Montesquieu proclaims in The Spirit of the Laws that the correct way to proceed in criminal judgments is the most important knowledge, but he also indicates that despotism is a constant threat to its implementation. As a result, the unmasking of despotism, wherever it lurks, is a central focus of Montesquieu’s political project. He needs to unmask it because it is a vastly more expansive and insidious phenomenon than his treatment of the despotic regimes of the East would suggest. In fact, despotic practices infiltrate institutions, religions, and cultures that are not themselves, by definition, fully formed despotisms. Such practices may not always produce fully formed despotisms, but wherever such practices are accepted and implemented they produce unfortunate and unnecessary victims. Despotism, in fact, lurks in Europe where few seek it. Behind Europe’s despotic practices are the various philosophical and religious ideas, emanating from the lands of Europe, that are themselves despotic. When put into practice these despotic ideas leave cruel, even bloody, consequences in their wake. Montesquieu’s focus on European despotism undermines the notion that he was an Orientalist. As events unfolded after his death, Montesquieu’s assessment of Europe’s continuing susceptibility to despotism proved to be remarkably prescient.
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