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Trip Adler

Historical Study A-40

Paper #10
Montesquieu and the Notion of Oriental Despotism

In Montesquieu’s book The Persian Letters, he tries to accomplish many different

goals. In the form of letters written by Persians, he tells a fictional story. This is a story

with a clear beginning, middle, and end that provides commentary on Middle Eastern

society and French society at the time. Meanwhile, he uses the characters in the story to

write about himself and explore some philosophical ideas that were thought about during

the Enlightenment.

It seems to me that there was a form of despotism present in the Orient that was 

unique to that part of the world.  Therefore, Oriental despotism is a valid notion. 

However, this does not imply that despotism was not present in Europe, or that this form 

of Oriental despotism was a bad thing.  The reason why this form of government is 

unique is that only is this part of the world was there a system in which one ruler has 

absolute power and his subjects are all slaves.   This is undeniably a form of despotism, 

and it differs from that in Europe because of the slave system.  In Europe, various forms 

of despotism still existed, as explained by M. E. Yapp, but these were different.  Usually 

there was still an aristocracy with some power, and as Montesquieu explains, in the case 

of England, the people could rebel if they felt that there ruler had committed a crime 

against the people.  Therefore, we see that there is a distinct Oriental despotism that 
differs from the despotism of Europe.  It should also be mentioned though that the notion 

of Oriental despotism does not imply cruelty and unfairness.  For many years this system 

allowed the Ottoman Empire to be a great power.  It also provided opportunity for many 

of the slaves to gain high positions in the Ottoman government and treated individuals 

fairly on a merit­based system.