Rolando Minuti


1The presence of the Asiatic world in the Montesquieu corpus, and especially in L’Esprit des lois, is certainly considerable. This is not just a matter of quantitative richness of information and references testifying to great curiosity about the Orient, for which Montesquieu tries to analyze the specific reasons for the diversity of customs, beliefs and laws, in conformity with the project of argumentation of his work; it is, beyond that, a subject that plays the role of a veritable problematic axis, which underlies central questions around which the whole theoretical architecture of L’Esprit des lois is developed, and on which Montesquieu rests the possibility of a radical partition in the universal geopolitical order.

2The substantial diversity of the Asiatic world opposite the European world is presented indeed as a compact, homogeneous given, where the elements having to do with the natural environment and the climate come together, in a way which Montesquieu seeks to make coherent, with the particular characteristics of the political organization of the Oriental nations, finding at last a most important complement, a veritable sanction in religion.

3On the one hand, an Asian world the dominant characteristics of which are the precariousness of all aspects of private and public life and an absence of freedom which manifests itself particularly in despotic government, with all the consequences of an economic, social and political order which derive from this monstrous – but unhappily widespread – form of government; and on the other, the European world and its history, which express a radical otherness: this dichotomy constitutes one of the bases on which the argumentation of L’Esprit des lois is constructed. Asia is structurally Europe’s “other”, and the systematic utilization of this dichotomy gives Montesquieu the possibility of developing a complex network of oppositions and contrasts, which justify and reinforce his judgments about history and politics.

4If then the importance of the Asian world in the theoretical and analytical framework of L’Esprit des lois is clear, no less clear are the simplification and reduction of an extreme diversity, an extraordinary natural, social, institutional, and cultural variety into rigid schemas which often pose for the author problems of coherence in which he sometimes remains blocked: the unity of an “Asian reality”, is at a minimum, difficult to grasp. Above all, one can note powerful tensions and sometimes even contradictions that are difficult to resolve in the author of L’Esprit des lois between a comparative methodology, on the one hand, the goal of which is to explain by natural reasons the diversity of customs, institutions, and religious beliefs in different societies, and the formulation, on the other, of a negative judgment on the Asian world as a whole, a condemnation linked to the notion of despotism, in which the classical and Aristotelian heritage, although substantially corrected or nuanced by Montesquieu, is quite visible.

5It is certain that, despite the methodological effort to “think simultaneously the diversity of peoples and the unity of humankind” (Todorov), and to maintain a constant equilibrium between these two theoretical poles, Montesquieu’s judgments on the Asian world have been an important point of reference for all the theories, subsequent to L’Esprit des lois, that proposed the primacy of Europe and the reality of a hierarchy of civilizations, justifying the domination of the European states on the international political scene. Among the numerous reactions provoked by L’Esprit des lois, the reflections on the Asian world, and notably on the characters proper to the model of Oriental despotism, have been the object of detailed contestations: from Voltaire to Dupin by way of Anquetil-Duperron, to cite only a few names, there have been many who have appealed to a more direct and precise consideration of the reality of Asian countries, their institutions and their culture, and denied on this point the judgments and conclusions of Montesquieu. An entire work, entitled Oriental Legislation, by as famous a scholar and attentive connoisseur of Oriental languages and religions as Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, published in 1778, was conceived as a response to Montesquieu’s theses on Asian despotism, and sought to demolish, on the basis of factual data and documents accessible to Montesquieu himself, the negative representation of Asian societies and cultures – notably the culture of the Islamic Orient – that Montesquieu had contributed to proposing and disseminating.

6The “otherness” of the Oriental world, and of the Islamic world especially, with relation to European history and civilization, is already manifest in explicit fashion in the Persian Letters (78 [80]): “Since I have been in Europe, my dear Rhedi, I have seen many governments: this is not like Asia, where the rules of politics are everywhere the same” (“Depuis que je suis en Europe, mon cher Rhédi, j’ai vu bien des gouvernements : ce n’est pas comme en Asie, où les règles de la politique se trouvent partout les mêmes”). The fixity and uniformity of the Oriental world are thus opposed to the variety and dynamism proper to the European world, and especially to the city of Paris, in the tableau painted by Rica (LP, 22 [24]), the image of an exotic and extraordinary world in the Persian eyes imagined by Montesquieu, and where movement, relations, commerce, in short sociability animate the social life. In other words, Paris is the living example of a genuinely other social world, as opposed to an (Islamic) Orient of which “fear” is the dominant trait, infusing all domains of public and private life: “Among us” – it is still Rica speaking (LP, 61 (63) – “characters are all uniform, because they are forced: you never see people as they are, but as they are required to be; in such servitude of heart and mind, it is only fear you hear speaking, which has but one language, and not nature, which expresses itself so variously, and appears in so many forms” (“Chez nous, les caractères sont tous uniformes, parce qu’ils sont forcés : on ne voit point les gens tels qu’ils sont, mais tels qu’on les oblige d’être. Dans cette servitude du cœur et de l’esprit, on n’entend parler que la crainte, qui n’a qu’un langage, et non pas la nature, qui s’exprime si différemment et qui paraît sous tant de formes”). On the side of the Persian Orient, what stands out is the gray uniformity and the grimness of a life poor in relations, isolation and enclosure in a domestic milieu that becomes almost a prison. The “gravity of Asiatics” is its direct consequence: “Friendship, that sweet engagement of the heart, which makes life so agreeable here, is almost unknown; people withdraw into their houses, where they always find a companion awaiting them, and so each family is, so to speak, isolated” (“L’amitié, ce doux engagement du cœur, qui fait ici la douceur de la vie, leur est presque inconnue. Ils se retirent dans leurs maisons, où ils trouvent toujours une compagnie qui les attend, de manière que chaque famille est, pour ainsi dire, isolée”, LP, 32 [34]). The condition of women and their isolation from social life manifest the most unpleasant dimension of this system; even the high respect for moral duties – in contrast to European frivolity – loses its positive connotation and is a kind of oppression. Roxane’s radical rebellion (LP, 150 [161]) marks the most dramatic moment of this reflection on the condition of women, about which Montesquieu’s judgment is expressed in vigorous terms.

7In Considérations sur les […] Romains, although the presence of Asia does not hold a central place, nevertheless judgments appear that reveal the image of an Orient extended in its entirely as negative otherness. For one thing, in a remark relating to Syria (ch. V), we find a significant extension of that judgment when Montesquieu mentions in passing “the luxury, vanity and languor which, in no period, has left the courts of Asia” (“le luxe, la vanité et la mollesse, qui, en aucun siècle, n’ont quitté les cours d’Asie”), and of which the agent of corruption contaminates the Romans present in Syria; on the other hand (ch. IX), Asian despotism is represented as part of a system characterized by dissonant division – the opposite of the harmony and equilibrium proper to moderate governments – by separate and antagonistic elements which yield insecurity, fear, weakness and even the absence of every political bond: “the laborer, the man of war, the merchant, the magistrate, the nobleman, are joined only because some of them oppress others without resistance, and if one can see unity there, it is not citizens who are united, but dead bodies, buried one after another” (“le laboureur, l’homme de guerre, le négociant, le magistrat, le noble, ne sont joints que parce que les uns oppriment les autres sans résistance, et, si l’on y voit de l’union, ce ne sont pas des citoyens qui sont unis, mais des corps morts, ensevelis les uns auprès des autres”).

8The geopolitical and historical otherness of the Asiatic world with respect to the European is next made apparent in Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle where, in a passage that was to be directly reproduced in L’Esprit des lois (XVII, 6), Asia is presented as the most likely geographic environment for “great empires”, empires which “have never been able to subsist” in Europe (§ 8, OC, t. II, p. 346). The great plains and vast territories of the Asian environment, opposed to the fragmented geography of Europe, seemed to solicit by its very physical nature “a despotic authority”, because “the promptness of resolutions must compensate for the distances from the places to which they are dispatched, fear must preclude the negligence of the distant governor and magistrate, that the law must be in a single head, in other words, endlessly changing, like the accidents that always multiply in the state in proportion to its size” (“il faut que la promptitude des résolutions supplée à la distance des lieux où elles sont envoyées, que la crainte empêche la négligence du gouverneur et du magistrat éloigné, que la loi soit dans une seule tête, c’est-à-dire, changeante sans cesse, comme les accidents qui se multiplient toujours dans l’État à proportion de sa grandeur”). Certain of the fundamental elements of the argumentative structure of L’Esprit des lois, like the close link between the natural milieu and the civil and political system, and the clear demarcation between Europe and Asia, are already clearly established; on these points, Montesquieu will subsequently introduce many clarifications, to enrich his picture and make it more coherent, but he will not change the central core of his thought.

9Was it possible to apply this image to the Asian world in its entirety, and include in this framework all the possible variations of a geographic and social milieu as heterogeneous as Asia? Was it possible, on the basis of the available sources of information, to see it as uniformly stamped by the presence of despotism? This is one of the problems that are not always convincingly resolved in L’Esprit des lois.

10From the publication of the Lettres persanes to that of the Considérations, to the long labor of writing L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu’s reflection is progressively enriched and deepened by the reading of numerous texts. Travel literature and history books represent, for the Asian world as well, a fundamental documentary base; if one can reproach Montesquieu, as several of his critics do, for partial and not always attentive utilization of his sources – but let us not forget that Montesquieu was not erudite or “antiquarian” in the strict sense – one cannot accuse him of failing to use extensive documentation. No doubt, among the numerous documentary works which he had available on the Asian world (many of which are present in the library of the château at La Brède), some were privileged by Montesquieu: the Voyages of Jean Chardin are, for example, a constant reference, to which Montesquieu had systematic recourse for his representation of oriental despotism, notably through the example of Persia; a similar remark can be made with respect to China about Du Halde’s Description and the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, or, for Japan, about Kaempfer’s Histoire. The Lettres édifiantes, along with famous memoirs of voyages, such as the Recueil (‘collection’) of the Dutch East India Company or the Recueil des voyages du Nord, are equally important sources of documentation for Montesquieu on a multiplicity of aspects concerning countries and cultures on which there was very little information available at the time and on which there were no synthetic works of quality .

11Of all this work of documentation and research, the Pensées, the Spicilège or the reading extracts of the collection Geographica II (to which must be added the dossier 2526 of the manuscripts, long preserved at the library of the château at La Brède, and transferred in 1994 to the municipal library in Bordeaux: OC, t. XVII, in preparation) give us a clear and detailed testimony. The Pensées especially reveal that the complexity of his subject did not escape Montesquieu as he advanced in his work and completed his documentation.

12The difficulty of reducing the government of China to a rigid despotic schema clearly emerges, for example, from Montesquieu’s notes: in Pensées no. 1880, he recognizes in effect that China “despite its vast extent, was sometimes obliged to temper its despotism” (“malgré sa vaste étendue, a été obligée de temQpérer quelquefois son despotisme”), and concludes on the description of a “mixed government, which much resembles despotism, by the prince’s immense power; the republic somewhat, by censorship and a certain virtue founded on paternal love and respect; monarchy, by fixed laws and regulated tribunals, by a certain honor attached to firmness and to the danger of speaking the truth” (“gouvernement mêlé, qui tient beaucoup du despotisme, par le pouvoir immense du prince, un peu de la république, par la censure et une certaine vertu fondée sur l’amour et le respect paternel ; de la monarchie, par des lois fixes et des tribunaux réglés, par un certain honneur attaché à la fermeté et au péril de dire la vérité”). One conclusion which is partially repeated in L’Esprit des lois, yet in a more nuanced manner, so as not to jeopardize the definition of China as a despotic state (EL, VIII, 21): Montesquieu contents himself with noting that, “despite China’s climate, which in no way inclines people towards servile obedience, despite the horrors that follow from the great expanse of an empire, the first legislators of China were obliged to make very good laws, and the government was often obliged to follow them” (“malgré le climat de la Chine, où l’on est naturellement porté à l’obéissance servile, malgré les horreurs qui suivent la trop grande étendue d’un empire, les premiers législateurs de la Chine furent obligés de faire de très bonnes lois, et le gouvernement fut souvent obligé de les suivre”, EL, XVIII, 6).

13Again, in the Pensées, Montesquieu sees a fundamental reason, and a confirmation of this Chinese difference in the overall picture of Asian despotism, in the respect of landed property, the “mother of everything”, which all despotic regimes have in common to tend to sweep aside: “The reason why China has a better government and does not fade like all the other Asian states, is that the property of land is established there; which is not the case either in Turkey, nor in Persia, nor in Mughal, nor in Japan, at least not completely.” (“La raison pourquoi la Chine a un meilleur gouvernement et ne dépérit pas comme tous les autres États d’Asie, c’est que la propriété des terres y est établie, au lieu qu’elle ne l’est ni en Turquie, ni en Perse, ni au Mogol, ni au Japon, au moins totale”, Pensées, no. 1839).

14If then Montesquieu is perfectly conscious of the difficulty of characterizing in a unified and coherent manner the societies and governments of Asia – and his work of documentation and reflection testify to this awareness – he nevertheless does not give up doing it, and looking with the assistance of reason for a radical difference between the European and Asian worlds. In Pensées (no. 1356), Montesquieu thinks he has found this reason of the “great difference” between Europe and Asia in a sort of climatic barrier – which he sees around the 40th parallel – which marks a sharp passage in Asia between “the heat of China” to a geographic reality where “it is colder than in Norway”, whereas in Europe, on the contrary, the temperate climate is dominant. The passage from climate conditions and natural environment to the analysis of peoples’ characters is immediate: “Now that has had an influence on different geniuses, different mores: it has been easier to practice invasions from north to south; there are only two sorts of peoples there: hardy, ferocious peoples or peoples made languorous by the heat.” (“Or cela a influé sur les différents génies, les différentes mœurs : il a été plus aisé de faire des invasions du nord au midi ; il n’y a eu que deux sortes de peuples : des peuples rudes et féroces ou des peuples amollis par la chaleur.”)

15This schema is one Montesquieu understands as an established and certain fact: in L’Esprit des lois, this formulation is taken up again directly, and one can read the manifest exaltation that accompanies the sentiment of having made a veritable and important discovery, proposed as the surest means of correctly interpreting the whole geopolitical and historical problem of the Europe-Asia relation. After recalling, supported by a long quotation, the observations on the territory and the Asian climate which could be found in travel narratives, he concludes crisply: “These facts being posited, I reason as follows: Asia has no real temperate zone; and the places situated in a very cold climate are in direct contact with those which are in a very hot climate, that is, Turkey, Mughal, China, Korea and Japan” (“Ces faits posés, je raisonne ainsi : l’Asie n’a point proprement de zone tempérée, et les lieux situés dans un climat très froid y touchent immédiatement ceux qui sont dans un climat très chaud, c’est-à-dire la Turquie, la Perse, le Mogol, la Chine, la Corée et le Japon”, EL, XVII, 3). Even if, somewhat before this (EL, XVII, 2), one could read that there is an important difference in China between the inhabitants of the northern and southern regions, Montesquieu renounces developing this point to yield to the temptation of this strong schematization. The historical and political consequences of this thesis follow immediately: in Asia, “nations are opposed to nations as strong to weak” (“les nations sont opposées aux nations du fort au faible”) and “the one must thus be conquered, and the other the conqueror” (“il faut donc que l’un soit conquis, et l’autre conquérant”). In the European milieu “on the contrary, nations are opposed as strong to strong, those which are neighbors have about the same courage” (“au contraire, les nations sont opposées du fort au fort ; celles qui se touchent ont à peu près le même courage”). He continues: “This is the great reason for the weakness of Asia and the strength of Europe, the freedom of Europe and the servitude of Asia: a cause that I am not aware that anyone has previously observed” (“C’est la grande raison de la faiblesse de l’Asie et de la force de l’Europe, de la liberté de l’Europe et de la servitude de l’Asie: cause que je ne sache pas que l’on ait encore remarquée”.)

16This is where it thus becomes possible to explain the difference between Asia and Europe, with respect to the fundamental problem of the evolution of freedom: “This is why in Asia an increase in freedom never occurs, whereas in Europe it increases or diminishes according to the circumstances” (“C’est ce qui fait qu’en Asie il n’arrive jamais que la liberté augmente, au lieu qu’en Europe elle augmente ou diminue selon les circonstances”). Montesquieu evokes as corollaries to this principle the plurality of cycles of conquests in the Asian geographic arena, in contrast to the rarity of periods of great political upheavals on European territory (EL, XVII, 4), and the extreme facility with which great invasions are mounted in Asia when they are so difficult to lead in Europe. But above all, the consequences of invasions (EL, XVII, 5) expose a fundamental difference between European history and Asian history: “The peoples of the north of Europe have conquered it as freemen; the peoples of the north of Asia have conquered it as slaves, and have prevailed only for a master” (“Les peuples du nord de l’Europe l’ont conquise en hommes libres ; les peuples du nord de l’Asie l’ont conquise en esclaves, et n’ont vaincu que pour un maître”). In other words, in European history, one must take account of the populations of barbarians, of which Montesquieu, demonstrating considerable theoretical and methodological originality, exposes in L’Esprit des lois (XVIII) the homogenous social and institutional structure, appropriate to a particular mode of subsistence and distinguishing them from nomads, whose economy is based on the raising of cattle; these barbarians bring with them principles of free, representative institutions: “the making of instruments that break the chains forged in the south” (“la fabrique des instruments qui brisent les fers forgés au midi”), writes Montesquieu (EL, XVII, 5), repeating the expression of Jornandès, historian of the Goths. In Asia, on the contrary, the Tartars – a grouping of peoples associated with the socio-economic schema of barbaric peoples, according to the typology established by Montesquieu – carry and reinforce a despotism that remains the distinctive trait of the Asiatic world, the mark of a negative otherness and an eternal immutability. The reason for this difference, which, with regard to the institutions of the barbaric peoples, risks producing some incoherence in the logical rigor of Montesquieu’s analysis, is sytematically sought in the physical and geographical characteristics opposing Europe to Asia. The impossibility of great empires arising in Europe, or of their enduring, tied to the nature of the territory, is conceived by Montesquieu as the structural foundation of a “genius of freedom”, diversity, and its civil superiority. The Asian “other” is presented in a manner that leaves no room for ambiguity: “[…] there reigns in Asia a spirit of servitude which has never left it; and in all the histories of that land, it is not possible to find a single trait that designates a free soul” (“[…] il règne en Asie un esprit de servitude qui ne l’a jamais quittée ; et dans toutes les histoires de ce pays, il n’est pas possible de trouver un seul trait qui marque une âme libre”, EL, XVII, 6).

17Throughout the multiplicity of references to the Asian world that dot the argumentation of L’Esprit des lois, one notes that the concern to make clear the natural origins of this difference between Asia and Europe in the context of the fundamental problem of the history of liberty carries the day, to Montesquieu, over what otherwise constitutes the specificity of his analytic method: attention to laws, beliefs, institutions in their relation to precise contexts. Despite the geographical specifics that characterize a very complex Asian reality – specifics to which Montesquieu shows himself attuned in his work of documentation and preparation – we can see the philosopher intent, in a comparative perspective, on capturing a relatively homogenous Asian otherness. We have seen the problems of coherence which such an approach raises; for Montesquieu it apparently is important to preserve the image of a history of freedom that is exclusively European, of which he seeks to draw the theoretical outlines with the greatest possible clarity.


Muriel Dodds, Les Récits de voyage source de “L’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: Honoré Champion, 1929 (Reprint, Geneva: Slatkine, 1980).

Françoise Weil, “Montesquieu et le despotisme”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 191-215.

Salvatore Rotta, “Quattro temi dell’Esprit des lois”, Miscellanea storica ligure 19 (1987), no 1-2, p. 1347-1407.

Cecil P. Courtney, “Montesquieu and the problem of ‘la diversité’”, in Enlightenment Essays in Memory of Robert Shackleton, Giles Barber and Cecil P. Courtney ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 61-81.

Tzvetan Todorov, Nous et les autres: la réflexion française sur la diversité humaine, Paris: Seuil, 1989, chap. 5, p. 389-437.

Rolando Minuti, Oriente barbarico e storiografia settecentesca, Venice: Marsilio, 1994, ch. 2, p. 63-93.

Lorenzo Bianchi, “La funzione della religione in Europa e nei paesi orientali secondo Montesquieu”, in L’Europe de Montesquieu, Cahiers Montesquieu 2, 1995, p. 375-387.

Melvin Richter, “Montesquieu’s Comparative Analysis of Europe and Asia : Intended and Unintended Consequences”, in L’Europe de Montesquieu, p. 329-348.

Domenico Felice, “Una forma naturale e mostruosa di governo : il dispotismo nell’Esprit des lois”, in Leggere “L’Esprit des lois”: stato, società e storia nel pensiero di Montesquieu, D. Felice ed., Naples: Liguori, 1998, p. 9-102.

Rolando Minuti, « Milieu naturel et sociétés politiques : réflexions sur un thème de Montesquieu », in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 223-244.

Bibliographical reference

Minuti Rolando , « Asia », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :