Montesquieu and the History of Intolerance
Among the manuscripts that are part of ms 2506 in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Bordeaux there is one dossier entitled Diverses destructions. As the many volumes in his manuscript collection and the various scattered items that are part of his atelier show, Montesquieu was a man who organized his materials meticulously. This dossier contains notes on his readings and fragmentary thoughts which may have been used in drafting the Esprit des Lois but they also suggest that they could have comprised the starting point for another project. The central theme, and raison d’être of this collection focuses on the various forms of devastation, cruelty, and exterminations of peoples, of which both ancient and modern history offer multiple examples. The picture it reveals, with a dramatic series of tragedies and misfortunes, is as depressing as it is pessimistic, especially since it notes that «les destructions des peuples étaient autrefois plus rares» and that «la destruction des peuples par la religion» seemed more a prerogative of modern times. It is possible to connect these notes to some recurring themes in Montesquieu’s writings and yet avoid the risk of attributing a unitary and homogeneous character typical of a book to this collection of fragments. For example, there is the consideration that migrations always have many and complex negative consequences. This is one point that deserves mention as an attenuating factor of the universally positive value that Montesquieu attributed to trade at other times. Another is that the expansion of states and especially the establishment of the huge empires such as Rome’s inevitably led to conflicts, wars and persecutions with unfortunate results especially from the demographic standpoint. He also placed a particular accent on the devastation wreaked by the barbarians who invaded the Roman empire. However, in that case he left the matter of planting the seeds of representative institutions, which is of central importance in his writings on the Germanic peoples, entirely in the background.