The Concept of ‘Oriental Despotism’ from Aristotle to Marx

Terracotta Army detail, Xi’an, China / Photo by Peter Morgan, Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Rolando Minuti / 05.03.2012
Fernand Braudel Fellow, Professor of History
European University Institute


The concept of Oriental Despotism has shaped the European interpretation and representation of Asiatic governments and societies for many centuries. Its origins can be found in Aristotelian political philosophy. However, its meaning since then has evolved, not only due to the theoretical approach of different thinkers, but also to Europeans’ experiences in confrontation with the Asiatic world. During the Age of Enlightenment, Oriental Despotism was a particularly important idea, especially for the writings of Montesquieu. Afterwards, it played a significant role in Hegel’s thought as well as in Marx’s writing when it turned towards the “Asiatic mode of production” theory. Finally, the concept reappeared both in Weber’s thought and, in the 20th century, in Wittfogel’s.

Introductory Remarks

The idea of Oriental despotism has an old and diversified history in European culture . It was a conceptual model in different interacting cultural contexts, it assumed various functions and meanings, and it waned with the decline of the Eurocentric preconception on which it was deeply grounded ever since its origins in Greek thought.1 Many agents, not only philosophers or political theorists but also travellers, diplomats, missionaries and administrators, have shaped, spread and applied the idea of Oriental despotism. The classical scheme was not merely reproduced, but enriched with particular articulations and specific values which were connected to different exigencies and contexts. Hence the story of Oriental despotism is not only that of a unique philosophical and political idea, it is also a story of cultural attitudes, representations, concrete interests, interactions and direct experiences. This offers plenty of interesting variations on the same theme of the confrontation with and interpretation of an Oriental alterity .

We could say that the theoretical force of this concept has vanished nowadays, if we mainly considered the development of post-colonial  approaches or the methodological perspectives opened up by world or global history. Inside the general framework of the contemporary analysis of ‘Orientalism’,2 in particular, the stereotype of the arbitrary power of Asiatic princes and sovereigns and its political, social and cultural consequences have been pointed out, showing the strong implications of an ideology of domination which was inherent in colonial and imperial  European power. Although Oriental despotism as a conceptual tool is not as common and accepted as it has been in the past, its influence on European culture has been considerable. In particular, it has shaped the modern European mind and its consciousness of civic identity  and responsibility, which played a critical and controversial role in the course of many centuries of international relationships.

The Classical Roots of a Eurocentric Concept

This map shows the extension of the Persian Empire under the rule of King Darius I (522–486 BC), including parts of the territories of modern Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Romania. Later, Persia was conquered by the Greek king Alexander the Great (356–323 BC).  Map by Johann Matthias Haas, 1742 / BnF Gallica

Aristotle (384–322 BC) attended the school of Plato (427–347/348 BC) and later became the teacher of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). His numerous works are concerned with metaphysics, logic, politics and ethics and have made Aristotle one of the most famous philosophers of ancient Greece. Roman copy of a Greek Bronze by Lysippos of Sikyon, marble, around 330 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Like many other key concepts of philosophical and political European culture, Oriental despotism is deeply rooted in Greek thought. The words “despot” and “despotism” clearly come from a classical Greek context, where this concept became an effective tool of automatic recognition of Greek identity and superiority over other “barbarous” nations, mainly the great Persian enemy. Although the idea of a radical opposition between the Greek and Persian nations, grounded on the Greek assumption that Persians were subordinate slaves, was expressed by several authors, such as Aeschylus (525–456 BC)  or Isocrates (436–338 BC) , it was Aristotle (384–322 BC)  who formulated the first solid theoretical foundation of this idea, codifying despotism as a topos of political philosophy.

In Book III of his Politics, Aristotle identified a particular form of monarchy – which, with aristocracy and the state, is one of the three possible forms of government. These three forms may degenerate and thus become tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. He explained the despot’s authority in terms which correspond to the power of a master over his servant. Despotic monarchy is precisely distinguished from tyranny, which is exercised over people against their will and consequently is illegitimate, whereas despotism is exercised over people who voluntarily or passively accept this kind of power. Despotic government as such is not unlawful or arbitrary; it is a special form of monarchy  which can be confused with tyranny because its power is exercised in similar ways. However, it is substantially different, because despotic monarchy is both legitimate and hereditary.3

In many respects, this was a crucial distinction which enabled the Greeks to theoretically justify their future attitudes towards Asiatic societies and political systems. First, Aristotle’s theory clearly qualified despotism as incompatible with the natural character of the Greek people, who were free and could only temporarily be subject to tyranny because they would revolt against it as soon as possible. Instead, despotism was said to be the most suitable form of government for barbarous nations, mainly the Persians, who were thought to have a natural tendency towards subordination and would thus accept authorities which would be intolerable for the Greeks without opposition or apparent pain. Despotism, for Aristotle, was therefore not degeneration, but a proper and possibly durable system in radical opposition to the Greek world and mind. This judgment followed from the idea that different ethnic groups were naturally compatible with different systems of government, which is an important element of Aristotle’s political thought.

From another point of view, this ancient Greek stereotype of Persians being naturally inclined to accept despotic power introduces an historical and geographical determination of despotism which has no connection with the Aristotelian concept of tyranny – any monarchy may degenerate into tyranny, in every place and time. This establishes the “Oriental” character as a constitutive value for the notion of despotism.

Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), became king of Greece at the age of twenty. In the course of his victory over the Persian Empire, he gradually extended the borders of his kingdom until they touched the Himalaya Mountains. After his early death, his empire was shaken by civil wars and finally split into several states. Marble from Alexandria / Photo by Maria Lan-Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons

The history of the relationship between Greece and the Asiatic world, especially while Alexander the Great (356–323 BC)  was expanding his empire, is full of interactions and contaminations. A prominent example is Alexander’s way of adopting Oriental concepts of conceiving and exercising power. It was criticized by his opponents because it was contrary to the idea of a necessary separation between different forms of society and government, which was stressed in Aristotelian political thought. However, it thus opened the way for a variety of attitudes towards the Oriental world in Alexander’s empire, both empirical and theoretical, which was typical of the Hellenistic era. Nevertheless, the previously established stereotypes about the Persians continued to have a strong influence. After the foundation of the Byzantine Empire and of the so-called New Rome (Constantinople), the Greek cultural and political identity found in this topos an important ideological support against the threats of the Sassanid Persian Empire, which was founded by Ardashir I (died 241) in 224. Thus the idea of the anthropological and political otherness of the Persian people was not rejected but enriched and articulated in various ways by several authors in this new context. In particular, moral judgments of the Eastern enemy now played an important role alongside the emphasis on geographical and anthropological diversity which had until then been predominant.

Aristotle (Tr. William of Moerbeke), [metaphysica, Liber Ethicorum, [and] Economica], in Latin. Manuscript on Vellum. / University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Creative Commons

We can observe that by this time the Aristotelian classification of governments was no longer the only theoretical foundation of these debates. For example, the term despotes was used with a connotation that is not negative – in the late ancient language it was mainly an equivalent for emperor. On the other hand, the term tyranny was now employed more frequently for classifying the Persian government. Only after Aristotelian thought had been rediscovered and appreciated in late medieval culture, mainly after the translation of Aristotle’s works  by William of Moerbeke (1215–1286) , the influence of his classification and attributes of Oriental despotism grew and developed. Again, the Aristotelian terms were not simply reproduced; a significant variety of attitudes can be found in the writings of authors such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) Tolomeo da Lucca (1236–1326/27) Nicholas Oresme (1320–1382) William of Ockham (1285–1347)  and Marsilius of Padua (1275–1343) .4 Generally, they were less interested in interpreting and judging Oriental societies and governments than in using Asiatic examples of tyrannical government in order to support the struggle between imperial and popish power. Still, the geographical identification of Asiatic areas, where the existence of a principatus despoticus was supposed to be naturally consistent with the character of the people, remained a mark of a qualitative difference between European and Asiatic society and politics and a confirmation of Oriental otherness in many works – especially in Marsilius’s Defensor pacis or in the commentary of Aristotle’s Politics by Nicholas Oresme.5

Theoretical Developments and Travelling Experiences in the Early Modern Age

The Italian politician and writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) had responsibility for the internal administration and military of the republic of Florence, as well as for various diplomatic missions. Unjustly imprisoned in 1513 and later released, he spent his time after the end of his political career writing his main work Il principe (1513, published 1532). In this work, he attempts to describe the conditions of successful politics, while approaching the question from an empirical and systematic standpoint, as opposed to metaphysics-based Christian state theory. Instead of Christian virtues, Machiavelli emphasizes the ability of the ruler to obtain and retain power as the main prerequisite of long-lasting rule. Therefore, when the state is in jeopardy, the ruler is justified in dispensing with moral norms in order to maintain the state.  Lithography from a contemporary etching, 1905 / Wikimedia Commons

The classical heritage and the various implications of the Aristotelian model were of great importance for the early modern European approach towards Eastern societies and governments. Nevertheless, important new ideas emerged which gave the category of Oriental despotism fresh connotations from a theoretical point of view. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) ‎ distinguished between two essential forms of states, thus uniting Aristotle’s classifications of Aristocratic and Democratic governments in a single category called republics, which he opposed to the category of principalities. The notion of a despotic power, notwithstanding the fact that Machiavelli did not use terms like despot or despotism, was explained as the absolute power of a monarch ruling over a nation of slaves instead of free citizens. This power was thought to be the most difficult kind to achieve, but the easiest to preserve because, in his view, the subordinates did not even know the meaning of freedom.6

The map shows the extent of the Ottoman Empire in 1355.  Sheperd, William R: The Historical Atlas, New York 1911 / The University of Texas at Austin

What is particularly important with regard to Oriental despotism is the fact that the traditional geographical delimitation of Oriental despotism changed in reaction to the emergence of the Ottoman Empire  at the end of the 13th century. However, Machiavelli’s approach placed the fear of Islamic expansion, which was common in European Christian thought and culture, in a different context. He was more interested in analysing the characteristics of the Ottomans’ particular form of monarchical government than in portraying the Islamic enemy. This state form is ruled by the Sultan, who is simultaneously the Caliph, the religious head of state, since he is considered to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad (570–632), with the assistance of his most powerful minister, the Grand Vizier. It is therefore radically opposed to European monarchies, which are led by a prince and his lords, as was the case in France at the time. Therefore Machiavelli saw the governance techniques of France and Turkey as two opposite ways of conceiving and practising power and authority, thus proposing a new outline for the traditional confrontation between East and West.

The reference to the Ottoman example for qualifying Oriental despotism is important for the political theories of the French author Jean Bodin (1530–1596)  as well. Bodin further developed the thoughts of his predecessors by describing a monarchie seigneuriale7 in which the authority of a prince over his subjects is limitless and similar to that of a master over slaves in the Aristotelian sense. The word despot or despotism, however, was not included in Bodin’s political vocabulary. The essential difference between a monarchie seigneuriale and what Bodin called monarchie royale consists in the fact that the absolute nature of a king’s power – legibus solutus– has some essential limits, that is property rights, divine and natural laws as well as the fundamental laws of the kingdom. As a consequence, the king of France , whose power is in fact absolute because there are no opponent authorities, does not have the same position, according to Bodin, as the kind of sovereign who, for example, rules the Ottoman Empire. In the latter case, neither property nor fundamental laws are respected; the king is the only proprietor of his subjects’ possessions. In Bodin’s thought, this is not the consequence of a particular nature of the Ottoman people, as Aristotle believed, but the effect of war and conquest, which is the only origin of slavery. For this reason, not only Oriental monarchies were supposed to be despotic, but also the colonial empire  of Charles V of Spain (1500–1558) . Any monarch can incur the arbitrary power of a prince who does not respect the system of a monarchie royale and will thus be a tyrant, but his power must always be temporary because rebellion is an unavoidable consequence of his illegal authority. Despotism, that is, monarchie seigneuriale, on the other hand, is a political and social system which may have great stability and whose duration can be very long. In fact, according to Bodin it was the most ancient and primitive form of monarchy in world history.8


[LEFT]: Heavily affected by the civil and revolutionary wars of his time, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes sought a political order that was arranged according to scientific principles and which would prevent future revolutions. In his works on state theory (De cive, 1642; Leviathan, 1651), he takes as his centre point the endeavour of the human being to maximise happiness and minimise pain. A political system is thus well ordered if it optimises this endeavour. Hobbes contends that the human being is not by origin a social being and, in their natural state, humans are in constant competition (“homo homini lupus”, “bellum omnium contra omnes”). According to Hobbes, this natural state of being could only be overcome by a contract, in which each human relinquishes his original rights to the benefit of the sovereign. If the sovereign were overthrown, the body politic would disintegrate into its individual constituents again; the human returns to its natural state. / New York Public Library
[RIGHT]: The English philosopher John Locke is considered to be the founder of empiricism and the Enlightenment critique of knowledge. In particular, his epistemological magnum opus An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and his writings on the state (Two Treatises of Government, 1690; Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689) had a significant impact upon, amongst others, Hume, Voltaire and Kant, as well as the liberal concept of the constitutional state.  Portrait lithography by de Fonroug[e] after H. Garnier. / Library of Congress

Venetia 1572 / UB Heidelberg

By stressing conquest as the origin of despotic power and pointing out the absence of property rights as a characteristic of despotic government, Bodin introduced important new aspects into the theoretical debate about despotism. As a result, significant developments in the works of major philosophers like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)  or John Locke (1632–1704)  and in the general political and ideological European debate were possible.9 Nevertheless, not only the theoretical side of the issue is of interest here, because the evolution of the concept of Oriental despotism, as we said, is the result of a complex interaction of factors. The early modern interest in discoveries and voyages  and the collection of new experience  and knowledge in travel literature and encyclopaedic works also influenced the idea of an Oriental political otherness whose typical character was despotism. On this empirical basis a new comparative analysis of various Oriental societies and cultures was attempted. There were, for instance, the Relazioni Universali by Giovanni Botero (1540–1617),10 who made use of a large amount of primary sources and, above all, travel literature, describing the political relations of Venetian  ambassadors and many others. He geographically extended the idea of a despotic form of government beyond the Ottoman Empire, including a whole variety of Oriental governments, from Turkey to Persia, from Mughal India to China and Siam. This extension of the boundaries of Oriental despotism, in addition to previous philosophical and political ideas concerning the substantial difference of Asiatic governments, significantly enhanced the concept by offering a synthesis of empirical experience and theory.

Travel writings played a major role in this process, and their importance, sometimes underestimated in comparison to philosophical and political theory, deserves particular attention. For example François Bernier (1620–1688‏) , a traveller in the Mughal Empire, proposed a comparison between Mughal India and Europe in which the socio-economic situation in the country was profoundly analysed. Bernier painted a negative picture of the Empire by emphasizing the economically disastrous consequences of despotic government, the ruinous effects of a lack of private ownership, and the shocking contrast between the extreme wealth of the princes and the poverty of their people, who were oppressed by the taxation system and by rapacious peripheral administrators.11 His writings had a major influence on European attitudes towards India and, more generally, towards Asiatic politics and governments. All this was the result of an empirical approach and direct experience, and not of mere theoretical speculation, although Bernier was also a philosopher and an original thinker.

Another example would be Jean Chardin (1643–1713) , who was not a philosopher but “qui a voyagé comme Platon”, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) said of him.12 During his travels in Persia he empirically experienced a state shaped by Oriental despotism. His observations in the Safavid monarchy at the end of the 17th century led him to describe the Persian despotic government as a result of incidental and historical circumstances which provided the prince with strength and extreme authority for controlling the aristocratic opposition. Chardin did not consider despotism as a result of the natural character of the people nor of Islamic religion, which could in fact produce different political systems, as the examples of Turkey and Persia show. He therefore took care to describe the different varieties and forms of Oriental despotism in detail, and his writing is a remarkable example of how empirical experience could not only confirm but also question the use of a uniform interpretation scheme applied to every Asiatic government.

Oriental Despotism in Enlightenment culture


[LEFT]: The French political philosopher Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755) was, following his humanist and legal education, the president of the parlaments of Bordeaux from 1716 to 1726. Afterwards, he travelled throughout Europe, staying in England, and other countries, between 1729 and 1731. In 1748, his opus magnum on political authority De l’esprit des lois appeared, which was of importance for the American constitution as well as that of the French Revolution of 1791, and the doctrine of the separation of powers in general. Many contemporaries perceived De l’esprit des lois as an accurate depiction of the Great Britain’s constitution, and alongside Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, it was a key work in continental Anglophilia.  Photographic print of a portrait by Ernst Hader, 1884. / Library of Congress
[RIGHT]: Louis XIV, who occupied the French throne from 1643 to 1715, went down in history as the “Sun King”. During his reign he made his court at Versailles into a model which many European rulers sought to emulate. However, his efforts to achieve a European hegemony also contributed to the fact that European politics in the late 17th and early 18th century were dominated by warfare. The so-called “Grand Alliance” formed in 1686 at Augsburg by the Emperor, Spain, Sweden, Saxony, Bavaria, the Palatinate and a number of smaller powers was designed to prevent further French expansion, either through diplomacy or by force.  Portrait bust by Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1665. / Wikimedia Commons

When Charles Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (1689–1755)  published his Lettres Persanes in 1721, France had already been debating on Oriental despotism for many years in a highly intellectual way, mainly in connection with the political and ideological struggle against the authoritarian trend of the French monarchy. The new term emerged during the age of the Fronde13 and was elaborated in an intensive pamphlet war, in which the similarities between the power of Louis XIV (1638–1715)  and that of the Grand Seigneur or the Grand Mogol were often hinted at; for instance, in the celebrated Soupirs de la France esclave by Michel Le Vassor (1646–1718).14 Obviously the tensions in the critical period of transition after the Sun King’s death and the worries about the authoritarian turn of the French monarchy played an important role in the Lettres Persanes and in Montesquieu’s treatment of Oriental despotism as well. It would be misleading, however, to reduce Montesquieu’s important contribution to this subject, which was later elaborated in his Esprit des Lois (1748), to a mere polemical or ideological exploitation of the concept for contingent political purposes.

What distinguished Montesquieu’s approach was his analysis of a particular authoritarian form of government which he may have rejected but whose predominance in the ancient and modern world, especially in Eastern countries, urged him to study its causes and conditions of existence. It led him, therefore, to define Oriental despotism as an autonomous form of government beyond its accepted categorization as a particular form of monarchy coming from the Aristotelian tradition. His analysis of despotism, of its nature – a concentration of authority that leaves no place to liberty –, and the principle of intimidation it is grounded on, as well as his systematic study of its various connections with climate, religion, manners, economy and laws, made Montesquieu’s work the most important contribution to this debate in the 18th century and beyond.

Asia – referring to all Eastern countries, from the Islamic world to the Far East – was for Montesquieu the natural milieu of despotism. He accordingly proposed a contrast between Europe and the Orient that was based on his scientific approach. L’Esprit des Lois was immediately recognized by his contemporaries as an important work and was extremely influential not only from a theoretical but also, maybe more, from a more general cultural point of view. Its success may be connected with the fact that Montesquieu based his conclusions not only on philosophical and political speculations, but also on a variety of empirical experience.

Travel literature was an essential source for Montesquieu’s approach, as his careful readings and summaries of the works by Bernier, Chardin, and many others show. They inspired his interest in the particularities of despotic governments and their varieties in the context of the nature and principle of despotism, which had not always been analysed as closely as they deserved. Islam is proposed, in this view, as a perfect ally of despotism because of the strong interaction between political and religious matters, even if the respect for religion can have a stabilizing effect, since it imposes rules that everybody must accept.15 Montesquieu thus emphasized the importance of religion from a political point of view and showed that it could act as a moderating force in despotic realities as well.

At the same time, although he highlighted the radical geographical and political differences between Europe and Asia – the large plains of the Asiatic natural milieu were an essential condition for despotism, in Montesquieu’s view, whereas the fragmented territory of Europe gave natural support to political liberty –, he did not deny that historical events and political situations could produce despotism in Europe as well. For example, such a situation could have occurred after the territorial and political extension of a sovereign’s authority and the weakening of its checks, even though, in Montesquieu’s eyes, it would not have been typical.16 All these reflections hint at a political criticism that is strongly linked to the sociological or scientific analysis of despotism in Montesquieu’s work.

Although Montesquieu considerably influenced European attitudes towards Oriental despotism in the 18th century and beyond, a variety of approaches can be observed that sometimes diverged from and sometimes directly opposed Montesquieu’s thesis. The fundamental connection of despotism with religion was a central element of Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger’s (1722–1759)  Recherches sur l’origine du despotisme oriental as well, in which theocracy was established as the essential basis of despotism.17 However, he did not believe climate or natural environment to be a cause of Oriental despotism, as Montesquieu did. Other authors, Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1770)  for instance, made the same point.18

Besides, Boulanger did not define religion as socially useful but as the anthropological source of a fundamental mystification that creates power. Its political consequence, reinforced by superstition and idolatry, would then be despotism. In Boulanger’s analysis, the link between religion and despotism was strongly emphasized. A similar approach was present in the writings of various other authors of that time. This can be seen as the expression of a struggle against ecclesiastical power in which the negative model of Asiatic governments was systematically employed. At the end of the century, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794)  gave this idea a concise and vigorous form in his Esquisse,19 observing the marked contrast between Orient and Occident. He thus urged all enlightened  European countries to energetically help foster the emancipation of a large part of humanity which was, according to him, still living in a system of oppression producing economic, cultural and civic backwardness and stagnation.

The French writer and philosopher Voltaire [real name: François Marie Arouet] (1694–1778) enjoyed, as the son of a wealthy notary, a humanist education. In 1719, he came to notice with his first tragedy Œdipe; his epic Henriade (1723) made him famous throughout Europe. In 1726, he fled the threat of arrest to England, where he lived until 1729. He published the Letters concerning the English Nation (1733; the French version, Lettres philosophiques, appeared in 1734) on his stay there. Alongside Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois it became the key work of Anglophilia. Following his return, he occupied himself with the study of mathematics and the natural sciences. His Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738) made Newton’s cosmology well-known on the continent. Between 1749 and 1753, he lived in Potsdam in response to an invitation from Frederick II., and from 1758 at the Ferney Castle near Lake Geneva. During this period, he published, amongst other works, historical studies and his most famous text Candide ou l’optimisme (1759). / Wikimedia Commons

The political relevance of the concept of Oriental despotism in the 18th century is also evident in writings that directly opposed Montesquieu’s analysis but used the same methodological premise, which is empirical evidence. For example, Voltaire (1694–1778)  accused Montesquieu of incorrectly using his sources and thus shaping a concept of Oriental despotism that had no matches in history and the real world, as he proved by the example of Turkey.20 Although this attitude was mainly due to the substantial difference between Voltaire’s political ideas on government and limiting monarchic power and Montesquieu’s thought, criticism also came from other scholars. Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731–1805)  tried to demonstrate, supported by his vast experience as an orientalist, that an unlimited authority without regard to property rights had never existed in Asiatic countries or the Islamic world.21 In Anquetil-Duperron’s thought, it was even more necessary to oppose the notion of Oriental despotism because of Europe’s growing economic and political interest in Asia, particularly in India, whose complex and ancient civilization would have been wronged by the use of this concept.

In the Physiocratic school which was founded in France by François Quesnay (1694–1774) , despotism had other theoretical and political connotations, on the basis that scientific knowledge of the economic  and social laws should have imposed the despotism of evidence. A good and well-ordered government could, for this economic school, politically be managed by a strong central authority, which justified a virtuous despotism.22 They frequently referred to the empire of China as an example, revealing an appreciation of China which can be connected to Jesuit sources. The Physiocratics proposed China as a model23 because of its economic regulations and its social, political and administrative rules as well as its religion, Confucianism, which efficiently cooperated with political order. They thus created a different and more positive image of Oriental despotism.24

All these various attitudes towards Oriental despotism should, however, be considered as the theoretical side of a more complex debate; the real development of the relation between Europe and Asia must not be overlooked. Since European powers  became more involved in Asia during the 18th century and British colonial interest in India was growing especially fast, Europeans could gain empirical experience much more easily and extensively. Administrators, diplomats and political staff employed in colonial government were much more involved in Asia and became the main source on this topic, whereas authors in earlier centuries had mainly had to rely on travel literature. The lack of proprietary rights in India and the idea of the prince as the owner of everything, one of the central elements of the modern idea of Oriental despotism, became a more urgent question in the colonial age. One of the most important consequences in British India was that the zamindars, that is, the tax-collecting tenants in the Mughal administration, were granted proprietary rights.25 This had unexpected negative effects on the society and economy of British India and clearly shows the practical effects of the European idea of Oriental despotism when it was directly applied by colonial administrators, opening new and various debates.

In other words, the concept of Oriental despotism is shaped by different languages, approaches and actors, and should not be seen uniquely from the theoretical side. The cultural problem of this Eurocentric category and its evolution should be analysed in all its varieties and implications.

From Oriental Despotism to the Asiatic mode of production

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the most important German philosophers of the 19th century. He studied theology and philosophy in Tubingen, where he met Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) and Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843). After professorial posts in Jena, Nuremberg and Heidelberg, he was appointed to the University of Berlin, where he became the successor of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). Here, Hegel, who alongside Fichte and Schilling is considered to be the most important representative of German Idealism, had his greatest impact by, for example, founding the Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik in 1826.  Portrait by Lazarus Sichling, steel engraving after a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers, after 1828 / Wikimedia Commons

The Eurocentric representation of the relationships between the East and Europe, from a philosophical point of view, becomes most interesting at the beginning of the 19th century when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)  used the concept of Oriental despotism in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte.26 The quality of his interpretation is comparable to that of Aristotle’s and Montesquieu’s contributions to the debate. Elements of Montesquieu’s analysis were in fact present in Hegel’s interpretation – above all, he focused on despotism as a particular form of government. What distinguished Hegel’s approach is that he placed despotism within a dialectical scheme which is chronological and logical at the same time, since it is the first phase of the historical and universal movement of the spirit. Despotism, which for Hegel was represented by Asiatic societies and governments, was conceived of as the first of four stages in the dialectics of the universal spirit, because it departs from the state of nature but does not yet permit the individual to be autonomous. A despotically ruled society cannot articulate itself, and the universal spirit is concentrated in a single free person, embodied by the despot himself. The logical analysis of the spirit’s development implies an historical movement, and in Hegel’s view “the History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History.”27

This movement also has a geographical dimension, because the universal spirit can only be achieved by peoples with the corresponding natural constitution (Volksgeist). A link with Montesquieu’s approach is clearly visible here, as well as the influence of more recent authors, in particular Carl Ritter (1779–1859) , who believed geographical factors to be natural conditions for the evolution of people’s spirit.28 Geographical factors interact with the logical development of the spirit, which Hegel divided into four great stages, that is, the Oriental, Greek, Roman and, finally, Germanic stage. The particular history of each people’s spirit is also influenced by geographic factors such as the different lifestyles in the uplands or in the plains of the Eastern world. The Eastern world represents the first stage of the universal spirit’s movement – “the childhood of History” – since it remains locked in a condition which, by restricting the role of the individual, does not permit any evolution. 29

This, for Hegel, is most evident in the Mongolian and Chinese Empires. They may be characterized as systems of “theocratic despotism”, for which the connection with Enlightenment ideas on Eastern societies and governments is particularly clear and in which religious and political authorities are strongly linked. In India, the situation is similar and the caste system is a different expression – “theocratic aristocracy” – of the same unarticulated dimension of the spirit. The same could be observed in ancient Persia – “theocratic monarchy” – where the interaction with the West and sea trade, however, produced more heterogeneous elements.30 In this general context, the sea – in the case of the Phoenicians, for instance, and their maritime commerce – particularly acted as an effective force against the undifferentiated dimension of the spirit. In Western Asiatic countries, it opened up the way to a different scenario, defined by Hegel as the second stage of universal history, that is, the Greek one. In this geographical area, therefore, despotism is no longer the main political category.

The extraordinary theoretical strength of Hegel’s thought reinforced the idea of an inexorable connection between despotism and immobility and an essential difference between the Eastern and the European world which had already been discussed in the Age of Enlightenment. Its influence, from a theoretical but also from a political and ideological point of view, was considerable. If Asia was located at the origin of the universal spirit’s movement, its lack of dynamics placed it outside the development of civilization.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was one of the most influential political philosophers in Europe. His theory of dialectical materialism and his thoughts on class struggle and socialism in collaboration with Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) have shaped the political landscape of the 20th century.  Photo by John Jabez Edwin Paisley Mayall. / International Institute of Social History BG A9/362

The parallels between Hegel’s interpretative scheme and Karl Marx’s (1818–1883)  thought have often been pointed out. At the same time, the connection of Marx’s interpretation of Asiatic societies with 17th and 18th century observations on the specific nature of their economy, particularly the idea of the precarious status of proprietary rights in Asia, is clearly visible in his writings, mainly in his journal contributions on India and China.31 According to Marx, the entire Asiatic economic system was based on the absence of individual proprietary rights, due to the sovereign’s being the sole proprietor, and to the organization of economic life in autonomous village communities. Marx believed that the geographical conditions of Asiatic countries reinforced this political system, for example, because only a strong and centralized authority could provide the required agricultural watering systems. The Asiatic “mode of production”32 which prevailed in India and other Eastern countries like China and parts of Russia was, for Marx, the real foundation of Oriental despotism, and these two concepts are strictly linked in Marx’s thought. In the general framework of Marx’s ideas on the development of society and its future perspectives, this system marked a stoppage. For this reason, Marx thought the European domination of the colonies – particularly the British involvement in India – to be a necessary measure or, in his words, a “double mission […]: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia”.33

This shift from the “Oriental despotism” concept to the “Asiatic mode of production” opened a fresh discussion and proposed new methodologies of investigation. It also had political implications which were related to the international social and political contexts of the late 19th and 20th centuries.34

In addition to his socio-historical and religio-sociological research, Max Weber’s work aimed at establishing sociology as an academic discipline in its own right. In the area of methodology, Weber sought a resolution of the dualism between the humanities and the natural sciences, and he argued that academic research must be freed from moral value judgements. Among Weber’s most important contributions in the area of political sociology was his theory of rule, in which he differentiates between typical legitimate forms of rule (charismatic, traditional, rational) and in which he stresses that all areas of life are being penetrated by a process of formal rationalization. His theory on the contribution of protestant ethics to the formation of modern capitalism was particularly widely read. / Source: Weber, Marianne: Max Weber: Ein Lebensbild, Tübingen 1926, [table VII]

The connection between irrigation systems and the nature of Asiatic political structures also played a major role in Max Weber’s (1864–1920)  interpretation of the differing development of Mediterranean and Asiatic societies. Weber claimed that different geographical conditions caused this fundamental divergence, pointing out the contrast between coastal Mediterranean regions and the essential importance of rivers and the managing of irrigation in Egypt or in Middle Eastern areas in the ancient world.35 He wrote: “The crucial factor which made Near Eastern development so different was the need for irrigation systems, as a result of which the cities were closely connected with building canals and constant regulation of waters and rivers, all of which demanded the existence of a unified bureaucracy.”36

The political and ethical consequence was “the subjugation of the individual” in the East, and, on the Mediterranean side, the rise of a “purely secular civilization which characterized Greek society and caused capitalist development in Greece to differ from that in the Near East”.37 The economic foundation of Asiatic monarchies and the existence of a ‘patrimonial’ bureaucracy personally depending on the monarch, such as existed in China, thus seemed to prevent political development and the modernization of the social and institutional structure. Weber gave the old concept of Oriental despotism a fresh impetus by interpreting various materials and judgments from the history of European culture. He thus supported the core idea of a European singularity and predominance in the history of world civilization which he clearly exposed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.38

In the 20th century, Karl August Wittfogel (1896–1988)  recovered the term “Oriental despotism” in his provocative work Oriental Despotism in 1957.39 His approach was strongly related to the thought of Marx and particularly that of Weber. He developed the idea of the economic necessity of supporting irrigation systems as the foundation of a model of society and government whose main characteristic was the absolute power of a central bureaucracy. On these grounds, Wittfogel diagnosed a clear contrast between polycentric societies like those that developed in Europe and monocentric ones as in Asia. There, he observed a transition from the old despotic governments to a new form of despotism represented by communist Russia , which could be considered as a new version of industrial-bureaucratic despotism. Wittfogel’s controversial and stimulating work was clearly influenced by the ideological and political tensions of its time, but it also shows a remarkable methodological and theoretical insight. Accordingly, it proves the long life of an ancient concept and cultural attitude which has for many centuries shaped the European perception of the clash of Eastern and Western civilizations.



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  1. For general surveys on the history and varieties of the Oriental despotism concept, see mainly Koebner, Despot and despotism 1951; Venturi, Despotismo orientale 1960; Stelling-Michaud, Le mythe du despotisme oriental 1960–1961; Richter, Despotism 1973; Bobbio, Dispotismo 2004; Felice (ed.), Dispotismo 2001–2002; Rubiés, Oriental despotism 2005; Richter, The concept of despotism 2007.
  2. Cf. Saïd, Orientalism 1978.
  3. Cf. Aristotle, Politics 1984, III, 14.
  4. See William of Moerbeke, Aristotelis politicorum libri octo 1872; Aquinas, Sententia Libri politicorum 1971; Tolomeo da Lucca, De regimine principum continuatio 1948; Oresme, Le livre de Politiques d’Aristote 1970; William of Ockham, Dialogus 1927; Marsilius of Padua, Defensor pacis 1932–1933.
  5. Cf. Felice, Dispotismo 2001–2002, vol. I.
  6. Cf. Machiavelli, Il Principe 2006, IV.
  7. Cf. Bodin, Les six livres de la République 1576. The same form of monarchy is named dominatus in the Latin version of his work, published in 1586.
  8. Cf. ibidem, I, 6.
  9. See Hobbes, Leviathan 1991; De Cive 1983; and Locke, Two Treatises 1970.
  10. Cf. Rubiés, Oriental despotism 2005, for a recent interest in this work and its importance for the Oriental despotism concept.
  11. See Bernier, Voyages 1699.
  12. Cf. Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité 1971, p. 181.
  13. Cf. Koebner, Despot and Despotism 1951.
  14. See Le Vassor, Les Soupirs de la France esclave 1689–1690.
  15. See Montesquieu, De l’Esprit des Lois 1973, V, 14 and VII, 29.
  16. See ibidem, VIII, 8.
  17. Boulanger, Recherches sur l’origine du despotisme oriental 1761.
  18. See Helvetius, De l’Esprit 1758; De l’Homme 1772.
  19. See Condorcet, Esquisse, in: Condorcet, Tableau historique 2004.
  20. See Voltaire, Commentaire 1877–1885, especially Chapters IV and XII; Voltaire: Essai sur les Mœurs 1963, p. 832.
  21. See Anquetil-Duperron, Législation orientale 1778.
  22. See mainly Le Mercier de la Rivière, Ordre naturel 1767.
  23. See Quesnay, Despotisme de la Chine 2005.
  24. This image met with severe opposition, mainly from Mably in Doutes proposés 1768, who asserted that every form of despotism had a negative and destructive part, mainly from an ethical point of view.
  25. For a recent approach to this complex issue, see Travers, Ideology and Empire 2007.
  26. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, 1837.
  27. Hegel, Lectures on the philosophy of history 1861, p. 109.
  28. See Ritter, Die Erdkunde 1817.
  29. Hegel, Lectures on the philosophy of history 1861, pp. 111f.
  30. Hegel, Lectures on the philosophy of history 1861, pp. 118f.
  31. See Marx, The British Rule in India 1853.
  32. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 1859.
  33. Marx, The Future Results of British rule in India 1853, pp. 217f.
  34. See Sofri, Il modo di produzione asiatico 1974 and Krader, The Asiatic mode of production 1975.
  35. See WeberThe Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations 1976.
  36. ibidem, pp. 157f.
  37. ibidem, pp. 157f.
  38. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 1905.
  39. See Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism 1957.

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