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Montesquieu and the Despotic Ideas of Europe

An Interpretation of "The Spirit of the Laws"

Montesquieu is rightly famous as a tireless critic of despotism, which he associates in his writings overtly with Asia and the Middle East and not with the apparently more moderate Western models of governance found throughout Europe. However, a careful reading of Montesquieu reveals that he recognizes a susceptibility to despotic practices in the West—and that the threat emanates not from the East, but from certain despotic ideas that inform such Western institutions as the French monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.
Nowhere is Montesquieu’s critique of the despotic ideas of Europe more powerful than in his enormously influential The Spirit of the Laws, and Vickie B. Sullivan guides readers through Montesquieu’s sometimes veiled, yet sharply critical accounts of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Aristotle, and Plato, as well as various Christian thinkers. He finds deleterious consequences, for example, in brutal Machiavellianism, in Hobbes’s justifications for the rule of one, in Plato’s reasoning that denied slaves the right of natural defense, and in the Christian teachings that equated heresy with treason and informed the Inquisition.

In this new reading of Montesquieu’s masterwork, Sullivan corrects the misconception that it offers simple, objective observations, showing it instead to be a powerful critique of European politics that would become remarkably and regrettably prescient after Montesquieu’s death when despotism wound its way through Europe.

304 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Philosophy: Political Philosophy

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


“Searching for the mysterious ‘chain’ in a notoriously difficult book—The Spirit of the Laws—Sullivan focuses on the idea of despotism that plays a key role in Montesquieu’s conceptual framework. By drawing on a wide range of authors and texts, her erudite analysis sheds fresh light on Montesquieu’s treatment of despotism in Europe and his views on arbitrary power.”

Aurelian Craiutu, Indiana University, Bloomington

“Despite the common misconception that Montesquieu was an Orientalist, whose critique of despotism was intended to establish the superiority of Western political ideas and practices against the putative despotism of Eastern regimes, Montesquieu clearly saw despotic tendencies in European politics as well, and his political theory was meant to correct these tendencies at home as much as to criticize their manifestation in distant lands. Sullivan establishes this point beyond all doubt through an unprecedented analysis that is a model for scholarship in the history of political thought.”

Sharon Krause, Brown University

Table of Contents

A Note on Citations

Part I. The Ideas of Montesquieu’s Modern European Predecessors
1. The Greatness of Machiavelli and the Despotic Disease of His Politics—Both Princely and Republican
2. Montesquieu’s Attack on the Political Errors of Hobbes
Part II. Christian Ideas
3. Religious Ideas and the Force of Christian Ones in Modern Europe
4. The Ideas of Early Christianity, Their Absorption in Roman Law, and Their Abusive Reverberations in Modern Europe
Part III. The Ideas of the Ancient Legislators
5. Montesquieu’s Opposition to Plato’s Belles Idées and Their Diffusion
6. Aristotle’s “Manner of Thinking” and the Deleterious Use of His Ideas


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