A note on the word “mœurs”

Everyone knows what a problem mœurs is for an English reader or translator from French to 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, with the consequence that strictly 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 solution matters.

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 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 for mœurs which are said to be corrompues? 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 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: 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 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 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.

The definition in the Encyclopédie is rather similar:

MŒURS, s. f. (Morale) actions libres des hommes, naturelles ou acquises, bonnes ou mauvaises, susceptibles de regle & 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 manieres & des exemples. A mesure que dans chaque nation une de ces causes agit avec plus de force, les autres lui cedent 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 as I have said, in L’Esprit des lois there are too many instances of coutûmes with a specific legal meaning. Habitude, however, is a word that does not occur anywhere in the text, so it would not get in the way. But maybe “behavior” would 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 so many passages that string together mœurs , manières, coutumes and other terms that supposedly can be distinguished from each other.

But there are many occurrences of mœurs , and in many of them “behavior” either isn’t a good syntactic fit or sounds strange. I have tried out “standards”, “norms”. and “behavior”, 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, but that to me is better than mores, which is a twentieth-century word. But another problem: “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 seme of the original must always be preserved in the translation.)

All this makes it clear enough that the different uses of the word prove a variety of meanings, not just one fundamental meaning. And while the dictionaries make it clear that a person can have mœurs , that is not usually the level on which it interests Montesquieu, who generally refers rather 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 EL 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 unwritten quality 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 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 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.