A note on the word “mœurs”

Everyone knows what a problem mœurs is for an English reader or translator. It is indeed tempting to use “mores” invariably, as the Choler group did in the Cambridge edition of 1989. But it will not do, and a few examples from Montesquieu’s text will show, I think, that its meaning in context is not always the same, with the consequence that consistent use of “mores” or any other term ends up falsifying the most obvious sense of some passages. There are 241 occurrences of mœurs in L’Esprit des lois, so the problem matters.

For one thing, mœurs often occurs in the same immediate context as manières and/or coutumes, so we have to assume an element of contrast. The same is true for lois, of course, of morale (XVI, 14) and of police (XXI, 1). But what does it mean for mœurs to be pures, a combination found numerous times in the text? The same problem as for mœurs which are said to be corrompues? There are several mentions of la bonté des mœurs, but 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 inference, 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: what does donner des mœurs (an expression which appears quite a few times) mean in terms of the presumed referents?

The definition of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux puts the accent on habits or practices, yet immediately starts qualifying them as bonnes or mauvaises, which makes them take on a moral connotation:

Façon de vivre, ou d’agir, bonne ou mauvaise ; habitudes naturelles, ou acquises, pour le bien, ou pour le mal, et suivant lesquelles les peuples, ou les particuliers, conduisent les actions de leur vie. Mores ; boni vel mali habitus mentis. La Science des mœurs est plus nécessaire que celle des controverses. D. G. P. 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, even though the Latin control word is no longer mores but mos or usus:

Mœurs, signifie aussi, 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 déréglement, adoucit les mœurs les plus sauvages. M. Sc. Les mœurs d’aujourd’hui civilisées & adoucies, ne peuvent souffrir ce qu’elles avaient de farouche autrefois. S. Évr. Il faut avoir des mœurs accommodantes. M. Esp. Platon adoucit & polit les mœurs des Grecs. Dac. Admirez cette diversité de mœurs & de coutumes, qui ne divise pas moins les Nations, que la différence de leur langage. S. Évr. Socrate faisait profession d’enseigner la science & la doctrine des mœurs. Il instruisait la jeunesse aux bonnes mœurs. Selon nos mœurs, veut dire selon nos usages, nos coutumes.

But despite the familiarity of these structures, they do not seem to help us much with the problem at hand, which is one of translation.

And while the dictionaries make it clear that a person can have mœurs, that is not the level on which it interests Montesquieu, who seems to refer only to collective mœurs as practiced or manifested by a whole polity. If they are habits, then that term must be understood collectively rather than personally.

An interesting contrast is made in XIX, 14: “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.” This is not the only text that emphasizes the textuality of laws as opposed to the conventionality and perhaps oral quality of mœurs. One is even tempted in this case to translate “memes”, were that term not even more anachronistic than “mores”. Mœurs are independent of any written text, and that while not exclusively in the private domain (as opposed to public laws), they do relate to the man as opposed to the citizen and thus are in a sense moral assets or qualities:

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. [XIX, 16]

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

All this is why there will be no generally satisfactory way of dealing with mœurs even if, as I deem preferable, two or more terms are deployed to cover it various occurrences. What works best seems to depend a great deal on the immediate context but also on the syntax of a given occurrence. Consider the following translated passage, where I have (provisionally) inserted ethos for the several occurrences of mœurs:

“Commerce cures one of destructive prejudices, and it is almost a general rule that wherever there the ethos is gentle, there is commerce, and that everywhere there is commerce, the ethos is gentle.

“We should therefore not be surprised if our ethos is less savage than it once was. Because of commerce, knowledge of the ethos of all nations has spread everywhere; we have compared them to each other, and much good has resulted from that.

“One cannot say that the laws of commerce perfect the ethos for the same reason that those same laws ruin it. Commerce corrupts a pure ethos: that was the subject of Plato’s objections; it polishes and attenuates a barbarian ethos, as we see every day.” [XX, 1]

Now one problem here is that ethos is necessarily singular while mœurs is necessarily plural, so all the pronouns and verbs have to be shifted to match. (Not that this factor is absolutely decisive, for it is a mistake to think that the number tag of the original must always be preserved in the translation.) If in this example one tries to substitute “customs” or “practices”, for instance, it quickly becomes clear that no one term works well in every case. Neither, it would seem, does any other single term.

Still, it would be desirable to have a very short list of words used to translate mœurs, say three or at most four. But what ought they to be?