Céline Spector

1Montesquieu is rarely invoked among the precursors of the idea of Europe. Though his travels are mentioned (Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, England) or his interest in federation, the fact that he did not associate federation and Europe prevents him from taking a place, in the eighteenth century, among the Founding Fathers of the European idea, alongside the abbé de Saint-Pierre, Rousseau, Voltaire or Kant. Whereas The Spirit of Law, through the mediation of the Federalist authors, would play a determining role in the elaboration of the federal Constitution of the United States, the work would not influence the political organization of Europe.

2Yet the Persian Letters and The Spirit of Law propose a coherent and original vision of Europe. Opposed to Asia, Europe is not defined solely by her geographic and climatic properties, but above all by her political characteristics. Over against with “Oriental despotism”, Europe appears as the breeding ground of moderation and political freedom; her “spirit of freedom” (the cognitive and affective dispositions of her inhabitants) contrasts with the Asiatic “genius of servitude”. Should we then denounce the premises of a suspect “orientalism” that projects on the Orient the Occident’s desire for hegemony? Should we deplore the construction of a mythic Asia serving to valorize European superiority – at the price of making of Europe herself the artifact resulting from this desire of domination? The question arises all the more insistently that Montesquieu, while condemning slavery and conquest, praises the invention, in modern Europe, of a new figure of commercial colonization. The “fundamental laws of Europe” which he enunciates certainly seem to naturalize European hegemony and to justify the economic asymmetries in favor of the metropolises. From there to putting on trial the one who was also at the origin of the theory of “stages of development” that frame the advent, beginning with nomad, “savage”, “barbaric” societies, of “civilized societies”, is but a small step: did The Spirit of Law not invent the great narrative of civilization of which Europe is the privileged site of election?

3It remains to cast light on the dynamic representation of Europe elaborated by Montesquieu. Without theorizing a permanent arbitrage capable of putting an end to dynastic rivalries in the spirit of “projects of perpetual peace”, The Spirit of Law proposes one of the very first reflections on modern Europe as a civil society: this Europe is a unit of economic power based on the spirit of commerce, a civil society united by her mores, having emerged into modernity as a true motor of history, a society which has been defined since the discovery of America with respect to her others – the continents she colonizes or subjugates. In The Spirit of Law, Europe emerges as a subject of history in order to conjure up a certain type of empire, which, from the seedbed of freedom, would transform her into a place of servitude: the passage from conquest to commerce is the only possible solution to the future of Europe. But does this “solution” not betray the emergence of a new imperial ideology?

Persian Letters : the image of Europe in the seraglio novel

4Persian Letters offers one of the first illustrations of the European “general spirit”. The specular apparatus set up by Montesquieu (Orient/Occident, Asia/Europe, Ispahan/Paris) calls for a reflexive approach: not only “how can one be Persian?”, but also “how can one be European?” In a satirical register, he denounces the follies, the vices, the pretenses of what the Persians call the “black Occident”. It is Rica who starts things off with letter [‣] to Ibben: “Do not believe that I can as of now speak to you in depth of European mores and customs: I myself have but a slight idea of them, and have only had time to be surprised” (“Ne crois pas que je puisse, quant à présent, te parler à fond des mœurs et des coutumes européennes : je n’en ai moi-même qu’une légère idée, et je n’ai eu à peine que le temps de m’étonner”). Everything depends here on a play of reversal: the illumination due to “European lights” seems to encounter obscurity or shadow – the superstition of Europe herself, which is not only religious but also political and civil. How can one be European? What estrangement reveals is the intrusion of dupery, intolerance and servitude right in the midst of what makes for the power and renown of civilized Europe and her ornament (Paris) – her civilization, politics, flourishing economy, her salons, women, learned societies, her sciences and her arts. Christian Europe is not a land of peace or toleration. The place where the truth of the sciences appears, she is also the scorched earth of the Inquisition. The satire also targets less salient phenomena: civilization subjects man and rivets him to the realm of appearances, at the very moment when the heyday of sciences and the arts, luxury and taste veils its servitude. The Persian gaze brings out the corruption, mutilation, or alienation constitutive of modernity in the West.

Europe over against Asia: Occidental freedom, Oriental despotism?

5In The Spirit of Law, satire gives way to the theorization of institutions. Again defined comparatively, Europe is first conceived as a plural climatic and geographic unity. Sketching the space of the extended continent (her eastern border includes Moscow and part of Turkey: see XIX, 14), Montesquieu highlights the climatic, geographical and topographical characteristics that predispose her to moderation: the temperate zone where she is located is imperceptibly graduated. But in virtue of the theory of climates, physiological causes have moral and political consequences. Cold climates elicit courage, confidence, frankness and thus freedom: more courageous, men better resist conquests and abuses of power (XIV, 2); more active, they better develop their economy. That Europe should be divided between Mediterranean and northern countries does not change the givens: what matters is rather the differential within a given area. Such is the rational, and first of all psychological, explanation of the “strength of Europe” and of her liberty: […] in Asia, nations are opposed to each other as strong to weak; warlike, courageous and active peoples immediately neighbor with effeminate, idle, timid peoples: the one must necessarily be conquered, the other conquering. In Europe on the contrary nations are opposed as strong to strong; neighboring ones have about the same courage. This is the major reason for the weakness of Asia and the strength of Europe, the freedom of Europe and the servitude of Asia: a cause which I am not aware has yet been noted. That is why in Asia freedom never increases, whereas in Europe it increases or decreases according to circumstances. (XVII, 3)“[…] en Asie, les nations sont opposées aux nations du fort au faible ; les peuples guerriers, braves et actifs touchent immédiatement des peuples efféminés, paresseux, timides : il faut donc que l’un soit conquis, et l’autre conquérant. En Europe au contraire les nations sont opposées du fort au fort ; celles qui se touchent ont à peu près le même courage. 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. 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.”
Such a characterization of Oriental “weakness”, structurally opposed to European “strength”, seems to reinforce the idea of an apparatus of knowledge/powers oriented by European domination: not only is Europe endowed here “by nature” with an aptitude for freedom refused to her opposite number, but Asia is tagged with characteristics (effeminacy, idleness and timidity) that seem to invite energetic mastery from its potential conquerors. The contrast is striking: “Unlike [in Europe], a spirit of servitude prevails in Asia that has never left it; and in all the histories of that land, it is not possible to find a single trait to mark a free soul: you never see anything but the heroism of servitude” (“Au contraire [de l’Europe], 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 : on n’y verra jamais que l’héroïsme de la servitude”, XVII, 5).

6The topological difference tends in the same direction: because of its vast plains which facilitate conquests, “in Asia we have always seen vast empires; in Europe they have never managed to subsist” (“en Asie, on a toujours vu de grands empires ; en Europe, ils n’ont jamais pu subsister”, EL, XVII, 6-7: see Reflections on universal monarchy, VIII). According to Montesquieu, the “natural barrier” (high mountains, broad rivers and not vast plains) frames a fragmented territory, unamenable to empire. Unlike the Oriental world, Europe is then governed by a “genius for liberty that makes each part very difficult to subjugate and subject to a foreign power other than by law and the usefulness of her trade” (“génie de liberté qui rend chaque partie très difficile à être subjuguée et soumise à une force étrangère autrement que par les lois et l’utilité de son commerce”, XVII, 6). Thus emerges the theme of European dynamism as opposed to “Oriental inertia”. Not only do physical causes dispose the Orientals to idleness, sensuality, and servitude but moral causes (religion, economy, politics) accentuate these effects: this is notably the case in India, where the philosophical and religious systems reinforce the natural passivity (XIV, 5).

7The contrast between Europe and Asia is also a function of relationship to time: with a few exceptions, Asia is described as a land without history. More precisely, its history is infinitely mobile, in the whirlwind of invasions and revolutions that never abolish despotism; the passivity of body and spirit and the absence of courage and desire for self-government seem to forbid any genuine emancipation. Contrariwise, European history is neither sempiternal nor purely made up of events, but scanned by several major upheavals that do not alter her predisposition toward moderation: the Greek and Phoenician colonizations, Roman conquests, barbarian invasions, victories of Charlemagne and the Norman conquest – that of Islam from the south not being mentioned (XVII, 6). Since the Reformation, Protestant republics and Catholic monarchies have shared the European space without great prejudice to freedom, defined by opposition to despotic fear as a mind at peace associated with the opinion one has of his security.

8The difficulty is, however, to judge the naturalization of the three (political, civil, domestic) forms of servitude in Asia’s vast, torrid plains. Does the theory of physical causes lead one to think of non-European peoples as dominated by necessity, of nations governed exclusively by nature, without politics and without history? While the temptation of such an interpretation is real, it would be mistaken to hold to a tangible European superiority. In the Persian Letters as in The Spirit of Law, the depiction of Oriental despotism results from a complex process in which travel narratives are combined with criticisms inspired by opposition to absolute monarchy: thus does the depiction of the seraglio, where the system of favor reigns, find echoes in Versailles – such a case does Louis XIV make of “Oriental politics” (LP, [‣]). The truth of despotism is not that of a reflection: fare from being confined to the Orient, to Persia, China or Japan, despotism rather represents the threat that weighs on all forms of government, whether they are republican or (especially) monarchical. If Asia indeed is likely to remain despotic, despotism is not excluded by nature from Europe.

9One must yet examine the genesis of Europe and her “spirit”, which is in no way an essence. Primarily at issue is the Christian religion: “Separated from the rest of the world by religion [the note specifies: “Muslim nations surround her almost everywhere”] by vast seas and deserts” (XXIII, 25), Europe is opposed to the Muslim world. Christian gentility is translated by its contribution to political and international law (droit des gens): “The Christian religion is far from pure despotism: its gentility being so strongly recommended in the Gospel, it stands against the despotic anger with which the prince would do himself justice and exercise his cruelty” (“La religion chrétienne est éloignée du pur despotisme : c’est que la douceur étant si recommandée dans l’Évangile, elle s’oppose à la colère despotique avec laquelle le prince se ferait justice et exercerait ses cruautés”, XXIV, 3). The praise of Christianity invokes its social and political utility: by not inciting to separation (of men from women, the prince from his subjects), it is supposed to exclude the spirit of despotism. Is the justification of the civilizing project not contained in a nutshell in this confidence given to the maintenance of moderation, the cardinal virtue of the political? “It is the Christian religion which, despite the greatness of the empire and the vice of the climate, prevented despotism from becoming established in Ethiopia, and brought to the midst of Africa the mores of Europe and her laws” (“C’est la religion chrétienne qui, malgré la grandeur de l’empire et le vice du climat, a empêché le despotisme de s’établir en Éthiopie, et a porté au milieu de l’Afrique les mœurs de l’Europe et ses lois”, ibid). The homage is even more pertinent to international law. Thus does Montesquieu explain the existence of a form of union in modern Europe, despite conflicts and wars:

It is international law which makes it so that, among us, victory leaves to vanquished peoples these things: life, liberty, the laws, property, and always religion, whenever they do not willfully go blind.
It can be said that the peoples of Europe are not today more disunited than were the peoples and armies in the Roman empire turned despotic and military, or the armies amongst themselves: on the one hand, the armies waged war on each other, and on the other they were allowed to pillage the cities and divide or confiscate lands
(XXIV, 3, my emphasis; see also X, 3).
“C’est ce droit des gens qui fait que, parmi nous, la victoire laisse aux peuples vaincus ces grandes choses, la vie, la liberté, les lois, les biens, et toujours la religion, lorsqu’on ne s’aveugle pas soi-même.
On peut dire que les peuples de l’Europe ne sont pas aujourd’hui plus désunis que ne l’étaient dans l’Empire romain, devenu despotique et militaire, les peuples et les armées, ou que ne l’étaient les armées entre elles : d’un côté, les armées se faisaient la guerre, et, de l’autre on leur donnait le pillage des villes et le partage ou la confiscation des terres”
(XXIV, 3, souligné par nous ; voir X, 3).

10However, the praise of the European spirit of “conservation”, opposed to the ferocious, destructive spirit of Oriental despots, does not operate unilaterally. For one thing, the delicate situation in Europe shows through the swerves of the art of writing: the state of war that undermines it is barely attenuated by the existence of international law, which is supposed to protect peoples from the wild ambitions of monarchs. For another, Montesquieu only associates Europe and her moderate government with Christianity with a bond of convenience which owes nothing to the truth of the religion of the Gospels: Christianity is valid strictly insofar as it makes the mores more gentle and attenuates the ferocity of princes (XXIV, 4). Moreover, there is nothing univocal about this contribution: Montesquieu is constantly recognizing the imperialist use of Catholicism attested in the conquest, enslavement, and even extermination of the Amerindians. In France, it is the pretext of evangelization that led Louis XIII to introduce slaves into his colonies the better to convert them (XV, 4). As for the Spanish, they claim the mission entrusted to them by Pope Alexander VI to execute anew the role of imperium Romanorum and try to export Christianity into a climate that cannot receive it (XXIX, 24). One of the greatest crimes of history was thus committed in its name: the most supposedly civilized peoples, as Montaigne rightly saw, are the true barbarians.

11The relation to the Roman world is just as ambivalent in the genesis of modern Europe – the question being who is the authentic heir to Rome and what model or what “anti-model” can bequeath its history. Initially destined to furnish the lesson of the Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline, the Reflections on Universal Monarchy enunciate the reasons why modern Europe must renounce the Roman model: changes in the art of war, associated with a profound mutation in the sources of power (henceforth economic and no longer territorial) doom any project of imperial restoration to failure. Correlatively, Montesquieu rejects any continuity with the Greco-Roman legacy: the role of the barbarians, destroyers of the Roman Empire, is re-evaluated. If Europe is the true seedbed of freedom, that is owing first to the legacy of the Northern peoples, and correlatively to the feudalism they helped invent. Montesquieu makes the North into the genuine European factory of liberty, a liberty born not of the civilized legacy of Greece and Rome but, not without roughness and violence, of the “heart of the forest”:

Jornandes the Goth called the North of Europe the factory of the human race. I shall call it rather the factory of the instruments that broke the chains forged in the South. It is there that those valiant nations are formed, that go out from their countries to destroy tyrants and slaves, and teach men that, nature having made them equal, reason can have made them dependent only for their own happiness. (XVII, 5)
“Le Goth Jornandès a appelé le nord de l’Europe la fabrique du genre humain. Je l’appellerai plutôt la fabrique des instruments qui brisent les fers forgés au midi. C’est là que se forment ces nations vaillantes, qui sortent de leur pays pour détruire les tyrans et les esclaves, et apprendre aux hommes que, la nature les ayant faits égaux, la raison n’a pu les rendre dépendants que pour leur bonheur.” (XVII, 5)

12Bending the Germania of Tacitus, The Spirit of Law here produces a new form of golden legend: it is as if the barbarians had imported the very message of modern contractualism. Despite the difference in national character (England and Spain constituting two extremes between which France is called to hold the happy medium), the spirit of Europe derives from a refusal of unconditional obeisance or blind submission. The argument comes to the rescue of the noble thesis because freedom is preserved only by the diffusion in Europe of a sensitivity to honor, once more opposed to the servile spirit of Asia:

That is why the genius of the Tartar or Getic nation has always been like that of the Asian empires. The peoples of the latter are governed by the stick; the Tartar peoples, by long whips. The European spirit has always been against these mores; and in all times, what the Asian peoples have called punishment has been called outrage by the peoples of Europe […].
I do not know whether the famous Rudbeck who so praised Scandinavia in his Atlantis spoke of that great prerogative that should place the nations that live there above all the world’s peoples; it is that they have been the source of Europe’s freedom, in other words of almost all freedom there now is among men.
(XVII, 5)
“C’est ce qui a fait que le génie de la nation tartare ou gétique a toujours été semblable à celui des empires de l’Asie. Les peuples, dans ceux-ci, sont gouvernés par le bâton ; les peuples tartares, par les longs fouets. L’esprit de l’Europe a toujours été contraire à ces mœurs ; et, dans tous les temps, ce que les peuples d’Asie ont appelé punition, les peuples d’Europe l’ont appelé outrage […]
Je ne sais si le fameux Rudbeck qui, dans son Atlantique a tant loué la Scandinavie, a parlé de cette grande prérogative qui doit mettre les nations qui l’habitent au-dessus de tous les peuples du monde ; c’est qu’elles 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.”

13Yet this characterization is in no way owing to an intangible naturalization: for the climatic, economic and political seedbed of Europe is that of variation (temperate climates are variable, the economy allows for variation of powers, freedom fluctuates, peace is always precarious). The predisposition to moderation can clash with monarchical conquest and corruption, two figures of abuse of power that are mutually reinforcing. For Montesquieu, the genius of European freedom remains precarious: “Most of the peoples of Europe are still governed by mores. But if, by long abuse of power, if by a great conquest, despotism gained a certain foothold, the influence of mores or climate would not hold; and in this lovely part of the world humankind would suffer, at least for a time, the injuries to which it is subjected 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 pas 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). Resting on the courage to defend itself against invasions and abuses of power, freedom can increase or diminish according to circumstances. The state of war among great powers, in Europe, works against freedom and prosperity and this time it is economical Turkey that serves as example. By the balance of powers, by the “European equilibrium” (a false equilibrium destined to avoid the hegemony of a great power, which entails a generalized stockpiling of weapons) Europe escapes empire only at an exorbitant price: “we are poor with the whole world’s wealth” (EL, XIII, 17; see Reflections on Universal Monarchy, XXIV). The reversibility of the situations is obvious: Europe in no case occupies a permanent position; “Oriental despotism” furnishes only the mirror of her possible destiny.

Europe as civil society

14Montesquieu’s analysis thus seems to lead less to a dialectic between Oriental inertia and Occidental hegemony than to rejection of the conquering model – to the damnation of the dream of “universal monarchy”. Modern Europe must abandon the dream of Charlemagne, Charles V or Louis XIV. At the same time she must abandon the model of the art of war inherent in the mercantilist representation of commerce. Against the zero-sum economic paradigm (by virtue of which one man’s gain is another’s loss), Montesquieu invokes the mechanism of solvent demand: the profits of some are the markets of others. Such is the reason why trade, which makes possible “communication” among peoples (XXI, 5), also favors their mutual enrichment. In Europe, the mutual satisfaction of needs is a source of the interdependency of societies: “A prince thinks he will be greater by the ruin of a neighboring state. On the contrary! Things are such in Europe that all states depend upon each other. France needs the opulence of Poland and Muscovia as Guyana needs Brittany, and Brittany Anjou. Europe is a state composed of several provinces” (“Un prince croit qu’il sera plus grand par la ruine d’un État voisin. Au contraire ! Les choses sont telles en Europe que tous les États dépendent les uns des autres. La France a besoin de l’opulence de la Pologne et de la Moscovie, comme la Guyenne a besoin de la Bretagne, et la Bretagne, de l’Anjou. L’Europe est un État composé de plusieurs provincs”, (Pensées, no. 318 prior to 1731; see Reflections on Universal Monarchy [1734], XVIII ; EL, XX, 2). Without conceiving Europe from the standpoint of her political institutions, Montesquieu thus considers that complementarities, especially between North and South, work in favor of her common prosperity. In this respect, Europe constitutes one single “nation”, a veritable civil society: “Europe is now a nation composed of several, France and England need the opulence of Poland and Muscovia as one of their provinces needs the others; and the state that thinks it can increase its power by the ruin of its neighbor usually is weakened along with it” (“L’Europe n’est plus qu’une nation composée de plusieurs, la France et l’Angleterre ont besoin de l’opulence de la Pologne et de la Moscovie, comme une de leurs Provinces a besoin des autres ; et l’État qui croit augmenter sa puissance par la ruine de celui qui le touche, s’affaiblit ordinairement avec lui”, Reflections on Universal Monarchy, XVIII).

15All the same, this optimistic vision of “gentle commerce” associated with reciprocal exchanges, with peace and political freedom, in turn invites a suspicious reading: has modern Europe been turned aside from a dream of imperial unity only to reconstitute, outside her own territory, new forms of empires? Must the classical critique of Enlightenment lead back to this – the project of emancipation of modernity being the vector of a negative dialectic, bearing more insidious forms of domination than the ones it pretended to abolish? Does commerce, which helps avoid violence on European soil, not lead to the exportation of the violence of empire to the rest of the world – colonization and civilization of a new kind, the legitimacy of which would this time not be tested?

Europe and empire

16That Europe cannot truly renounce empire seems all the more evident that modernity, in The Spirit of Law, is associated with the invention of a new figure, judged more refined, of colonization: the maritime powers (Holland and England) have preferred trading colonies to the settlements privileged by the Spanish and Portuguese. The next question is whether colonies, defined as settlements under the control of a metropolis, can benefit from a real exchange and consent to the “laws of Europe” that seem rather to be imposed upon them. Europe sees her identity assigned by the system of colonial monopoly, which Montesquieu qualifies as the “fundamental law of Europe” (the only one of its kind) stipulating the economic advantages granted her in exchange for military and political advantages. The argument for protection of the colonies seems at the least doubtful, not to say ideological:

Thus, it is again a fundamental law of Europe that all trade with a foreign colony is considered as a pure monopoly punishable by the laws of the country; and this must not be judged by the laws and examples of ancient peoples […], which are hardly applicable.
It is also accepted that trade established between the metropolises does not carry permission for the colonies, which still remain in a state of prohibition.
The disadvantage of colonies, which lose the freedom of trade, is visibly counterbalanced by the protection of the metropolis […], which defends it with its arms or maintains it with its laws.
There follows from this a third law of Europe, that when foreign trade is forbidden with the colony, sailing within its waters can be done only in cases established by the treaties. (EL, XXI, 17 [21], my emphasis).
“Ainsi, c’est encore une loi fondamentale de l’Europe que tout commerce avec une colonie étrangère est regardé comme un pur monopole punissable par les lois du pays ; et il ne faut pas juger de cela par les lois et les exemples des anciens peuples […], qui n’y sont guère applicables.
Il est encore reçu que le commerce établi entre les métropoles n’entraîne point une permission pour les colonies, qui restent toujours en état de prohibition.
Le désavantage des colonies, qui perdent la liberté du commerce, est visiblement compensé par la protection de la métropole […], qui la défend par ses armes ou la maintient par ses lois.
De là suit une troisième loi de l’Europe, que quand le commerce étranger est défendu avec la colonie, on ne peut naviguer dans ses mers que dans les cas établis par les traits”.

17The equity of such compensation seems dubious. Obviously the commercial exchanges favorable to Europe have made her, since Christopher Columbus’s discovery, the dominant actor: “Europe has reached such a high level of power that history has nothing to compare with her […]. Father Du Halde […] says that the domestic trade of China is greater than that of all Europe. That may be, if our foreign trade did not build the domestic trade. Europe trades and ships to the three other parts of the world, as France, England and Holland do with respect to Europe” (“L’Europe est parvenue à un si haut degré de puissance, que l’histoire n’a rien à comparer là-dessus [...] Le père Du Halde […] dit que le commerce intérieur de la Chine est plus grand que celui de toute l’Europe. Cela pourrait être, si notre commerce extérieur n’augmentait pas l’intérieur. L’Europe fait le commerce et la navigation des trois autres parties du monde ; comme la France, l’Angleterre et la Hollande font à peu près la navigation et le commerce de l’Europe”, XXI, 17 [21]). To be sure, with trade flourishing in all free places, every situation is reversible as well as a new variation of the centers of power, always imaginable. But the climatic rooting of the “genius of servitude” and the “spirit of freedom” makes delicate the idea that the globalization of exchanges produced to Europe’s benefit could turn it, following some new “revolution” in trade, to the profit of another continent (America excepted). The privilege granted to Europe remains patent here.

18The attitude with respect to the slave trade is an aspect of this ambivalence. On the one hand, Montesquieu offers one of the first general condemnations of slavery, strident with irony (“The peoples of Europe, having exterminated those of America, had to make slaves of those of Africa for use in clearing so much land” (“Les peuples d’Europe ayant exterminé ceux de l’Amérique, ils ont dû mettre en esclavage ceux de l’Afrique, pour s’en servir à défricher tant de terres”, XV, 5). On the other, he evokes the “necessity” of servile laborers in order to maintain the triangular trade:

The effect of the discovery of America was to bind Europe, Asia and Africa. America furnishes Europe with the material for its trade with that vast part of Asia which we call the East Indies. Silver, that metal so useful to commerce symbolically, was again the basis of the world’s greatest trade as merchandise. Finally, shipping to Africa became necessary; it supplied men for work in American mines and on American lands. (XXI, 21)
“L’effet de la découverte de l’Amérique fut de lier à l’Europe l’Asie et l’Afrique. L’Amérique fournit à l’Europe la matière de son commerce avec cette vaste partie de l’Asie qu’on appela les Indes orientales. L’argent, ce métal si utile au commerce comme signe, fut encore la base du plus grand commerce de l’univers comme marchandise. Enfin la navigation d’Afrique devint nécessaire ; elle fournissait des hommes pour le travail des mines et des terres de l’Amérique.”

19The contradiction, in reality, is in the thing itself: while denouncing the abuses of slavery in all its forms (domestic, civil and political), Montesquieu reveals Europe’s new imperial tendencies, which are expressed to the detriment of the rest of the world.

20Even more than the Persian Letters, a satirical work that subjects Europe and France to scrutiny, The Spirit of Law is thus indeed the source of a certain figure of Orientalism, the perverse effects of which were to be felt in the following century. But there is no point in setting oneself up to deliver lessons: it is much more fruitful to try to reconstitute mediations by virtue of which a philosophy of freedom was converted into an instrument of oppression. In this history of European superiority and of Europe’s vocation, the Encyclopédie was paradoxically able to play its role. Compiling several passages from The Spirit of Law, the chevalier de Jaucourt in his short article Europe sets the warp for a “grand narrative” of European exceptionalism. He enunciates the European “miracle” which, emanating from a small territory, has become powerful and enlightened, where religion itself – conceived as morally beneficial – has become subordinate to the well-being of civil society. Despite the art of writing, the ambiguous message of Montesquieu here becomes all too clear: the European exception comes to the fore in a universal, secularized history celebrating the unequaled value of her civilization.


Jaucourt, chevalier Louis de, “Europe”, in Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences et des arts (1751-1772), Denis Diderot et al., (t. VI, 1756),

Lucien Febvre, L’Europe: genèse d’une civilisation, Cours professé au Collège de France en 1944-1945, Paris: Perrin, 1999, p. 220-225.

Federico Chabod, Storia dell’idea d’Europa, Bari: Laterza, 1971.

Patrice Rolland, “Montesquieu et l’Europe”, in L’Europe entre deux tempéraments politiques: idéal d’unité et particularismes régionaux. Etudes d’histoire des idées politiques, Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires d’Aix-Marseille, 1994, p. 41-60.

Catherine Larrère, “Montesquieu et l’idée de federation”, in L’Europe de Montesquieu, Maria Grazia Bottaro Palumbo and Alberto Postigliola ed., Cahiers Montesquieu 2, Naples: Liguori, 1995, p. 137-152.

Pierre Rétat, “La représentation du monde dans L’Esprit des lois: la place de l’Europe”, in ibid., p. 7-16 (rééd. 2019, Pierre Rétat, sous le signe de Montesquieu, []).

Sante A. Viselli, “Montesquieu et les signes d’une Europe contradictoire à l’aube d’un nouvel équilibre mondial”, in ibid., p. 29-43.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La biche des Palus-Méotides ou l’invention de l’Europe dans les Romains », in ibid., p. 17-27.

Sheila Mason, “Montesquieu’s Vision of Europe and its European Context », SVEC, no. 341, 1996, p. 61-87.

Céline Spector, “Montesquieu, l’Europe et les nouvelles figures de l’empire”, Revue Montesquieu 8 (2005-2006),

Céline Spector, “L’‘esprit’ de l’Europe: liberté, commerce et empire dans L’Esprit des lois de Montesquieu”, in Les Circulations internationales en Europe, 1680-1780, Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire and Pierrick Pourchasse ed., Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 225-235.