1The nature of despotism is monarchy without legality: “[…] one man, without law or rule, is can do anything through his will and whims” (“[…] un seul, sans loi et sans règle, entraîne tout par sa volonté et par ses caprices”, EL, II, 1). Its principle is that very passion that caused everyone, like an animal, in the state of nature, to flee another, i.e., fear (III, 9), a fear all the more terrible that it has for object a force of which one can never anticipate the point of impact: “[…] and as for the sequence of events, they [ignorant, arrogant or prejudiced minds] cannot follow it, foresee it, even think about it” (“[...] et quant à l’enchaînement des événements, ils [des esprits ignorants, orgueilleux et prévenus] ne peuvent le suivre, le prévoir, y penser même”, V, 14). Despotism thus appears as a politics of savages (V, 13), the institution of an essentially unforeseeable world where we recognize, but upside down, the principle of so-called moderate governments, in other words political freedom, “the tranquillity of mind that comes from the opinion each person has of his security” (“cette tranquillité d’esprit qui provient de l’opinion que chacun a de sa sûreté”, XI, 6). And that world has always held an ambiguous power of fascination over Montesquieu’s readers: for want of a better government, it is the worst, and one can only feel for it a horror that never succeeds in venting its indignation; but a regime placed under the double sign of delight and secrecy, one can only surmise that the most erotic perversions take place within in that never exhaust the imagination – even that of Sade.
I. Constitution of the concept
2First we must acknowledge that Montesquieu invented the concept of “despotism”. The Greek tyrant was he who, transferring into the City a naturally “domestic” mode of power, treated his fellow citizens as slaves which, by definition, they were not. And Plato deduced logically that such a regime, of which the Persians already furnished a good example, could not be called, properly speaking, “political” (Laws, 697c and 712e-713a); despotism then was only a perversion that ordinarily substituted for politics among the barbarians. Montesquieu doubtless retains certain traits of the tyrant, entirely subjugated to Eros whom he could satisfy only in dissimulation and fear (Republic, 574e, 579bc): besotted by debauchery, the despot also will be “the first prisoner of the palace” (EL, V, 14). But the important point is elsewhere: an authentic mode of government, despotism refers to a genuine order where the abuse of power, institutionalized, can for that reason no longer be thought of as a simple “abuse”; it refers to a specific economy of authority which is defined by perfectly constricting laws. That is why if it was the tyrant’s psychology that made tyranny, it is the necessary relations characterizing despotism that make the despot. And if the tyrant was a demagogue whose threat was tightly linked to democracy, the despot can never be anything but the “new” despot in states where the people, definitively stupefied, never has a word to say: “a free nation can have a liberator; a subjected nation can only have another oppressor” (“une nation libre peut avoir un libérateur ; une nation subjuguée ne peut avoir qu’un autre oppresseur”, XIX, 27). If one cannot ever predict what the despot by name is going to want, nor who his successor will be, nor when that will be, one can then, quite certainly, predict that he too will be a despot.
3It would be a mistake to think that Montesquieu had found this unexampled figure in the famous narratives of travels in the Orient of the second half of the preceding century which he cites as evidence, beginning with those of Chardin, Rycaut or Bernier. One will never find in them, however, the term “despotism”, and when they use the term “despot”, it is still only to designate what Furetière’s dictionary defined in 1690 as a “title of honor and quality given to the princes of Wallachia, and some other neighbors” (“titre d’honneur et qualité qu’on donne aux princes de Valachie, et à quelques autres voisins”), which is to say simply an Ottoman dignity. What they evoke is something other than what Chardin calls “despotic and arbitrary power”. Such a power is certainly completely absolute and thus despotic insofar as its subjects are slaves, in other words without any juridical means of resistence; it is consequently arbitrary also since the sovereign there recognizes no law. But that does not suffice to make it a tyrannical power since the arbiter, who is absolutely sovereign, can make maximal use of his formidable prerogatives to recompense and punish without delay those who so deserve, without any imperium in imperio being able to claim to stop him for egoistical reasons of a body. Despotic and arbitrary power can be that of reason as well as caprice. To identify it with despotism rightly so called, Montesquieu will have to retain only the second possibility, which is to deny the advantages of absolute power. And that is why he is led to make very selective use of travel narratives, leaving aside or deforming what does not suit him so as to elaborate, by successive strokes, an univocal, purely negative portrait of Oriental governments, in which appear as accomplished the most disquieting potentialities of French absolutism – or more precisely of a monarchy that Montesquieu perceives as becoming “absolute” (Thireau, 1997).
4This does not mean that the Orient is a simple decor: in Montesquieu’s eyes, despotism is no doubt really oriental and that is how the despot escapes original sin – he is less evil than indolent and less vicious than powerless (Larrère, 1999, p. 86). But that means that, in fact, it is in the French literature of opposition that Montesquieu was able to find the term “despotism” of which the first known political occurrence figures in Bayle’s Réponses aux questions d’un provincial (Koebner, 1951, p. 300). There it polemically designates the abusive (tyrannical) use of royal power in the denunciation of which are again found most un-homogeneous political forces: Fénelon’s objectives are most certainly not Bayle’s. And it is no doubt the distinctive feature of a rhetoric of opposition to advance qualifications, or rather disqualifications, of which the unity is strictly negative: if many are in agreement to “moderate” the exercise of monarchical power, they are nor for that in agreement on the way it should be moderated.
5That is why one can say that if Montesquieu did not invent the signifier “despotism”, he indeed invented the concept, and that means two things. First, that despotism becomes, in L’Esprit des lois, a genuine theoretical object which must be carefully studied: one can and should ask what it is in itself, instead of reducing it to only the excess of a monarchy. Next, it must be said that the worst government, equivocal a contrario in that it justifies in reverse all the “moderate” regimes one wishes, becomes the generator of a remarkable argumentative mode that consists in the methodical juxtaposition of all the institutions that might be able to restrain the virtual despotism of European governments (the bank, churches, seigneurial rights, venality of offices, etc.). Against despotism, Montesquieu does not undertake to legitimize any kind of right of resistance, he scans for empirical points of resistance. And he thus elaborates something like a “negative politics”: not a devaluation of the state to the benefit of civil society – that opposition is foreign to him – but an evaluation of all the powers that might prevent despotism, even if they are incompatible amongst themselves. A coalition politics.
II. The economics of despotic power
6To pretend that despotism constitutes in itself a full-fledged regime implies that one is in a position to demonstrate its positivity or, if you wish, its laws, on condition of distinguishing here the objective and subjective genitives: there are the necessary relations that organize the despotic regime and make it the object of a rational analysis; and there is the problem of the status of juridical rules in a government the nature of which is defined by their absence.
7If despotism is rationalizable, that is first because it obeys a simple principle, which is the imperative of pleasure to which all must be sacrificed, which explains why the seraglio is its truth and why any barrier between public and private spheres are here erased: “Everything comes down to reconciling the political and civil government with the domestic government, the officers of the state with those of the seraglio” (“Tout se réduit à concilier le gouvernement politique et civil avec le gouvernement domestique, les officiers de l’État avec ceux du sérail”, EL, V, 14; cf. Krause, 2001, p. 240). From this imperative necessarily flow two inverse and complementary processes (Grosrichard, 1979, p. 91-106).
8In the first place, the centripetal movement of wealth: “The monarchy wanes, when the prince, relating everything to himself, calls the state to his capital, the capital to his court, and the court to his sole person” (“La monarchie se perd, lorsque le prince, rapportant tout uniquement à lui, appelle l’État à sa capitale, la capitale à sa cour, et la cour à sa seule personne”, EL, VIII, 6 [texte de l’édition posthume de 1758: toutes les autres éditions donnent “la capitale à la cour”]). In the second place, the centrifugal movement of authority: to dispose of everything at leisure, the despot must necessarily pass off his power, and it is in this sense that “in this state, the establishment of a vizier is a fundamental law” (II, 5). That means that, from the prince to the lowliest functionary, each one passes off all power, in such a way that the latter bears down as if out of control onto the slave subjects instead of, in moderate governments, in one form or another, mediations mitigating its transfer: “In despotic government, power passes entirely into the hands of him to whom it is entrusted. The vizier is the despot himself; and each individual officer is the vizier” (“Dans le gouvernement despotique, le pouvoir passe tout entier dans les mains de celui à qui on le confie. Le vizir est le despote lui-même ; et chaque officier particulier est le vizir”, V, 16). The despot then is no longer anything but a function, an authority in the name of which one governs, but which never governs itself: “He is hidden, and no one knows what state he is in. Happily, men are such in these countries that they require only a name which governs them” (“Il est caché, et l’on ignore l’état où il se trouve. Par bonheur, les hommes sont tels dans ces pays qu’ils n’ont besoin que d’un nom qui les gouverne”, V, 14).
9In another sense, lacking any juridical rule in general, despotism lacks fundamental laws in particular, that is to say constitutional principles: “In states where there are no fundamental laws, succession to the empire cannot be fixed” (“Dans les États où il n’y a point de lois fondamentales, la succession à l’empire ne saurait être fixe”, V, 14). It results from this that the only stable constraints that subsist are necessarily infra-juridical: “In these states, there are no laws, so to speak; there are only intrinsic values [mœurs] and manners; and if you overturn that, you overturn everything” (“C’est que dans ces États, il n’y a point de lois, pour ainsi dire ; il n’y a que des mœurs et des manières ; et si vous renversez cela, vous renversez tout”, XIX, 12). That does not mean that in absolute value, there are better moral standards [mœurs] than in moderate regimes, on the contrary: “Most of the peoples of Europe are still governed by intrinsic values [mœurs]” (“La plupart des peuples d’Europe sont encore gouvernés par les mœurs”) by opposition to those of the three other parts of the world (VIII, 8). That means that, proportionally, the intrinsic values (mœurs) are more consistent than the laws. They weigh on despotism.
10And yet, Montesquieu sometimes also presents despotism, in texts that come considerably later (and notably XXIX, 18), as the government of uniformitization by laws: then it is about homogenizing practices throughout the territory with indifference to customs. But it is still not contradictory that the one begins the other. The simplification of the laws, indeed, is the beginning of their disappearance: “Thus does a man when he makes himself more absolute […], thinks to simplify the laws. At first, in this state, one is more struck by individual disadvantages than by the freedom of subjects about which one cares not at all” (“Aussi lorsqu’un homme se rend plus absolu […], songe-t-il d’abord à simplifier les lois. On commence, dans cet État, à être plus frappé des inconvénients particuliers que de la liberté des sujets dont on ne se soucie point du tout”, VI, 2). And it is with much consistency that Montesquieu justifies a contrario the complexity and slowness of law: “[…] the penalties, expenses, slowness, even dangers of justice are the price that each citizen gives for his freedom” (“[...] les peines, les dépenses, les longueurs, les dangers même de la justice, sont le prix que chaque citoyen donne pour sa liberté”, VI, 2). If one wants justice, the forms must be put in place instead of foolishly trying to “make it simple” (faire simple).
11Yet again, Montesquieu seems sometimes to go further by designating despotism as a regime in which, far from abolishing the law, one governs only by it: thus it is the laws that “tyrannize Japan” (XIX, 4), in other words precisely the nation where despotism, having reached its height, “has become crueler than itself” (VI, 13). But that does not mean that despotism legislates right and left, that the law encodes all behavior; it means that power there is exercised only by simple and hideous penal laws, in other words by torture. Such laws are doubly arbitrary: first, because they set penalties disproportionate to crimes (XII, 4), and secondly because their application takes no account of the formalities required by an equitable judgment – that is indeed why justice there is so rapid (VI, 2).
12Despotism then appears as the regime of pure, savage repression, where some intrinsic moral values (mœurs) assure a laughable stability. And of course that must be understood the other way around as signifying: first, that one must be constitutionalist, against the naive belief that virtue and wisdom could advantageously supplement fundamental laws; secondly, that one must be formalist, against all the partisans of a simplification of the laws; and thirdly, that one must be skillful, in other words know how to govern by intrinsic values (mœurs), by setting the example, and not only by laws: “Invite, when one must not constrain; lead, when one must not command, that is supreme skillfulness” (“Inviter, quand il ne faut pas contraindre ; conduire, quand il ne faut pas commander, c’est l’habileté suprême”, XXVIII, 38).
III. The despotic horizon
13Because despotism makes the despot, it is not merely an accident the causes of which would stem from the psychology of the latter; it constitutes on the contrary the natural horizon of moderate governments. No doubt it is “naturalized” in the Orient (V, 14), but, if we look closely, the Asia/Europe divide is reproduced within Europe: “almost all the southern peoples are, as it were, in a violent state, if they are not slaves” and, also among them, servitude is naturalized” (“[...] presque tous les peuples du Midi sont, en quelque façon, dans un état violent, s’ils ne sont esclaves” et, chez eux également, la servitude est “naturalisée”, XXI, 3). In fact, if the Greek and Roman republics knew freedom, it was at the cost of an unnatural effort, in other words contrary to the local nature of things – whence their famous comparison with monastic orders (V, 2). Free Europe is then dangerously shrunken into the north and it is indeed the Scandinavian nations which “have been the source of Europe’s freedom, in other words of almost all the freedom there is today among men” (“ont été la source de la liberté de l’Europe, c’est-à-dire de presque toute celle qui est aujourd’hui parmi les hommes”, XVII, 5). But it turns out this remnant of freedom is itself fragile: “Most of the peoples of Europe are still governed by intrinsic values [mœurs]. But by such a long abuse of power, if though a great conquest, despotism becomes established up to a point, no more intrinsic values [mœurs] or climate could subsist; and in that lovely part of the world, human nature would suffer, at least for a time, the damage it incurs in the three others” (“La plupart des peuples d’Europe sont encore gouvernés par les mœurs. Mais si par un long abus du pouvoir, si par une grande conquête, le despotisme s’établissait à un certain point, il n’y aurait point de mœurs ni de climat qui tinssent ; et dans cette belle partie du monde, la nature humaine souffrirait, au moins pour un temps, les insultes qu’on lui fait dans les trois autres”, VIII, 8). To be sure it would only be for a time, as attested by the example of Peter I who, after centuries of oppression, was easily able to give the Russians European values [mœurs] because they were geographically European (XIX,14); and that is why “in Asia, it almost never happens that freedom increases; whereas in Europe, it increases or diminishes according to the circumstances” (“en Asie, il n’arrive jamais que la liberté augmente ; au lieu qu’en Europe, elle augmente ou diminue selon les circonstances”, XVII, 3). But all the same, there is cause for alarm and though Europe, the natural seat of freedom, has three-quarters of the world’s trade (XXI, 2), it still cannot be confident.
14Why then is despotism within reach of conquering the globe? The answer is first this: it is the easiest government: “[…] as it takes only passions to establish it, everyone is ready to accept it” (“[...] comme il ne faut que des passions pour l’établir, tout le monde est bon pour cela”, V, 14). Whereas free governments require the subtle art of moderation, in other words a differential use of constraint which grants to the laws, intrinsic values [mœurs], and manners, in function of the conjuncture, what is respectively theirs, the despotic government, it is understood by now, works on pure repression, which surely requires little in the way of finesse.
15Everything went wrong very quickly. Indeed, by hypothesis, “everything is very tightly linked” (XIX, 15). It again follows from that “the smallest little change” in institutions, for example the constitution (VIII, 14), will in one way or another have repercussions on the very principle of the government that constitutes what acts as a point of inflection of the process insofar as its force “carries everything” (VIII, 11). That is where the change reverses into corruption for that is where the best laws suddenly become the worst: once the principle – virtue or honor – is altered, the other institutions contradict it and can have only negative influence. That is moreover the very reason why the reasonable legislator never reforms except in fear and trembling (XXVI, 23 and XXIX, 16).
16It is true that corruption of the principle is not always disastrous: “The problem is not when the state passes from a moderate government to a moderate government, as from republic to monarchy or monarchy to republic; but when it falls and declines from moderate government to despotism” (VIII, 8). From the fact that there exist some good governments, it naturally follows that a passage can be made without regret from one to another and that therefore there exist neutral transformations; from the fact that there exists a government worse than the others, there exist catastrophic transformations. And this is where the decisive question indirectly appears: how to prevent governments from becoming despotic? A question which as we have seen was not one of law but of fact.
IV. The quarrel of despotism
17During the whole second half of the century, L’Esprit des lois was at the heart of a polemic that ramified around three great nervous centers: the plan, or the very nature of the discourse (epistemology); the real importance of “physical causes”, or materialism (anthropology); finally virtue and despotism, or the legitimacy of monarchy (politics). The thesis according to which “virtue is not the principle of monarchical government” (III, 5) could well strike people insofar as it was understood to signify that monarchy was therefore an essentially corrupt regime. But by dissociating the same monarchy from despotism as two quite distinct species of government, Montesquieu seemed, by a new bias, to disqualify, if not monarchy per se, at least what the partisans of absolutism designated by that term.
18Very early a focus was drawn, first by Voltaire, on the appropriateness of this distinction against which it was endlessly repeated that it was nothing more than a terminological coup because the “despot” was never anything but the “master of the house” (Essai sur les mœurs, ch. 91, t. I, p. 814) or a “small vassal of Constantinople” with “very weak and limited power” (Supplément au Siècle de Louis XIV, p. 1246). “Despotism” thus could not constitute a specific mode of government, but only “the abuse of monarchy” (ibid.). In 1755, d’Holberg says much the same thing: “But is it not to confuse a government with the abuses to which it can give rise […]?” (Remarques, letter 514). And Dupin, in 1757: “These states which are discussed here under the name despotic governments are pure and simple monarchies” (“Ces États, dont il parle ici sous le nom de gouvernements despotiques, sont des monarchies pures et simples”, Observations, t. I, p. 124).
19Despite appearances, the dispute is thus not merely about words: in reality, Montesquieu has cagily attempted to condemn the absolute exercise of the monarchy in the guise of despotism. And that implies three indissociable theses. First, what he specifically calls “monarchy” is only monarchy’s “feudal” form, of which he identifies the principle elsewhere, consistently, by the honor of the mutineers. As Crevier says, “what duelist would not think he is supported in his way of thinking and in his conduct by M. de Montesquieu when he hears him say dispassionately that ‘honor often requires what the law forbids’?” (“quel est le duelliste qui ne se croie appuyé dans sa façon de penser et dans sa conduite par M. de Montesquieu lorsqu’il l’entend dire froidement que ‘l’honneur souvent exige ce que la loi défend ?’”, Observations, p. 18; cf. EL, IV, 2). Secondly, at bottom he amalgamates absolute monarchy and tyranny, but the true monarchy is absolute without necessarily being tyrannical: “Taking the term monarchy strictly, we understand the absolute government of a single person and, in this narrow sense, the Ottoman Empire is a true monarchy” (“Dans le terme de monarchie strictement pris, on entend le gouvernement absolu d’un seul et, dans ce sens étroit, l’Empire ottoman est une vraie monarchie [...]”, Dupin, Observations, t. II, p. 34). Thirdly, since reality presents in fact only absolute monarchies, where life is not so bad, and a few regrettable but inevitable tyrannies, it must be said in all rigor that what Montesquieu calls “despotism” does not exist: “One cannot too much combat this notion, humiliating for the human race, that there are countries where millions of men work endlessly for a single person who devours everything” (“On ne peut trop combattre cette idée, humiliante pour le genre humain, qu’il y a des pays où des millions d’hommes travaillent sans cesse pour un seul qui dévore tout”, Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs, ch. 143, t. II, p. 322).
20To be sure, one can consider that Montesquieu had anticipated this last argument in Romans where it was written: “It is an error to believe that there is in the world a human authority which is in all ways despotic; there has never been one and never will be; the most immense power is always limited on some side” (“C’est une erreur de croire qu’il y ait dans le monde une autorité humaine à tous les égards despotique ; il n’y en a jamais eu et il n’y en aura jamais ; le pouvoir le plus immense est toujours borné par quelque coin”, XXII, OC, t. II, p. 276-277). But, in a letter to Risteau on 19 May 1751, he will reply very differently: “A government that is at one and the same time the state and the prince seems to you illusory; I think, on the contrary, that it is very real and I think I have portrayed it as it is” (“Un gouvernement qui est tout à la fois l’État et le Prince vous paraît chimérique ; je pense au contraire qu’il est très réel, et je crois l’avoir peint d’après la vérité”). One can of course reconcile the two affirmations by maintaining that pure despotism is a (methodological) abstraction without for that being an (ideological) illusion. But the step from the one to the other is quickly made and it is hard to see what, here, aside from travel narratives which must be understood as we saw earlier, could empirically guarantee the abstraction…
21At bottom, the revolutionary critics will be content to overturn the absolutist arguments. If Montesquieu was wrong to distinguish between monarchy and despotism, it was not because the monarchy which he abusively called despotic needed to be saved; it was because, on the contrary, from the point of view of the republic, every monarchy is despotic. In 1797, Barère is categorical: “For the philosopher, the publicist and the citizen of good faith, there are only two kinds of government: the government of free men or republican, and that of subjects or slaves; the government of one or the government of many. Liberty or despotism, independence or tyranny, equality or servitude, these are the two great characters, the two great demarcations of governments. […] As one can compensate neither for virtue nor for liberty, there is no reason to allow monarchy as a particular form of government. Thus what efforts Montesquieu had to make to posit the boundaries between despotism and temperate monarchy.” (Montesquieu peint d’après ses ouvrages, p. 62-63).
22It would be a mistake to consider these readings condescendingly: they testify rather to the perspicacity of Montesquieu’s contemporaries, who right away perceived very well how, by constructing the concept of “despotism”, he had opened a new era in the history of specular representations of legitimacy. From tyranny to what we now call “globalization”, it remains to be accomplished…
Ludwig Holberg, Remarques sur quelques positions qui se trouvent dans “L’Esprit des lois”, Copenhagen: O. C. Wentzel, 1753.
Claude Dupin, Observations sur un livre intitulé “L’Esprit des lois”, Paris, 1757-1758, 3 vol..
Voltaire, Supplément au Siècle de Louis XIV, 1753, Œuvres historiques, Paris: Gallimard, 1957; Essai sur les mœurs, 1756, Paris: Garnier, 1963, 2 vol.
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Sharon Krause, “Despotism in The Spirit of Laws”, Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: essays on “The Spirit of Laws”, David W. Carrithers, Michael A. Mosher, Paul A. Rahe dir., Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p. 231-271.
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—, « Comment les régimes peuvent-ils être despotiques ? Montesquieu et Boulanger », Débats et polémiques autour de “L’Esprit des lois”, Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques 35 (2012/1), p. 37-50.