Jean Goldzink

1As an overview, servitude seems to fulfill three functions in Montesquieu’s work: novelistic in the Persian Letters, historical in Considérations on the […] Romans, political in L’Esprit des lois. Need one add that these summary divisions do not require us to take them literally, and even less that they be separated? They can all the same offer a framework, convenient for surveying a crucial and even agonizing question. For servitude is the opposite of freedom, which is inscribed in human nature, denied in three-quarters of the globe, and everywhere threatened.

Servitude and novelistic representation

2In the Persian Letters, servitude, more pointedly for the contrast with Europe, is incarnated in despotic states and in the fiction of the seraglio. It thus depends on a different textual status, and notably unequal in terms of the attention it attracts and the number of letters concerning it. The first political description of despotism does not turn up until Letter [‣] on Turkey. But it underscores less the state of servitude of the subjects, subordinated to the “caprice of those who govern” “by violent remedies”, than the economic and technical decadence of that “severe government” where Christians and Jews, alone active, are “exposed to a thousand kinds of violence”. Then we must hear the letter on the Czar (“He is the absolute master of the life and property of his subjects, who are all slaves” [“Il est le maître absolu de la vie et des biens de ses sujets, qui sont tous esclaves”], deprived of the right to drink and travel, Letter [‣]), on the Tartars, destined to subject all peoples (Letter [‣]), before the first and only real analysis of the despotic mechanism, the great Letter [‣] on the “unlimited authority” of Persian princes, who in turn subjects them, like their subjects, “to the reverses and caprices of fortune”. Without “an endless number of troops […] their empire would not subsist for a month”. Oriental servitude, far from guaranteeing the despot’s life, constantly threatens it (Letters [‣], [‣]), just as, reinforced by the seraglio (Letter [‣]), it dries up the population (“The gentleness of the government contributes marvelously to the propagation of the species” [“La douceur du gouvernement contribue merveilleusement à la propagation de l’espèce”], Letter [‣]). These few letters shrewdly distributed are certainly important on the level of political reflection. It is however clear that, literarily, they do not have the weight or force of the seraglio plot, which stages, under the sign of pathos and sensuality, the rival and reciprocal servitude of slaves and wives, engaged in an endless and pitiless war under the power of an absent master.

3But the epistolary novel is not content with opposing Europe and Orient, freedom and servitude in laws and mores. It also raises the question of things that threaten European moderation. For monarchy “is a violent state, which always degenerates into despotism or into a republic: the power can never be equally shared between the people and the prince” (“est un état violent, qui dégénère toujours en despotisme ou en république : la puissance ne peut jamais être également partagée entre le peuple et le prince”, Letter [‣]). The king of Spain has all the power he wants, and only holds back on exercising it the way sultans do (ibid.>), whereas Louis XIV made much of “oriental politics” (Letter [‣]), and the ministers think only of “oppressing” the nation and flattering princely passions (Letter [‣]). It is against this background that the vehement denunciation of Law (Letter [‣]) takes place.

Roman servitude

4Roman history, in Montesquieu’s eyes, poses two great problems to the historian-philosopher: the conquest of the world by a small city, and the fall of the republic into despotic servitude. He proposes to link them. The republic did not die of an internal vice, because “all abuses of power [could] still be corrected” (“tout abus de pouvoir [pouvait] toujours être corrigé”, Romains, VIII), but of its triumphs (ibid., IX). The Senate could no longer resist the people when they gave their confidence to generals who, thanks to distant wars, disposed of armies and realms, and of soldiers who had lost their civic spirit while Roman citizenship was spreading outside the City, and wealth within. Made for conquest, the Roman constitution died of its success, by corruption of the people and excessive speed (IX). Deprived of time to transform and pacify themselves, the Romans’ purely warlike passions precipitated them into an awful but unavoidable servitude. With this paradox: “Sulla, a tempestuous man, violently led the Romans to freedom; Augustus, a wily tyrant, took them gently into servitude” (“Sylla, homme emporté, mène violemment les Romains à la liberté : Auguste, rusé tyran, les conduit doucement à la servitude”, XIII), that servitude became blatant beginning with Tiberius (XIV). The purpose then is to account for a process of political corruption, by refusing to attribute it lazily to “the ambition of a few individuals” (XIII), and trying to explain the monstrous forms of tyranny by the nature of the historical process itself. Roman servitude, carried to an unheard-of level of servility, was inseparable from republican freedom, its passions, its institutions, its frenetic expansion. It came out of the belly of History, not individual vices, but to “satisfy the happiness of five or six monsters” (“assouvir le bonheur de cinq ou six monstres”, XV).

5Montesquieu also attempts to distinguish and explain phases and kinds within servitude. Beginning with Diocletian, who wanted to remedy the insecurity of the emperors, “there came to be another kind of tyranny […]: now it was no longer massacres, but evil judgments […] premeditated crimes” (XVII). At the end of the process, we encounter the Barbarians who, cast back into the ice and the forests by the Romans, “themselves reduced them to servitude” (XVI). But “the Barbarians, by making so many citizens slaves of the glebe, in other words of the field to which they were attached, introduced almost nothing that had not been more cruelly practiced before them” (XVIII). The Eastern empire, for its part, finally invented a new kind of servitude, that of political power with respect to ecclesiastical power, “the most poisonous source of all the Greeks’ woes” (“source la plus empoisonnée de tous les malheurs des Grecs”, XXII), which however did not prevent it from long outliving the Western empire.

Reflective servitude

6The Persian Letters and the Considerations treat political questions, but it is in L’Esprit des lois that servitude was to be envisaged in its whole scope. It is obviously not a matter here of analyzing the laws of political servitude, proper to the despotic government (the term slave appears at the beginning of II, 5). The work’s analytical table proposes distinguishing between civil, domestic and political servitude (books XV, XVI, XVII), and adds that of the “glebe”, said to have been instituted by the Barbarians (XXX, 11). One could also speak of a servitude of “conquest”, which the author would have be temporary (X, 3). Montesquieu constantly establishes a general semantic equivalence between servitude and slavery (XV, XVI), while speaking in XV, 1 of (civil) “slavery proper”, distinguished in XVI, 1 from that of women, which is “properly domestic servitude”, insofar as “the slaves are rather established for the family than in the family”. With this nuance, we shall limit ourselves to the question of feminine servitude, which is handled entirely differently in the Persian Letters.

7The “dependency” of women is explained in warm countries by the precociousness of marriageability and their premature aging which, dissociating beauty and reason, encourage polygamy. In such climates, a “natural inequality” obtains between the sexes, reinforced by the demographic preponderance of girls (XVI, 2, 4). “To view polygamy in general, independently of the circumstances that can cause it to be somewhat tolerated, it is not useful to the human race” (“À regarder la polygamie en général, indépendamment des circonstances qui peuvent la faire un peu tolérer, elle n’est point utile au genre humain”, XVI, 6), but is less removed from nature in certain countries than in others (XVI, 4). Besides the physical causes there is a political reason: “[…] women’s servitude is much in conformity with the genius of despotic government”; “the women must be enclosed; their intrigues would be deadly to the husband” (“[…] la servitude des femmes est très conforme au génie du gouvernement despotique” ; “[…] il faut enfermer les femmes ; leurs intrigues seraient fatales au mari”, XVI, 9). From the plurality of wives and their enclosure flows the necessity of their being penned up within the house, the source of “all practice of morality”, which is “the sole attachment to one’s family”, by forbidding them “to enter society” (XVI, 10). But the separation of women is also sometimes justified in a monogamist regime, as is proven by the disastrous example of Goa, where the freedom of women causes a proliferation of “horrors, crimes, betrayals, evil deeds, poisons, murders”, which can be compared to the purity of feminine morals in Turkey, Persia, Mughal, China and Japan” (XVI, 11). “It is the climate that must decide these things” (“C’est le climat qui doit décider de ces choses”, ibid.), and it is up to the legislator to force “the nature of the climate” to re-establish “the natural law of the two sexes”, which “has spoken of all nations” in condemning incontinence and requiring “modesty and restraint” (“la modestie et la retenue”, XVI, 12).

8The chain is thus solid and tight that leads from climate, passes through the feminine body, withered after age twenty, results in polygamy, encounters enclosure at the intersection of numbers and politics, and returns to “the primitive laws” of modesty in the rigorous sequestration of women (XVI, 12), which a happy climate spares Europeans (XVI, 11). Polygamy is thus condemned in principle, because, like civil slavery, it is not useful “to either of the sexes, either to that which abused or that which is abused” (“à aucun des deux sexes, soit à celui qui abuse, soit à celui dont on abuse”, XVI, 6). The same in no way applies to the separation of women in their home, and even within their home, because, imposed by the climate to fulfill natural ends, it contributes, with religion, to the reintroduction of a little order into despotic denaturation by means of the family. Enclosure combats the diversity of interests inherent in the seraglio and in despotism, to form “a sort of special family within the family” in which “modesty, chastity, restrain, silence, peace, dependency, respect, and love” (“la pudeur, la chasteté, la retenue, le silence, la paix, la dépendance, le respect, l’amour”) prevail! At the heart of the political question lies that of women. Their gentle servitude, over much of the globe, is salutary to the human race.

Bibliographical reference

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