1At the beginning of the 18th century the representation of the history of Central Asia, especially of the great empires of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, was based in European culture on celebrated works such as the Histoire du grand Genghiz-Can (1710) by François Petis de la Croix, the Histoire du grand Tamerlan translated from Arabic by Pierre Vattier (1658), or the Histoire générale de l’Empire du Mogol by François Catrou (1705). What came from these works was particularly an image that could put the history of these empires on the same level as the great Western monarchies, which particularly attracted the attention of the young Montesquieu. In the Persian Letters (Letter 79) he already established a comparison between the nomadic empires of Central Asia and that of Alexander, and Montesquieu’s true “enthusiasm” reading the history of the Tartar nation – which seemed to him to have “the specific and characteristic quality of a conquering people” – was recalled by his friend and collaborator Father Castel (L’Homme moral opposé à l’homme physique de Monsieur R***, 1756, p. 126-127).
2But it is not only the imposing image of the great Asian empires that solicits Montesquieu’s attention in the years preceding the publication of L’Esprit des lois. Whether it is in the Persian Letters or in Romans, Montesquieu shows a particular interest for questions bearing on the social and political organization of the peoples of Central Asia and its relationship with the “spirit of freedom”. In the Persian Letters (Letter 125), he carefully distinguishes between the freedom of the peoples who invaded the Roman empire and the servitude proper to the Asian conquerors, Turks or Tartars (a subject which returns in L’Esprit des lois, XVII, 5). In Romans (XVII), attention to economic organization is stronger; there Montesquieu raises the question of the relationship between political structure and subsistence, which directly touches on the barbarians of Asian origin.
3The problem with the “force” of barbaric peoples and their superiority in the military balance of the ancient world constitutes a specific subject of reflection in Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle (XIII), where the empire of Genghis Khan is distinguished as one of the possibilities by which a universal empire could have established itself in the course of history, a possibility which had definitively disappeared in the political balance of modern Europe.
4He returns to these ideas and these elements of reflection in a more analytic and organized manner in L’Esprit des lois. During the period of elaboration of that work, Montesquieu’s information, including that on the social and political history of the Tartars, considerably increased, witness his reading notes, especially in Geographica II.
5To the medieval sources on the Tartars – especially the travel narrative of the monk Jean Du Plan Carpin, which could easily be consulted, in the early 18th century, in the celebrated Recueil des Voyages au Nord of 1715, which Montesquieu knew well and extracted for the lost volume Commerce, almost entirely lost – he could add the consultation of the pages on the Mongolian populations of China in Du Halde’s Description de la Chine, where the utilization of a new source such as the Histoire généalogique des Tatars of Abu’l Ghazi, published in French translation in 1726 (of which the extracts by Montesquieu can be consulted in Geographica II, OC, t. XVI), which offered him the material for numerous developments or notes in L’Esprit des lois.
6But it is not only richer information that renders the discourse on the Tartars more complex in L’Esprit des lois; it is above all the presence and phenomenology of the political principle of despotism, which plays a very important role in the overall balance of the work, and also the proposition of a methodology of research on the social and institutional history of nations – formulated in particular in book XVIII – which lends a fundamental importance to the economic structures and mode of subsistence.
7Indeed, on despotism, considered as a character proper to the political organization of Asian barbarians, Montesquieu has no doubt, and the continuity of his thought between the Persian Letters (see especially Letter 125) and L’Esprit des lois is clear. In L’Esprit des lois the reference to the natural milieu is important for explaining the radical difference, from the both the social and political points of view, between Europe and Asia. The extent of the Asiatic regions, the fact that “in Asia, nations are opposed to nations from the strong to the weak”, and that “warrior, brave and active peoples are next door to effeminate, indolent, timid peoples” (“en Asie, les nations sont opposées aux nations du fort au faible », et que « les peuples guerriers, braves et actifs touchent immédiatement des peuples efféminés, paresseux, timides”, EL, XVII, 5), appear immediately as sufficient reasons for explaining the perpetual cycles of conquests in Asian history and the permanence in Asia of eternal servitude.
8If in Asia the conquests of the peoples of the north, the Tartars, had not changed the nature of the government based on servitude and despotism and had on the contrary consolidated it, that could be explained by the specific nature of Chinese despotism and its exceptional stability – based on a government of “rites” – that would give it the possibility of maintaining itself without alteration in the face of any possibility of change, introduced in particular by foreign conquerors.
9But this explanation is not sufficient because Montesquieu introduces in book XVIII, the question of subsistence and gives an explanation of the nature of barbarian peoples based in the first instance on the economic and pastoral and nomadic social organization, whence derive important consequences, which have universal value.
10The “political state” of barbarian peoples – which is to say pastoral peoples, on the basis of the analytical categories advanced in book XVIII – is thus marked in clear manner by “great freedom” (EL, XVIII, 4), and does not allow stable and durable forms of authority exercised by a chief, in other words it rules out despotism. The spirit of independence that comes from the economic and social structure of pastoral peoples authorizes temporary and precarious forms of authority over various chiefs of clans, forms proper to the nomadic life and linked to particular circumstances, notably the organization of great population movements for the conquest of new countries.
11The contradiction with respect to what Montesquieu had written earlier on the despotism of the Tartars thus appears manifest, and cannot be resolved. The barbarian peoples who had invaded the Roman empire enter harmoniously into the explanatory tableau of book XVIII, which allows Montesquieu to explain socially and economically the historical character according to which they are bearers of a spirit of freedom that he judges to be at the origin of representative institutions and a tempered and limited notion of sovereign authority; but the Tartars’ “exceptional” character remains the only explanation, which really is not one.
12Their economic and social organization of pastoral and nomadic peoples and at the same time their history marked by the spirit of servitude and by despotism – in contrast to the Arabs, for example, who appear more in conformity with Montesquieu’s schema – make of them “the most singular people on earth” (“le peuple le plus singulier de la terre”, EL, XVIII, 19); the expression reveals an incontestable difficulty for the coherence and order of the theoretical architecture of L’Esprit des lois.
Geographica II, OC, t. XVI, 2007 (in particular p. 285-318).
Muriel Dodds, Les Récits de voyages sources de “L’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris, 1929 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1980).
Rolando Minuti, Oriente barbarico e storiografia settecentesca, Venice: Marsilio, 1994, ch. 2, p. 63-93.