Françoise Gevrey

1If one writer was a reference point for Stendhal during his entire career, it had to be Montesquieu: for the author of The Charterhouse of Parma, the eighteenth-century philosopher belongs to the “geniuses”; he is also a marker by which to set apart those who have read and can understand him. In 1835 Beyle was still writing: “Ah, Montesquieu is still my man and more than ever!” (Œuvres intimes II, p. 265).

2The order of Stendhal’s readings can be reconstructed: first there was the Persian Letters and Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and of their decadence, then The Spirit of Law in 1803; next came the Dialogue of Sylla and Eucrates, the Essay on taste and the Historical eulogy of the Marshall of Berwick. The discovery of Montesquieu came first by the intermediary of his grandfather who mentioned the Considerations respectfully: “but I underdstood nothing about them, which is not hard to believe; I did not know about the events on which Montesquieu erected his brilliant Considerations” (Vie de Henry Brulard, Œuvres intimes II, p. 724). And it brought Stenchal pleasure: “I adored reading Montesquieu or Walter Scott” (ibid., p. 544); in manuscript autobiographical essays he writes that between 1803 and 1806 “Beyle worked twelve hours a day, read Montaigne, Shakespeare, Montesquieu, and noted his opinion of them” (Essais d’autobiographie, Œuvres intimes II, p. 978). This reading is linked to his passage at the École Polytechnique where he made a close ally of Louis Crozet; they imagined putting Montesquieu on a jury with Helvétius, Shakespeare and Machiavelli. In 1808 Crozet sent his friend, then in Germany, a copy of his Reflections on Montesquieu which is among Stendhal’s manuscripts and reflects his thoughts though lacking his style.

3Stendhal gives some indications of the editions he consulted: for example, in 1804 a catalogue of his books with their format, which includes a copy of Romans among the books left at Claix, whereas others, like the Persian Letters, are in Paris; in 1817 he says he has found in his writing desk in Rome a Greatness of the Romans in-32 (Rome, Naples et Florence, p. 577-578). He refers in 1837 to a Montesquieu in eight volumes, which may designate several editions of his Œuvres completes published since the beginning of the century. But it is the practice of annotation that allows us better to understand the interest Stendhal took in the Enlightenment writer. He writes marginalia in the Œuvres posthumes, the Plassan octavo edition of 1798, annotated in 1813, as well as in Montesquieu’s works in the five-volume Didot edition of 1803 (Marginalia I, p. 285-286); thus in 1814 he writes Shakespearean verse in the margins of this latter edition to express his romantic esthetic: “Thou canst not speak of what thou dost not feel” (ibid., p. 290). The most representative work is doubtless the copy of the Considerations, a volume of the 1814 Didot edition, bound with Jean-Baptiste Say’s De l’Angleterre et des Anglais and with several blank sheets on which Stendhal wrote notes about his personal life; the binding is labelled “Titian”. The manuscript notes bearing on Montesquieu are in pencil in the margins or at the bottom of the pages. We read, for example: “Montesquieu is my Titian, almost always the color, almost never the substance, the ideas”. Stendhal compares Roman politics with that of his own time, underscoring, with respect to a note in chapter XVII on the eulogy of Constantine, that the emperor could have instituted two chambers if the constitutional system had been invented; he dialogues with Montesquieu, correcting the reason for which kings have made religion; according to him, it is “to have an oath”. But in the whole especially the Dissertation on the policy of the Romans concerning religion draws his praise: “this is an admirable model of style”; his remarks bear on the style, on speaking out, or on the manner in which Montesquieu would hide, like Beyle, from the “police” by using encrypted sentences.

4Quotations of Montesquieu are overall not very numerous and are often made by memory. For the epigraph of the third edition of Rome, Naples et Florence (1827), Stendhal shortens the sentence: “Ah, Monsieur! How can one be Persian?”; the same quotation appears in chapter XLIX of De l’amour. These quotations are often applied to the present context; thus, in 1811, for an expression borrowed from The Spirit of Law: “Heaven is not farther from earth, as Montesquieu says, than my Lechi’s amiability from Z’s” (Journal, Œuvres intimes I, p. 729, with reference to The Spirit of Law, VIII, 3: “The true spirit of equality is as far removed from the spirit of extreme equality as heaven is from earth”). Stendhal wonders about the lack of political freedom in otherwise happy Lombardy by quoting The Spirit of Law: “Lands are not farmed in proportion to their fertility, but in proportion to their freedom” (XVIII, 3, in L’Italie en 1818, p. 254). The traveler remembers “Montesquieu’s lines on the pleasure of leaving Genoa” (reference to the 1728 poem Adieux à Gênes, Voyage en France, p. 536; Montesquieu, OC, t. 9, p. 17-22).

5Pilgrimage constituted another form of attachment to the great man: on 7 April 1738 Stendhal went to La Brède. On that occasion he asserted: “It is not exactly love I feel for Montesquieu, but veneration; he never bores me by prolonging what I already understand” (Voyage dans le midi de la France, p. 635-636); upon arrival he feels a “child’s respect”; he is struck by the château which strikes him as sad, and by the extreme simplicity of his room: “Everything here has an antique feeling hostile to joyfulness” (ibid., p. 644). This pilgrimage appears as an extension of Henry Brulard’s idea of visiting with Montesquieu in the other world.

6Stendhal’s opinion of Montesquieu’s ideas is oriented by the reading of authors who lead him to examine what he has read. Doubtless Mme de Staël might have served as intermediary, since she possessed “the scaffolding that is part of Montesquieu’s talent; she knew the laws of salon society, she showed its causes and effects, in a word its spirit” (Journal, Œuvres intimes I, p. 200). Beyle annotated a copy of Destutt de Tracy’s Commentary on the Spirit of Law in which he wrote the outline of De l’amour, a work which renders homage to Montesquieu while insisting that he had not understood the role of trade in a liberal society (The Spirit of Law, books XX-XXI). Earlier he had read in 1804 Chaussard’s Spirit of Mirabeau, in which he found the idea that The Spirit of Law would not last long; he shared Mirabeau’s deprecation of the lettres de cachet which Montesquieu did not condemn: “The great man had an excellent mind, but from all appearances a rather feeble soul; his love of the good and of true glory was not very violent, since he often came to terms with tyrants in his Spirit of Law” (Pensées, II, 1, p. 66-67); this judgment perhaps rejoins that of Voltaire. One parallel seems constantly obvious to Stendhal: “The name of Machiavelli will perhaps outlast Montesquieu’s; their merit is equal, but Machiavelli has for him the furious hatred of the thieves whom Montesquieu spared; he also died rich, and the former in dire poverty” (Voyage en France, p. 436). For Crozet’s Reflections on Montesquieu Stendhal wrote by hand the following title: “The Spirit of Law or the art of thievery for the use of thieves and honest people. Honest people will see how to go about changing watches from one pocket to another, rascals will learn excellent new fishing methods. By Montesquieu, a gentleman, judge, ex-ambitious man, imitator of Machiavelli” (Grenoble ms.). Both would thus legitimize oppression by becoming the theoreticians of the “art of thievery” (Journal, Œuvres intimes I, p. 924).

7Stendhal retains with interest some elements of Montesquieu’s political and social thought: he was put on the index and remained dangerous to the Italians who confiscated one of his volumes in 1817 as “by a categorically forbidden author” (Rome, Naples et Florence, p. 577). The author of Lucien Leuwen admired his political predictions and shared his admiration for Roman civilization, for the Cloaca maxima noted by Montesquieu (Promenades dans Rome, p. 916 which refers to chapter I of the Considerations). He is interested in the influence of climate, and finds in the Considerations the proof of the fragility of the republic: “I can establish as a decree of destiny that the republic was destined to perish; see chapter XV of the Considerations: ‘The republic was bound to perish…’”. He likes book VI of The Spirit of Laws; in it he sees “humanity” and “the most exquisite philosophy”. He pauses over the question of luxury and sumptuary laws, discussed in book VII. He also takes an interest in the ideas bearing on gallantry or the desire to please formulated in the same work.

8But very often Stendhal takes note of divergences explained by the period and social context: “Montesquieu was a gentleman, he never dared condemn the lettre de cachet or demand the Estates General; […] apart from that, his Greatness of the Romans is admirable” (Promenades dans Rome, p. 739). As for the usefulness of religion, as affirmed in The Spirit of Law (“What a wonder! The Christian religion, which seems to have only felicity in the next life as its object, also provides for our happiness in this one”, XXIV, 3), Stendhal is indignant: “The writer who spread this detestable reverie is Montesquieu. The Christians of France took this pleasantry seriously; is it not the epigraph of [Chateaubriand’s] Genius of Christianity?” (ibid., p. 773). He no doubt admires the Dissertation on the policy of the Romans concerning religion, but only to insist on the negative role of religion. In fact he reproaches Montesquieu for preaching rather the spirit of conventional law, established by human caprice, than that of the laws of nature. While recognizing that the eighteenth-century writer can only discuss what existed in his own time, he comments on the principles of the three governments that seem “founded” to him, especially honor as “the basis of monarchies; that was not a bad thing to have perceived in 1734, the time of the Persian Letters [sic], in the state of infancy where French reason still was at that time” (Brulard, ch. XX, Œuvres intimes II, p. 717). But he wants more opening toward progress and draws up a list of errors. At times he returns to what he has read about the lazzaroni who are spoken of in Romans XIV (OC, t. II, p. 198): “they provided Montesquieu with the opportunity to utter a bit of nonsense” (Journal, Œuvres intimes I, p. 1491, Rome, Naples et Florence, p. 364). He formulates more serious accusations: “If one reads Montesquieu translated and thus stripped of the charm of his style, one is surprised at the small number of his ideas. He was wrong: 1. On the farm law; 2. On the interest on money which at a certain point was two percent per month and not per annum ; 3. he did not see that England was nothing other than an aristocracy; he allowed himself to be deceived by the word: House of Commons. It is unbelievable that he did not know that a given peer used up to nine members of the House of Commons.” (Voyage en France, p. 774). Decidedly, “Montesquieu speaks of England as a lover speaks of his mistress, completely outside of reason” (L’Italie en 1818, note, p. 260), and one must read his successors.

9While preferring the ideas of Helvétius or Bentham, which seem to him more on target and bolder, Stendhal does not cease to admire Montesquieu’s “unique” style. His remarks are to be found in “On style”, written with Crozet in 1812: “Montesquieu’s style is the most salient of all, the one that awakens the most” (Mélanges, p. 100); it is the most concise for whoever reads chapter 15 of book XIII of The Spirit of Law, “more grandiose” than La Bruyère’s”. In the Persian Letters, this style makes room for the laughter that is associated with a pleasure “more frank than in Voltaire” (ibid., p. 102). Montesquieu constantly serves as a model for practicing a dense, powerful style which Stendhal opposes to that of his counter-models: first Chateaubriand, and secondarily Bossuet or Volney. There is something modern about this style that remains “a feast for the mind” (Mémoires d’un touriste, p. 230), “even when he is talking about fiefs” (Voyage en France, p. 453). It is the art of the ellipse, an art of veiling eroticism or gallantry, which Stendhal is seeking with relation to a visit to Angela: “What I need here is some Latin verse or some allusion to Antiquity to cover with a veil, like Montesquieu, eight hours that have fled in gentle conversation” (Journal, 10 September 1813, with (in a note) an allusion to Vendôme’s conduct in the Eulogy of Marshall de Berwick: see OC, t. IX, p. 449-450). The idea is to have the ability to present the thought without exaggeration, as Montesquieu insisted in his Pensées (nos. 1970, 1971 and 1334): “you recognize the man who said: ‘in most books you see a man straining to extend what the reader is straining to shorten’” (Voyage en France, p. 453, following the Persian Letters, 105 (108): “[…] [the] poor reader, who strains to reduce what the author took such trouble to augment”).

10Thus it appears that Montesquieu retains an essential place in the intellectual formation of Stendhal, who nevertheless had read the better part of Enlightenment writings. He did not like Voltaire, whose influence had been handed down transmitted to him by Henri Gagnon; if he had read his tragedies and his stories, La Henriade and Le Siècle de Louis XIV, if he recognized how effectively he had combatted l’Infâme, he nevertheless detested his mockery, his “childishness” and the tone of his pamphlets such as Le Pauvre Diable. As far as Rousseau was concerned, the influence is more difficult to measure: Stendhal read Julie and the Confessions with enthusiasm, he drew from them the sources of his sentimental romanticism, but he constructed Beylisme by rejecting what was too romantic and utopian in Rousseau’s systems, with a will to “be rid of Rousseau” between 1804 and 1805.

11The reading of Montesquieu, pregnant for the traveler, was also a source of inspiration for Stendhal the novelist. He names Montesquieu in a preface addressed to the “benevolent reader” for part II of Lucien Leuwen, or in the letter that responds to Balzac’s judgment of The Charterhouse of Parma. His characters read Montesquieu to make more or less good use of him, such as Ranuce-Ernest in a passage of the copy of The Charterhouse of Parma annotated by Stendhal that also belonged to Eugène Chaper, a bibliophile in the Dauphinois. More generally, there is in Lucien Leuwen, Stendhal’s most political novel, a “hidden chain” like the one Montesquieu put to work in the Persian Letters: the author presents a principal character who visits various social circles like a Persian. He practices personal examination and spends most of his life watching those he encounters. Like Usbek, he is deceived by women, he enters like the Persians into salons, becomes a part of the theatrum mundi, and gets covered with mud. His itinerary enables satirical portraits: those of Fléron, of Du Poirier or of Desbacs. He is present at the death of a regime, that of the July monarchy, King Louis-Philippe being perfectly ridiculous as was the monarch of the Persian Letters; Stendhal analyses political decomposition like an entomologist, which justifies Alain’s judgment that sees in Stendhal “a Montesquieu, and moreover without the historical and juridical biases” (Les Arts et les Dieux, p. 763). The novelist, who often adduced references to Montesquieu to mock his awkwardness as a seducer or his exaltations, thus learns to veil his emotions and to practice an esthetics of pleasure to counterbalance romantic bombast.

12As a novelist, Montesquieu is therefore rather a reference than a model for Stendhal who, without adopting all the ideas of The Spirit of Law, remains enthusiastic when he names the author of Romans to ward off bad taste. It is for good reason that Corrado Rosso applies the image of the “psychagogue” to this relation that combines two writers and is exemplified by the advice to a young agent: “Copy by hand the eight volumes of Montesquieu, and as you copy, approve or disapprove […]” (Mémoires d’un touriste, in Voyages en France, appendices, p. 766). Stendhal dreamed of being both a philosopher and a poet; he was aware of progress in approaching the heart: “[…] you will see that egotism, but sincere egotism, is a means of depicting the human heart in the knowledge of which we have made such giant steps since 1722, the period of the Persian Letters by that great man I have so extensively studied, Montesquieu” (Souvenirs d’égotisme, Œuvres intimes II, p. 487). The art and thought of Montesquieu were those of the philosopher; it remained for the novelist to become a poet so as to stir the reader.


Primary sources

Stendhal, Œuvres intimes, Victor Del Litto (ed.), Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, tome I, 1981, tome II, 1982 (abbreviated by Œuvres intimes I et O. I. II).

—, Voyages en Italie, Victor Del Litto (ed.), Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 1973.

—, Voyages en France, Victor Del Litto (ed.), Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 1992.

—, Pensées et Filosofia nova, H. Martineau (ed.), Paris: Le Divan, 1931.

—, Mélanges de littérature, Henri Martineau (ed.), Paris: Le Divan, 1933, t. III, Mélanges critiques. Le style et les écrivains.

—, Mélanges intimes et marginalia, Henri Martineau (ed.), Paris: Le Divan, 1936, t. I and II.

Montesquieu, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, Paris: Didot, 1814 (Stendhal’s personal copy, Bibliothèque nationale de France, call number RES-J-3309; accessible on Gallica :

Secondary sources

Alain, “Stendhal”, in Les Arts et les dieux, Georges Bénézé (ed.), Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 1958.

Victor Del Litto, La Vie intellectuelle de Stendhal: genèse et évolution de ses idées (1802-1821), Paris: PUF, 1959 ; Geneva: Slatkine reprints, 1997.

Jean-Pierre Richard, “Connaissance et tendresse chez Stendhal”, in Littérature et sensation: Stendhal, Flaubert (1970), Paris: Seuil, coll. “Points”, 1990.

Béatrice Didier, Stendhal autobiographe, Paris: PUF, 1983.

Corrado Rosso, La Réception de Montesquieu ou les silences de la harpe éolienne, Pisa and Paris: Libreria Goliardica and Nizet, 1989.

Françoise Gevrey, “Stendhal lecteur de Montesquieu: les Lettres persanes et Lucien Leuwen”, in Ruptures et continuités: des Lumières au Symbolisme, France Marchal-Ninosque (ed.), Nancy : Presses universitaires de Nancy, 2004, p. 163-173.

Béatrice Didier, “Dans le sillage des moralistes et de Montesquieu”, in Lectures et lecteurs de Stendhal, Paris, Champion, Marie-Rose Corredor, Béatrice Didier and Hélène de Jacquelot dir., 2019, p. 31-48. 

Bibliographical reference

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