Montesquieu’s Stoicism

An excerpt from the chapter ‘The turning-point: the Treatise on Duties or Montesquieu’s Stoicism’ of the book ‘Montesquieu: An Introduction. A Universal Mind for a Universal Science of Political-legal Systems’ by Domenico Felice

If I knew something useful  to me, and harmful to my family,  I would reject it from my mind.  If I knew something useful to my family and not to my Country,  I would try to forget it.  If I knew of something useful to my Country  and harmful to Europe, or useful to Europe  and harmful to Mankind,  I would look upon it as a crime.   (Montesquieu)


Immediately after the publication of the Persian Letters, Montesquieu felt the need to further consider and analyse the question of the oppression and of the evil that it does against human nature in order to find a possible solution. The fact of bringing it to light and of revealing its causes, of knowing it «telling the truth» is really useful and exciting[1], but, it is not enough. Moreover, he felt that the answers or the reactions to this question which were to be found in the work (the incestuous love between Apheridon and Astarte[2] and Roxana’s suicide, the most cherished of the wives of the «jealous» master-husband Usbek[3]) were not suited nor adaptable. As we can read in dying Roxana’s proclamation[4] against his oppressor, to enforce the «laws of nature» against the oppressive socio-cultural conventions is a heroic but individual and desperate act of rebellion, which in no way contributes to reducing the worldwide dominant violence of man by man. And the same goes also for Apheridon and his sister Astarte: after a thousand vicissitudes, they can marry and be happy, but their love is limited to two or a few people (the family and its members). Rather, it is necessary to ‘project’ beyond itself or to be even more altruistic, the ultimate goal being every human being (the whole human race), to take positive action not only for themselves or for a restricted group of persons, but for everyone, for the good of all[5].

In other terms, when faced with the dominant «horror» in Asia and with the Western «poisoned climes»[6], and with the «universal unhappiness» attested by human history[7], it is necessary to “travel down” new paths. These new paths are surely longer and harder than the one that have been ‘conceived’ or ‘imagined’ falling prey to distressing feelings because of the dramatic events of that time (the disastrous failure of the so-called système or Mississippi Bubble concocted by Law and a «ghastly mourning» dominating the Asian seraglio[8]). We can understand that these paths should be focused on a universal altruism: in primis, the practice and exercise of justice, which is the general and social virtue par excellence, the «another’s good» (as Cicero said, following Aristotles’ lead[9]). And, in fact, as we have already seen in the Persian Letters, Montesquieu concentrates his efforts precisely on this virtue and achieves essential results for his existential and intellectual journey. We are now thinking about the Discourse on the equity that must decide judgments and the execution of the laws, delivered before the Parliament of Bordeaux on November 11, 1725 as president à mortier[10], or about the Treatise on Duties, of which he read the first chapters before the Bordeaux Academy of Sciences on May 1725 (of which an active and influential member he was).

During the drafting of these key works, Montesquieu allowed himself to be guided by the Ancients[11], and in particular by the philosophers of the Middle and New Stoa (in primis, Cicero with is De officiis, and Marcus Aurelius), as he writes in an important letter to François de Fitz-James, the archbishop of Soissons (October 8th, 1750):

About thirty years ago, I conceived the project of writing a book on duty. Cicero’s treatise On duties had delighted me, and I took it as my model. As you know, Cicero had, as it were, copied Panaetius, who was a Stoic, and the Stoics had treated this question most successfully. So I read the Stoics’ principal works, among them the Moral Reflections[12] of Marcus Aurelius, which struck me as the masterpiece of Antiquity. I confess that I was impressed by its morality, and that I should have liked to make a saint of Marcus Aurelius […]. What impressed me most was to discover that this morality was practical […]. So it was that in the preface, which is put at the beginning of the Treatise on duties I had sketched, a eulogy of the Stoics and their philosophy. I read parts of my treatise at the Academy of Bordeaux; extracts of certain parts of the work appeared in the journals […]. Later, I found it would be very difficult for me to write a good book on duty, that Ciceross division, which is that of the Stoics, was too vague; above all, I feared such a rival in Cicero; and it seemed to me that my mind was not equal to his. Therefore, I abandoned the project[13].

The Discourse on the equity has come down to us, whereas the manuscript of the draft of the Treatise on Duties has unfortunately been lost, but during the first few decades of the nineteenth century was still in circulation[14]. Nevertheless, we are in possession of the report of proceedings for the sitting of the Academy, during which it was partially read, drawn up by Jean-Jacques Bel (one of Montesquieu’s best friends) and published on a literary magazine of the period. This report, together with a list of the chapter headings[15], a fragment entitled On politics and a considerable number of pensées («thoughts») related to the Treatise (which have reached us in the course of today), is more than enough to form a clear vision of the contents of the work. Obviously, Montesquieu was aware of the doctrine of the «sect of Stoics» – that is the bearer of the «principles more worthy of men»[16], as he writes in the Spirit of the Laws – since before the Persian Letters (in particular Cicero and Seneca). Nevertheless, during the immediately subsequent years, he studied this doctrine in depth, assimilating its fundamental ideas, which will become the key principles not only as a man but also as a thinker.

As a man: it’s in the first half of the twenties of the eighteenth century that Montesquieu began drafting his ‘zibaldone’ of thoughts (My Thoughts[17]), which is, in most respects, his manual of «spiritual exercises»[18]. It is important to note that this ‘zibaldone’ fully echoes Marcus Aurelius’ Thoughts. Actually, it is not infrequently that in these thoughts Montesquieu, as a man of good will, does not hesitate to criticize himself and to try to find the «thoughts» which can help him to live well and better, just like in Marcus Aurelius’ Thoughts: «In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present, – I am rising to the work of a human being» (V, 1).

Thus, as alluded to above, the most important «exercise» is that of the virtue of justice. In his Discourse on the Equity Montesquieu writes that justice is the «essential quality» of a magistrate: in order to adequately administer the justice, the latter must ensure that justice is enlightened, prompt, and mild but, above all, universal:

A judge must not be like the old Cato, who was the most correct of the Romans in his court, but not in his family. Justice must be in us a general conduct. Therefore, we must be righteous everywhere from all points of view, to all people and in all circumstances. 

Those who are righteous only in cases where their profession requires that claim to be fair in the affairs of others while not incorruptible in what touches them, who did not use equity in their daily life, they risk losing quickly the same justice they make in court.

Judges of this sort look like monstrous deity invented by myth, that put a little order in the universe, but that, charged with crimes and imperfections, confused themselves their own laws, and brought the world back to all the excesses that had been banned[19].

Montesquieu further notes that the role of the private person must be comparable to the one of the public person, as the «heart» of a magistrate is disclosed particularly in the questions affecting his person and his family: «It is just in this that people judge us; it is in this that people are afraid of us or put their hope. If our conduct is doomed, if it is suspected, we will be undergoing some kind of public objection; and those who are obliged to take the right to judge, include the latter in the list of their misfortunes»[20].

Thus, the «exercise» of the virtue of justice must apply both in public and in private: in other words, as we can read in one of the pensées («thoughts») related to the Treatise on Duties, it must become «a habit […] that it is observed even in the smallest things» and «that one bends […] even in one’s manner of thinking»[21]. In other terms, it is necessary that it becomes a habitus animi, just like Cicero claimed[22], a modus vivendi, a way of life and thinking. But what exactly is this justice and what are the «means to acquire it to the highest degree»?[23]

So let us turn to the second point of the question (Montesquieu as a thinker): like most of virtues, justice is a relation between human beings. Nevertheless, unlike other virtues, such as friendship, love of one’s country or compassion, which are a particular kind of relation because they only concern a limited number of people (friends, compatriots or the unfortunates), justice is a general relation, because it is addressed to all men, without distinction[24]. To that effect, justice is the highest virtue, the virtue par excellence: an excellentissima virtus[25], as Cicero wrote, or the mère de toutes les vertus («mother of all the virtues»), as Montesquieu could read in the French translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Thoughts[26].

This «principle» gives rise to the Stoic «general maxim» according to which all «particular duties» cease when the «primary duties» or the «duties of man» come into play. Montesquieu exactly writes:

all particular duties cease when they cannot be accomplished without offending duties of man. Should one consider, for instance, the good of the homeland when that of humankind is a stake? No, the duty of the citizen is a crime when it leads one to forget the duty of man[27]. As it was impossible to place the universe within the same society, this has caused men to be foreigners to some, but such a division did not stipulate against primary duties, and man, everywhere a creature of reason, is neither a Roman nor a Barbarian[28].  

In other terms, and as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius[29] teach us, there is both a hierarchy of duties (the particular duties are less than the duties of man) and a hierarchy of goods (the good of the homeland is less than the good of mankind). In other words, virtues and duties are not all the same, but they are arranged in a hierarchical sequence or on the basis of a framework of concentric and progressive circles: the range spans from the smallest and perfect one to the biggest and perfect one, till to justice, the most perfect and largest of all virtues[30].

Montesquieu’s «thought» which better represents this Stoic view of duties and goods (and so of virtues) is the following:

If I knew something useful to me, and harmful to my family, I would reject it from my mind. If I knew something useful to my family and not to my Country, I would try to forget it. If I knew of something useful to my Country and harmful to Europe, or useful to Europe and harmful to Mankind, I would look upon it as a crime[31].

Thus, the duty of human beings is always put before humankind to Europe, Europe to the homeland, the homeland to the family, the family to themselves. In short, the good of all humanity is always preferable to the personal and limited profit.

Like in the French translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Thoughts, in his Discourse on Equity, Montesquieu writes that «human virtue is a general affection for humankind (affection générale pour le genre humain[32]; in other terms, as he will once again stress twenty years later in the Preface of the Spirit of the Laws, «that general virtue including love of all», whose «exercise» is to try (as the Président believes to have done through his opus magnum[33]), to «instruct men about their nature»: we can thus understand that human nature is not only egoism (as Hobbes thought) but also altruism, as the Stoics believed[34]. Egoism separates the human being from the trunk of the societas humani generis which belongs and attaches it to one of its branches[35], and namely to an ‘isolated’ or ‘detached’ part of society. Hereby, as we can see in the conclusion of the apologue of Troglodytes[36], the human being is led to self-destruction, whereas altruism holds him together with this trunk, and namely to all of which he is a part, preserving him. In other terms, the human being can save himself if he can see that «is a property of the rational soul love of one’s neighbour»[37] and act to seek the good of human community[38]. Montesquieu admirably synthesizes:

Nothing is closer to divine Providence than that general benevolence and that great capacity for love that embraces all men, and nothing more closely approaches animal instinct than those boundaries that the heart gives itself when it is touched only by its own interest, or by what is right near it[39].

[1] There is no «better activity than to tell the truth» (Éloge de sincérité, in OC, 8/I, p. 142).

[2] Indeed, it’s an incestuous love between brother (Apheridon) and sister (Astarte), whose marriage union is defined as a «naive reflection of the union already established by nature» (LP LXV [LXVII], p. 184; on the contrary, in EL, XXVI, 14, it will be defined as «horror of incest between brother and sister» [p. 1880]). Among the interpreters and experts of Montesquieu, Judith Shklar is in our opinion the only one which has grasped the real meaning of story of these two Parsi – the only people who are happy in the Persian Letters. And she writes: «Of all Montesquieu’s stories this [of Astarte and Apheridon] is the most subversive […]. To make incest the condition of happiness is to say that the rules of society do nothing to make us good or happy. The moral psychology of individuals and the minimal demands of social conventions are out of joint; they thwart each other» (J.N. Shklar, Montesquieu, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 37).

[3] Montesquieu repeatedly insists on jealousy of Usbek («violent», «dark»): e.g. LP VI (VI), XIX (XX), XX (XXI), XXXII (XXXIV), LX (LXII), CXLVII (CLV) and CL (CLXI).

[4] «I have rewritten your laws to conform to those of nature» (LP CL [CLXI], p. 424).

[5] According to Dante, it is not sufficient to cultivate the «appetite for learning and the desire of knowing», but also to pursue the virtueYe were not formed to live the life of brutes, / But virtue to pursue and knowledge high»: Dante, Inferno, XXVI, 119-120), as Montesquieu himself seems to suggest in his Éloge de la sincérité, as he talks about Ulysses guided by «wisdom» and «virtue» (Éloge de la sincérité, in OC, 8/I, pp. 140-141).

[6] LP XXIV (XXVI), pp. 76.

[7] Cf. LP XXXI (XXXIII), XC (XCII), pp. 94, 254-256; J.N. Shklar, Montesquieu, p. 36.

[8] LP CXLVIII (CLVI), p. 420.

[9] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V, 1129b -1130a: «[…] justice, alone of the virtues, is thought to be ‘another’s good’, because it is related to our neighbour; for it does what is advantageous to another, either a ruler or a copartner. Now the worst man is he who exercises his wickedness both towards himself and towards his friends, and the best man is not he who exercises his virtue towards himself but he who exercises it towards another; for this is a difficult task» (emphasis added); Cicero, De re publica, II, 43, 68 «[…] justice looks outwardit is entirely directed abroad and stands out»;  III, 8, 12: justice «loves all people more than itself, which is born for others rather than for itself». See Nonius Marcellus, De compendiosa doctrina, I: De proprietate sermonum: cf. Catalogue, n° 1932.

[10] Montesquieu had inherited this position on 20 May 1726 from his uncle Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, died on 24 April of that year. Even if he later sold it (as was the custom at the time), he retained for life his honorific title of président.  

[11] «I admit my taste for the Ancients. That Antiquity enchants me, and I am always led to say with Pliny: “It is to Athens that you are going. Respect their gods”» (P 110). Obviously, we do not deny the influence on Montesquieu of the modern authors (Grotius, Descartes, Pufendorf, Malebranche, Shaftesbury, Fénelon, etc…), but we think that the insistence exclusively on them is an evident disclaimer of his real cult for the ancient ones. On this aspect, see for instance: R. Shackleton, Montesquieu. A Critical Biography, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 72-73; and C. P. Courtney in his «Montesquieu and Natural Law», in Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on the «Spirit of Laws», ed. D.W. Carrithers, M.A. Mosher and P.A. Rahe, Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p. 48.

[12] Réflexions morales («Moral Reflections») was the title of the (annotated) translation Mr. and Mrs. Dacier made of the Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius which was in Montesquieu’s library in the 1707 and 1714 editions (that is the third and the fourth ones; it was first published in 1691; cf. Catalogue, nn° 692-693): Réflexions morales de l’empereur Marc Antonin, avec des remarques de Mr. & de Mad. Dacier, 2 tt., Amsterdam, Mortier, 17144).

[13] Montesquieu to François Fritz-James, in Masson, III, pp. 1327-1328 (emphasis added). In his writings prior to the Persian Letters, such as for instance the Discours sur Cicéron ([«Discourse on Cicero»] 1717 ca.), but also in the Persian Letters themselves (letter XXXI [XXXIII]), Montesquieu seems on the contrary to undervalue the Stoic thought: see Discours sur Cicéron, in OC, 8/I, p. 128

[14] Cf. Sh. Mason, «Introduction» to Traité des devoirs, in OC, 8/I, p. 431. In 1818 the Treatise apparead in a selection of manuscripts sent by Joseph-Cyrille de Montesquieu (the owner of La Brède) to his cousin Charles-Louis (Montesquieu’s nephew), who lived in Canterbury. Here the concise description of it we can find in the sent manuscripts catalogue: «Un autre cahier, intitulé: Traité des devoirs, mis au net. Il y a un chapitre: Des devoirs en général; – 2° de Dieu; – 3° de nos devoirs envers les hommes; – 4° de la Justice; – 5° de quelques principes de philosophie; – 6° des principes des Stoïciens; 7° l’habitude de la Justice; – 8° l’imitation du chapitre précédent; 9° – équivoque grossière du mot de Justice; – 10° des devoirs de l’Homme; – 11° de quelques exemples de la violation des devoirs de l’Homme; – 12° ce que nous devons à la Religion chrétienne, de nous avoir donné l’équité pour tous les hommes; – 13° de la Politique; – 14° du peu d’utilité de la Politique».

[15] Hence the fact that more than half of the 14 chapters which made up the Treatise (chapters 3-9 and 14) specifically concerns the issue of justice: see the previous note and J.-J. Bel’s report.

[16] EL, XXIV, 10, p. 1798.

[17] According to Louis Desgraves, Montesquieu started their compilation around the year 1720: cf. L. Desgraves, «Introduction» to Montesquieu, Pensées – Le Spicilège, ed. L. Desgraves, Paris, Laffont, 1991, p. 69; Id., Chronologie critique de la vie et des oeuvres de Montesquieu, Paris, Champion, 1998, p. 79.

[18] We use this expression according to the meaning attributed to it by Pierre Hadot: cf. P. Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, Paris, Études Augustiniennes, 1981; by the same author, see also the masterful work La citadelle intérieure. Introduction aux Pensées de Marc Aurèle. Paris, Fayard, 1992. About Montesquieu’s Pensées, see my Lo ‘zibaldone’ di Montesquieu, in Montesquieu, Riflessioni e pensieri inediti (1716-1755) (1943), trans. by di L. Ginzburg, Bologna, Clueb, 2010, pp. 7-22.

[19] Discours sur l’équité, in OC, 8/I, pp. 481-482 (emphasis added).

[20] Ibid., p. 482.

[21] P 220.

[22] Cicero, De inventione, II, 53, 16.

[23] Traité des devoirs, in OC, 8/I, p. 438 (J.-J. Bel’s report).

[24] Cf. ibidem: «Most virtues are only particular relations, but justice is a general relation; it concerns man himself, it concerns him with respect to all men»; and P 1008: «Nearly all the virtues are a particular relation of one specific man with another. For example, friendship, love of Country, compassion are particular relations. But justice is a general relation. Now all the virtues that destroy this general relation are not virtues» (emphasis added).

[25] Cf. Cicerone, De natura deorum, I, 2: «[…] when piety towards the gods is removed, I am not so sure that good faith, and human fraternity, and justice, the chief of all the virtues (una excellentissima virtus), are not also removed»; Id., De officiis, III, 6, 28: justice «is mistress and queen of all the virtue (domina et regina virtutum)». As is widely known, in the Republic (IV, 427d-445e) Plato had already talked about justice, defining it as the virtue embracing all the other ones and namely: prudence (or wisdom), courage and temperance.

[26] Réflexions morales, t. II, p. 214 [Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, XI, 10].

[27] Clearly distancing himself both from Hobbes (cf. infra) and from Machiavelli, Montesquieu writes elsewhere that «[…] the crime loses nothing of its abomination by the utility derived from it. It is true that actions are always judged by the outcome, but in morality, this judgment by men is itself a deplorable abuse» (P 207; emphasis added).

[28] Traité des devoirs, in OC, 8/I, p. 438.

[29] See for example Cicero, De officiis, I, 17, 53-58 e De finibus, V, 23, 65; and Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, IV, 44, 6 e VI, 54 (this latest passage is mentioned in two Thoughts of Montesquieu): «What is not useful to the swarm is not useful to the bee» (P 1657); «All nations hold together in a chain and communicate their goods and their ills to each other. I am not speechifying, I am stating a truth: the world’s prosperity will always constitute our own, and as Marcus Antonius said, “What is not useful to the swarm is not useful to the bee”» (P 1694). Thus, Montesquieu’s thought is clearly the exact opposite of the one of Mandeville, who defends the principle of private vices/public benefits, which the essence of the bourgeois and capitalistic ideology.

[30] Cf. C. Larrère, «Montesquieu et le stoïcisme», Lumières, 1 (2003), pp. 77-79.

[31] P 741 (related to the Treatise on Duties). The thought is mentioned by Montesquieu also in the Histoire véritable («A True Story» [1734-1739]), in OC, 9/II, p. 186. See also LP LXV (LVII) («The heart is a citizen of every country»: p. 182) e P 350, 741, 1253, 1267.

[32] Discours sur l’équitéOC, 8/I, p. 480. «Affection pour tous les hommes en général» (Réflexions morales, t. II, p. 216 [Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, XI, 13]). Cicero, on turn, talked about caritas generis humani («love of the whole human race») (De finibus, V, 23, 65).

[33] See for instance his letter to the duke of Nivernais (26 January 1750), where he states that in the Spirit of the Laws is to be found nothing but «love of the good, of peace and of the happiness of all mankind» (in Masson, III, p. 1280).

[34] See ultra, where we illustrate in greater detail the relationship between Montesquieu and Hobbes.

[35] Cf. P 1253 ((related to the Treatise on Duties). Sources: Paul the Apostle, Romani, XI, 17-19, and Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, XI, 8.

[36] See LP XI (XI).

[37] Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, XI, 1, 4. See also ibidem, VII, 22 («It is the part of man to love those who offend them») and Seneca De clementia, II, 3, 3. Cf. P. Hadot, La citadelle intérieure, pp. 172-173 and 210-212, where the focus is on the affinity between tha Stoic ethics and the Christian one, which Montesquieu already felt («One sees with pleasure that Christian charity scarcely demands more of us than what the Pagans felt humanity and love of the common good demanded of them»: P 924).

[38] See again Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, VI, 7: «Let this be thy only joy, and thy only comfort, from one sociable kind action without intermission to pass unto another, God being ever in thy mind»; VIII, 23: «Shall I do it? I will; so the end of my action be to do good unto men». Among the modern authors going strongly back to these topics, we should mention especially Shaftesbury (Sensus communis: An Essay on the Freedom of the Wit and Humour [1709], Parte III, sez. II), considered by Montesquieu a «great poet», together with Plato, Malebranche and Montaigne (P 1092).

[39] P 938. This thought is directly linked to the already mentioned Histoire véritable, in OC, 9/II, p. 186. See Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium, III, 28, 4 («My homeland is the world»).