Despotism is all around us: the warnings of Montesquieu

<p><em>Photo by Matt Stuart/Magnum</em></p>

Photo by Matt Stuart/Magnum


by Vickie B Sullivan + BIO

Photo by Matt Stuart/Magnum

It is commonplace for citizens of liberal, democratic nations to believe that despotism is foreign to their own experiences. Their political constitutions display in some form or other a separation of powers, which is specifically intended to prevent the amassing of arbitrary and irresponsible power in any one function of their government. Conversely, despotism is an extreme form of rule that concentrates arbitrary power, which can extend into every realm of life. With constitutional and legal barriers in place, the citizens of liberal societies can believe that victimisation at the hands of despots is an experience reserved for less fortunate peoples. Nevertheless, laws forbid sexual harassment and assault, though recent revelations about their pervasiveness remind us of the limited efficacy of mere paper or legal barriers.

If legal barriers sometimes fail to protect us from miniature despots, then political despotism is not as distant as many think. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French philosopher who brought the term ‘despotism’ into our political vocabulary, would not be surprised at the disjunction between the putative liberty of our society and the experience many have as the victims of irresponsible power within it. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), he shows that despotism is an ever-present danger and a persistent threat to human flourishing everywhere and always. Even those fortunate to live outside the borders of a despotic government can still be victimised by despotic practices. In response, Montesquieu teaches that the unmasking of despotism must remain a central endeavour in social and political life.

To the extent that he is remembered at all today, Montesquieu is credited with being the inspiration for the theory of the separation of powers, those constitutional barriers to despotism that can, paradoxically, render us complacent as to our liberty. The framers of the Constitution of the United States, in fact, termed him the ‘oracle’ of the separation of powers when drawing liberally from his political teachings. Nevertheless, reflection on his writings reveals that despotism is a vastly more pervasive and intransigent phenomenon than individuals in so-called enlightened and free societies tend to believe. Throughout The Spirit of the Laws, he shows that despotism lies at the very core of the European mindset. Salient aspects of its religious and philosophical traditions encourage the concentration of power and a harshness that can too readily eventuate in despotic violence. With this constant countervailing pressure, constitutional arrangements, as critical as they are, cannot alone contain this phenomenon.

Montesquieu’s overt depiction of despotism would seem to undermine the claim that Europe harbours despotism. After all, he draws from the history of Asia and the Middle East to depict despots of large empires, those contemptible figures who, although enthralled by private pleasures, absorb all the powers in the state. Such immense power allows for the exploitation of the ruled in a way that inflicts violence, both physical and psychological, on its victims. In so doing, it denies individuals opportunities for human development and agency, and thus ultimately robs them of their human dignity. It terrifies all who might oppose it as it is often murderously oppressive. As a result of this depiction, Montesquieu seems to many of today’s readers to be an Orientalist, yet another European intellectual who belittles foreign societies in order to laud the achievements of the West in a process that ultimately justifies colonialism. But this is a superficial reading of a deep thinker and writer. It was common defensive practice for intellectuals of his time to use exotic locations as a stalking horse for criticisms of their own societies.

Much of Montesquieu’s critique of despotism, in fact, amounts to a critique of Europe. Montesquieu sees Europe – seemingly mild and Christian – as home to some of the most brutal despotic practices. Despite his apparent focus on Eastern despotism, he also manages to underscore the despotic practices of venerated European institutions: the Catholic Church and the French monarchy. He unmasks the despotism of the Portuguese Inquisitors, who burn alive an adolescent girl for practising the Judaism of her parents, and even of his own homeland, which executes for treason those who merely reproach the monarch’s minister. He thus highlights the cruelty of Europe at a time when voicing such criticism was still decidedly dangerous.

Montesquieu takes his strongest stand against cruel punishments, declaring that ‘the knowledge’ of the correct way to proceed in ‘criminal judgments’ is more important ‘than anything else in the world’. Liberty, he maintains, is a feeling of security that the threat of arbitrary punishment necessarily contravenes. His acolyte, Cesare Beccaria, proceeded to lead the liberal reform of criminal law and punishment in Europe in the late 18th century. But that liberalisation had to proceed against the grain – against venerated European ideas, which were, according to Montesquieu’s analysis, despotic. Indeed, so important are ideas in Montesquieu’s view that he termed some philosophers ‘legislators’. Not only did these philosophic legislators aspire themselves to found utopias, but their musings can, in fact, impact real practices.

In Montesquieu’s analysis, some of the despotic ideas of Europe derive from the most exalted of sources, from the writings of Plato and Aristotle and the teachings of the Church, for example. Although these sources are understood to inculcate the virtues and thus to attempt to make human beings better, he subtly reveals throughout his work the immoderation, even the cruelty, of the ideas that can be found in old and venerated volumes slumbering on dusty bookshelves. Montesquieu highlights Plato’s harmful doctrines that slaves do not have a right to self-defence, that magistrates should be absolute, and that punishments should be frequent and severe. Similarly, Aristotle’s teachings abet despotic practices by relying too much on the virtue of princes for necessary restraint, and by vilifying the practice of demanding interest on loans, which is the very lifeblood of commerce among nations. Aristotle’s teachings help to undermine commerce which, according to Montesquieu, promotes the ‘gentle mores’ that in turn preserve life by countering both belligerent martial virtues and aggressive suspiciousness of foreigners. He shows also how the Church promulgates a far too expansive law, deriving from the ancient Romans, that equates treason and heresy. The Church and compliant civil authorities slew many so-called heretics as a result of its promulgation.

As events unfolded after his death, Montesquieu’s assessment of Europe’s continuing susceptibility to despotism proved to be remarkably prescient. No one who merely glances at this history can deny the enduring need for the lesson that Montesquieu endeavours to teach in The Spirit of the Laws – that there is no final victory over despotism, and that the West too remains susceptible. It is, in fact, an ever-present threat in the human condition. Liberty, Montesquieu shows, demands the continual scrutiny of ruling practices and ideas, no matter how sacred. Despotic ideas can lodge in our most cherished ideas, and even in our own hearts.