Remarks on the present translation

1. Why replace the Cohler trans­la­tion ?

Any trans­la­tor owes at least some­thing to anyone who has pre­viously taken on the same work. While Thomas Nugent’s freew­hee­ling trans­la­tion (often in fact a para­phrase) is alto­ge­ther unac­cep­ta­ble by today’s stan­dards, it is still some­ti­mes use­ful if only because it is contem­po­rary with Montesquieu and has a good chance of reflec­ting period voca­bu­lary with rea­so­na­ble accu­racy (at least inso­far as Nugent unders­tands Montesquieu’s mea­ning). This makes it, like period dic­tio­na­ries such as the Dictionnaire de Trévoux, an impor­tant resource because the mea­ning of words has often shif­ted in the inte­rim ; in the case of tech­ni­cal (espe­cially legal) ter­mi­no­logy, a mea­ning may have disap­pea­red alto­ge­ther in 270 years, and some­ti­mes the word as well.

The Cambridge trans­la­tion of 19891 also has many qua­li­ties, inclu­ding a care­ful and control­led use of ter­mi­no­logy that contrasts with Nugent more non­cha­lant approach. It sol­ves, or at least tries to solve, not a few knotty pro­blems which Nugent had adroitly dod­ged, and comes up with a num­ber of quite ele­gant for­mu­la­tions, some of which are worth imi­ta­ting.

It never­the­less har­bors many mis­ta­kes, often bound up with sys­te­ma­tic voca­bu­lary choi­ces. Some are just awk­ward, such as “sof­ten” for adou­cir (e.g., XII.30), some are more than slightly off, and some are quite wrong, for exam­ple “dis­grace” for dis­grâce (e.g., XII.30) and “empire” for empire (pas­sim). Many of these pro­blems arise from mis­pla­ced confi­dence in cogna­tes, which, good­ness knows, is a fami­liar devil in trans­la­tion. Argent does some­ti­mes mean sil­ver, as the Cambridge trans­la­tion usually has it, but by no means always. Empire does not mean “empire” except when it is a for­mal desi­gna­tion for a type of poli­ti­cal struc­ture, and cer­tainly not in Quand la beauté demande l’empire, la rai­son le fait refu­ser (XVI.2). Droit does not always mean “right”, it even some­ti­mes means “law”. Univers does not mean “uni­verse” but “the entire world ; all crea­ted crea­tu­res, the tota­lity of all beings”2 (Trévoux). And so forth.

Though any attempt at an exhaus­tive cata­lo­gue would be fas­ti­dious and need­less, I will give just a few exam­ples to illus­trate mis­cons­trual of par­ti­cu­lar terms in spe­ci­fic contexts.

C’est la vexa­tion qui se sur­monte elle-même, et se voit contrainte à une cer­taine dou­ceur (XIII.11). “This haras­se­ment defeats itself and one sees it cons­trai­ned to be somew­hat gentle.”

Se sur­mon­ter often has a posi­tive mea­ning, here some­thing like “sur­pas­ses itself”. The resul­ting sen­tence is all but incom­pre­hen­si­ble (frankly, on occa­sion, the fate of any trans­la­tion).

Les hom­mes s’y sou­met­tent à des maux incroya­bles (XIV.3). “Men there suf­fer unbe­lie­va­ble evils”.

Mal (plu­ral maux) has many uses, and here, in the context of fakirs in India, means pain, not evil.

Les fibres qui n’ont qu’une action très fai­ble et peu de res­sort, ne s’usent guère (XIV.10). “The fibers, which have only a very weak action and lit­tle spring, are scar­cely used […]”.

To trans­late user as “use” is a serious over­sight. This is a mecha­ni­cal com­pa­ri­son, where s’user means to wear down or wear out.

[…] il faut que l’escla­vage soit pour l’uti­lité, et non pas pour la volupté (XV.ll). “[…] sla­very must be for uti­lity and not for volup­tuous­ness” [also pas­sim].

Volupté is an annoying word for trans­la­tors because (like pudeur) it has no very accu­rate English equi­va­lent. But though it always rela­ted to sen­suous­ness, “volup­tuous­ness” is a des­pe­rate choice and will not do.

Il en fal­lut même de ter­ri­bles pour établir la sûreté de ces maî­tres cruels (XV.16). “There had even to be ter­ri­ble laws in order to esta­blish secu­rity for these cruel mas­ters”.

This pas­sage is not about “ter­ri­ble” laws but about fero­cious laws. Terrible/“ter­ri­ble” is a temp­ting but often mis­lea­ding cognate.

[…] on vit sans cesse le frère, l’oncle, le neveu, que dis-je, le fils, le père, cons­pi­rer contre toute sa famille (XVIII.29). “[…] the bro­ther, the uncle, the nephew (what can I say ?), the son, the father, were seen cons­tantly cons­pi­ring against the rest of the family.”

Hard to handle sty­lis­ti­cally, but it must first be unders­tood that que dis-je ? does not mean “what can I say ?” or any­thing close to that ; it rai­ses the rhe­to­ri­cal level by signi­fying an inten­si­fi­ca­tion in the level of allu­sion.

[…] tout citoyen y aurait sa volonté pro­pre, et ferait valoir à son gré son indé­pen­dance (XIX.27). “[…] each citi­zen would have his own will and would value his inde­pen­dence accor­ding to his taste”.

Faire valoir sim­ply does not mean “to value” ; here, as in too many other pas­sa­ges, the trans­la­tors were dea­ling with an idiom they clearly did not unders­tand. Here it means to stand up for, to argue, to assert. But as I said, this sort of acci­dent also befalls Nugent, and without any doubt the pre­sent trans­la­tor as well, at least some­ti­mes.

2. Approach to some gene­ral pro­blems

Certain ende­mic gram­ma­ti­cal traits of French are all too fami­liar to every trans­la­tor. Among them is the very fluid and mul­ti­ple use of the pro­nouns/pre­po­si­tions/adverbs y and en. Any attempt to retain each and every occur­rence in a trans­la­tion betrays an inex­pe­rien­ced (or machine) trans­la­tor. Less often noti­ced is on, an all-pur­pose pro­noun which is excee­din­gly pre­va­lent in L’Esprit des lois, with close to 7000 occur­ren­ces. We may as well concede that this is a text cons­truc­ted to a sub­stan­tial extent on the very libe­ral and flexi­ble use of the pro­noun on.

“One” is, of course, an approxi­mate equi­va­lent in English ; the pro­blem is that it can­not sus­tain pro­lon­ged use without appea­ring stil­ted, and when over­done it beco­mes unbea­ra­ble. A whole reper­tory of work-arounds is nee­ded which to a word-for-word purist will seem a devia­tion from the ori­gi­nal. But really they are neces­sary if the text is to sound any­thing like natu­ral in its tar­get lan­guage.

In prac­tice, what trans­la­tors do, of neces­sity, is to find other ways – and cer­tainly more than one is nee­ded – to avoid exces­sive repe­ti­tion of “one”. Inasmuch as on often in fact means “we”, the first-per­son plu­ral is then a more than accep­ta­ble sub­sti­tute. Sometimes we can say “a per­son” or “someone” to trans­late on, or even “peo­ple” when, as on often does, it seems to be a broad gene­ra­li­za­tion. Another use­ful device, but one not sui­ted to all situa­tions, is the pas­sive voice : ins­tead of on dit que…, we can opt for “it is said that…”

Reasonable consis­tency of ter­mi­no­logy is of course impor­tant in any text as com­plex as L’Esprit des lois – espe­cially, per­haps, an his­to­ri­cal or phi­lo­so­phi­cal text – but it is not the only consi­de­ra­tion. Montesquieu has many pas­sa­ges cons­truc­ted on rather strict paral­lels, very often fur­ther rein­for­ced by paral­lel syn­tax : in such ins­tan­ces, it is obviously impor­tant to adhere to that inten­tion – even when it seems quite rigid – inso­far as pos­si­ble. On the other hand, attempts to apply one English word, and only one, throu­ghout for a given French word ine­vi­ta­bly force the trans­la­tor to dis­tort, or frankly mis­take, the mea­ning in par­ti­cu­lar ins­tan­ces. I have stri­ven for a rea­so­na­ble com­pro­mise which will unques­tio­na­bly dis­please some, par­ti­cu­larly when they are tho­roughly accus­to­med to one of the trans­la­tions already avai­la­ble. But the idea that one can pre­serve the purity of Montesquieu’s mea­ning, or anyone else’s, by sti­cking to the same English equi­va­lent at all times seems to me lin­guis­ti­cally mis­gui­ded, and can induce what might be cal­led cate­gory mis­ta­kes. Does Montesquieu mean the “same” thing every time he uses a mul­ti­func­tion word (like, say, mœurs) ? Of course not. It is an illu­sion to thing that any word in one lan­guage can occupy the same iden­ti­cal seman­tic space as any given word in ano­ther.

The most obvious change I am incor­po­ra­ting in my trans­la­tion is in the title, where for a num­ber of rea­sons it seems to me that the sin­gu­lar Spirit of Law may be a bet­ter reflec­tion of Montesquieu’s ove­rall mea­ning than its tra­di­tio­nal ren­di­tion. For an ini­tial dis­cus­sion of this and some of the other pro­blems iden­ti­fied, I refer the rea­der to my arti­cle “On the Nugent trans­la­tion of L’Esprit des lois” in History of Political Thought, vol. XXXIX, no. 1 (2018), p. 83–106.

I am also brea­king in other ways with past trans­la­tors, even with res­pect to some terms that appear cen­tral or any cas appear fre­quently in Montesquieu’s argu­ments. One of these is to sub­sti­tute some­thing for the “spring” (for res­sort) of the various types of govern­ments : this, to me, is a good exam­ple of a cate­gory mis­take. The major objec­tion to “spring” is sim­ply that, while Montesquieu does in a few ins­tan­ces use res­sort in a mecha­ni­cal sense (espe­cially in the 1757 Avertissement), the English word “spring” unlike res­sort has no reco­gni­zed meta­pho­ri­cal value that can “natu­ra­lize” such a sup­po­sedly lite­ral trans­la­tion3 The use of res­sort by Montesquieu is in no way a neo­lo­gism, but it is in English when it comes out as “spring”. After expe­ri­men­ting with various sub­sti­tu­tions I have adop­ted various solu­tions rela­ted to notions of impe­tus, incen­tive, and energy.

Peuple is an excee­din­gly com­pli­ca­ted and ambi­guous term in French because it can mean either the body of the peo­ple (popu­lus in Latin), in which case it can also take the plu­ral ; or to com­mo­ners (plebs) as oppo­sed to upper clas­ses ; or again it can, as “peo­ple” often does in English, refer to a polity or aggre­gate of citi­zens. “People” is ambi­guous also in English, but not in ana­lo­gous ways. Populaire, as in gou­ver­ne­ment popu­laire, is clo­sely lin­ked to this lat­ter mea­ning. To use “peo­ple” many times in suc­ces­sion in the sin­gu­lar begins to sound odd. Like pre­vious trans­la­tors, I have usually in such cases shif­ted into the plu­ral, des­pite some slip­page of mea­ning that seems to me some­ti­mes una­voi­da­ble. The idea of plebs, also much used by Montesquieu, refers to those who are not noble or rich, and is often best ren­de­red by “com­mo­ners” or “com­mon peo­ple”. Indeed some other words such as gems and on also are on occa­sion best trans­la­ted as “peo­ple”.

Pouvoir and puis­sance have a simi­lar kind of over­lap­ping usage. Sometimes, but by no means always, Montesquieu keeps them sepa­rate, even in oppo­si­tion, and at other times he seems to sub­sti­tute them indis­cri­mi­na­tely (XI.6). I have gene­rally ren­de­red pou­voir as “power” and puis­sance as “autho­rity”. There are also, of course, occur­ren­ces of auto­rité that also seem to call for “autho­rity” – but not always.

3. A par­ti­cu­lar note on mœurs

Everyone knows what a pro­blem mœurs is to trans­late into English. It is indeed temp­ting to use mores inva­ria­bly, as the Choler group did in the Cambridge trans­la­tion of 1989. But it will not do, and a few exam­ples from Montesquieu’s text will show that its mea­ning in context is not always the same. Consequentially, the strictly consis­tent use of any term ends up ske­wing the most obvious sense of some pas­sa­ges. There are 241 occur­ren­ces of mœurs in L’Esprit des lois, so the is a mat­ter of some impor­tance.

For one thing, mœurs often occurs in the same imme­diate context as maniè­res and/or cou­tu­mes, so we have to assume at least an ele­ment of contrast, even bet­ween syno­nyms. The same is true for such words as lois, of course, of morale (XVI.14) and of police(XXI.1). But what does it mean for mœurs to be pures, or cor­rom­pues, com­bi­na­tions found nume­rous times in this text ? There are seve­ral men­tions of la bonté des mœurs ; and what exactly can be meant by man­quer de mœurs (VI.9), or for a citi­zen to per­dre ses mœurs (XIX.16) ? There are some contexts where mœurs stron­gly seems to denote conven­tio­nal mora­lity, as when mœurs are assi­mi­la­ted to conti­nence (VII.8). Pureté de mœurs with res­pect to women (VII.13) pretty clearly means chas­tity and nothing else. Yet other contexts are much too poli­ti­cal to sug­gest such an impli­ca­tion, as when Montesquieu speaks of une République fon­dée sur les mœurs (V.19). Similarly, what could it mean to be gou­ver­nés par les mœurs (VIII.9) : tra­di­tion, sim­ply ? An equally dif­fi­cult ques­tion : can don­ner des mœurs (an expres­sion which appears quite a few times) be defi­ned with any degree of pre­ci­sion ?

The defi­ni­tion of mœurs in the Dictionnaire de Trévoux is care­fully writ­ten, and very broad :

mœurs, s. f. plur. Façon de vivre, ou d’agir, bonne ou mau­vaise ; habi­tu­des natu­rel­les, ou acqui­ses, pour le bien, ou pour le mal, & sui­vant les­quel­les les peu­ples, ou les par­ti­cu­liers, condui­sent les actions de leur vie. Mores ; boni vel mali habi­tus men­tis.

It puts the accent on habits or prac­ti­ces, at first neu­tral but then qui­ckly sug­ges­ting, by the exam­ples given, moral vec­tors : “La morale traite des mœurs pour les ren­dre bon­nes : elle ne les souf­fre ni mau­vai­ses, ni indif­fé­ren­tes.” The nume­rous sub­se­quent exam­ples resem­ble the contexts in which we find the word in Montesquieu, and there, signi­fi­cantly, the Latin control word (Trévoux being a bilin­gual dic­tio­nary) is no lon­ger mores but mos or usus :

Coutume, usage, façon, manière de vivre gros­sière ou polie. Mos, usus, agendi ratio. Nous pre­nons d’ordi­naire les mœurs de ceux que nous fré­quen­tons. Port-R. L’amour sans dérè­gle­ment adou­cit les mœurs les plus sau­va­ges. M. Sc. Les mœurs d’aujourd’hui civi­li­sées et adou­cies, ne peu­vent souf­frir ce qu’elles avaient de farou­che autre­fois. S. Évr. Il faut avoir des mœurs accom­mo­dan­tes. M. Esp. Platon adou­cit et polit les mœurs des Grecs. Dac. Admirez cette diver­sité de mœurs et de cou­tu­mes, qui ne divise pas moins les nations que la dif­fé­rence de leur lan­gage. S. Évr. Socrate fai­sait pro­fes­sion d’ensei­gner la science et la doc­trine des mœurs. Il ins­trui­sait la jeu­nesse aux bon­nes mœurs. Selon nos mœurs veut dire selon nos usa­ges, nos cou­tu­mes.

The defi­ni­tion in the Encyclopédie is rather simi­lar :

[A]ctions libres des hom­mes, natu­rel­les ou acqui­ses, bon­nes ou mau­vai­ses, sus­cep­ti­bles de règle et de direc­tion. Leur variété chez les divers peu­ples du monde dépend du cli­mat, de la reli­gion, des lois, du gou­ver­ne­ment, des besoins, de l’éducation, des maniè­res et des exem­ples. À mesure que dans cha­que nation une de ces cau­ses agit avec plus de force, les autres lui cèdent d’autant.

These defi­ni­tions led me to think about two pos­si­bi­li­ties which I had not enter­tai­ned ear­lier as English equi­va­lents : “beha­vior” and “habits.” “Customs” would in prin­ci­ple do as well, but there are too many ins­tan­ces in L’Esprit des lois of cou­tû­mes with a spe­ci­fic, legal mea­ning. Habitude, howe­ver, is a word that does not occur anyw­here in the text, so “habits” would not get in the way. But often “beha­vior” will do even bet­ter, as a neu­tral term sui­ting a variety of contexts and also staying out of the way of most near-equi­va­lents. There are many pas­sa­ges that string toge­ther mœurs, maniè­res, cou­tu­mes and other terms that sup­po­sedly can be dis­tin­gui­shed from each other but really seem nearly syno­ny­mous.

Still, there are many occur­ren­ces of mœurs in which “beha­vior” either isn’t a good syn­tac­tic fit or sounds strange. I also tried out “stan­dards”, “norms”, and also “ethos”, which some­ti­mes seems to work bet­ter than the alter­na­ti­ves, but not in every ins­tance. It is, I know, a nine­teenth-cen­tury word, still in my view bet­ter than mores, which though a Latin word was not re-intro­du­ced into English usage until the twen­tieth cen­tury. But ano­ther, gram­ma­ti­cal pro­blem ari­ses : for “ethos” is neces­sa­rily sin­gu­lar while mœurs is neces­sa­rily plu­ral, so all the pro­nouns and verbs have to be swap­ped out to match. Not that this fac­tor need be abso­lu­tely deci­sive, for it is a mis­take to think that the num­ber of the ori­gi­nal must always be pre­ser­ved in the trans­la­tion.

All this makes it clear enough that the dif­fe­rent uses of mœurs sup­port a variety of mea­nings, not just one fun­da­men­tal one. And while the dic­tio­na­ries make it clear that mœurs may be attri­bu­ted to a per­son, that is not usually the level on which the notion inte­rests Montesquieu, who gene­rally refers rather to col­lec­tive mœurs as prac­ti­ced or mani­fes­ted by a whole polity. If mœurs are just habits, then that term still must be unders­tood col­lec­ti­vely rather than indi­vi­dually. An inte­res­ting contrast is made in The Spirit of Law, XIX.14 : “We have said that laws were par­ti­cu­lar and pre­cise ins­ti­tu­tions of the legis­la­tor, and the ethos and the man­ners ins­ti­tu­tions of the nation as a whole.”4 This is not the only text that empha­si­zes the tex­tua­lity of laws as oppo­sed to the conven­tio­na­lity, the unwrit­ten nature of mœurs. One might even be temp­ted in this case to trans­late “memes”, were that term not even more ana­chro­nis­tic than « mores ». But mœurs, while not exclu­si­vely in the pri­vate domain (as oppo­sed to public laws), do relate to the per­son as oppo­sed to the citi­zen, and thus are in a sense moral assets or qua­li­ties :

Ethos [les mœurs] and man­ners are prac­ti­ces which the laws have not ins­ti­tu­ted, or could not, or did not wish to. One dif­fe­rence bet­ween the laws and the ethos is that the laws more deter­mine the acts of the citi­zen, and the ethos more deter­mi­nes the acts of the man. One dif­fe­rence bet­ween the ethos and man­ners is that the first has more to do with inner conduct, the lat­ter with exte­rior. Sometimes, in a state, these things are confla­ted. Lycurgus made a sin­gle code for laws, ethos, and man­ners, and the legis­la­tors of China did like­wise. […] We must not be sur­pri­sed if the legis­la­tors of Lacedæmon and China confla­ted laws, ethos and man­ners : it is because the ethos repre­sents the laws, and man­ners repre­sent the ethos.[XIX.16]5

This would seem to be a capi­tal text, sug­ges­ting again that mœurs means prac­ti­ces or habits, but lea­ving us with the conun­drum of how laws, man­ners, and mœurs can be unders­tood to “repre­sent” each other.

In all, what works best seems to depend a great deal on the imme­diate context, inclu­ding the syn­tax of a given occur­rence.

By Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone.

le monde entier ; toutes les créatures créées, l’assemblage de tous les êtres

Ressort se dit figurément en choses spirituelles et morales, et signifie cause, moyen (Dictionnaire de Trévoux).

Nous avons dit que les lois étaient des institutions particulières et précises du législateur, et les mœurs et les manières des institutions de la nation en général.

Les mœurs et les manières sont des usages que les lois n’ont point établis ; ou n’ont pas pu, ou n’ont pas voulu établir. ¶ Il y a cette différence entre les lois et les mœurs, que les lois règlent plus les actions du citoyen, et que les mœurs règlent plus les actions de l’homme. Il y a cette différence entre les mœurs et les manières, que les premières regardent plus la conduite intérieure, les autres l’extérieure. […] ¶ Il ne faut pas être étonné si les législateurs de Lacédémone et de la Chine confondirent les lois, les mœurs et les manieres : c’est que les mœurs représentent les lois, et les manieres représentent les mœurs.