The Spirit of Laws (1751)
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
The Translator to the Reader
by Thomas Nugent (1752)
The following work may with the strictest justice be said to have done honour to human nature as well as to the great abilities of the author. The wisest and most learned man, and those most distinguished by birth and the elevation of their stations, have, in every country in Europe, considered it as a most excellent performance. And may we be permitted to add, that a sovereign prince1 as justly celebrated for his probity and good sense, as for his political and military skill, has declared that from M. de Montesquieu he has learnt the art of government. But had the illustrious author received no such distinguished honour, the numerous editions of this work in French, and their sudden spreading through all Europe, are a sufficient testimony of the high esteem with which it has been received by the public.
But notwithstanding the deserved applause which has been so liberally bestowed on the author, there have been some who have not only endeavoured to blast his laurels, but have treated him with all that scurrility which bigotry and superstition are apt, on every occasion, to throw out against truth, reason and good sense. These M. de Montesquieu has himself answered, in a separate treatise intitled, A Defense of the Spirit of Laws, from whence we have thought proper to extract, for the sake of such as have not seen that treatise, the principal of those objections, and the substance of what has been given in reply: Only first observing, that this defense is divided into three parts, in the first of which he answers the general reproaches that have been thrown out against him; in the second he replies to particular reproaches; and in the third, he gives some reflections on the manner in which his work has been criticized.
The author first complains of his being charged both with espousing the doctrines of Spinoza, and with being a Deist, two opinions directly contradictory to each other. To the former of these he answers, by placing in one view the several passages in the Spirit of Laws directly levelled against the doctrines of Spinoza; and then he replies to the objections that have been made to those passages, upon which this injurious charge is founded.
The critic asserts that our author stumbles at his first setting out, and is offended at his saying, that Laws in their most extensive signification, are the necessary relations derived from the nature of things. To this he replies, that the critic had heard it said that Spinoza had maintained that the world was governed by a blind and necessary principle; and from hence on seeing the word necessary, he concludes that this must be Spinozism; tho’ what is most surprising, this article is directly levelled at the dangerous principles maintained by Spinoza: That he had Hobbes’s system in his eye, a system, which, as it makes all the virtues and vices depend on the establishment of human laws, and as it would prove that men were born in a state of war, and that the first law of nature is a war of all against all, overturns, like Spinoza, all religion, and all morality. Hence he laid down this position, that there were laws of justice and equity before the establishment of positive laws: hence also he has proved that all beings had laws; that even before their creation they had possible laws; and that God himself had laws, that is, the laws which he himself had made. He has shewn2 that nothing can be more false than the assertion that men were born in a state of war; and he has made it appear that wars did not commence till after the establishment of society.
His principles are here extremely clear; from whence it follows, that as he has attacked Hobbes’s errors, he has consequently those of Spinoza; and he has been so little understood, that they have taken for the opinions of Spinoza, those very objections which were made against Spinozism.
Again, the author has said that the creation which appears to be an arbitrary act, supposes laws as invariable as the fatality of the Atheists. From these words the critic concludes that the author admits the fatality of the Atheists.
To this he answers, that he had just before destroyed this fatality, by representing it as the greatest absurdity to suppose that a blind fatality was capable of producing intelligent beings. Besides, in the passage here censured, he can only be made to say what he really does say: he does not speak of causes, nor does he compare causes; but he speaks of effects and compares effects. The whole article, what goes before and what follows, make it evident, that there is nothing here intended but the laws of motion, which, according to the author, had been established by God: these laws are invariable; this he as asserted, and all natural philosophy has asserted the same thing; they are invariable because God has been pleased to make them so, and because he has pleased to preserve the world. When the author therefore says that the creation which appears to be an arbitrary act, supposes laws as invariable as the fatality of the Atheists, he cannot be understood to say that the creation was a necessary act like the fatality of the Atheists.
Having vindicated himself from the charge of Spinozism, he proceeds to the other accusation, and from a multitude of passages collected together proves that he has not only acknowledged the truth of revealed religion; but that he is in love with Christianity, and endeavours to make it appear amiable in the eyes of others. He then enquires into what his adversaries have said to prove the contrary, observing that the proofs ought to bear some proportion to the accusation; that this accusation is not of a frivolous nature, and that the proofs therefore ought not to be frivolous.
The first objection is, that he has praised the Stoics, who admitted a blind fatality, and that this is the foundation of natural religion. To this he replies, “I will for a moment suppose that this false manner of reasoning has some weight: has the author praised the philosophy and metaphysics of the Stoics? He has praised their morals, and has said that the people reaped great benefit from them: he has said this, and he has said no more: I am mistaken, he has said more, he has at the beginning of his book attacked this fatality, he does not then praise it, when he praises the Stoics.”
The second objection is, that he has praised Bayle, in calling him a great man. To this he answers, “It is true that the author has called Bayle a great man, but he has censured his opinions: if he has censured them, he has not espoused them: and since he has censured his opinions, he does not call him a great man because of his opinions. Every body knows that Bayle had a great genius which he abused; but this genius which he abused, he had: the author has attacked his sophisms, and pities him on account of his errors. I don’t love the men who subvert the laws of their country; but I should find great difficulty in believing that Caesar and Cromwell had little minds: I am not in love with conquerors, but it would be very difficult to persuade me to believe that Alexander and Jenghiz-Khan were men of only a common genius. Besides, I have remarked, that the declamations of angry men make but little impression on any except those who are angry: the greatest part of the readers are men of moderation, and seldom take up a book but when they are in cool blood; for rational and sensible men love reason. Had the author loaded Bayle with a thousand injurious reproaches, it would not have followed from thence, that Bayle had reasoned well or ill; all that his readers would have been able to conclude from it would have been, that the author knew how to be abusive.”
The third objection is, that he has not in his first chapter spoken of original sin. To which he replies: “I ask every sensible man if this chapter is a treatise of divinity? if the author had spoken of original sin, they might have imputed it to him as a crime that he had not spoken of redemption.”
The next objection takes notice, that “The author has said that in England self-murder is the effect of a distemper, and that it cannot be punished without punishing the effects of madness; the consequence the critic draws from thence is, that a follower of natural religion can never forget that England is the cradle of his sect, and that he rubs a sponge over all the crimes he found there.” He replies, “The author does not know that England is the cradle of natural religion; but he knows that England was not his cradle. He is not of the same religious sentiments as an Englishman, any more than an Englishman who speaks of the physical effects he found in France, is not of the same religion as the French. He is not a follower of natural religion; but he wishes that his critic was a follower of natural logic.”
These are the principle objections levelled against our author, on this head, from which our readers will sufficiently see on what trifling, what puerile arguments this charge of Deism is founded. He concludes however this article, with a defense of the religion of nature, and such a defense as every rational Christian must undoubtedly approve.
“Before I conclude this first part, I am tempted to make one objection against him who has made so many; but he has so stunned my ears with the words follower of natural religion, that I scarcely dare pronounce them. I shall endeavour however to take courage. Do not the critic’s two pieces stand in greater need of an explication, than that which I defend? Does he do well, while speaking of natural religion and revelation, to fall perpetually upon one side of the subject, and to lose all traces of the other? Does he do well never to distinguish those who acknowledge only the religion of nature, from those who acknowledge both natural and revealed religion? Does he do well to turn frantic whenever the author considers man in the state of natural religion, and whenever he explains any thing on the principles of natural religion? Does he do well to confound natural religion with Atheism? Have I not heard that we have all natural religion? Have I not heard that Christianity is the perfection of natural religion? Have I not heard that natural religion is employed to prove the truth of revelation against the Deists? and that the same natural religion is employed to prove the existence of a God against the Atheists? He has said that the Stoics were the followers of natural religion; and I say, that they were Atheists, since they believed that a blind fatality governed the universe; and it is by the religion of nature that we ought to attack that of
the Stoics. He says that the scheme of natural religion is connected with that of Spinoza; and I say, that they are contradictory to each other, and it is by natural religion that we ought to destroy Spinoza’s scheme. I say, that to confound natural religion with Atheism, is to confound the proof with the thing to be proved, and the objections against error with error itself, and that this is to take away the most powerful arms we have against this error.”
The author now proceeds to the second part of his defence, in which he has the following remarks. “What has the critic done to give an ample scope to his declamations, and to open the widest door to invectives? he has considered the author, as if he had intended to follow the example of M. Abbadye, and had been writing a treatise on the Christian religion: he has attacked him, as if his two books on religion were two treatises on divinity; he has cavilled against him, as if while he had been talking of any religion whatsoever which was not Christian, he should have examined it according to the principles, and doctrines of Christianity; he has judged him as if in his two books relating to religion he ought to have preached to Mahometans and Idolators the doctrines of Christianity. Whenever he has spoken of religion in general, whenever he has made use of the word religion, the critic says, ‘that is the Christian religion’; whenever he has compared the religious rites of different nations and has said that they are more conformable to the political government of these countries, than some other rites, the critic again says, ‘you approve them then and abandon the Christian faith’: when he has spoken of a people who have never embraced Christianity, or who have lived before Christ, again says the critic, ‘you don’t then acknowledge the morals of Christianity’; when he has canvassed any custom whatsoever, which he has found
in a political writer, the critic asks him, ‘Is this a doctrine of Christianity?’ He might as well add, ‘You say you are a civilian, and I will make you a divine in spite of yourself: you have given us elsewhere some very excellent things on the Christian religion, but this was only to conceal your real sentiments, for I know your heart, and penetrate into your thoughts. It is true I do not understand your book, nor it is material that I should discover the good or bad design with which it has been written; but I know the bottom of all your thoughts: I don’t know a word of what you have said, but I understand perfectly well, what you have not said.'”
But to proceed. The author has maintained the polygamy is necessarily and in its own nature bad; he has wrote a chapter expressly against it, and afterwards has examined in a philosophical manner, in what countries, in what climates, or in what circumstances it is least pernicious; he has compared climates with climates, and countries with countries, and has found, that there are countries, where its effects are less pernicious than in others; because, according to the accounts that have been given of them, the number of men and women not being every where equal, it is evident, that if there are places where there are more women than men, polygamy, bad as it is in itself, is there less pernicious than in others. But as the title of this chapter3 contains these words, That the law of polygamy is an affair of calculation, they have seized this title as an excellent subject for declamation. Having repeated the chapter itself, against which no objection is made, he proceeds to justify the title and adds: “Polygamy is an affair of calculation when we would know, if it is more or less pernicious in certain climates, in certain countries, in certain circumstances than in others; it is not an affair of calculation when we would decide whether it be good or bad in itself. It is not an affair of calculation when we reason on its nature; it may be an affair of calculation when we combine its effects; in short, it is never an affair of calculation when we enquire into the end of marriage, and it is even less so, when we enquire into marriage as a law established and confirmed by Jesus Christ.”
Again, the author having said, that4 polygamy is more conformable to nature in some countries than in others, the critic has seized the words more conformable to nature, to make his say, that he approves polygamy. To which he answers, “If I say, that I should like better to have a fever than the scurvy, does this signify that I should like to have a fever? or only that the scurvy is more disagreeable to me than a fever?”
Having finished his reply to what had been objected to on the subject of polygamy, he vindicates that excellent part of his work which treats of the climates; when speaking of the influence these have upon religion, he says, “I am very sensible that religion is in its own nature independent of all physical causes whatsoever, that the religion which is good in one country is good in another, and that it cannot be pernicious in one country without being so in all; but yet, I say, that as it is practiced by men, and has a relation to those who do not practice it, any religion whatsoever will find a greater facility in being practiced, either in the whole or in part, in certain circumstances than in others, and that whoever says the contrary must renounce all pretensions to sense and understanding.”
But the critic has been greatly offended by our author’s saying,5 that when a state is at liberty to receive or to reject a new religion, it ought to be rejected; when it is received, it ought to be tolerated. From hence he objects, that the author has advised idolatrous princes, not to admit the Christian religion into their dominions. To this he answers first by referring to a passage in which he says,6 that the best civil and political laws are, next to Christianity, the greatest blessings that men can give or receive; and adds, “If then Christianity is the first and greatest blessing, and the political and civil laws the second, there are no political or civil laws in any state that can or ought to hinder the entrance of the Christian religion.”
His second answer is, “That the religion of heaven is not established by the same methods as the religions of the earth; read the history of the church, and you will see the wonders performed by the Christian religion: was she to enter a country, she knew how to open its gates; every instrument was able to effect it; at one time God makes use of a few fisherman, at another he sets an emperor on the throne, and makes him bow down his head under the yolk of the gospel. Does Christianity hide herself in subterranean caverns? stay a moment, and you see an advocate speaking from the imperial throne on her behalf. She traverses, whenever she pleases, seas, rivers, and mountains; no obstacles here below can stop her progress: implant aversion in the mind, she will conquer this aversion: establish customs, form habits, publish edicts, enact laws, she will triumph over the climate, over the laws which result from it, and over the legislators who have made them. God acting according to decrees which are unknown to us, extends or contracts the limits of his religion.”
IF amidst the infinite number of subjects contained in this book there is anything which, contrary to my expectation, may possibly offend, I can at least assure the public that it was not inserted with an ill intention: for I am not naturally of a captious temper. Plato thanked the gods that he was born in the same age with Socrates: and for my part I give thanks to the Supreme that I was born a subject of that government under which I live; and that it is His pleasure I should obey those whom He has made me love.
I beg one favour of my readers, which I fear will not be granted me; this is, that they will not judge by a few hours’ reading of the labour of twenty years; that they will approve or condemn the book entire, and not a few particular phrases. If they would search into the design of the author, they can do it in no other way so completely as by searching into the design of the work.
I have first of all considered mankind; and the result of my thoughts has been, that amidst such an infinite diversity of laws and manners, they were not solely conducted by the caprice of fancy.
I have laid down the first principles, and have found that the particular cases follow naturally from them; that the histories of all nations are only consequences of them; and that every particular law is connected with another law, or depends on some other of a more general extent.
When I have been obliged to look back into antiquity, I have endeavoured to assume the spirit of the ancients, lest I should consider those things as alike which are really different; and lest I should miss the difference of those which appear to be alike.
I have not drawn my principles from my prejudices, but from the nature of things.
Here a great many truths will not appear till we have seen the chain which connects them with others. The more we enter into particulars, the more we shall perceive the certainty of the principles on which they are founded. I have not even given all these particulars, for who could mention them all without a most insupportable fatigue?
The reader will not here meet with any of those bold flights which seem to characterise the works of the present age. When things are examined with never so small a degree of extent, the sallies of imagination must vanish; these generally arise from the mind’s collecting all its powers to view only one side of the subject, while it leaves the other unobserved.
I write not to censure anything established in any country whatsoever. Every nation will here find the reasons on which its maxims are founded; and this will be the natural inference, that to propose alterations belongs only to those who are so happy as to be born with a genius capable of penetrating the entire constitution of a state.
It is not a matter of indifference that the minds of the people be enlightened. The prejudices of magistrates have arisen from national prejudice. In a time of ignorance they have committed even the greatest evils without the least scruple; but in an enlightened age they even tremble while conferring the greatest blessings. They perceive the ancient abuses; they see how they must be reformed; but they are sensible also of the abuses of a reformation. They let the evil continue, if they fear a worse; they are content with a lesser good, if they doubt a greater. They examine into the parts, to judge of them in connection; and they examine all the causes, to discover their different effects.
Could I but succeed so as to afford new reasons to every man to love his prince, his country, his laws; new reasons to render him more sensible in every nation and government of the blessings he enjoys, I should think myself the most happy of mortals.
Could I but succeed so as to persuade those who command, to increase their knowledge in what they ought to prescribe; and those who obey, to find a new pleasure resulting from obedience — I should think myself the most happy of mortals.
The most happy of mortals should I think myself could I contribute to make mankind recover from their prejudices. By prejudices I here mean, not that which renders men ignorant of some particular things, but whatever renders them ignorant of themselves.
It is in endeavouring to instruct mankind that we are best able to practise that general virtue which comprehends the love of all. Man, that flexible being, conforming in society to the thoughts and impressions of others, is equally capable of knowing his own nature, whenever it is laid open to his view; and of losing the very sense of it, when this idea is banished from his mind.
Often have I begun, and as often have I laid aside, this undertaking. I have a thousand times given the leaves I had written to the winds: I, every day, felt my paternal hands fall. I have followed my object without any fixed plan: I have known neither rules nor exceptions; I have found the truth, only to lose it again. But when I once discovered my first principles, everything I sought for appeared; and in the course of twenty years, I have seen my work begun, growing up, advancing to maturity, and finished.
If this work meets with success, I shall owe it chiefly to the grandeur and majesty of the subject. However, I do not think that I have been totally deficient in point of genius. When I have seen what so many great men both in France, England, and Germany have said before me, I have been lost in admiration; but I have not lost my courage: I have said with Correggio, “And I also am a painter.”
1. For the better understanding of the first four books of this work, it is to be observed that what I distinguish by the name of virtue, in a republic, is the love of one’s country, that is, the love of equality. It is not a moral, nor a Christian, but a political virtue; and it is the spring which sets the republican government in motion, as honour is the spring which gives motion to monarchy. Hence it is that I have distinguished the love of one’s country, and of equality, by the appellation of political virtue. My ideas are new, and therefore I have been obliged to find new words, or to give new acceptations to old terms, in order to convey my meaning. They, who are unacquainted with this particular, have made me say most strange absurdities, such as would be shocking in any part of the world, because in all countries and governments morality is requisite.
2. The reader is also to notice that there is a vast difference between saying that a certain quality, modification of the mind, or virtue, is not the spring by which government is actuated, and affirming that it is not to be found in that government. Were I to say such a wheel or such a pinion is not the spring which sets the watch going, can you infer thence that they are not to be found in the watch? So far is it from being true that the moral and Christian virtues are excluded from monarchy, that even political virtue is not excluded. In a word, honour is found in a republic, though its spring be political virtue; and political virtue is found in a monarchical government, though it be actuated by honour.
To conclude, the honest man of whom we treat in the third book, chapter 5, is not the Christian, but the political honest man, who is possessed of the political virtue there mentioned. He is the man who loves the laws of his country, and who is actuated by the love of those laws. I have set these matters in a clearer light in the present edition, by giving a more precise meaning to my expression: and in most places where I have made use of the word virtue I have taken care to add the term political.
1. The present King of Sardinia.
2. Book i. Chap. 1.
3. Book xvi. Chap. 4.
4. Book xvi. Chap. 4.
5. Book xxv. Ch. 10.
6. Ibid. Ch. 1.