Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Ruskola on Montesquieu and "Oriental Despotism"

Teemu Ruskola, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, has posted Oriental Despotism Inside Out: On the Global Travels of Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois:

Baron de Montesquieu (NYPL)
This speculative essay analyzes Montesquieu’s comparative method in his De l’esprit des lois (1748) and its contemporary legacies. It takes as its focus his theory of Oriental despotism. The first half of the paper focuses on two aspects of his method. First, Montesquieu’s empirical approach to political theory marks him apart from his humanist predecessors. Turning away from natural law and a search for universal principles, he instead attends to nature itself in order to understand the diversity of social and legal phenomena. Second, I comment briefly on Montesquieu’s reworking of Europe’s metageographic status. I analyze him as a key figure in replacing an essentially religious distinction between the Christian world and a heathen Orient with a more plural world divided into continents marked by cultural and political differences.

In the second half of the paper I turn to Montesquieu’s use of China as a paradigmatic instance of “Oriental despotism.” Paradoxically, Montesquieu develops his idea of despotism as a critique of French absolutism while projecting its prototype into the Orient, China in particular. In the final analysis, however, Montesquieu himself is forced to admit that in several key respects China does not fit the category it supposedly exemplifies. Yet despite its flawed empirical foundation, over time Oriental despotism mutates from a theory of politics into a theory of scientific racism with global implications. I conclude by examining the geopolitical implications of Montesquieu’s analysis with respect to the discourse of Chinese authoritarianism today.
--Dan Ernst