1Given the fundamental importance of the problem of social and cultural diversity in Montesquieu’s work, we should not be surprised at his interest in the complex and heterogeneous reality of the peoples and governments of the East Indes. A rich literature could supply much and diverse information and material. The Indian world was indeed present in the classical sources (from Diodorus of Sicily to Pliny the Elder, by way of Strabo), well known to Montesquieu and still for him an important base of documentation, but also in the travel literature or in modern historiographical culture. In the Voyages of François Bernier especially, whose importance for the knowledge of Mogul India is recognized even today, he devoted particular attention, witness the extracts he made of them in his Geographica II (f. 287-302). Attentive to the relation between the natural milieu, mores and laws of the Mogul empire, he could draw from this work, for example, the confirmation of a fact already mentioned in the classical sources, and which was important for the definition of the nature of the despotic state of Asia: the absence of private ownership of the land. A fact that is underscored in Pensées (no. 1839), where the exaltation of “landed property, the mother of all” is followed by a definition of despotic oriental states, the particularity of which is that the sovereign owns the lands and his subjects. A fact, finally, that appears in L’Esprit des lois (V, 14) as the most repressive and most disastrous manifestation of despotism, in its economic and social consequences.
2Mogul India from this point of view represents an emblematic case, and its presence in the picture of despotism leaves no room for attenuations of an examination of particular problems that justify a more extensive development in L’Esprit des lois, as in the case of China. The references to Mogul India in L’Esprit des lois with respect to the right of succession (V, 14), to the territorial security of the state and its military policy (IX, 4 and X, 16), or yet to its fiscal policy (XIII, 11), all present the useful elements for the definition and illustration of the typical characters of despotic government. Islam was, from this point of view, the essential complement to it.
3But Mogul India is only one part, very important to be sure, of this immensely varied and complex reality to which Montesquieu refers when he used the word “Indes”, and which extends from the numerous principalities of the Indian subcontinent to the whole “Oriental Ocean”, to use the terminology of the world map of Robert de Vaugondy that stands at the beginning of the posthumous editions L’Esprit des lois in 1757-1758. This whole part of the world, on which sources of information were not lacking even if they were often scattered and heterogeneous, was for Montesquieu an extraordinary source of examples of mores and civil and religious laws, of which the author of L’Esprit des lois shows himself the curious observer. But these “Indes” furnish Montesquieu stimulating cases for reflection, in that they are difficult to explain and integrate into his project for theoretical generalization.
4On this complex reality, Montesquieu regularly consulted, besides Bernier, a source in which he placed particular confidence, as he says in his Geographica (f. 309, 313): the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, with particular attention to the relations of Father Bouchet. Beside letters of the missionaries in Asia, the Recueil des voyages qui ont servi à l’établissement et aux progrès de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales (‘Collection of travels which have served the establishment and progress of the Company in the East Indies’) is another source constantly utilized by Montesquieu; it proved particularly useful for less-known regions of the eastern Indes, such as Patan, Bantam or the Maldives, on which there was another famous text available, the Voyages (1615) of François Pyrard de Laval, which did not escape Montesquieu’s attention. Finally, there were numerous interesting particularities to be found on the mores and religions of the Indes in the Anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine de deux voyageurs mahométans (1718) by Eusèbe Renaudot, of which Montesquieu made a long extract in the Geographica II (f. 58-79).
5Was it possible to draw from all this documentation coherent elements that could contribute to giving a uniform definition of the social and cultural reality of the Indes? That is where Montesquieu seemed to want to end up, especially in book XIV of L’Esprit des lois, where he seeks to establish, looking essentially at the climate and milieu, generalizations about the “character” of the Indian people. This people is defined as “gentle, affectionate, tender-hearted” (“doux, tendre, compatissant”, XIV, 15); it demands no severe punishments as do the Japanese, because its laws are respected, and it shows itself – as the classical sources said, in complete agreement with the modern testimonies – as moderate and kind as possible in the treatment of slaves. “The happy climate”, concludes Montesquieu, “that gives rise to transparency of mores, and produces gentleness of laws!” (“Heureux climat, conclut Montesquieu, qui fait naître la candeur des mœurs, et produit la douceur des lois !”, ibid.). An assuredly singular conclusion, if we think of the relationship Montesquieu established between warm climate and despotism, and if we compare it with what he wrote in other places, still having recourse to general formulas. Thus when he integrates the Indes “which the infinite number of islands and the situation of the terrain have divided into countless small states” (“que le nombre infini d’îles et la situation du terrain ont divisées en une infinité de petits États”) into the picture of oriental despotism, he gives no clear explanation, invoking a “large number of causes, [which he] has not time to report here” (EL, XVI, 10). The reference to the happy condition of the peoples of the Indes did not, however, escape the reviewer of Nouvelles ecclésiastiques who, in October 1749, directly attacked the author of L’Esprit des lois on this point, emphasizing by contrast certain atrocious customs of India, such as the sacrifice of widows (OC, t. VII, p. 29). Montesquieu defended himself from this attack in the chapter “Climate” of the Défense (OC, t. VII, p. 94-95; see also in Pensées, no.1882), recalling what he had himself observed on this subject in L’Esprit des lois, XIV, 3, and referring vaguely to the “contradictions of the human spirit” that “can separate the most unified things, and unify those that are most separate” (“sait séparer les choses les plus unies, et unir celles qui sont les plus séparées”).
6But it is certain that this admiring expression on the character of the Indian peoples is not coherent with the ensemble of considerations on the mores and civil and religious customs of the East Indes. If the people of India are “gentle” and “affectionate”, the same natural causes make them “lacking courage” and wanting energy; exhausted by the excessive heat, they have made “natural languor” into a value, by finding a reason for felicity in inaction and “rest” (EL, XIV, 5). To correct this natural attitude, the legislator’s action would have been necessary; but in the Indes neither the laws nor, above all, the religion, prove effective. The “religion of Foë” (Buddhism), widespread in the Indes, and which filled these lands with monks, according to Montesquieu only justifies and consolidates this attitude and, by favoring the Indians’ inactivity, condemns them to hopeless immobilism. In L’Esprit des lois XXIV, the considerations on the religions of the Indes are picked up and developed, confirming the general picture previously established. In it, Montesquieu stresses that the repressive force of religion, the essential complement of civil legislation, is directly opposed by certain rules of purification (he cites the example of bathing in the waters of the Ganges) that exalt the value of an “accidental thing” and obliterate its efficacy: “What does it matter if one lives virtuously or not? You will still be tossed into the Ganges” (“Qu’importe qu’on vive vertueusement, ou non ? On se fera jeter dans le Gange”, EL, XXIV, 14). The dogma of the immortality of the soul in India – metempsychosis – has contradictory consequences to Montesquieu: if it is an undeniable restraint on crime, in particular homicide, it is translated by manifestations of frightful cruelty, like the sacrifice of widows (EL, XXIV, 21). The relation to climate and the natural Indian environment is moreover well established in the evocation of a certain number of behaviors and prohibitions that derive from that doctrine: the prohibition of eating beef, for example, “was not unreasonable” in an environment where the breeding of livestock, necessary especially for agricultural activities, was not easy (EL, XXIV, 24).
7Montesquieu sets forth the serious flaws in a system of rules that does not effectively oppose the effects of the climate, in particular with respect to the feminine condition. Montesquieu judges the enclosure of women in the other despotic oriental states as coherent with the requirements of maintaining order; it gives rise to austere and “admirable” morals among women; but he observes in the Indes “to what point the vices of the climate, left in great freedom, can bring disorder” (“jusqu’à quel point les vices du climat, laissés dans une grande liberté, peuvent porter le désordre”, EL, XVI, 10). Travel narratives abound in picturesque details about lubricity and corruption in the Indes; they dominate in the portrait that Montesquieu gives of them, that of a country where neither religion nor legislation prove capable of exerting an effective control over mores. This vision is doubtless a caricature and reductive if we think of the great complexity of the Indian reality; but Montesquieu meant above all to integrate that reality into the chain of his arguments in L’Esprit des lois.
8More generally, if it is possible to see a dominant feature in Montesquieu’s observations and reflections on the Indes, it is doubtless immobility, of which the caste system is perhaps the most remarkable manifestation (Pensées, no. 1882). “The Indes have been and the Indes will be what they are now” (“Les Indes ont été, les Indes seront ce qu’elles sont à présent”, EL, XXI, 5), writes Montesquieu with respect to commercial relations between the Indian subcontinent and the ancient West, which particularly holds his attention in book XXI of L’Esprit des lois. There he observes that what the ancient authors said about India is not different from what one can read in the accounts of modern voyagers (XXI, 1). The development of relations between India and Europe does not seem for Montesquieu to have changed this portrait and to foreshadow a new reality; to believe him, it is established that “in all times, those who will negotiate in the Indes will take their money there, and bring none back” (ibid.). What is definitively clear for Montesquieu is the image of a world forever identical to itself, the dominant aspects of which are passivity, immobility and eternal subjection to the laws of the climate and nature.
Montesquieu, Geographica, OC, t. XVI, 2007, C. Volpilhac-Auger ed.
Muriel Dodds, Les Récits de voyage sources de “L’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: H. Champion, 1929 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1980).
Salvatore Rotta, “Quattro temi dell’Esprit des lois”, Miscellanea storica ligure, 20 (1988) 1, p. 1347-1357. http://www.eliohs.unifi.it/testi/900/rotta/rotta_quattro_temi.html
J. Osterhammel, Die Entzauberung Asiens. Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18. Jahrhundert, Munich: Beck, 1998.