OutlineI. 1803-1880. Montesquieu works as object of rhetorical instruction
II. 1880-1980, Montesquieu’s works as objects of instruction in literary history
III. 1980-2000, Montesquieu’s works as objects of instruction in French class
1Montesquieu is one of the rare writers who has been present in school manuals and official programs since they first emerged under Napoleon until the present. Teaching him was in fact already established under the Ancien Régime: in 1765, the University of Paris recommended Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and of their decline for second form in its collèges or middle schools. About the same time, Rolland d’Erceville (1734-1794), president of the parlementary petitions chamber, recommended this work for the same form in the program of authors for the colleges of the University of Paris which he wrote in 1768 and published in 1783. André Chevel (2006) reminds us that the name of Montesquieu figured among the six authors utilized by forty-five history professors in the central schools that responded to a ministerial inquiry in 1799 and that Romans was read in the central school of Haute-Garonne (1er frimaire an V [November 1796]). He thus survived various reforms which structure this article: 1801 (first list of French writers on the program), 1880 (passage from instruction in letters based on rhetoric to one based on literary history), and 1980 (introduction of new programs, strongly influenced by discourse analysis and new exercises).
I. 1803-1880. Montesquieu works as object of rhetorical instruction
2Classroom rhetoric in the first half of the 19th century remained stable in the principles established at the end of the 18th. The course bears on rhetorical precepts and rests on imitative writing so as to educate the taste that is acquired through frequentation of the Ancients and the classics of the French 17th century. The classroom tradition of the Ancien Régime, which considered Montesquieu (Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and of their decline), Bossuet (Discourse on universal history), and Voltaire (The Century of Louis XIV) as the three great French “historians”, is also constant throughout the programs of the 19th century. Montesquieu was present nine times in rhetoric class (the equivalent of first form which included 2% of the population in the 19th century and counted 32 programs between 1801 and 1880), through that single work. Still, the Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate was briefly on the second-form program from 1845 to 1850. This presence is remarkable for an 18th-century writer (Martine Jey’s analyses show that before 1880, 77% of the writers on the program belonged to the 17th century).
3If Montesquieu’s legitimacy on the programs is incontestable, he also figures in the ten manuals studied for this period; two are collections of precepts, five manuals of literary history, four take the form of anthologies, in which the selections are regrouped according to their rhetorico-stylistic similarities into rubrics such as “Narrations, tableaux, characters and portraits”. Romans figured in the literary histories but was absent from the anthologies, which would have meant that it was a work considered as important from the standpoint of the evolution of the historical genre, but not easily reducible to a model of rhetorical writing. Thus Noël and Delaplace, an anthology in two volumes (prose and poetry) which, with twenty-nine editions between 1804 and 1862, appears as the great school classic of the first two-thirds of the 19th century, quotes no extract from Romans, but on the other hand proposes two extracts from The Spirit of Law, two from Persian Letters, and one from The Temple of Gnidus. Other anthologies also present, on occasion and marginally, Lysimaque and the Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate. Montesquieu is thus represented by five works of his in all. He enjoys four or five extracts in the different re-editions of Delaplace consulted. In the prose domain, he is on a par with Voltaire (three to seven extracts) but exceeded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (thirteen to sixteen extracts), Thomas (who progresses from twenty-three to thirty-three), Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (who progresses from eight to eighteen), and Buffon (who progresses from sixteen to twenty).
4The choice of programs to propose Romans testifies to “the classroom recuperation of Montesquieu’s book in the service of the Roman myth” (Jean Ehrard, 1998). The essential importance of Latin studies, the place of the historical genre to characterize the literary 18th century, and the fact that one should be able to study a writer as “understudy” of a Latin writer explain his presence on the programs alongside Tacitus and Bossuet. Still, in the framework of class usage, the work turns out to be complex: discontinuous reflections, debatable morality, not very formative writing. Indeed the two great figures of historical writing throughout the 19th century are Bossuet and Tacitus, models of oratorical writing proposing an historical narrative granting a considerable importance to the figure of the hero, and through him to psychological causes. Hence, though Romans figures on the programs, it is absent from the manual most used in class at that time.
5Nevertheless, Montesquieu was a classic, whose name evoked a moderate 18th century, generating “a discourse […] more symbolic than genuinely critical” (Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, 2003). So he cannot be absent from the manuals. To resolve this tension, the Noël and Delaplace anthology privileged extracts from works that allow Montesquieu to be better linked to a legitimate school corpus and can illustrate the rhetorical principles that structure the manual. The extracts from the Persian Letters make of Montesquieu a moralist associated with La Bruyère, alongside whom he figures in the rubrics intitled “Characters and moral and political portraits”. The manual also proposed extracts from The Spirit of Law that make of Montesquieu an historian who wrote portraits of great men (“Charlemagne”).
6It is this classroom Montesquieu, moralist and historian, who is present in the three subjects for the baccalauréat collected by André Chervel (1999). From 1808, date of its creation, the baccalauréat had consisted of one and then several oral exams, to which were added a Latin translation in 1830 and a French composition between 1853 and 1857. The subject in Paris in May 1854: “How do we recognize that Montesquieu had studied Tacitus?” perfectly illustrates the way Montesquieu was studied until 1880. That image doubtless persisted even beyond, if one is to believe the subjects collected between 1880 and 1900: eighteen of the twenty-three subjects bear on Montesquieu the historian, five present him as a moralist.
II. 1880-1980, Montesquieu’s works as objects of instruction in literary history
7Under the Third Republic the lycée remained a path reserved for an elite despite the fact that it was free beginning in 1928. If the public evolved in the direction of feminization, the rate of education remained around 3% until the 1930s. The lycée population tripled between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, but fewer than 5% of a generation passed the baccalauréat in 1950, reaching 10% in 1960, as we are reminded by Jean-Noël Luc. The public upheaval was far greater in primary school, which was to have consequences for the secondary public.
8From the standpoint of programs, the essential break was that of 1880: in the official texts, literary history officially and definitively replaced rhetoric. Then the important reforms of 1890 and especially of 1902 inaugurate tracks devoid of Latin, which thus progressively loses its hegemony. The official instructions of 1925 were little modified in 1938 and remained the reference through 1977.
9Being interested in a writer in the context of literary history and not rhetoric leads to a modification of the modalities by which he is studied: he is henceforth an object of reading, not of imitative writing, and he is anchored in his time. If a work is the reflection of his times, then one must know them and present to the pupils works that will best illustrate not a precept but an era. The corpus is renewed and the number of writers increases. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Diderot thus were added to the programs in 1895. In 1923 the programs proposed as many authors from the 19th century as from the 17th, which progressively loses its hegemony. The 18th century which is studied until the 1930s above all as a continuation of the classical genres (epistolary, moralistic, tales) or as the innovation of new genres (drama, the historical narrative…), progressively became the Enlightenment, siècle des Lumières and of philosophy.
10New works of Montesquieu gain legitimacy. Indeed, if Romans continued to be proposed as early as fourth form (1885), we find “extracts of The Spirit of Law and assorted works” from 1895 and 1923 in rhetoric class, but from this date on the works are rarely named. In the first form we find only “extracts” from Montesquieu, just as in 1925. Montesquieu passes from the status of author of moral and political portraits to that of Enlightenment philosopher. Beginning in 1931 he figures under the rubric “philosophers of the 18th century: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, the Encyclopedists, Buffon”, until 1947, at which time he disappears definitively from the programs although there are still “extracts” of Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, who best incarnate the philosophical battle. These programs are no further modified until 1973, date of the “simplification” that preceded the end of a list of obligatory writers in 1981.
11Our corpus includes thirteen manuals. Eleven published between 1880 and 1949 are literary histories in a single volume which quote no extracts and are sometimes accompanied by manuals of selected passages (morceaux choisis). The four manuals published between 1950 and 1980 combine literary history and selected passages and allocate one volume to each century.
12The passage from rhetoric to literary history modified the ranking of writers and works in the manuals. In number of pages, between 1880 and 1950 Voltaire is systematically in first place in the manuals as in the programs. In the manuals, Rousseau and Montesquieu rival for second place, and Buffon and Diderot are in competition for the last two places. Beginning with 1950 it is Voltaire and Rousseau who compete for first place, Diderot and Montesquieu for third. Buffon is in fifth and last place beginning in the 1940s.
13So far as Montesquieu’s works are concerned, between 1880 and 1950 The Spirit of Law becomes a major work, Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and of their decline remains important but is rivaled by The Spirit of Law and then by the Persian Letters, which gains in stature beginning in the 1900s. In 1949 Castex equally allocates 20% of his pages to the Persian Letters and Romans, and 60% to The Spirit of Law. Beginning in 1950, the Persian Letters is in competition with The Spirit of Law for first place, Romans in third. In 1953, Lagarde and Michard is the first manual in our corpus to accord more importance to Persian Letters than to The Spirit of Law.
14If most of the manuals privilege Romans to the detriment of the Persian Letters until the 1900s, that is because they valorize the image of a serious, erudite Montesquieu, historian of Antiquity and philosopher of history, to the detriment of the writer of light novels – at a time when the novel is a devalorized genre – or a satirical portraitist, imitator of La Bruyère. Montesquieu’s place in the lycée is thus tied also to the school genres and their evolution, to the legitimization and delegitimization of certain of them.
15This modification of rankings of works is indeed tied to the place of the novel and philosophical literature in the school institution. Under the Third Republic and until the 1950s, the idea of literature continued to be based on the eternity of the beautiful, the good and the true, in order to develop taste. The historicization of literature made it possible above all to show the decline of the theatre, poetry and sacred oratory in the 18th century, explaining it by a socio-economic context unfavorable to literary creation. The supposedly calamitous history of the 18th century (the ponderous end of Louis XIV’s reign, the Regency, the incompetence of Louis XV, the Revolution) could only entail a calamitous literature. All the same, the novel slowly gained in legitimacy, “extracts” of 19th-century novelists were added to the program of rhetoric class in 1923, then in 1931 it was “a 19th-century novel”. Now the great century of the novel, going by the literary histories honored in the schools, is the 19th, the 18th being its rough draft. The 18th century as a whole thus had a real problem of literary legitimacy, one which could only be resolved if certain genres like the essay, or what was called philosophical literature, were considered as literary.
16This lack of legitimacy, which was resorbed between the years 1950 and 1980, of which Lagarde and Michard is an excellent illustration, explains the classroom readings of the three works of Montesquieu still present in the manuals. Romans was read as a fairly dry theory of historical determinism, illustrating Montesquieu’s rigor but also his insensitivity. The Spirit of Law as a rational ordering of law through the theory of climates, another way of illustrating a triumphant rationalism. Finally, the Persian Letters continued to be seen as the work of a moralist, but a philosophical moralist who is interested in the criticism of the institution and the mores and not in that of eternal human frailty, as La Bruyère had done so well.
III. 1980-2000, Montesquieu’s works as objects of instruction in French class
17The 1980s were characterized by a new upheaval in the conception of the teaching of literature, as shown by Anne-Marie Chartier and Jean Hébrard. The school population expanded enormously. In 1970, 20% of an age group obtained the baccalauréat; in 1990, 40%; in 2000, 60%. The lycées were receiving pupils who had no family written culture. We observe the rethinking of the humanities as criterion of excellence in school, to the advantage of the scientific disciplines. Literature ceased to be the pivot of instruction and was from this point on integrated into the “French” discipline, contributing to making the pupils read, write and speak better. Beginning in 1983, the list of writers became indicative only and no longer mentioned any obligatory writer; Montesquieu was almost never again recommended.
18The classroom culture borne by the history of literature was re-examined, as literature took on aspects of the sociology of literature and reception history, and the lycée programs of the 1980s introduce notions of modern linguistics relative to “types of texts”, then “forms of discourse”, which seem to propose criteria which are easier to identify formally. The exercises and modes of reading texts changed radically. The grouping of text and integral work replaced selected passages. Exercises contributed to structuring discipline, notably in the lycée where the countdown to the baccalauréat led to privileging the work of systematic training for exercises that would be valid for the final test.
19The reforms of 1996 and then 2000 confirmed these tendencies by introducing as something new obligatory works for the first-form program. The periodization by century that structured class levels was rejected in favor of a structuration based on literary movements and “objects of study” which were a sort of institutionalization of the groupings of texts. Writers were studied not only as representatives of their century but also through an achronic grid of genres and registers.
20While they attribute great importance to the 18th century, the programs of 2000 cite Montesquieu only marginally. The major authors of that century are Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. The “summary historical elements” published by the ministry also leave aside Montesquieu, and consider as “the two great novels of the 18th century Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse and Les Liaisons dangereuses”.
21From the point of view of the conception of literature, between the 1960s and the 1980s the mistrust of the imagination and novelistic models, which was still important early in the 20th century, had disappeared, as well as the 19th-century predilection for “classical” texts, having ancient texts as their models. The 19th and 20th centuries have become the centuries of reference, through the novel and poetry. The 17th century becomes marginalized, confined to tragedy and comedy. It is no longer works that imitate the Great Century that are valorized, but those that break with the dominant linguistic or narrative codes. All this was to influence a new reading of 18th-century literature. Philosophical literature definitively acquires classroom legitimacy by the invention of “the literature of ideas”. This “domain” includes generically very heterogeneous texts which have solely in common the contestation of a certain social order and the use of argumentation. The consequence is a radical reformulation of the perception of Enlightenment literature. Poetry and 18th-century historical works disappear from the manuals in favor of essays, novels, philosophical works, theatre being represented by Marivaux and Beaumarchais.
22The programs from 1983 to 1987 had no great repercussion on the presentation of the manuals that continue to propose one volume per century. All the works persevere with a single presentation: extracts of authors “enveloped” in a critical discourse. On the other hand, the questions on the texts evolve and take a greater and greater interest in linguistic markers. In our corpus of six manuals, the four from the 1980s favor Diderot and Rousseau, often to the detriment of Voltaire. Montesquieu appears systematically in fourth position, Buffon continuing his regression.
23The place of Romans fades considerably, going so far as to disappear in one manual (Biet and Brighelli). The Persian Letters and The Spirit of Law are equal in two manuals, the former prevailing in two others.
24The programs of 1994 and of 2000, on the other hand, have totally overturned the modalities of presentation of numerous manuals that leave behind chronological organization in favor of an organization oriented towards the objects of study imposed by the programs. This entails a decrease and breaking apart of extracts in various rubrics and the overrepresentation of Voltaire, program author, and Rousseau, in the framework of objects of study devoted to the autobiographical genre. In the two manuals studied, Diderot is no longer an outsider but occupies the third place. Buffon disappears. Montesquieu is fourth, and reduced to two works, The Spirit of Laws and the Persian Letters, with an overwhelming advantage to the latter.
25Beginning in the 1980s the novel is privileged, and the 18th century becomes the century of philosophical struggle. Thus is explained the supremacy of Voltaire: in the classroom corpus of 18th-century philosophers, he is the one who produced the narrative texts that are most compatible with the new grids of classroom reading. This is confirmed by the “observatory of orals lists” for the baccalauréat directed by Bernard Veck between 1992 and 1995: Montesquieu is only rarely studied in a complete work; he fares better in text groupings around the theme of philosophical struggle, and through the analysis of irony, of which “De l’esclavage des nègres” becomes a frequent illustration in the manuals.
26If the works of Montesquieu retain their legitimacy in teaching throughout the two centuries which our study covers, it is in paradoxical fashion. For it is first by what makes him like the 17th century and particularly La Bruyère, and by the connection it allows with Antiquity, that Montesquieu becomes a classroom writer. But when the philosophical struggle and the literature of ideas gain legitimacy, he suffers from this classroom image and remains in the shadow of Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. The extreme generic ambiguity of his works (Romans does not possess the characteristics of the historical genre, which itself extends beyond the literary sphere in the early years of the 20th century; the Persian Letters is not, or not only, a novel; The Spirit of Law is hard to qualify generically) does not facilitate his classroom reading.
Manuals (by chronological order)
François Noël and François Delaplace, Leçons de littérature et de morale, ou recueil, en prose et en vers, des plus beaux morceaux de notre langue dans la littérature des deux derniers siècles […], par Fr. Noël, inspecteur général de l’Instruction publique, et Fr. Delaplace, professeur à l’École centrale du Panthéon, tous deux ci-devant professeurs de Belles-Lettres dans l’Université de Paris, Paris: Le Normant, an XII-1804. [29 editions between 1804 and 1862]
Joseph-Victor Leclerc, Nouvelle rhétorique, extraite des meilleurs écrivains anciens et modernes, suivie d’observations sur les matières de composition dans les classes de rhétorique et d’une série de questions à l’usage de ceux qui se préparent aux examens dans les collèges royaux et à la faculté des lettres, professeur d’éloquence à la faculté des lettres de Paris, ouvrage adopté par le Conseil royal de l’Instruction publique, pour les classe de l’Université, 3rd edition, Paris: A. Delalain, 1830. [1st ed. 1822, 23rd ed. 1891]
Lebrun de Charmette, Museum littéraire, études françaises de littérature et de morale, Audin, libraire, 1822.
Berriat-Saint-Prix, Leçons de littérature et de morale, Brunot-Labbé, 1835. [1st ed. 1828]
A.M.Q., Leçons de littérature et de morale, Librairie ecclésiastique et classique de Giberton et Brun, 1836.
Abbé Marcel, Chefs-d’œuvre classiques de la littérature française, par l’abbé Marcel, ancien professeur de rhétorique, Prose, Eloquence et Histoire, Paris: J. Delalain. [1st ed. 1830, 2nd ed. 1856]
Désiré Nisard, Histoire de la littérature française, 4 vols., Paris: Librairie Firmin Didot et Cie, 8th edition, 1881, 556 p. Vol. IV containing the 18th century appeared in 1861. [1st ed. 1844, 7th ed. 1879]
Émile Lefranc, Abrégé du traité théorique et pratique de littérature, spécialement destiné, par sa rédaction, aux maisons d’éducation où l’on ne fait d’études qu’en français, Paris: Jacques Lecoffre et Cie. [1st ed. 1845, 12th ed. 1853]
Abbé Henry, Histoire de l’éloquence, avec des jugements critiques sur les plus célèbres orateurs et des extraits nombreux et étendus de leurs chefs-d’œuvre, par l’abbé Henry, directeur de l’Institution de la Trinité à La Marche (Vosges), Paris, 1848, 4 tomes.
Jacques Demogeot, Histoire de la littérature française depuis ses origines jusqu’à nos jours, 20th ed.,1883, Paris: Hachette et Cie. [1st ed. 1851, 27th ed. 1908]
Eugène Geruzez, Histoire de la littérature française depuis ses origines jusqu’à la Révolution, Didier et Cie, 1861. [1st ed. 1852, 21st ed. 1875]
Louis Petit de Julleville, Leçons de littérature française, Paris, G. Masson, 4th ed., 1887, t. II, De Corneille à nos jours. [1st ed. 1885]
René Doumic, Histoire de la littérature française, Paris, Paul Delaplane, 6th ed., 1891. [1st ed. 1888, 16th ed. 1900, 38th ed. 1920 ; 500 000 copies in 1922 ; 900 000 in 1947]
Gustave Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française, Paris: Hachette et Cie, 1895. [1st ed. 1895, 18th ed. 1924, reworking by P. Tuffrau in 1932, last edition, 1953]
Ferdinand Brunetière, Manuel de l’histoire de la littérature française, Paris: Librairie Ch. Delagrave, 1898.
Émile Faguet, Histoire de la littérature française depuis le XVIIe siècle jusqu’à nos jours, illustrée d’après les manuscrits et les estampes conservés à la Bibliothèque nationale et complétés par une table analytique des matières dressée par Léon Dorez, Paris: Librairie Plon, Plon-Nourrit et Cie, 1925. [1st ed. 1900, 11th ed. 1905, 28th ed. 1928, still printed in 1929]
Émile Abry, Charles Audic et Paul Crouzet Histoire illustrée de la littérature française, Paris, Henri Didier, 4th ed.,1918. [1st ed. 1912, 400 000 copies between 1912 and 1940, last edition in 1954]
Charles-Marc Des Granges, Histoire illustrée de la littérature française, Paris: Hatier, 1917, 17th ed. [1st ed. 1914, reissued 42 times from 1914 to 1947]
Jean Calvet, Manuel illustré d’histoire de la littérature française, Paris: J. de Gigord , 5th ed. 1925. [1st ed. 1920, 15th ed. 1946, 27th ed. 1966]
Daniel Mornet, Histoire de la littérature et de la pensée françaises, Paris: Bibliothèque Larousse, 1924.
Pierre Clarac, La Classe de français, collection managed by Pierre Clarac, Paris: Librairie classique Eugène Belin, Le XVIIIe siècle, Textes choisis et commentés par P. Pegon, G. Grand, P. Clarac, 1954. [1st ed. 1943]
Pierre-Georges Castex and Paul Surer, Manuel des études littéraires françaises, Paris: Classiques Hachette, Librairie Hachette, XVIIIe, XIXe, XXe siècles, 1954. [1st ed. 1946]
André Lagarde and Laurent Michard, Les Grands Auteurs français du programme, Collection Textes et Littérature, Paris: Bordas, XVIIIesiècle, 1959. [ 1st ed. 1949, last in 1986, re-ed. 2003].
Arsène Chassang and Charles Senninger, Recueil de textes littéraires français, Paris: Hachette, Librairie Hachette, XVIIIesiècle, 1966.
Christian Biet, Jean-Paul Brighelli, Jean-Luc Rispail, Collection Textes et Contextes, Paris: Magnard, XVIIe-XVIII>e siècles, 1982.
Xavier Darcos, Collection Perspectives et Confrontations, Paris: Hachette, Le XVIIIesiècle en littérature by Xavier Darcos and Bernard Tartayre, 1986.
Henri Mitterand (ed.), Littérature, Textes et Documents, Paris: Nathan, XVIIIe siècle, par Michel Charpentier and Jeanne Charpentier, Introduction historique de Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, 1992. [1st ed. 1986]
Georges Décote, Hélène Sabbah (ed. Georges Décote), Collection Itinéraires littéraires, XVIIIe siècle, by Hélène Sabbah, Marie-Caroline Carlier, Claude Eterstein, Dominique Giovacchini, Adeline Lesot, with the collaboration of Joël Dubosclard, Anne-Elisabeth Halpern, Paris: Hatier, 1989. [1st ed. 1988]
Hélène Sabbah, Littérature, textes et méthode, nouveau bac 96, Hatier, 1996.
Georges Winter, Français, Bréal, 2000.
Jean Ehrard, “Rome enfin que je hais” (1984), in J. Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998.
Anne-Marie Chartier and Jean Hébrard, Discours sur la lecture (1880-2000), Paris: Fayard-BPI (1989; 2000, 2nd edition, “revue et augmentée”).
Martine Jey, La Littérature au lycée, l’invention d’une discipline, 1880-1925, Collection Recherches textuelles, Centre d’études linguistiques des textes et des discours, université de Metz, 1996.
Bernard Veck, Catherine Robert-Lazès, Marc Robert, Français au baccalauréat, observatoire des listes d’oral, quatre années d’analyse, Paris: INRP, 1997.
André Chervel, La Composition française au XIXe siècle, Paris: Vuibert/INRP, 1999.
Jean-Noël Luc, “À la recherche du tout-puissant empire du milieu”, in Lycées, lycéens, lycéennes, deux siècles d’histoire, Pierre Caspard, Jean-Noël Luc and Philippe Savoie (ed.), Lyon?: INRP, 2005.
André Chervel, Histoire de l’enseignement du français du XVIIe au XXe siècle, Paris: Retz, 2006.
Laetitia Perret, “Montesquieu au miroir de l’enseignement: rhétorique, histoire littéraire, littérature, 1803-2000”, thesis 29 November 2008, supervised by C. Volpilhac-Auger, ENS de Lettres et sciences humaines, Lyon.
Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu, Paris: Presses de l’université de Paris-Sorbonne, “Mémoire de la critique”, 2003.
Laetitia Perret, “Lectures scolaires des Lettres persanes à travers les manuels et les programmes de 1803 à 2000”, in Les “Lettres persanes” en leur temps, Philip Stewart (ed.), Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2013, p. 207-222.