A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws"

Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de
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Thomas Jefferson, trans.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: William Duane
Pub. Date
32 of 32

Letters of Helvetius, Addressed to President Montesquieu and M. Saurin, on Perusing the Manuscript of The Spirit of Laws



[This advertisement and the following letters are extracted from the fifth volume of the works of Helvetius, edited by the abbé de la Roche, and translated for this volume.]


It had been said in several of the public papers, that at the time when the Spirit of Laws acquired great celebrity, Helvetius expressed much surprise at the circumstance, to his intimate friends: the facts, as Helvetius himself has related them, were these:


Helvetius was the friend of president Montesquieu, and whilst he held the station of farmer-general, spent much time at the country residence of Montesquieu at Brede. In the course of their philosophical conversations, the president mentioned to his friend, his work on the Spirit of Laws; and then gave him the manuscript to peruse: before he sent it to the press, Helvetius, who loved the author as much as he loved truth, was alarmed when he read this work, at the danger to which the reputation of Montesquieu was about to be exposed. He repeatedly opposed, both in person and by letter, those opinions which he considered the most dangerous, as they were about to be laid down as political maxims, by one of the finest writers in France, in a work illuminated by genius, and inculcating many important truths. His natural modesty, and his admiration of the author of the Persian Letters, however, combating with his judgment, he requested Montesquieu's permission to shew the manuscript to their common friend, M. Saurin, the author of Spartacus; a man of profound and solid understanding, whom they both regarded as a most faithful man, and impartial judge. Saurin coincided in opinion with Helvetius. When the work appeared, and they witnessed its prodigious success, without changing their opinions, they remained silent from a respect for the judgment of the public, and for the honor of their friend.


This silence it might be well to imitate, so far as the errors of president Montesquieu were confined to theory; but now, that those errors have become the support of great prejudices, acrd that private passions are converting them into practical principles, it becomes important to expose them, and to lay before the public the sentiments which the friends of Montesquieu expressed to himself. Respect for great men after their death, would extend too far, were it to prevent the condemnation of errors, which they would themselves have renounced, if they had observed the dangers attendant upon their dissemination. It is believed, therefore, that the intentions of Helvetius will not be abused, by publishing some of his letters to Montesquieu. They cannot but be useful when the human mind has been awakened to the fatal effects of long established errors.

Letter I.
Letter of Helvetius to President Montesquieu


I have perused, even to the third time, my dear president, the manuscript which you communicated to me. You greatly interested me in this work, whilst I was at Brede. I know nothing that resembles it: indeed I know not whether our French heads are steady enough to enable us to discern all its great beauties. For my own part, I am enraptured with them : I admire the vast genius which created them, and the depth of research which you must have accomplished, in order to collect so much knowledge from the rubbish of those barbarian laws, from which I had believed so little could be derived for the instruction or benefit of mankind. I behold you, like the hero of Milton, after having traversed the immensity of chaos, rising illustrious out of darkness. Thanks to you, we shall now be correctly informed of the spirit of laws of the Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Visigoths; we shall now know through what intricate labyrinths human genius is compelled to pass, in order to relieve those unfortunate people who are oppressed by tyrants and religious oppressors. You bid us behold the world, how it has been governed, and how it is still ruled: but you too often give the world credit for reason and wisdom, which are in fact your own, and of which it will be much surprised at receiving the honors.


You compromise with prejudice, as a young man entering the world, does with certain females, who, although advanced in years, have still some pretensions, and by whom he wishes to be considered polite and well bred. But have you not flattered them too much? Such a course may propitiate the priests; and in dividing the spoil with those Cerberus's of the church, you silence them with respect to your religion:.... as to the rest, they will not be able to comprehend you. Our lawyers are not able either to read or understand you. As to the aristocrats, and our petty despots of all grades, if they understand you, they cannot praise you too much, and this is the fault I have ever found with the principles of your work. You may recollect, that in our discussions at Brede, I admitted that they might apply to the actual state of things; but I concluded that a writer, anxious to serve mankind, ought rather to lay down just maxims for an improved order of things yet to arise, than to give force or consequence to those which are dangerous, at the moment when prejudice is striving to preserve and perpetuate human ignorance and subjection. To employ philosophy in giving them consequence, is to give human genius a retrograde motion, and to perpetuate those abuses which interest and bad faith, are but too apt to uphold. The idea of perfectibility amuses our contemporaries, offends hypocrites, and men in power; but it instructs our rising generation, and is a light to posterity. If our offspring shall possess common sense, I doubt whether they will accommodate themselves to our principles of government, or adopt in their constitutions, which without doubt will be better than ours, your complicated balances and intermediary powers. Even kings themselves, if they understand their true interests (and why do they not consider them?) would, by dispensing with those pernicious powers, more securely establish their own happiness and the welfare of their subjects.


Instead of this, in Europe, which is now the least oppressed of the four quarters of the globe, where is there a prince, who, when all the streams of public revenue have passed through the hundred thousand channels of feudality, employs them to public advantage? One part of the nation enriches itself by the miseries of the other: the nobility, an insolent cabal: and the monarch, whom it flatters, is himself oppressed without being aware of it. History, well attended to, is a perpetual lesson. A king creates intermediate orders; they soon, become his masters, and the tyrants of the people. How are they to maintain their despotism? They must cherish anarchy for their own sakes; they are jealous of nothing but their privileges, which are at variance with the natural rights of those whom they oppress.


I have told you, and I repeat it, my dear friend, that your combinations of balanced powers only tend to separate and complicate individual interests, rather than to unite them. The example of the English government has seduced you: I am far from thinking that constitution perfect: I shall have much to say to you upon that subject. Let us wait, as Locke said to king William, until some great calamities which must originate in the vices of that constitution, shall have made us acquainted with its danger; until that corruption, already become indispensible, to overcome the force of apathy in their upper chamber, shall be established by the ministers in the commons, and until they shall no longer blush at it: then shall we see the danger of an equilibrium, which must be perpetually broken in order to accelerate or retard the movements of so complicated a machine. In effect, do we not see in our own day, that taxes are necessary to corrupt the very parliament, which gives the king the right to levy imposts upon the people?


The very liberty which the English nation enjoys, does it indeed result from the principles of that constitution, rather than from their good laws, which have no dependance upon it; which the French may have, and which alone, perhaps, would render their government supportable. As yet, we have no pretensions to it. Our priests are too fanatical, and our nobles too ignorant, to become citizens, or to perceive the advantages of becoming and forming a nation. Every one of them knows he is a slave, and lives with the hope of one day or another becoming a petty despot in his turn.


A king is also the mere slave of his mistresses, of his favorites, and his ministers. If he gets in a passion, the kicks which his minions receive, place him on a footing with the lowest blackguard: this, I think, is the only use for intermediaries in a government. In a state, ruled by the fantasies of a monarchy, the intermediaries who surround him, are alternately engaged in deceiving him, and in preventing the complaints of the people against the abuses by which they profit from reaching his ears. Is it the people who complain, that are dangerous? No: but those who are not heard: in such circumstances, the only persons to be dreaded in a nation, are those who hinder others from being heard. When the sovereign, notwithstanding the flatteries of the intermediaries, is forced to have the clamors of the people borne even to himself, the evil is at its height.... if a remedy is not then prompt, the ruin of the empire is at hand; the people may learn, too late, that the chief was imposed upon by his favorites.


You perceive, that by intermediaries, I mean the members of that vast aristocracy of nobles and priests, whose chief resides at Versailles, which usurps almost all the functions of power, and multiplies them at will, by the mere authority of birth.... without right, without talents, without merit; and which keeps even the sovereign in dependence, in order that the ministry may be changed as it shall suit their interests.


I will close, my dear friend, by acknowleging to you, that I have never well understood the subtle distinctions, so incessantly repeated, respecting the various forms of government. I know but two descriptions.... the good and the bad. The good, which is yet to be formed; the bad, the great secret of which is, to draw by a variety of means, the money of the governed into the pockets of the governors. That which the ancient governments acquired by war, our moderns obtain more certainly by financiering: it is only the difference in the means which makes any variety. I believe, notwithstanding, in the possibility of a good government, where the liberty and property of the people being respected, one may see the general good necessarily resulting, without your balances or particular interests. Such would be a simple machine, the springs of which, being easily regulated, would render unnecessary the complicated appendages of wheels and balances, so difficult to be kept in order by those unskilful people who usually meddle with the affairs of government. These people wish to do every thing, and they act upon us as upon an inanimate mass, which they fashion to their fancy, without consulting either our desires or our true interests; a course of conduct, which betrays at once their impertinence and their ignorance: and yet, after all this, they seem surprised, that the excess of their abuses should provoke a desire for reform, and attribute to every thing rather than their own mismanagement, the sudden impulse given to affairs by the diffusion of knowlege and the exercise of public opinion........ I dare to predict, that we approach such an epoch. I am, &c.

Letter II.
Helvetius to A. M. Saurin.


As we had agreed, my dear Saurin, I have written to the president, with regard to the impression which his manuscript made upon you, as well as upon myself. At the same time that I have freely explained my opinions, I have conveyed them in language expressive of interest and friendship. Do not be uneasy, our remarks have not hurt him; he likes to witness in his friends that frankness, which distinguishes him among them; he freely promotes discussion, answers by sallies of wit, and rarely alters his opinion. I never fancied, when delivering our opinions, that they would change his; but we have not been able to say

.................... cur ego amicum
Offendam in nugis? Hæ nugæ seria ducent
In mala derisum semel, exceptum que sinistrè


Whatever it cost him, he should be sincere with his friends. When the light of truth shall shine forth and displace self love, he will find that they cannot be reproached with having been less sincere than the public.


I send you his answer, since you cannot come and join me in the country. You will find it such as I had foreseen. You will perceive that he had need of method to rally his ideas, and that being unwilling to lose all that he has thought, written, or imagined, since his youth, and according to the various dispositions in which he found himself, he has laid hold of that which least conflicts with received opinions. With that sort of spirit which distinguished Montagne, he adhered to the prejudices of the lawyers and noblesse.... this is the source of all his errors. His fine genius had elevated him in his youth, to the production of the Persian Letters; now advanced in years, he seems to repent having given envy that pretext for thwarting his ambition. He is more solicitous to uphold received ideas, than to inculcate others more novel and more useful. His manner is dazzling. It must have required the greatest force of genius to form such a mixture of truths and prejudices. Most of our philosophers may admire it as a chef-d'oeuvre. These things are new to all minds, and the less the number of opponents or good judges of his work, the more I fear that he will for a long time lead us astray.


But what the duce would he have us to understand by his treatise upon fiefs? Is it such an affair as to require an enlightened mind to unravel it? What legislation can result from a chaos of barbarian laws, established by force, reverenced only by ignorance, and which will forever be repugnant to a good order of things? Without the conquerors, who have destroyed every thing, what will be our situation with all these motley institutions? Ought we then to inherit all the errors that have been accumulating since the origin of the human race? They would still govern us; and having become the property of the strongest, or of the basest, it would require a more terrible remedy than conquest to release ourselves from them. It is nevertheless, the only remedy, if the voice of wise men is made to mingle with the interest of the powerful, and aid in erecting unnatural usurpations into legitimate properties. And what sort of property is that possessed by a few, injurious to all, even to those possessing it; and which corrupts by producing arrogance and vanity? In truth, if man is happy only when in the practice of the virtues, and in possession of the intelligence which confirms good principles; what virtues and what talents are we to expect from an order of men who engross every thing, and who claim consequence in society, by no other title than that of their birth? The industry of society is for no other end, but for them; all places of honor and profit devolve upon them; the sovereign governs, but through them, and for them alone draws subsidies from his subjects. Is not this totally overturning all ideas of sense and justice? This is the abominable order which misleads so many men of fine genius, and which totally perverts the principles of public and private morality.


L'Esprit de corps assails us on all sides, under the name of established orders: it is a power erected at the expense of the great mass of society. It is by these hereditary usurpations we are ruled. Under the name of the nation, there exist only corporations of individuals, and not citizens who merit that title. Even philosophers wish to form corporate bodies: but if they flatter private interests at the expense of the general welfare, I predict that their reign will not be long: for the knowlege which they circulate, will sooner or later disperse the darkness in which they wish to conceal prejudices; and our friend Montesquieu, deprived of his titles of wise man and legislator, will become no more than the lawyer, the nobleman, and the fine genius. Therefore am I afflicted for him and for humanity.


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