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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The concept of despotism is perhaps the least known
of that family which includes tyranny, autocracy,
absolutism, dictatorship (in its modern usage), and
totalitarianism. Although nearly contemporary with
“tyranny,” the concept of despotism has not been as
significant in the history of political thought. Never-
theless at some times, and in the work of some of the
greatest political philosophers, the concept of des-
potism has been sharply distinguished from other
members of its family, and has attained an unusual
prominence, as when Montesquieu made it into one
of the three fundamental types of government. It was
in the eighteenth century, and particularly in France,
that despotism supplanted tyranny as the term most
often used to characterize a system of total domination,
as distinguished from the exceptional abuse of power
by a ruler. The temporary success of the term led to
its conflation with tyranny, as in the Declaration of
Independence where in successive sentences, “absolute
Despotism” and “absolute Tyranny” are used as syno-
nyms. In 1835 Tocqueville expressed the opinion that
after the French Revolution, modern politics and soci-
ety had taken on a character that rendered both con-
cepts inadequate. Today their usage suggests archaism:
controversies over twentieth-century forms of total
domination have centered on the concepts of dictator-
ship and totalitarianism.

Despotism is a concept that has been used to de-
scribe and compare polities, as a weapon in both do-
mestic and international politics, and as an expression,
usually although not invariably, in negative form, of
an author's political preferences. Because of the use
to which it has been put as a category for sorting out
and classifying the salient characteristics of one among
the forms of government, despotism belongs to the
terminology of comparative politics and historical so-
ciology, or at least to their history. But rarely has it
been deployed for purely untendentious analysis. A
very few authors such as Hobbes have assigned positive
connotations to the term; some others such as Bodin,
Grotius, and Pufendorf have treated despotism as a
legitimate relationship on the basis of legal precedents
they did not care to repudiate. But most often despot-
ism has been a label applied, not only in a polemical
spirit, but with a set of practical purposes in view:
to identify and discredit arrangements antithetical to
or incompatible with those regarded by the analyst as
making for political freedom. In France during the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the aristocratic
opposition to the crown made use of the concept of
despotism to distinguish between its own model of the
French monarchy's constitution and the purported
violation of it by those who sought an Oriental mode
of domination. Like other classifications of its family,
despotism is usually linked to some particular concep-
tion of liberty. This connection is usually so close that
analysts ought to study together conceptualizations of
freedom and arrangements said to be incompatible
with it. This has not been the case. Freedom has been
much studied; antithetical conceptions, little. This may
be due to the assumption, stated by Aristotle in his
study of tyranny, and by Montesquieu in his treatment
of despotism, that on such forms there is not much
to be said. Those forms of rule considered to be incom-
patible with liberty are represented as simple; those
that incorporate it, as complex. The difficulties caused
by this assumption have rarely been explored.

The concept of despotism began as a distinctively
European perception of Asian governments and prac-
tices: Europeans as such were considered to be free
by nature, in contrast to the servile nature of Orientals.
Concepts of despotism have frequently been linked to
justifications, explanations, or arraignments of slavery,
conquest, and colonial or imperial domination. The
attribution of despotism to an enemy may be employed
to mobilize the members of a political unit, or those
of a regional area. Thus the Greeks stigmatized the
Persians as despotic in much the same way that Chris-
tian writers were to treat the Turks. By an irony not
always perceived either by the purported champions
of liberty against despotism, or by their historians, such
arguments often became the rationale, as in Aristotle,
for the domination by those with a tradition of liberty
over those others who had never enjoyed that happy
condition. That chain of ideas is easily visible in Alger-
non Sidney, as well as in not a few other republican

The treatment that follows will be broken down into
seven parts: (1) the Greek theory, which represents
natural slavery as the basis of absolute rule by an
Oriental monarch regarded as legitimate by his sub-
jects; (2) the medieval treatment of despotism as one
variety of kingship, as distinguished from the royal and
the tyrannical variants of that forms; (3) the new setting
of the theory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centu-
ries, when beginning with Bodin, despotism was defined
as that form of rule which comes into being as the
result of the victor's rights over the conquered in a
just war, including the right to enslave him and to
confiscate his property, or as the result of the con-
quered party's consent to be enslaved in return for
being spared by the victor; (4) those seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century writers, for the most part French,
who although they began by identifying despotism with
absolute Oriental regimes, nevertheless transformed
the concept into one that may be applied to total
domination anywhere, and indeed according to them,
accurately characterized the degree of centralization


and monopolization of power achieved under Louis
XIV; (5) Montesquieu's formulation of despotism as one
of the three basic types of government; (6) the eight-
eenth-century extensions and critiques of Montesquieu;
(7) subsequent developments in the use of the term
by Robespierre and St. Just; Madame de Staël and
Benjamin Constant; Hegel and Marx; and, finally,
Tocqueville, with his vision of the possibility of a
qualitatively new form of despotism in the demo-
cratic society he held to be inevitable.

1. The history of the concept of despotism begins
with the Greeks. The root meanings of the term
despótēs (δεσπότης) were those of (1) the head of a
family, or père de famille; (2) the master of slaves. (3)
As a political term, despotism was extended to cover
a type of kingship, in which the power of the monarch
over his subjects, although indistinguishable from that
exercised by a master (despótēs) over slaves, never-
theless was considered by the ruled as sanctified by
custom, and hence legitimate. As Aristotle wrote, “The
authority of the statesman (polítikos) is exercised over
men who are by nature free; that of the master
(despótēs) over men who are by nature slave” (Politics
I. 1255b). Both slavery and despotism were said to rest
upon the same distinctive type of human relationship,
and this was inappropriate to a community of free men.
From the time of the Persian Wars, the Greeks con-
sidered despotism to be a set of arrangements charac-
teristic of non-Hellenic or barbarian peoples thought
to be slaves by nature, a form of kingship practiced
by Asians, and the most notable example of which was
to be found in the Persian Achaemenid Empire
(559-330 B.C.). At the time of the Persian wars, most
mainland Greeks were repelled by the Oriental notion
of a sun-king, embodying divine law, and hence abso-
lute. As for themselves, they thought, as Herodotus
reported, that they were free because subject only to
the laws of their respective city-states, rather than to
any Asian ruler, before whom his subjects prostrated
themselves. Free men do not render such homage to
mortals. The only earthly despótēs they may acknowl-
edge is the law to which they have consented. Thus
the term received still another extension and this be-
came its fourth sense, and was so used by Herodotus,
Xenophon, and Plato.

Of all the Greek political writers, Aristotle wrote
with the most detail, was the most concerned to com-
pare and contrast despotism with tyranny, and was the
most influential.

On the one hand, Asiatic despotism is based, Aris-
totle asserts, not on force, but on consent. Hence fear
cannot be said to be its motive force. Despotism is a
form of constitutional monarchy, based on the observ-
ance by the king of existing law, rather than the mere
assertion of his arbitrary will. Nor do despotisms have
the problem of succession that confront tyrannies. In
contrast to tyranny, reigns of long duration and stable
government characterize despotism. Nor are foreign
troops needed to put down the opposition of the ruled
(Politics III. ix. 1285a).

On the other hand, there is a powerful indictment
of despotism latent in the link Aristotle established
between it and tyranny. If the power wielded by Asian
monarchs was royal, it was also tyrannical: it partook
of the nature of royalty because despots ruled in
accordance with law and over willing subjects; but such
power also partook “of the nature of tyranny because
they ruled despotically and according to their own
judgment” (Politics IV. viii. 1295a). Aristotle, further,
employs the word despotikos whenever he depicts the
vitiated stage of each of the three forms of government
(Politics III. viii. 1279b; IV. iv. 1292a; V. vi. 1306b).
Aristotle established another sinister similarity between
despotism and tyranny when discussing the devices
requisite for their preservation. Although associated
with the tyrant, Periander of Corinth, Aristotle added,
such means were also practices of the Persian empire
(Politics V. ix. 1313a).

Despotism, although rule according to law, is not
rule in the common interest. All constitutions that aim
at the rulers' advantage “have an element of despotism,
whereas a polis is a partnership of free men” (Politics
III. iv. 7), held together by the ties of friendship and
justice. But these cannot exist when there is nothing
in common between ruler and ruled, as is the case
under both tyranny and despotism, where the rela-
tionship is equivalent to that “between a craftsman and
his tool, or between the soul and the body [or between
master (despótēs) and slave]:... there can be no
friendship, nor justice towards inanimate things, indeed
not even towards a horse or ox, nor yet towards a slave
as a slave. For master and slave have nothing in com-
mon; a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an
inanimate slave” (Nicomachean Ethics VIII. xi).

Thus in Aristotle, the institution of slavery is related
to the political form of despotism, and this in terms
of the human relationships characteristic of both. Here
Aristotle specifically distinguished between Greek and
barbarian. Among the Greeks, there is a free class
capable of holding office and ruling and being ruled
in turn; among the barbarians, all are slaves by nature.
Aristotle goes on to draw two significant conclusions:
first, that contrary to nature, among the barbarians,
the female and slave occupy the same position (the
reason being that no naturally ruling element exists
among them, and the conjugal union thus comes to
be a union of a female who is a slave with a male
who is also a slave); second, that it follows that the


Greeks who possess such a free class, ought to rule over
the barbarians. Aristotle here cites the poet who wrote,
“Meet it is that barbarous people should be governed
by the Greeks” (Politics I. i. 1252b).

Another difference Aristotle claimed to have estab-
lished was that based on climates. The peoples of cold
countries, especially those of Europe, are full of spirit,
but deficient in skill and intelligence; the peoples of
Asia, although endowed with skill and intelligence, are
deficient in spirit, and hence are subjects and slaves.
Possessing both spirit and intelligence the Greeks can
continue to be free and indeed to govern other peoples
(Politics VII. vi. 327b). It has thus seemed plausible
to many commentators that Aristotle in his lost exhor-
tation “On Colonies” did indeed recommend to his
student, Alexander the Great, that he rule the Greeks
as leader (hêgêmon) and the barbarians as master
(despótēs) (Politics, ed. and trans. Ernest Barker, New
York [1946], p. lix).

2. In the late Middle Ages, the concept of despotism
was revived as the result of the translation of Aristotle's
Politics by William of Moerbeke, who rendered those
words that derived from despótēs as principatus
despoticus, monarchia despotica, despotice principari,
and despotizare. Some medieval writers
sought to understand and make use of Aristotle's con-
cept of despotism despite the differences separating
their own political, legal, social, and religious arrange-
ments from those of the Greek polis. Why did Charles
V of France (1337-80) go to the trouble of commis-
sioning a translation into Old French of Aristotle's
Politics by Nicole Oresme, a great savant and scientist?
What in the concept of despotism seemed useful to
William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua?

Nicole Oresme was associated with Charles V in his
struggle against the Avignon Papacy. His argument
resembled those of Ockham and Marsilius, who from
their refuge at the court of the Holy Roman Empire,
used the concept of despotism in their effort to dis-
credit the complete power (plenitudo potestatis)
claimed by the papacy in all matters spiritual and
temporal. Oresme was a Gallican and a proponent of
the conciliar view of church government; he was
accused by papal inquisition of having been the French
translator of the Defensor Pacis. Aristotle was also used
to strengthen the position of secular kings and the Holy
Roman Emperor, who wished to be regarded not as
a proprietor among proprietors, but as a unique public
power which had been ordained for the welfare of the
entire community.

No other medieval writer made greater or more
precise use of the concept of despotism than did
William of Ockham, who did so both in his theory of
kingship, and his delimitation of papal power. All
polities, principates, and prelacies may be divided into
two types, one ruled in the common interest, the other,
in the ruler's interest only. Kingship in the common
interest is royal monarchy; subjects enjoy natural lib-
erty. It has two variants: (1) the ruler has full power
and is not bound by positive human laws or customs,
although he is subject to natural law; (2) one man rules
in the common interest, but is bound by laws and
customs that he swears to maintain. The two other
types of kingship, the despotic and tyrannical, are both
defined by Ockham as rule in the interest of the mon-
arch alone. Despotic kingship is exercised over men
who are slaves, and who consent; it must be distin-
guished from tyrannical kingship: “a bad king becomes
a tyrant... if in accordance with the law he begins
to rule his subjects against their will for his own good
...; but if he begins to rule them with their consent
for his own good, he becomes, properly speaking, a
despot” (Dialogus, Part 3, Tract 1, Book 2, Ch. 6, trans.
Ewart Lewis, Medieval Political Ideas, London [1954],
I, 301-02). At issue in Ockham's classification are the
rights, personal and property, of kings and subjects in
each of the three forms.

Ockham also used the concept of despotism to
delimit the powers of the papacy. Christ did not give
unlimited power to Peter. Otherwise all men would
have been made into slaves of the Pope, who has “no
power to abolish or disturb the rights and liberties of
others, especially those of emperors, kings, princes, or
other laymen.” The papal principate was established
only for the salvation of believers, not for the Pope's
honor or advantage. His rule, properly understood, is
not “dominative or despotic, but ministerial,”

... the kind of principate one has over slaves;... Christ
did not give to the apostles, but a ministerial principate
... over free men, and which is much nobler and greater
in dignity than a dominative principate even though it is
not so great in extent of power... even as a principate
over men is nobler than a principate over beasts

imperatorum et pontificum potestate,
Ch. VII, trans. E.
Lewis, II, 609).

Marsilius of Padua used the concept of despotism
phrased somewhat differently, both to establish the
positive principles that ought to prevail in the makeup
of a state and to attack the Pope:

... for since the state is a community of free men, as is
written in the Politics..., every citizen must be free, and
not undergo another's despotism (despociam), that is slavish

(Defensor Pacis, trans. Gewirth, I, XII, 6, p. 47).

Because of excessive obedience on the part of Chris-
tians and the falsehoods put together by certain clerics,
the Pope now exerted an unjust despotism over Chris-
tian believers (... suam injustam despociam in


duxerunt super Christi fideles sua simplicate credentes
...; ibid, II, I). Marsilius had found in Aristotle this
term associated with slavish barbarians. Addressing free
men in his own part of the world, Marsilius found the
concept of despotism advantageous in attacking insti-
tutions and practices of European origin. Like Ockham,
he did not follow Aristotle's practice of restricting
despotism to exotic practices, while applying to abuses
at home the name of tyranny.

3. In the sixteenth century Jean Bodin redefined the
theory of despotism in a way that made it a central
theme in the discussions of sovereignty, slavery, and
conquest by Grotius, Pufendorf, Filmer, Hobbes,
Locke, and Rousseau. Yet Bodin did not himself employ
either the Latin equivalents for despótēs (despotia,
principatus despoticus
) introduced by William of
Moerbeke or those in French (princey despotique,
despotic, despotes
) coined by Nicole Oresme.

One demonstration of the progress made by early
Renaissance humanists was the retranslation from the
Greek into Latin of Aristotle's Politics by the Floren-
tine, Leonardo Bruni, early in the fifteenth century.
Leonardo Bruni replaced Moerbeke's equivalents by
Latin words connected for the most part with dominus
and dominatio. Although Leonardo Bruni's rejection
of words based upon despótēs prevailed, later scholars
substituted for terms based on dominus those Latin
words erus and erilis (herus, herilis) which referred to
a master of slaves and his relationship to them. Jean
Bodin adopted the term seigneur as the equivalent of
despótēs for one of his three varieties of government
in the French version of the Six livres de la République
(1576); while in his Latin version (1586) he used

The theory of despotic government in Bodin must
be understood in terms of three aspects of his political
thought: his theory of sovereignty, his distinction be-
tween the forms of states or commonwealths and the
forms of governments; and the relationship he asserted
to exist between the forms of states and climate. “Sov-
ereignty is that absolute and perpetual power vested
in a commonwealth....” In the case of a monarchy,
although the ruler of a commonwealth (république, res
) is above human, positive law, he is subject
to divine and natural law. But is not monarchy so
defined identical with despotic rule? Bodin found his
answer in the second of his innovations, the sharp
distinction he drew between forms of state and forms
of government. In his treatment of monarchy, for in-
stance, Bodin both distinguished the three forms of
government and made it clear that despotical rule
could occur in aristocratic or popular states.

Bodin introduced several departures in the theory
of despotism. Principal among them was his use of the
term to designate a theory first found in the Roman
Law by which slavery and appropriation of property
was justified by reference to the rights of conquerors
in a just war—a momentous step that in large part
was responsible for the interest shown in despotism by
Grotius, Pufendorf, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. He
thus gave a new turn to the ancient connection be-
tween despotism, slavery, and the rights of conquest.
Furthermore, Bodin by identifying the Turkish Empire
with Oriental despotism implanted the notion that
under this form of government private and property
rights were unknown, and that the despot was the legal
owner of all individuals and goods which he could treat
as he liked. This view, later adopted by Montesquieu,
was to be challenged as a matter of fact in the great
eighteenth-century debate about the validity of the
concept of despotism. Bodin made the first attempt to
place despotic monarchy within a chronological
scheme (a step to be repeated with individual varia-
tions by Boulanger, Constant, Hegel, and Marx). Bodin
considered despotic monarchy to have been the first
form of government known to men. To Aristotle's view
that the first kings were elected, Bodin opposed the
theory stated in the canon law that lordship began with
Nimrod, and originated in human iniquity. Bodin, like
Aristotle, believed that “the peoples of Europe are
prouder and more belligerent than inhabitants of Asia
and Africa.”

Bodin followed Aristotle in his belief that “tyrannies
quickly come to ruin, but... despotic states and
despotic monarchies have proved both great and
enduring.” But Bodin passed over Aristotle's emphasis
upon the tacit consent of subjects and the consequent
legitimacy of despotism for Asians. Nor was Bodin's
lack of interest in consent accidental. His own theory
of sovereignty was calculated to undermine theories
that derived the legitimacy of rule from the consent
of the governed, a doctrine the implications of which
had been made clear in his own time by the

Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf knew and sig-
nificantly used the concept of despotism both as
formulated by classical writers, and as rephrased by
Bodin. In his De iure belli ac pacis (1625), Grotius
designated despotism by the word herilis, as in
imperium herile; as did Pufendorf, in his De iure
naturae et gentium libri octo
(1673), a chapter of which
is called De potestate herili. Herilis was rendered as
despotique by Jean Barbeyrac, who by his annotated
translations and commentaries made Grotius and
Pufendorf into authors familiar to every French reader
concerned with political thought. Of these, perhaps the
most attentive to these two authors and critical of
them was Rousseau, whose Contrat social may be


understood as a response, M. Derathé tells us, to
Pufendorf's brief and abstract digest, De officio hominis
et civis
(1673), also translated by Barbeyrac. Argu-
ments, sometimes defining, sometimes justifying des-
potic rule figure prominently in discussions by Grotius
and Pufendorf of slavery, conquest, and sovereignty.
Through them, the concept of despotism was made into
a theme central to political writing in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. Grotius provided the justifi-
cation for slavery used by Bossuet and was carefully
considered by Robert Filmer and Hobbes. Locke
owned almost all of Pufendorf's works and corre-
sponded with Barbeyrac; Peter Laslett has suggested
that Locke's concern with Hobbes probably stemmed
from Pufendorf's critique of Hobbes.

Although representing himself as the founder of a
natural and international law based upon the nature
of man and of reason, Grotius in practice subordinated
questions of right to maxims of the civil law, to histori-
cal precedents, all of which he regarded as of equal
value. This juristic relativism was prominent in his
justifications of despotic rule and slavery. A people may
be rightfully enslaved in two ways: (1) by the law of
nature it is free to decide to exchange its liberty for
subsistence or security; (2) by the law of nations, con-
querors in a just war may grant life to the defeated
people in exchange for their perpetual enslavement.
In the first case, a people may give up its liberty
voluntarily because its members are, as Aristotle dem-
onstrated, slaves by nature. Grotius carefully assembled
all the classical texts ascribing a servile nature to
Orientals, to which he added Hebrew kingship
(imitated from such neighbors as the Persians, which
may explain divine opposition to Israel taking a king).
Grotius, when treating the rights of conquerors in a
just war, takes a position that reduces Bodin's category
of despotical government to one of three possible out-
comes. A conqueror may reduce men to a subjection
purely civil, purely personal (despotic), or mixed. A
people defeated in a just war may be treated in any
of these ways and remain a state, or may lose that
status, and become the property of a master who treats
his subjects as slaves, whose interest he may rightfully
subordinate to his own. Such rule is characteristic of
despotism, not civil authority among free peoples
(Grotius: quod herilis est imperii non civilis; Barbeyrac:
ce qui, selon Aristote, est le caractère distinctif du
Pouvoir Despotique par opposition au Gouvernement

Grotius refused to condemn slavery in all its forms,
defining complete servitude, which consists of serving
a master in return for being provided with all necessi-
ties. “If this form of subjection... is kept within the
limits of Nature, there is nothing excessively severe
about it. For the lifelong obligation to work is repaid
by the lifelong certainty of support, which is often
lacking to those who work for hire by the day” (De
II, V, xxv).

Grotius certified as legitimate any enslavement
consented to freely by a naturally servile people, or
one willing to sacrifice its liberty for other advantages.
Although identifying Orientals as naturally servile,
Grotius did not confine despotism to them. His second
form of despotic rule based on the rights of conquerors
was from one point of view, a theory of consent, but
one which recognized as valid obligations those prom-
ises made because of threat to life or security. Hobbes
took the same position, but based it unequivocally on

Pufendorf attempted to justify slavery and despotic
rule simply on the basis of consent. The absolute power
of a conqueror over the defeated, of master over slaves,
or of a sovereign over his subjects are equally legiti-
mate if based upon pacts of submission. Pufendorf
stated that “although the consent of the subjects is
required for the establishment of any kind of legitimate
authority,... sometimes a people is required by the
violence of war to consent to the authority of the
victor.” He added that the war must be just. A kingdom
so gained is held as a patrimony, which by the caprice
of the ruler may be divided, alienated, or transferred
to anyone he pleases, for by arms, he has gained a
people of his own. These prerogatives do not belong
to kings who have been chosen by the will of the
people (De officio, II, ix).

Pufendorf was so confident about his argument justi-
fying despotic rule on the basis of consent that he
rejected the Aristotelian case for natural slavery. Men
by nature, Pufendorf asserted, enjoy equal liberty. If
this is to be curtailed, their consent must be secured,
whether that consent be express, tacit, or inter-
pretative, or else they must have done something
whereby others have secured the right to deprive them
of their equality (De iure, III, II, 8).

Because of the political struggles waged in early
seventeenth-century England, Bodin's theory of sover-
eignty was of great interest, and was translated by
Richard Knolles in 1606 from a conflation of the
French and Latin texts of the Republic. Monarchie
and dominatus were rendered as “lordly
monarchy,” as distinguished from the “royall” and
“tirannical” varieties. But Hobbes restored the original
Greek form and gave it a prominent place in his system
at a time when other writers and his audience regarded
the term as pejorative; Locke found that by distin-
guishing “paternal, political, and despotical power,”
he could strike directly at his principal target, Filmer,
and indirectly at Hobbes. By the end of the century


Locke had succeeded in restoring its pejorative sense
to the word despot and its derivatives.

Hobbes in part followed Bodin's treatment of des-
potical government, and in part diverged from it in
ways that clearly show the thrust of his own thought.
From Bodin, Hobbes derived the theory of a type of
government that originated in the submission of the
conquered to the conqueror and thus legitimately held
sovereignty or absolute power. And although Bodin did
give Oriental examples of this form, he did not limit
it to any one form of state, or to Orientals. Hobbes
followed him in this as well. But Bodin had restricted
legitimacy to those conquerors only who had partici-
pated in a just war, and placed no emphasis whatever
on the consent of the conquered to serve as slaves in
return for their lives being spared. Hobbes, on the
contrary, omitted any mention of the just war, which
figured in the formulations of Bodin, Grotius, and
Pufendorf. And Hobbes chose as the binding element
in dominion, not victory and the rights it confers, but
covenant, the consent of the defeated. That such con-
sent derives from fear does not distinguish it, in
Hobbes's view, from the origin of any other type of
government. A man becomes subject to another from
the fear of not preserving himself. Hobbes's formula-
tion may explain why Montesquieu later chose to des-
ignate fear as the principle or operative passion of

Hobbes treated despotic government in The Ele-
ments of Law
(first version, 1640), in De cive (1642),
and in the Leviathan (1651), but he did not adopt
Bodin's distinction between types of commonwealth
and types of government. Already in the Elements
Hobbes was concerned to discredit Aristotle's distinc-
tion between good and vitiated governments: “that
there is one government for the good of him who
governeth, and another for the good of them that be
governed, whereof the former is despotical (that is
lordly), the other a government of freemen.” When
Hobbes insisted that there are but three types of com-
monwealth, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy,
depending upon how many held sovereignty, he did
not deviate from Bodin (Part II, Ch. 5, no. 1). But in
rejecting the types of government, Hobbes was clearly
breaking down whatever elements of censure could be
derived even from Bodin, whose view of tyrannical
government involved a condemnation of it. Hobbes
could brook not even this: “... the name of tyranny
signifies nothing more, nor less, than the name of sov-
ereignty, be it in one or many men, saving that they
that use the former word, are understood to be angry
with them they call tyrants” (Leviathan, ed. Michael
Oakeshott, Oxford [1947], p. 463).

Beginning with the Elements, Hobbes distinguished
between commonwealths created by institution, that
form of union whereby many because they fear one
another cede sovereignty to an individual or council
by mutual agreement; and bodies politic patrimonial
and despotic because of fear of an invader, to whom
they subject themselves. In Hobbes's preface to his
Latin treatise, De cive, he repeated the distinction
between states originating in dominium paternum et
which he called naturale, and another type
of dominium established by institution, called politicum
created by artifice. Chapter 20 of the second part of
Leviathan, “Of Dominion Paternal, and Despotical,”
treats commonwealth by acquisition, as distinguished
from commonwealth by institution, the subject of the
previous chapter. In both types, men choose their
sovereign out of fear and consent to obey him uncon-
ditionally. But in a commonwealth by acquisition,
subjects fear him to whom they cede sovereignty; in
a commonwealth by institution, the subjects fear one

Within this scheme, Hobbes defined despotical do-
minion (in the Latin version; dominium herile in

Dominion acquired by conquest, or victory is that which
some writers call despotical, from Δεσπότης which signifieth
a lord or master; and is the dominion of the master over
the servant.... It is not... the victory that giveth the
right of dominion over the vanquished, but his own cove-

Hobbes created a greater gap than had thus far
existed between the Greek and medieval concepts of
despotism, and the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century
formulation of it. Total submission derived from fear
thereby was made into the sole basis of political obli-
gation. In his “Review and Conclusion” to Leviathan,
Hobbes made clear the importance he attributed to
despotical dominion: whoever conquered and could
provide peace and union ought to be obeyed.

Locke's concept of despotical power was deployed
against his principal target, Filmer, and only secon-
darily against Hobbes. At the beginning of his second
Treatise (Two Treatises of Government, 1690), Locke
urges the necessity of distinguishing political power,
properly so-called, the “power of a Magistrate over
a Subject... from that of a Father over his children,
a Master over his Servant, a Husband over his Wife,
and a Lord over his Slave. After defining political
power, and considering it apart from other types of
power, Locke in Chapter XV returned to “... Pater-
nal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered to-
gether.” Paternal power was dismissed by Locke, as
a temporary power exerted by parents over children
during the time when they were not yet capable of
living as freemen. In order to contrast political with
despotical power, Locke recapitulated:


Political Power is that Power which every Man, having
in the state of Nature, has given up into the hands of the
Society, and therein to the Gouvernors, whom the Society
hath set over itself, with this express or tacit Trust, That
it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation
of their Property.

Thus political power, which must originate from com-
pact, agreement, and mutual consent, cannot be an
absolute, arbitrary power over the lives and fortunes
of those who comprise a society.

By contrast to political power, despotical power is
defined by Locke as a condition in which not property
but persons only are at the Master's complete disposal.
Despotical power is exerted by Lords in an absolute
and arbitrary fashion for their own benefit over such
as are stripped of all property because they have for-
feited all rights by being aggressors in an unjust war.
Locke thus contradicts in a number of ways Hobbes's
assertion that despotical dominion does not differ qual-
itatively from any other legitimate form. For Locke
defines despotical power as “an Absolute, Arbitrary
Power one Man has over another to take away his Life,
whenever he pleases.” This is aimed against Hobbes's
interpretation of despotical power as involving on the
conqueror's side, the renunciation of his right to kill
the defeated. But Locke denies that despotical power
can be created as the result of a covenant, which alone
can make it equivalent with other forms of legitimate
rule (Locke's Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter
Laslett, Cambridge [1963], para. 172).

Locke rejected the notion that men could be rightly
enslaved merely as the result of conquest. His feelings
ran strongest when considering the application of such
a doctrine to his own country: “Slavery is so vile and
miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite
to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation;
that 'tis hardly to be conceived that an Englishman,
much less a Gentleman should plead for 't.” These
words begin the first Treatise, and are aimed at Filmer.
Because both Treatises were occasional pieces, they did
not take up the full range of questions treated by Bodin,
Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf. Locke has but one
brief chapter on slavery. Anticipating his subsequent
treatment of despotical power, Locke concluded that
freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so joined
to self-preservation that “a man, not having the power
of his own Life, cannot, by Compact, or his own con-
sent, enslave himself to any one...” (para. 23). But
there appears to be an inconsistency between both his
indignant rejection of the notion that Englishmen could
ever be rightfully enslaved, and his careful circum-
scription of the rights of victory in a just war, on the
one side; and his practice as an administrator con-
cerned with slave-owning colonies in North America
on the other. The Fundamental Constitutions of
provide that every freeman “shall have abso-
lute power and authority over his negro slaves.” In
1698 Locke helped draft the Instructions to Governor
Nicholson of Virginia. These treat slaves as rightly so
because they were captives in a just war, who had
forfeited their lives by some act that deserved death.
This would imply Locke's commitment to the belief
that all slaves captured and sold in Africa were guilty
of such acts, and that those Europeans engaged in the
slave trade were carrying on a just war. But when
arguing against Filmer about the rights of Englishmen,
Locke was quite capable of seeing that a title gained
by “Bargain and Money,” rests not on natural law, but
on quite another basis.

As Polin has remarked, Locke's theory should
logically have led him to a categorical condemnation
of slavery. Given the actual practice of the slave trade,
it was indefensible for Locke to justify Negro slavery
in North America as meeting his criterion of personal
punishment for aggression in an unjust war. Nor did
any of Locke's arguments justify ownership by men
who had simply paid money for slaves who had never
damaged them, nor perpetual enslavement of the chil-
dren of slaves. The contrast between Locke's sensitivity
to the freedom of Englishmen and his sophistries about
Africans recalls the comparable attitude of Aristotle
in relation to Greeks and barbarians. Algernon Sidney,
who also wrote to refute Filmer, was overtly con-
temptuous of Asians and Africans, and argued that the
superiority of a free people can be demonstrated from
its capacity to conquer those who are naturally unfree.

4. It was in the seventeenth century that French
writers began to show some interest in both the cluster
of concepts associated with despotic government and
in the Greek form of the word instead of accepting
Loys Le Roy and Bodin's use of the word seigneurale
as the French equivalent. New political circumstances,
both at home and abroad contributed to the shift to-
wards revival of terms connected with despotique, one
of the 450 neologisms successfully introduced into
French by Nicole Oresme in his translations of
Aristotle. Within France domestic resistance to the
Crown by aristocrats and Huguenots, categories by no
means mutually exclusive, coincided with the identifi-
cation of the Ottoman Empire as the seat of Oriental
despotism. During the Fronde, the type of royal power
exercised by the Sultan was called despotique, and
distinguished from that recognized by French consti-
tutional usage: “Not all monarchies are despotiques;
only the Turkish is of that kind” (Derathé, “Les
philosophes...,” p. 61).

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French
Huguenots in Holland and England began to use the
term despotique for the polemical purpose of compar-


ing the absolutism of Louis XIV to that of the Turkish
Grand Seigneur. In the famous anonymous pamphlets,
Les soupris de la France esclave (1689-90), its author
noted with satisfaction the Glorious Revolution in
England, and hoped that this would spur the rebirth
in France of l'amour pour la patrie. This phrase was
used in virtually the same sense in La Bruyère's Les
where it is contrasted with le despotique:
Il n'y a point de patrie dans le despotique, d'autre
choses y suppléent: l'intérêt, la gloire, le service du
This conjunction between Anglophile Huguenot
exiles on the one side and the aristocratic opposition
to Louis XIV on the other, culminated in Montesquieu's
use of the term le despotisme to characterize a distinc-
tive type of government, incompatible with monarchy,
whether of the tolerant, limited, and parliamentary
type victorious in England, or with that known to the
ancient French constitution as interpreted by nobles,
parlements, and corporations hostile to royal central-

The author of the Soupirs declared that the King
had replaced the state, that the Church, the parle-
the nobility, and the cities were all oppressed
by an arbitrary power just as despotic as that of the
Grand Seigneur. This puissance despotique was con-
trary to reason, humanity, the spirit of Christianity
itself. The despotic spirit was manifest in the revoca-
tion of the Edict of Nantes, in royal distribution of
offices by appointment to new men, in its management
of finances, and its constant resort to war. The author
drew conclusions of great significance, although they
were to be generally acknowledged only after the
publication of De l'esprit des lois (1748): a tyrannical
government, he argued, was less dangerous than one
that was despotic. For a tyranny is limited to the
individual deviation of a ruler, but a despotic govern-
ment is a system, once found only among Orientals,
but now becoming established in France. Its subjects
are “in a condition of servitude, they own nothing,
their property and their lives, are always up in the
air, depending upon the caprice of a single man.”

The step from le despotique to le despotisme was
taken by Pierre Bayle and Fénelon. Bayle, who
opposed the calls to action of his archenemy, Pierre
Jurieu, and of the author of the Soupirs, argued
against the notion that a sharp distinction separated
despotism from monarchy. Anticipating Voltaire's
critique of Montesquieu, Bayle contended that the
Grand Seigneur observed laws, just as did the Grand
Monarque; there are more and less absolute kings, but
the notion of the despot corresponds to no known
reality, and is but a political weapon.

This was not the view of those highly placed aristo-
crats who deplored the increase in royal power, and
who sought to prepare in secret for the successor to
Louis XIV, a group which included Fénelon, Louis de
Saint-Simon, and Henri de Boulainvilliers. During the
Regency Montesquieu was to meet Boulainvilliers and
the Abbé Saint-Pierre. In contrast to his opponent,
Bossuet, Fénelon espoused the rights of the feudal
aristocracy, denounced royal centralization, mercan-
tilism, and constant resort to war. In France, no one
speaks of the state and its rules, but only of the king
and his pleasure. In Télémaque, Fénelon has Mentor
preach that absolute power creates not subjects, but
slaves. Sovereigns who take sole possession of the state
ultimately ruin it. Elsewhere Fénelon denounced both
le despotisme of sovereigns and that of the people.
Wisdom in government consists in finding a mean
between these two extremes, that is, in une liberté
modérée par la seule autorité des lois.
When le despot-
is at its height, it acts more speedily and effec-
tively than any gouvernement modéré; when exhausted
and bankrupt, no one will come to its defense. In 1712
Saint-Simon compared the unprecedented authority
exercised by Louis XIV with that of Oriental rulers,
a comparison further accentuated by reference to his
isolation by his ministers from the public. This image
of Louis XIV as the Grand Seigneur or other Oriental
despot was completed by the Abbé Saint-Pierre in his
Polysynodie (1718), where he described the visirat, the
delegation of power to a minister by an absolute ruler,
or the alternative demi-visirat, where the ruler shares
authority with two or more ministers, “much as did
Louis XIV with Colbert and Louvois,” as Rousseau
wrote in his extract.

5. By choosing despotism as one of the three basic
types of government, Montesquieu made the term into
one of the central issues in eighteenth-century political
thought. In part this was due to the fact that Montes-
quieu's views served the purposes of important groups
with important interests; De l'esprit des lois was re-
garded as the statement of the most distinguished
thinker associated with the thèse nobiliare. The in-
formed reader could not miss the affinities between
Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Simon, Boulainvilliers,
and the Abbé Saint-Pierre; not to mention spokesmen
for the parlements after Montesquieu's death. Yet
Montesquieu's theory of despotism appealed directly
to Rousseau, Robespierre, and Saint-Just, whose
sympathies were not identified with the parlements and
hereditary aristocracy. Montesquieu has some claim to
have transcended the mere interests of his class; any
such case must be based on the demonstration that his
theory of despotism served nobler purposes than the
rationalization of prejudices of a privileged caste.

In his treatment, Montesquieu took into account
virtually every development of the concept of despot-


ism from its formulation in Greece to its identification
with slavery, and its most recent form as a system of
government. Like the other two types of government,
despotism had to be analyzed in terms of its nature
or structure, and its principle or operative passion. As
a concept, despotism was an ideal type, a concept built
by logic to assist investigation. It is not expected that
such an analytical construct will be found to be
empirically embodied in all its aspects. An ideal type
is designed to determine the extent to which any actual
state of affairs approximates to, or diverges from a
postulated model. Montesquieu makes this point
clearly about despotism:

It would be an error to believe that there has ever existed
anywhere in the world a human authority that is despotic
in all its aspects.... Even the greatest power is limited
in some way. If the Grand Seigneur... were to attempt
to impose some new tax, the resulting outcry would be such
as to make him observe the limits to which he had not
known he was subject. Although the King of Persia may
be able to force a son to kill his father..., the same King
cannot force his subjects to drink wine. Every nation is
dominated by a general spirit, on which its very power is
founded. Anything undertaken in defiance of that spirit is
a blow against that power, and as such must necessarily
come to a stop

(Considérations, XIII).

Although a number of the strands previously associ-
ated with the concept of despotism recur in Montes-
quieu's formulation, it shares the significant innovations
made in his way of theorizing about politics. Thus
despotism was for him, not simply a structure of state
power and offices, but a system with a characteristic
social organization propelled by fear, a passion peculiar
to it. Montesquieu refused to reduce social organization
to political form, or political form to social orga-
nization. In his view, both the political institutions and
the social organization of despotic societies are simple,
while those of a monarchy as he defines it, are complex.
This he argues in a number of ways: an analysis of
the ties uniting despotic and free societies; as well as
by contrasting with free societies, the characteristics
peculiar to despotism; its suppression of conflict in the
name of order; its refusal to recognize the legal status
of intermediate groups and classes; and finally its
insistence upon immediate and unquestioned obedience
to commands. In a free society, the texture of relations
among persons and groups is much looser than in a
despotism. Disagreements and even conflict are essen-
tial to the one, fatal to the other (Considérations, IX).

Montesquieu contrasted the distinctive modes of
obedience requisite to despotic governments on the one
side, and free governments on the other. The positive
side of Montesquieu's political thought cannot be un-
derstood without reference to the characteristics of
despotism. Many who have declared unsatisfactory
Montesquieu's definition of freedom as security from
fear, have not grasped his contrast with despotism,
which he saw as actuated precisely by that passion.
Similarly, the essential features of politics in a free
government are the limitation of power, the recogni-
tion and accommodation of groups conceded to have
some autonomy, the regular discussion between them
and the sovereign of alternatives to proposals judged
to be adverse to their interests by the parties affected
by legislation, and the preference for obedience based
on consent (De l'esprit des lois, III, x).

Passive obedience presupposes education of a kind
peculiar to despotism: the subject must be ignorant,
timid, broken in spirit, requiring little legislation. So-
cial relations must also follow a pattern: in a despotism,
every family is, as a matter of policy, isolated from
every other. Only religion and custom can moderate
despotism, and these are at once less effective and less
regular in their operation than the effect of basic laws
that limit governments which willingly observe them.
Even in the sphere of economic life, despotism exerts
noxious effects. The general uncertainty created by the
caprice of the despot and his viziers impoverishes the
mass of men; commerce is unrewarding, the products
of labor, incalculable.

Because of his method, Montesquieu was able to
develop the psychological dimensions of despotism.
Fear, the principle or passion imputed to despotism,
is treated with a subtlety and depth previously un-
known. Hobbes, who had founded so much on fear,
as the principle underlying all politics was much in
Montesquieu's mind, when he argued that no such
system can satisfy its members. The units of despotism
are the despot himself; his viziers or ministers, to whom
he confides administration; and his subjects, equal in
their total subjugation and terror. In the Persian Letters
(Lettres persanes, 1721), Montesquieu depicted despot-
ism as a system of fear, jealousy, and mutual suspicion.
This is illustrated in the relationships among the master
of the seraglio, absent in Paris; his eunuchs, who have
been sacrificed to the execution of his wishes and the
maintenance of order; and his wives. This triangular
relationship, because of its inhumanity, absence of
liberty, the use of force and fear in a relationship
where love ought to rule, fails to provide even its
ostensible beneficiary, the master of the seraglio, with
the fulfilment he sought. The ultimate paradox is that
the master is incapable of enforcing or enjoying his
unlimited power; he cannot satisfy himself.

Yet in the final analysis, Montesquieu condemned not
only despotism, as conceived by the members of his
class, but also slavery and all other forms of total
domination as incompatible with human nature, natu-


ral law, and the interests of all parties linked in such
relationships. No political philosopher prior to
Montesquieu had taken such an uncompromising view;
no other thinker of his century condemned slavery with
greater vehemence than did Montesquieu, a fact which
explains in part the respect Voltaire and Rosseau had
for him.

In Book XV of De l'esprit des lois, Montesquieu set
out to refute the justifications of slavery, conquest, and
colonialism found in theorists of despotism from Bodin
on. Slavery, the absolute right held by a master over
the life and property of a slave, is contrary to nature.
Nor is it justifiable even on utilitarian grounds. Its ef-
fects are deleterious to master and slave alike. No matter
what the climate, all necessary work can be performed
by freemen. Slavery is in the long run fatal to both
monarchies and republics.

Nor did Montesquieu accept any of the justifications
for total domination given in the Roman Law or by
later jurists. He denied that the claim to enslave men
could be justified by attributing pity to conquerors. The
reasons given by jurists were absurd. Even in war, only
necessity can create the right to kill. A victor has no
right to murder a captive in cold blood. Nor does a
man have a right to sell himself into slavery. Such a
sale presupposes a price. But to give up one's status
as a freeman is an act of such extravagance that it
cannot be supposed to be the act of a rational being.
And how can the enslavement of children as yet unborn
be justified by any act or promise on the part of their
parents or ancestors? Slavery violates both the natural
and the civil law. A criminal may be justly punished
because the law he has violated has been made in his
favor, and he had benefited from it. But the same
cannot be true of the slave, to whom law can never
serve any purpose. This violates the fundamental prin-
ciple underlying all human societies.

As for other arguments offered in defense of slavery,
Montesquieu riddled them with scorn. Often they
derived from nothing more than the contempt felt by
one nation for another with different customs; often,
from the absurd pretension that a nation could be
reduced to slavery in order to simplify the task of
converting it to the true faith. Such reasoning had
encouraged those who had ravaged the Americas to
believe that they merited absolute power. How pleas-
ant to act as a bandit and to be considered a good
Christian. Slavery derives from the desire of a few for
unlimited voluptuousness and luxury; slavery appeals
to the basest of human passions. Whose desires would
not be kindled by the prospect of becoming the abso-
lute master of another's life, virtue, and property? As
for Negro slavery, it derives not only from such passions
thinly disguised by sophisms, but from the most con
temptible of human prejudices. To unmask those who
defended the African slave trade, Montesquieu reverted
to the irony of the Persian Letters (XV, v). This section,
together with that deriding the Inquisition, is incom-
patible with the image of Montesquieu as a self-serving
parlementaire concerned to defend the privileges of his

6. (a) How prominent was the concept of despotism
in French eighteenth-century thought after Montes-
quieu? In the analytical index to the Encyclopédie, the
entry for despotisme runs to sixty-one lines; that for
tyrannie, to twenty-eight. The Chevalier de Jaucourt,
who wrote the principal entry, was a disciple of
Montesquieu, as well as one of the editors' principal
collaborators. The Encyclopédie helped to popularize
Montesquieu in a way that, because it made his theories
appear to be compatible with those of Diderot and
D'Alembert, did not always coincide with Montes-
quieu's own intentions. Then in the eleventh volume,
Diderot introduced an abridgment of Boulanger's
Recherches sur l'origine du despotisme oriental under
the title of L'Oeconomie politique. Boulanger (who will
be discussed below) was dead, but his manuscripts were
being circulated by Holbach because Boulanger had
attributed the origin of despotism to a primitive
theocracy based upon fear. In this way, despotism was
turned into a concept that could be used against the

This was not enough to redeem this aspect of
Montesquieu for Voltaire, whose attitude was highly
ambivalent, condemning Montesquieu's theory of
despotism, but applauding his attack upon slavery.
Against Montesquieu's position that despotism is a type
of government qualitatively different from monarchy,
Voltaire maintained: (1) that an extraordinary violation
of historical usage was involved in Montesquieu's
designation, now all too generally accepted, of the
great empires of Asia and Africa as despotiques. In his
L'A.B.C. (1768), Voltaire engaged in an etymology of
le despotisme. It had been used in Greek only as père
de famille;
was unauthorized by Latin usage; in short,
was an innovation in political language that was both
unjustified and recent. (2) Montesquieu's image of the
despot was a pure creation of his imagination: “a
ferocious madman, who listens only to caprice; a bar-
barian whose courtiers prostrate themselves before
him; and who diverts himself by having his agents
strangle and impale [subjects] on all sides” (Commen-
taire sur quelques maximes de l'Esprit des Lois,
(3) Voltaire disputed the accuracy of Montesquieu's
data and citations, particularly those used to support
his characterization of China as despotic: “It is regret-
table that so intelligent a man engaged in sheer
surmises supported by false citations” (Oeuvres [1785],


40, 94). (4) Voltaire, who believed in an absolute mon-
archy that would remove the hereditary privileges of
the aristocracy, and in the thèse royale about the
French constitution, objected to the political implica-
tions of Montesquieu's distinction between despotism
and monarchy; whatever is valid in Montesquieu's
theory is best described by distinguishing between
monarchy and its abuses. And there is no reason what-
ever to make essential to the definition of monarchy
its recognition of the rights of a self-seeking hereditary
nobility, which belongs to feudalism, for which there
is not much to be said (Commentaire..., III).

If Voltaire thought the concept of despotism to be
an aristocratic invention, it was more than balanced
in his mind by Montesquieu's attack on slavery. On
balance, Voltaire declared De l'esprit des lois to be “the
code of reason and liberty” (Commentaire...).

(b) It was precisely in this way that Rousseau was
most affected by the concept of despotism. Every major
statement of his political theory begins by refuting the
apologies for slavery he found in Grotius, Pufendorf,
and Hobbes. Like Voltaire, Rousseau did not use le
to designate the type of dominion said to
justify the enslavement of those conquered in a just
war. But the concept of the master-slave relationship
became connected in his mind with despotism.

Despotisme figured in Rousseau's thought in three
further ways: (1) in his angry rejection of the Physio-
cratic term le despotisme légal, which will be treated
in connection with the Physiocrats, and (2) in his par-
tially sympathetic comments upon the French aristo-
cratic use of despotisme to characterize an absolute
political system on the Oriental model that had been
imposed upon a European state. This usage occurs
principally in his judgment upon the Abbé Saint-
Pierre's model of the visirat, recapitulated by Rousseau
as “a gross and barbaric form of government, perni-
cious to peoples, dangerous for kings, fatal to royal
houses... the last resort of a decaying state” (Oeuvres
Pléiade (Paris, 1959—), III, 644).

But Saint-Pierre's positive proposals were rejected
because they would favor the privileges of hereditary
aristocracy, which Rousseau called the worst of all
forms of sovereignty. Rousseau commented that “a
thousand readers will find this in contradiction with
the Contrat social. This proves that there are even more
readers who ought to learn to read than authors who
ought to learn to be consistent” (ibid., 643). Rousseau's
challenge is directly related to his statements defining
despotism. He distinguished sovereignty, the legislative
power, from government, the executive power which
carries out the law. In the Contrat social, Rousseau
divided aristocracies into three kinds: natural, elective,
and hereditary. Hereditary aristocracy is the worst of
all governments; elective aristocracy, the best (III, v).
In Rousseau's view there is an inherent tendency for
government to seize sovereignty, for the Prince to
oppress the sovereign, that is, the people, to become
its master constraining it by force alone—acts which
dissolve the social pact that alone morally obligates
citizens to obey. It is here that Rousseau makes his
principal and third use of le despotisme. Thus (3) is
the distinction made between Despote and Tyran,
which appears to rest upon much the same usage as
le despotisme in the Discours sur l'origine et les
fondemens de l'inégalité parmi les hommes
op. cit., III, 190-91).

In the Contrat social, Rousseau resorts to his distinc-
tion in the chapter called, “The Abuse of Government
and its Tendency to Degenerate” (III, x):

In order to give different names to different things, I shall
call any usurper of royal authority, a tyrant; and any
usurper of the sovereign authority, a despot. The tyrant is
he, who contrary to law, assumes the power to govern, and
then follows the law; the despot puts himself above the
laws themselves. Thus the tyrant may not be a despot, but
a despot is always a tyrant.

In the Discours sur... l'inégalité, Rousseau sketched
three stages, the third of which is the changing of
legitimate into arbitrary power, the recognition of that
distinction between master and slave, which is the final
stage of inequality. Out of the disorders that preceded
it arises gradually the “hideous head of despotism,”
which finally succeeds in trampling underfoot the laws
and the people, and in establishing itself upon the ruins
of the republic. The subjects of despotism become
subject to the will of their master, who follows only
his own passions. Thus Rousseau again has assigned the
name of despotism to the extreme point of corruption,
at which the social pact is broken. Thereafter “the
despot is the master only so long as he is the strongest,
and as soon as he can be driven out, he cannot protest
against violence. The uprising that ends by strangling
or dethroning a sultan is as lawful an act, as those by
which he disposed... of the lives and goods of his
subjects” (Oeuvres, III, 191).

Rousseau's way of distinguishing tyrant from despot
is peculiar to himself, and is adapted to the categories
of his own thought. He may have been the first to deny
legitimacy to any king. This was not Montesquieu's
position on monarchy. As for tyranny, Montesquieu had
defined it as meaning “the intention to overthrow the
established power, above all in a democracy. This was
the sense it had for the Greeks and Romans” (De l'esprit
des lois,
XIV, xiv, a). Again Rousseau's notion that
despotism originated in corruption resembled Montes-
quieu's, but departed from it in a way that reveals


Rousseau's intentions. Montesquieu believed that every
form of government could degenerate into a despotism
characteristic of it. Thus democracy could become the
despotism of all (De l'esprit des lois, VIII, vi). Rousseau
denied this: “Any condition imposed by all upon each
cannot be onerous to anyone” (Lettres écrites de la
Lettre VIII, Oeuvres, III, 842).

(c) It is now generally agreed that there is no body
of political ideas in the eighteenth century that can
accurately be described as “enlightened despotism,” a
term invented by nineteenth-century German histo-
rians. A recent survey of the subject concluded:

'Enlightened despotism' is an unfortunate expression in
three ways: it yokes together a disparate group of rulers
who have far less in common than the collective name
implies; it burdens them with the disparaging name of
despot, which was already negatively charged in the eigh-
teenth century, thus anticipating what needs to be proved;
and it links these rulers, with its adjective more closely to
the Enlightenment than in fact they were

(Peter Gay, The
II, New York [1969], 682).

The idea of legal despotism” was explicitly formu-
lated by Le Mercier de la Rivière in his L'ordre naturel
et essentiel des sociétés politiques
(1767), and Du Pont
de Nemours in his Origine et progrès d'une science
(1768). Although they all favored an heredi-
tary and powerful monarchy, the Physiocrats' theory
of despotisme légal contained strong elements of con-
stitutional and legal limitation on the monarch; they
distinguished their theory from despotisme arbitraire.
This in effect was Montesquieu's Oriental despotism,
which by destroying all private property, destroys all
the sources of wealth and industry. le despotisme légal
is not rule by the arbitrary will of the despot, but by
the weight of evidence about the nature of things. Thus
the sovereign does not express his will, but declares
what seems in accord with the laws of social order.
Le Mercier de la Rivière took Euclid as his model of
the legal despot, who by the irresistible force of evi-
dence, has ruled without contradiction over all en-
lightened peoples.

None of the distinctions and qualifications made by
the Physiocrats protected them against the counter-
arguments of Mably, Holbach, Rousseau, Raynal, and
Turgot. Holbach wrote that “A legal despotism is a
contradiction in terms” (Système social, London [1773],
II, xiii). So great was the impression that had been
made by Montesquieu. Rousseau attacked the Physio-
cratic doctrine on three points: (1) that the notion of
basing politics on incontrovertible evidence is naive.
“The science of government is nothing but a science
of combinations [of elements], of applications, and
exceptions according to times, places and circum
stances.” (2) Like the Abbé Saint-Pierre, the Physio-
crats believe in the progressive advance of reason,
although there is no cumulative progress. (3) Legal
despotism is utopian because it simply assumes that
a despot will rule according to his interests as the
Physiocrats define them, that is in harmony with law
and the interests of all. Rousseau concluded that almost
all men know their interests and nevertheless disregard
them: “Gentlemen, permit me to tell you, you assign
too much weight to your calculations, and not enough
to the inclinations of the human heart and the play
of its passions. Your system is too good for the inhabit-
ants of Utopia: it has no value whatever for the chil-
dren of Adam” (C. E. Vaughan, ed., Political Writings
of Rousseau,
Cambridge [1915], II, 159-61).

(d) Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger's Recherches sur
l'origine du despotisme oriental
was published posthu-
mously by Holbach in 1761 in Geneva, and was trans-
lated by John Wilkes in 1764 in London. Boulanger
was an engineer, who constructed a theory of the
development of religion and society after a universal
deluge. Boulanger sought to work out a scheme of
historical stages from theocracy to despotism, republic,
monarchy, thus providing a philosophical and historical
justification for Montesquieu's theory of despotism.
Boulanger ascribed its origins to primitive idolatry and
theocracy, animated by the spirit of terror which was
later maintained in despotism. In theocracy, it is the
gods who are given supreme power. Sacerdotal gov-
ernments are regarded as the physical manifestation
of the supernatural government; the invisible master
assumed human form in the reign of priests who be-
came legislators. Despotic government followed the
sacerdotal, and with it recorded history begins.
Boulanger was implying, and this was why he was
taken up by Diderot and Holbach, that religious beliefs
originated in the fears and hopes of those who survived
the great deluge. He also hoped to discover the origin
of the forms of government. His thesis is that after the
initial terror caused by the deluge, human history
would be a struggle between man and the false idea
he carries within him, the idea that political institutions
ought to express the only true authority, which is that
of God. Holbach expressed similar views in La conta-
gion sacrée
and le système social.

Thus it may appear that politically the concept was
at its zenith, pressed into service as a political weapon,
and, intellectually, equally in vogue, as for example
with the impressive array of students of human history
and society produced by the Scottish Enlightenment.
Adam Ferguson called the final part of his Essay on
the History of Civil Society
(1767), “Of Corruption and
Political Slavery,” and the last chapter “Of the
Progress and Termination of Despotism.” Ferguson,


however, showed how the conceptions of corruption
and despotism could be combined with optimism about
the future:

National poverty... and the suppression of commerce
are the means by which despotism comes to accomplish
its own destruction.... When human nature appears in
the utmost state of corruption, it has actually begun to
reform.... Men of real fortitude, integrity, and ability are
well placed in every scene;... the states they compose
... survive, and... prosper

(Edinburgh [1966], pp. 278-80).

Yet the doctrine of despotism, when utilized for so
many purposes by such heterogeneous groups, began
to become increasingly vague as it came into general
usage. And the evidence upon which the concept was
based had begun to be seriously challenged, first by
Voltaire, and then with much more weight by
Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), a
pioneer student of Oriental languages and history. The
attack he launched on Montesquieu and the theory of
despotism considered as an empirical theory applicable
to the Oriental empires classified as despotic was so
serious that it probably merited the abandonment of
the concept, at least until much more reliable work
had been done than was then available. It is interesting
to speculate what Hegel, Marx, and Engels would have
written about despotism, had they known of Anquetil-
Duperron's Législation orientale (1778). For this was
an authentic work of the Enlightenment, cosmopolitan
in its respect for other civilizations, while Hegel, Marx,
and Engels regarded the Orient as inferior to Europe,
which alone possessed the principle of progress.

(f) Anquetil-Duperron, a grocer's son, had become
fascinated by references to the Avesta, the sacred doc-
ument of the religion of Zoroaster, who founded the
religion professed by the Iranians at the time of the
Achaemenidae. This was the dynasty that was in the
minds of the Greeks when they first coined the term
despotism. No one in eighteenth-century Europe could
translate the language in which the Avesta was written.
Anquetil made his way to India, persuaded the Parsees
to teach him what they knew about their sacred book,
and after living in India from 1755 to 1761, returned
to France, where he published his translation. But he
found the minds of most Europeans closed to new
knowledge about the Orient by the obsessive image
of despotism enshrined in Montesquieu. Anquetil
argued that there was no basis in fact for attributing
despotism to Turkey, Persia, and India, where private
property existed, and rulers were bound by codes of
written laws. On the basis of inaccurate reports, which
he was not trained to assess, Montesquieu had selected
evidence to suit his own purposes. Nor was the issue
merely of historical interest. Anquetil asserted that this
distorted image of the Orient had provided the excuse
for Europeans such as the English in India to confiscate
native lands and wealth. If no private property existed
under despotism, then the conqueror could take every-
thing in the country because it had belonged to the
defeated despot. In his Législation orientale (1778),
Anquetil denounced foreign exploitation of the peoples
of Hindustan, to whom he dedicated his book.

Anquetil censured the arrogance as well as the
rapacity of the West, which believed that it knew
everything, when in fact it knew nothing about the
rest of the world. From the height of the pyramid built
upon the classical learning of the Greeks and Romans,
the Europeans scorned those other civilizations, which,
however, they condescended to despoil. There was a
considerable degree of irony in the fact that the con-
cept of despotism from its beginning had been based
on the Persians as the model for those barbarians who
consent to be thus ruled because they are slaves by
nature. Anquetil, who learned the language of the
ancient Persians and their history was confronting the
concept of despotism after a long development.

Anquetil undertook to support by positive evidence
the position anticipated by Bayle and Voltaire: despot-
ism is not a distinctive form of government, but a
violation of monarchy and its own constitutional prin-
ciples. Anquetil did not defend all the practices of
Asiatic rulers. What he argued was that the facts dem-
onstrated that their abuses ran contrary to what made
their authority legitimate. In this respect, there was
no difference between Asia and Europe.

7. (a) Given the prominence of the concept of
despotism in the political vocabulary of those hostile
to the French monarchy in the eighteenth century, it
is not surprising that the term was deployed by many
of those who wished to justify all or some part of the
Revolution. But few could have predicted that the
Terror would be defended in such terms by Robes-
pierre, Saint-Just, and Marat, while it turned out to
be equally inviting to liberal critics of the Terror and
Napoleon such as Madame de Staël and Constant.

The characterization of the Terror as “the despotism
of liberty,” came not from its enemies, but from
Robespierre, who sought to prove that terror and virtue
both were necessary; “If the spring of popular govern-
ment in time of peace is virtue; its spring in time of
revolution is simultaneously virtue and terror. Without
virtue, terror is deadly; without terror, virtue has no
power” (Report to the Convention, Feb. 5, 1794).
Robespierre adapted the concepts of despotism he
found in both Montesquieu and Rousseau. Montesquieu
had attributed to each type of government a principle
or operative passion: that of republics was civic virtue;
that of despotism, fear. Robespierre substituted la


terreur for Montesquieu's la crainte, as though ac-
knowledging that the terror being practiced was at
once greater and more active. Robespierre himself
asked whether its use of terror did not stamp the
Committee of Public Safety as a despotism:

It has been said that terror is the spring of despotic gov-
ernment. Does yours, then, resemble despotism? Yes, in just
the way that the sword which gleams in the hands of liberty's
heroes resembles that of tyranny's satellites. When the despot
uses terror to govern his brutalized subjects, he is right as a
despot; when you use terror to daunt the enemies of liberty,
you are right as founders of the Republic. The government
of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty over tyranny.
Was force meant only to protect crime?


Robespierre defended terror as self-defense, as ven-
geance for centuries of oppression, as preparation for
profound change. But he did so within the vocabulary
of despotism: referring to that “public virtue which
has produced so many wonders,” the superiority of free
peoples over all others, the memories of the triumph
of Athens and Sparta over the tyrants of Asia (a confla-
tion of tyranny and despotism); the connection between
corruption and despotism in terms that recall Rousseau:
“a nation is truly corrupted when, after having by
degrees lost its character and its liberty, it passes from
democracy to aristocracy or monarchy; it is the death
of the body politic by decrepitude” (ibid.).

Saint-Just used a different formula: “A republican
government has virtue for its principle, or else terror”
(Oeuvres complètes de Saint-Just, ed. Charles Valley,
2 vols., Paris [1908], II, 538). Terror temporarily com-
pensates for the absence of those institutions the Re-
public will create to repress bad habits created by
corruption and despotism. Thus terror makes possible
republican regeneration. Marat's formulation was
closer to Robespierre's: “It is by violence that liberty
ought to be established, and the moment has come to
organize temporarily the despotism of liberty in order
to wipe out the despotism of kings” (Soboul, Histoire
de la révolution française,
Paris [1970], I, 358).

(b) In Madame de Staël the aristocratic and the
Protestant concepts of despotism were adapted to take
into account the Revolution, Reign of Terror, and
Bonapartism. The thèse nobiliaire resounds in her
maxim that in Europe “liberty is ancient, and despot-
ism, modern”; only there has liberty developed (Con-
sidérations sur la révolution française,
I, Ch. II.). “Asia
has always been lost in despotism, and what civilization
there was remained stationary” (ibid., Ch. I). In her
view of French history, the great despots are Louis
XIV and Napoleon, because of their attacks upon lib-
erty at home, and their constant resort to war in the
name of national glory. To those who represented the
reign of Louis XIV as tranquil and glorious, she recalled
all his acts of cruelty and violence, including the
revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a precedent for
punishing an entire category of persons, which the
Convention followed in its actions against émigrés and
aristocrats. The cause of the Revolution was ultimately
the despotism and wars of Louis XIV; it was he who
was Napoleon's model: both knew that despotism in
France required foreign wars; one left France bankrupt
and organized for despotism; the other, defeated and
humiliated. A despot should not be judged by tempo-
rary military victories but by the condition in which
he leaves his country.

Napoleon completed the organization of despotism
in France. By eradicating all corps intermédiaires, by
destroying freedom of the press, and by turning the
people into his servile flatterers, he made it impossible
for anyone to tell him the truth. This, Madame de Staël
wrote, led to his downfall in Russia. At home he had
sought to be the sole ruler, but he could not escape
the logic of despotism. He had to retail his power to
his venal agents, whom he then had to bribe. The
military despotism he created made the prospects for
liberty in France even more dismal than after Louis
XIV. “Tyranny is a parvenu; despotism is a grand
but both are incompatible with human rea-
son” (Considérations, II, Part VI, Ch. 12). Madame de
Staël concluded that liberty, which had begun as
aristocratic privilege, must be reconciled with that
passion for equality that had inspired the Revolution.
In the nineteenth century it would no longer be possi-
ble to defend a partial liberty without reference to its
advantages for all.

Although Madame de Staël thus saw liberty as
something that had to be adapted to the spirit of the
new century, her view of Bonapartism did not stress
its novelty. Despotism remained a relatively static
rather than an evolving concept. The stagnation
allegedly produced by Oriental despotism, the conse-
quences produced by its structure and principle, are
represented as eternal. She saw a continuity, rather
than a sharp break between Louis XIV and Napoleon.

Benjamin Constant, however, stressed other and
novel elements in the Terror and the Empire. In his
De l'esprit de la conquête (1813), Constant for the first
time suggested that despotism is an antiquated and
static form of domination. What had occurred in the
Terror and under Napoleon was a more active regime
that penetrated more deeply and had a new basis for
its power because of its revolutionary and democratic
elements. Constant therefore coined the term “usurpa-
tion” for describing the form of rule exercised by
Napoleon, and declared it to be worse than despotism.
Although not always precise in his formulation of


terms, Constant implied that usurpation used the
despotic structures that already existed, but did so in
its own distinctive way, creating a new type of oppres-
sion made possible by demagoguery, propaganda,
democratic slogans, mass military mobilization, and the
breakdown of the structures of a simpler society.

Yet his final judgment was that usurpation, like the
spirit of conquest and the system of despotism, were
all anachronistic, incompatible with the commercial
spirit and pacificism of modern society. And he
attributed the Terror to its unrealizable ideals formu-
lated by imitators of ancient republics such as Rousseau
and Mably, who did not understand the differences
separating ancient from modern societies. The partisans
of ancient political virtue found that the sort of liberty
they sought could be attained only by despotism. And
this involved them in fatal contradictions, which pro-
duced a more thorough control of thought and expres-
sion, a far more deliberate effort to use the state to
terrorize its citizens than had the despotism of the old
regime. Napoleon took advantage of these new devices,
and also profited from the disgust felt by the populace
at their use. The fear of Jacobinism was among his
greatest assets.

Despotism for Constant carried the overtones of an
older, more static form of rule, which reigning in
silence prohibits all the forms of liberty, interdicts
discussion, and demands passive obedience. But des-
potism at least allows its subjects to remain silent;
usurpation “condemns him to speak, it pursues him into
the intimate sanctuary of his thought; and forcing him
to lie to his conscience, seizes from him the last con-
solation of the oppressed” (Oeuvres, ed. Alfred Roulin,
Paris [1957], pp. 1004-45).

(c) Hegel assigned an important place to the concept
of despotism, but that place was at the beginning of
history. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel declared:

The history of the World travels from East to West, for
Europe is absolutely the end of history.... The East knows
and to the present day knows only that One is free; the
Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German
world knows that all are free. The first political form there-
fore we observe in history, is Despotism, the second Democ-
and Aristocracy, the third Monarchy

(trans. J. Sibree,
London [1905], pp. 109-10).

Hegel thus placed the concept of despotism within a
framework of stages; his teleology culminated in

Hegel declared Oriental experience “unhistorical,”
despite its stability, a quality previously admired by

On the one side we see duration, stability—Empires
belonging to mere space as it were—unhistorical history.
The States in question, without undergoing any change in
themselves, or in the principle of their existence... are
in ceaseless conflict, which brings rapid destruction. This
history too... is really unhistorical, for it is only the
repetition of the same majestic ruin

(Philosophy of History,
pp. 105-06).

Despite his low evaluation of the Oriental world,
Hegel devoted not inconsiderable attention to it. In
the East we find a political liberty which develops
subjective freedom, but not conscience and duty. In
the law men recognize, not their own will, but one
entirely foreign to them.

Among Asian nations, Hegel grants only Persia a role
in world history: it provides the external transition to
Greek life, while the internal transition is provided by
Egypt. Egypt and Persia together comprise a riddle,
the solution of which is found in the Greek world.

The Persian Wars are treated by Hegel as the deci-
sive period when the Greek spirit encountered the
previous world-historical people:

Oriental despotism—a world united under one lord and
sovereign—on the one side, and separate states—
insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free
individuality—on the other side stood front.... Never in
history has the superiority of spiritual power over material
bulk... been made so gloriously manifest

(ibid., p. 268).

Hegel employs the concept of despotism (Despot-
) in three ways: (1) generalizations derived from
his view of the history and internal structure of Orien-
tal despotism; (2) an ideal type of despotism in general,
which could characterize any government; (3) identifi-
cation with systems of domination such as master-slave
(Herrschaft-Slaverei), or master-vassal (Herrschaft-
). Such divisions are for expository pur-
poses only; they would have been rejected by Hegel,
whose philosophical method had committed him to
attempting to synthesize his philosophy of history and
phenomenology of spirit with his study of the state
and its forms. The Philosophie des Rechts not only ends
with sections on the phases of mind (para. 352-53),
but identifies each of them with a world-historical stage
or realm, the first of which is the Oriental (para. 355).

(1) In an essay written during his Frankfurt period,
Hegel wrote that Orientals have a fixed character,
which never changes. The essence of the Oriental mind
is force; one rules and the rest succumb. Their narrow-
ness of character does not admit love; hence subjects
must be bound by law that is external to them. Thus
in the Orient two apparently contradictory tendencies
are perfectly blended; the lust for domination over all
and the voluntary submission to all forms of slavery.
Over both reigns the law of necessity (Karl Rosenkranz,
Hegels Leben, Berlin [1844], pp. 515-18). Hegel had


combined both Aristotle's definition of despotism as
based on natural servility, and Montesquieu's treatment
of the absence of love in the Oriental seraglio. The
“form of government is theocratic, the ruler being
regarded as a high priest of God himself; constitution
and legislation are at the same time religion” (Philos-
ophie des Rechts,
para. 355). Distinctions based on
superstitious ceremonies, the accidents of personal
power, arbitrary rule, and class differences become
crystallized into hereditary castes. The history of
despotism is a tale of the vicissitudes of revolt,
monarchical violence, civil war, and the overthrow of
the state at home and abroad (ibid., para. 286).

(2) Hegel wished to distinguish sovereignty in his
sense from despotism, which does not possess the es-
sential qualities of constitutional monarchy and rational
bureaucracy. Sovereignty must be distinguished from
might and pure arbitrariness, or despotism which
means: “... any state of affairs where law has dis-
appeared and where the particular will as such,
whether of a monarch or a mob (ochlocracy), counts
as law or rather takes the place of law...” (ibid.,
para. 278). Constitutional monarchy is the reign of
liberty and laws, to which the king is subject; despot-
ism, that of the unrestrained will of a single man
(Encyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften,
para. 544E).

(3) It has already been noted that with Oriental
despotism Hegel associated a particular system of
domination. There is an extended section dealing with
the Master-Slave or Master-Servant relationship in the
Phänomenologie des Geistes (IV, A) and another on
the relationship between absolute freedom and terror,
where another kind of total domination is attained (VI,
B, III), although Hegel does not refer to the “despotism
of liberty.” In the Philosophie des Rechts Hegel con-
sidered the moral status of slavery. Characteristically
he condemned as inadequate both justifications of slav-
ery by reference to “physical force, capture in war,
saving and preservation of life, upkeep, education,
philanthropy, the slave's own acquiescence,” and
arguments for the absolute injustice of slavery (para.
57). According to Hegel, not until we recognize that
the idea of freedom can be realized only through the
state, can we arrive at an adequate basis for condemn-
ing slavery.

Two other positions taken in the Philosophie des
merit attention: (1) the suggestion that the
“inner dialectic of civil society thus drives it—or at
any rate drives a specific civil society—to push beyond
its own limits and seek markets, and so its necessary
means of subsistence in other lands which are either
deficient in the goods it has over-produced, or else
generally backward in industry, etc.” (para. 246). (2)
Hegel speaks of “the absolute right... of heroes to
found states” (para. 350). “The same consideration
justifies civilized nations in regarding and treating as
barbarians those who lag behind them in institutions.
... The civilized nation is conscious that the rights
of barbarians are unequal to its own and treats their
autonomy only as a formality” (para. 351). Hegel's
insights into the dynamics and justification of colonial-
ism were to be developed in his own way by Marx.

Marx was not interested in Oriental societies for their
own sake. His first reference to them occurred in the
Communist Manifesto (1848):

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolu-
tionizing the instruments of production, and with them the
whole relations of society.... [I]t has made barbarian and
semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones,
nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the

(Ch. I).

The unit of analysis was vague: “the East,” “barbarian
and semi-barbarian nations”; European capitalism held
the center of the stage. Marx's story was told in Hegel's
terms: “The Oriental empires always show an un-
changing social infrastructure coupled with unceasing
change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe
to themselves the political superstructure” (Avineri,
Karl Marx on Colonialism, p. 9).

Marx made but one attempt in the Hegelian style
to fit Asia into his general scheme of development. In
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
(1859), Marx wrote: “In broad outline we can designate
the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern
bourgeois methods of production as so many epochs
in the progress of the economic formation of society”
(Avineri, pp. 33-34).

Marx assumed rather than proved the similarity
among all the societies he lumped together as sharing
the Asiatic or Oriental mode of production. On the
assumption that there was no private property in land,
Marx developed the theory of a despotic centralized
state power carrying out indispensable public works
notably irrigation because of needs attributable to the
climate. This political organization was based upon a
mode of production distinguished by its self-sufficient
villages. In Das Kapital Marx discussed the self-
sufficing villages that were the other part of his model:
“The simplicity of the organization of production in
these self-sufficing communities... supplies the key
to the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies...” (Vol.
I, Ch. 14, sec. 4). Perhaps Marx's most sophisticated
model came in the Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen
There Marx explained how above the vil-
lage community, there is a higher unity, which per-
forms such functions as irrigation and providing trans-


portation. The surplus product of the community
is in turn appropriated by this higher unity in the
form of tribute, and in common works for the glorifica-
tion of the unity: in part the real despot, in part the
imaginary tribal being, the god. Thus Oriental despot-
ism appears to lead to an absence of property; in fact
its foundation is tribal or common property (Karl Marx,
Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, ed. E. J.
Hobsbawm, New York [1965], pp. 69-71).

Because of his analysis Marx had to conclude that
the Oriental society cannot develop internally. He then
described European colonial expansion as a cruel but
necessary step towards world socialism. Just as Engels
had written that “The conquest of Algeria is an impor-
tant and fortunate fact for the progress of civilization”
(Avineri, p. 43), so Marx said of India: “England has
to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive,
the other regenerating—the annihilation of old Asiatic
society, and the laying of the material foundation of
Western society in Asia” (ibid., p. 125). Marx never
approved of cruelty to Asians or their exploitation, but
he does not seem to have thought that they were losing
much when their country was subjugated and their
culture destroyed. For Marx shared Hegel's purely
European perspective. Both used sources condemned
by Anquetil-Duperron: both regarded all the high cul-
tures of Asia as barbaric or semi-barbaric when com-
pared to Europe. To this Anquetil had answered:

What is meant by barbaric peoples? Despite all our
knowledge, all our manners, all our civilization, the ancient
Greeks, if they were to reappear, would treat us as barbar-
ians. Would they be right to do so? Let us abandon such
partisan terms. Let us believe that every people, however
different from us, is capable of being truly valuable, of
possessing reasonable laws, usages, and opinions


(d) At some point in the nineteenth century, the
concept of despotism began to appear archaic to some
thinkers who felt that it had no reference to the most
significant political problems of the century. It was not
that absolute power, whether in the hands of a govern-
ment or a society itself, had ceased to present a threat.
Rather the complex of elements that had gone into
the concept of despotism no longer seemed to be those
most worth taking into account. Although Constant
had said something like this, it was Tocqueville who
presented it in its most striking form.

In one of the best-known sections of De la démocratie
en Amérique,
Tocqueville warned democratic societies
against the domination of the majority in matters of
opinion. In the first part of his work (1835), Tocqueville
could not decide whether to call this new form of social
domination the despotism or the tyranny of the major
ity. He used the terms interchangeably. In the closing
chapters of the second part that appeared five years
later, Tocqueville had both enlarged his vision of the
greatest danger confronting democratic societies and
decided that a new name was needed for a new

Thus I think that the sort of oppression that threatens
democratic peoples is unlike anything ever before known.
... I myself have sought a word that would carry precisely
the idea I seek to express. But such old words as “despotism”
and “tyranny” are inadequate. The thing is new. Since I
cannot give it a name, I must seek to define it

(ed. J. P.
Mayer, Paris [1951], Vol. 2, Part 4, Ch. 6).

Tocqueville then proceeded to sketch the dangers
with a complexity far exceeding that found in the first
part of the Démocratie: to the invisible but potent
effects of public opinion in a democracy upon the
nonconforming minority, he added the prospect of an
impersonal and benevolent centralized power appeal-
ing to the individualism and the passion for material
comforts of a society in which all are equal. What
might occur, were the dangers not to be recognized
and countered, would be a compromise between ad-
ministrative despotism and the sovereignty of the peo-
ple. There could be worse outcomes for a democracy.
Of these the worst conceivable democratic despotism
would be the concentration of all the people's powers
in the hands of an individual or body responsible to
no one. Tocqueville had the Terror and the Empire
in mind. But neither of these sorts of servitude was
inevitable. Tocqueville ended his book by pointing out
what was necessary in order to prevent them from
occurring. Nevertheless despotism as known in the
Ancien Régime was no longer a significant threat to


Shlomo Avineri, ed., Karl Marx on Colonialism and
(New York, 1968). Robert Derathé, “Les
philosophes et le despotisme,” in Utopie et institutions au
xviiie siècle; le pragmatisme des lumières,
ed. Pierre
Francastel (The Hague and Paris, 1963). R. Koebner,
“Despot and Despotism: Vicissitudes of a Political Term,”
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 14 (1951),
275-302. George Lichtheim, “Oriental Despotism,” in The
Concept of Ideology and Other Essays
(New York, 1967).
Donald M. Lowe, The Function of 'China' in Marx, Lenin,
and Mao
(Berkeley, 1966). Sven Stelling-Michaud, “Le
mythe du despotisme oriental,” Schweizer Beiträge zur
Allgemeinen Geschichte,
18/19 (1960-61), 328-46. Franco
Venturi, “Oriental Despotism,” Journal of the History of
24 (1963), 133-42. E. V. Walter, “Policies of Violence:
From Montesquieu to the Terrorists,” in The Critical Spirit.
Essays in Honor of Herbert Marcause,
ed. Kurt H. Wolff and


Barrington Moore, Jr. (Boston, 1967). Françoise Weil,
“Montesquieu et le despotisme,” in Actes du Congrès
(Bordeaux, 1956), pp. 191-215. Karl A. Witt-
fogel, Oriental Despotism. A Comparative Study of Total
(New Haven, 1957).

Translations, unless otherwise identified, are by the author
of the article.


[See also Anarchism; Authority; Freedom; Revolution;
State; Totalitarianism.]