Montesquieu

1 PREFACE

If, among the count­less things to be found in this work, there were one which, coun­ter to my expec­ta­tion, could cause offense, at least there is none that was pla­ced there with ill intent. Naturally I am not nega­ti­vely dis­po­sed. Plato than­ked hea­ven that he was born in the time of Socrates, and I that I was born under the govern­ment where I live, and for wan­ting me to obey those it has given me to love.

I ask one favor which I fear will not be gran­ted : it is that the labor of twenty years labor not be jud­ged on the rea­ding of a moment ; that the whole book be appro­ved or condem­ned, and not just a few sen­ten­ces. If you would seek the author’s design, it can be truly dis­co­ve­red only in the design of the work.

I have first stu­died men, and belie­ved that in this infi­nite diver­sity of laws and ways, they were not being gui­ded solely by their whims.

I have laid down the prin­ci­ples, and I have seen par­ti­cu­lar cases confor­ming to them as if unpromp­ted ; I have seen the his­to­ries of all nations as sim­ply the conse­quen­ces of these prin­ci­ples, and each par­ti­cu­lar law lin­ked to ano­ther one, or depen­dent on ano­ther more gene­ral law.

When I have been recal­led to Antiquity, I have sought to adopt its spi­rit, so as to avoid regar­ding really dif­fe­rent cases as simi­lar, and fai­ling to see the dif­fe­ren­ces of those that appear alike.

I have deri­ved my prin­ci­ples not from my pre­ju­di­ces, but from the nature of the phe­no­mena.

There are many truths here which you will find per­sua­sive only after you have seen the chain that links them to other things. The more you reflect on the details, the more you will accept the cer­tainty of the prin­ci­ples. Nor have I given all these details, for who could say eve­ry­thing without appal­ling tedium ?

You will not find here the sort of wit­ti­cisms that seem to typify the wri­tings of today. If you take the long view of things, the wit­ti­cisms disap­pear ; usually they arise only because the mind takes off in one direc­tion and aban­dons all the others.

I do not write to cen­sure what is esta­bli­shed in any par­ti­cu­lar coun­try. Every nation will find the rea­sons for its maxims here ; and you will natu­rally draw from them the conclu­sion that no one is in a posi­tion to pro­pose chan­ges except those gif­ted enough to grasp the whole of a state’s cons­ti­tu­tion at once.

It is not indif­fe­rent that the peo­ple should be enligh­te­ned. The pre­ju­di­ces of magis­tra­tes began as the pre­ju­di­ces of the nation. In a time of igno­rance no one has any doubt, even while doing the grea­test harm ; in an enligh­te­ned time, we trem­bles even while doing the finest of deeds. We rea­lize the for­mer abu­ses, and see how to cor­rect them ; but in addi­tion we see the abu­ses of the cor­rec­tion itself. We leave the harm alone if we fear the worst ; we lea­ves the good alone if we are unsure about what is bet­ter. We look at the parts only to judge the whole toge­ther ; we exa­mine all the cau­ses to see the results.

If I could contrive to pro­vide eve­ryone with new rea­sons for embra­cing their duties, their prince, their coun­try, and their laws, for fee­ling their hap­pi­ness bet­ter in every coun­try and under every govern­ment, in every posi­tion they may occupy, I should think myself the hap­piest of mor­tals.

If I could contrive things so that those who com­mand would increase their know­ledge about what they must pres­cribe, and those who obey would take new plea­sure in their obe­dience, I should think myself the hap­piest of mor­tals.

I would think myself the hap­piest of mor­tals if I could cause men to cure them­sel­ves of their pre­ju­di­ces. I am cal­ling pre­ju­di­ces here not what makes us una­ware of cer­tain things, but what makes us una­ware of our­sel­ves.

It is by see­king to ins­truct men that one can prac­tice the gene­ral vir­tue that inclu­des 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 when it is shown to him, and losing all sense of it when it is concea­led from him.

I have begun this work many times and aban­do­ned it many times ; a thou­sand times I have cast to the winds the pages I had writ­ten2 ; every day I felt my pater­nal hands fall limp3 : I was fol­lo­wing my objec­tive without for­mu­la­ting a plan ; I knew nei­ther the rules nor the excep­tions ; I would find truth only to lose it again. But when I dis­co­ve­red my prin­ci­ples, eve­ry­thing I was loo­king for came to me ; and over the course of twenty years I have seen my work begin, grow, pro­gress, and conclude.

If this book is wel­co­med, I will owe it lar­gely to the majesty of my sub­ject ; yet I do not think I have enti­rely wan­ted for genius. When I have seen what so many great men in France, England, and Germany have writ­ten before me, I have been in awe, but have not lost cou­rage : I have said with Correggio, and I too am a pain­ter.4

[In the 1758 edition, this preface is preceded by an author’s foreword which will be found in Annex 1.]

ludibria ventis [’the whim of the wind’] (Vergil, Aeneid, VI, 75)].

Bis patriæ cecidere manus… [’Twice the father’s hands fell away’ (Ibid., VI, 33)].

Ed io anche son pittore.