Rolando Minuti


1At the moment when interest for the Ottoman Empire, dominant in European orientalist culture until the end of the 17th century, seems to diminish, the literary fortune of Persia grows remarkably at the beginning of the 18th, to the point of reaching the dimensions of a veritable literary fashion. To the author of the Persian Letters, the indispensable documentary material was no doubt not wanting, not only to give a realistic disguise to the multiplicity of themes addressed in that masterpiece, but also to address directly certain aspects of the reality of the Persian world that would be taken up again and used in a more structured way in L’Esprit des lois. It is certain that his privileged source remains, from this point of view, the Voyages of Jean (or John) Chardin. Published in its complete version in 1711, the story of the famous and intelligent merchant-traveler – “the jeweler Chardin, who travelled like Plato”, as Rousseau defined him in the Discourse on the origin of inequality –was certainly a source of the first order on contemporary Persia, by the richness of its information and the shrewdness of observation. Recourse to Chardin in the Persian Letters is thus systematic and often emphasized by the critical literature, whether Montesquieu is depicting the condition of the women in the seraglio (see especially LP 32 [34], 45 [47], 52 [54]), or tackling the problem of religion (LP, 83 [85], but also 115 [119] where, concerning the link between economy and religions and its effects on the population, we find judgments on the ancient religion of the Guebres that will be repeated in L’Esprit des lois), or for other aspects where reference to the real Persia turns out to be important. Unfortunately, the reading extracts of Chardin’s text, which are found in the first volume of Geographica and on which we have some precious indications (Pensées, no. 41; see also the dossier 2506 recently published; see also Geographica II, OC, t. XVI, p. 415-417, appendix I, “Tentative de reconstitution des Geographica I ”), have not come down to us.

2But Montesquieu did not neglect other sources of information. His fragments and reading notes are testimony to a continual and diversified interest in the Persian world. If in the Pensées it is particularly ancient Persian history that attracts his attention (nos. 491, 495, 774, 1943, 1944), in the Spicilège his centers of interest prove more varied. The ancient authors are still present, on the questions having to do with mores and ethics (Spicilège, nos. 53 and 245), but there are also the travelers, in particular Jean Baptiste Tavernier, an important source of information on Persia, although at a level not equalling Chardin, and from which Montesquieu takes a long extract (Spicilège, no. 170); finally, and above all the sources of information on political and military events of more recent history. An attentive reader of the Dutch gazettes, of which he kept many extracts and clippings, Montesquieu proved particularly interested by the events of the Russo-Persian war (Spicilège, nos. 300, 302, 305, 612, 652) and especially by the enterprise of Nadir Schah (Spicilège, nos. 619, 620, 722), which had much impressed public opinion and European culture. The reading of a famous work like Father Du Cerceau’s Histoire de la dernière révolution de la Perse, published in 1728 (see Pensées, no. 885) furnished him with many useful elements for understanding the history of contemporary Persia.

3In L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu’s interest for Persia is directly linked to the problem of despotism. In the chapters where he addresses the nature and principle of despotic government, Persia is immediately mentioned; the absolute government of the vizir (cited with direct reference to Chardin in L’Esprit des lois, III, 8) and extreme obedience, which is the particular trait of a system in which “man is a creature who obeys a creature who wills” (“l’homme est une créature qui obéit à une créature qui veut”, EL, III, 10), are immediately posed as the typical characters of one of these “monstrous governments” of which “one cannot speak without a shudder” (“on ne peut parler sans frémir”, EL, III, 9). So as to underscore the necessity that, in these systems, “the people be judged by the laws, and the grandees by the prince’s fancy” (ibid.), Montesquieu recalls the recent revolution in Persia which had led to the overturn of the Safavid dynasty. To be sure, he confuses, in this chapter and in Pensées no. 885, the names of the protagonists, and attributed to Mir Vais the dethroning of the Safavid king which was in reality done by his son Mahmud (the fact is correctly cited in Pensées no. 295, where Montesquieu was following Chardin and Du Cerceau more closely). It little matters: it does not change the fundamental point on which Montesquieu wants to insist in L’Esprit des lois (II, 9), which is that clemency and humanity are in contradiction with the principle of despotic government and that the person who tries to reconcile them – as in the case of the reign of Shah Husayn described by Du Cerceau – will only provoke revolutions.

4Moreover, Persia showed, again following Chardin, that even in the most typical despotism there is always “one thing that can sometimes be opposed to the prince’s will: that is religion” (“une chose que l’on peut quelquefois opposer à la volonté du prince : c’est la religion”, EL, III, 10). This is of course a theme to which Montesquieu attributes a not negligible importance, and which shows his intention of seeing in despotism a less monolithic reality than it seems. In a passage from chapter XXII of Romans, he had already observed: “It is an error to think there is any authority in the world that is despotic in every way; there never has been one and never will be” (“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”). The “general spirit”, evoked in this passage with a direct reference to Persia as the force that can moderate the excesses of despotic authority, was thus replaced in L’Esprit des lois (III, 10) by “religion”: in this Montesquieu follows Chardin’s text closely, which insisted on the limits of sovereign authority imposed by “divine right”. From this point of view, the religious law codes complemented the civil code, or even partially replaced it, guaranteeing stability to an “arbitrary” (EL, XII, 29) power, making it in a way more bearable. The Zoroastrian texts or the Qu’ran are seen as having had, in Persian history, this function of “putting a little freedom into the despotic government” (ibid.), as Montesquieu indicates in the title itself of the chapter, a proof that he was not seeking to present this phenomenon as accidental. Certainly Montesquieu did not neglect this aspect of Islam, even if, in conclusion, the accent was placed on the negative aspects of the Mohammedan religion (see the article “Islam”).

5Thus if despotism, in its substance, is “everywhere uniform” (see EL, V, 14, the concept of which is repeated in EL, XII, 29), it is possible to find several variants of it, to which Montesquieu pays attention. The permission granted subjects to leave the realm of Persia is thus deemed “very good” (EL, XII, 30); it was a relief for the subjects and a tool that did not contradict the nature of despotism, “where fear of the flight or withdrawal of debtors stops or moderates the persecutions of bachas and tax collectors” (“où la crainte de la fuite ou de la retraite des redevables, arrête ou modère les persécutions des bachas et des exacteurs”). Similarly, the system of fiscal collections based on the agency, present in China and Persia, is considered in a positive manner and deemed capable of making those peoples “infinitely happier” (EL, XIII, 20) in comparison with other forms of fiscal regime in despotic countries.

6In modern Persia itself, it was thus possible to observe certain aspects that attenuated the harshness of despotism, and Montesquieu, who followed Chardin’s observations, noted them attentively; but he no doubt judged more significant the history of ancient Persia, the despotic nature of which he underscored (EL, XI, 9), opposing on this point the Aristotelian classification of governments.

7Thomas Hyde’s Historia religionis veterum Persarum, published in 1700 furnished him with abundant and interesting material; an extract made by Montesquieu, now lost, is mentioned in Pensées (no. 41) and in the Spicilège (no. 402). It was indeed Hyde’s work from which Montesquieu drew the example of a religious rite favorable to agriculture (EL, XIV, 8) and enabled him to compare in parallel ancient Persia and another great despotic state, China. This fact corroborates the classical sources (Polybius, in EL, XVIII, 7) regarding what the ancient government of Persia had done to develop the irrigation of fields and improve their quality; Montesquieu, still following Hyde, puts this fact into relation in L’Esprit des lois (XXIV, 11) with the religion of the Guebres, which “once made the realm of Persia flourish” and “compensated the ill effects of despotism”. Montesquieu manifests a particular interest for the religion of ancient Persia, witness for example manuscript 2526/7, an extract from Barnabé Brisson’s De religione Persarum principatu, published in 1595. Montesquieu observes that unlike Buddhism and Islam, this ancient religion was hostile to meditation and favored activity and work; to him, it compensated for the effects of the climate and the natural milieu, and thus deserves esteem. Even if its dogmas were false, they proved “very useful” to society (EL, XXIV, 20). On the other hand, Islam, favoring meditation, prayer, and “indifference for all things, given by the dogma of a rigid destiny” (EL, XXIV, 11), had devastating effects; if in Antiquity Persia had the appearance of a flourishing state, “today the Mohammedan religion is destroying this same empire”. The accent is thus placed on the negative consequences of Islam, especially from an economic point of view – and this despite the moderating role which the Qu’ran can play in oriental despotism.


Extraits et notes de lectures (ms 2526), in OC, XVII, in preparation.

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

Paul Vernière, “Montesquieu et le monde musulman”, Actes du Congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 175-190.

Olivier H. Bonnerot, La Perse dans la littérature et la pensée française au XVIIIe siècle, Paris–Geneva : Champion-Slatkine, 1988.

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.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, with the collaboration of C. Bustarret, L’Atelier de Montesquieu: manuscrits inédits de La Brède, Cahiers Montesquieu 7, 2001 (ms 2506).

Pierre Briant, “Montesquieu et ses sources: Alexandre, l’Empire perse, les Guèbres et l’irrigation (EL, X, 13-14 ; XVIII,7)”, Oxford : Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2007:06, p. 243-262.

Bibliographical reference

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