nona, vol. 1 (1988), p. 213-222.
Jean Ehrard, “Montesquieu, Saint-Simon et la Régence”, Cahiers Saint-Simon 19 (1991), https://www.persee.fr/doc/simon_0409-8846_1991_num_19_1_1156, reprinted in Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 109-120.