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Savages, Romans, and DespotsThinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder$
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Robert Launay

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780226575254

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.001.0001

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The Specter of Despotism: Montesquieu and Voltaire

The Specter of Despotism: Montesquieu and Voltaire

(p.127) Eight The Specter of Despotism: Montesquieu and Voltaire
Savages, Romans, and Despots

Robert Launay

University of Chicago Press

The Enlightenment saw the return of comparative social theory which took non-moderns and well as non-Europeans fully into account, especially with the publication of Montesqueiu’s Spirit of Laws. Montesquieu identified three types of government, republics, monarchies, and despotisms, animated by three different principles: virtue, honor, and fear. Republics were exemplified by Ancient Rome, before the Empire; China, Persia, and Turkey among others were typical despotisms, while most eighteenth century European nations were monarchies. Despotism, embodied by Asian empires, was very much an anti-model. Monarchies, where central authority were held in check, were underpinned by the self-serving commitment of the artistocracy to defend its prerogatives jealously. For Montesquieu, the absence of a hereditary aristocracy was both symptom and cause of the abuses of power by centralized Asian empires such as China. Voltaire challenged Montesquieu’s model, citing the Jesuits to argue that China was in fact subject to the rule of law and that an aristocracy was quite unnecessary. On the contrary, for him, centralized authority was a check on the egregious privilege of the aristocracy.

Keywords:   Enlightenment, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rome, China, despotism, monarchy, republics, social theory

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