• Issue 55 / July - September 2006

    The Myth of Ottoman Despotism

    Mustafa Armagan

    The concept of Chinese script operated as a kind of a European hallucination.
    Jacques Derrida1

    For over two thousand years despotism has been used by the West as a concept for slandering systems that differ from it. What this means is that the term itself is European. It was used against the French king as a means of opposition. It was also used by Montesquieu and Engels as a strategy of accusation against Oriental regimes. Karl Wittfogel attempted to adopt it for the case of Soviet Russia, but he did not succeed, because the term has been indexed to the East since the time of ancient Greece. The East for the Greeks was Persia, then, it became Seljuk-Ottoman Empire and the Mongols for a while.

    “Enlightened despotism” was used in positive terms for Frederic the Great and Catherine II; however, even this positive attempt did not conceal this myth or alleviate the burden of this prejudice. To sum up, the term despotism has cast a silhouette over the Eurasian map since the time of Aristotle’s Politics. What is more, the notions developed in the West still dominate today, even in the mindset of some “intellectuals” in the East.

    There have been many books written on this subject. Edward Said struggled greatly at the beginning with his Orientalism, published in 1978, and in subsequent studies. There has been much research conducted on the problems and contradictions of Eurocentrism. In 1748 Montesquieu presents us with a discussion of despotism in his The Spirit of Laws. However, his outmoded theory was found to be ridiculous by Voltaire at the time and by Anquetil-Duperron thirty years later in 1778.

    In fact, the aim of the “Eastern Orientalists” is clear: they are trying to find an explanation for the lack of development in the East. Montesquieu-who invented the term despotism while criticizing the French king-would be pleased if he could hear the repercussions of his theory still haunting Eastern history after 250 years. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were very clever men, they used special terms for special aims, and the myth of “Oriental despotism” is one of the terms used for multiple aims.

    The French thinker Louis Althusser analyzes and criticizes Montesquieu in his book Politics and History.2 Althusser first of all tries to “understand” the thinker he is examining. He evaluates works by Montesquieu in general terms and he divides the thoughts into themes. Despotism is one of these themes.

    Althusser thinks that Montesquieu’s main aim was not to defend a republic or a democracy against despotism, but rather to support monarchy and make it something that the King would opt for. Therefore, he continually tries to frighten the King with the specter of despotism, a degenerated form of monarchy. He wanted to show the King that if you abuse the monarchy you will become a despot, like that of the Turkish and Chinese states. His warning was, “Be careful not to abuse the monarchy!”

    Montesquieu was not an innocent philosopher merely giving advice to his ruler. Philosophers are at least as far removed from innocence as politicians are. However, Althusser does not see things so simple. He thinks that Montesquieu uttered these “great ideas” in order to consolidate the importance of the feudal lords, of whom he was one, in the eyes of the King.

    According to Althusser, Montesquieu was trying to bring back the interests of his class that would be lost by centralizing the monarchy.3 Montesquieu was in the camp of the feudal rightist party and he was constantly criticizing Louis XIV-a monarch who represents French monarchy at its peak; he was advising him not to be a despot. If the French king became drawn into the sphere of despotism, then the privileges and rights of the upper classes would be abolished, and they would have to hand over not only their power, but also their wealth to the control of the central authority. Montesquieu lists all the problems inherent in despotism; Louis XIV would continue to distribute offices that had formerly belonged to the aristocrats-a practice started by Cardinal Richelieu-to the newly emerging bourgeoisie, and the logical consequence of this is that Louis XIV would come close to establishing a tyranny.4

    Here is what Montesquieu said clearly: Despotism is a regime of fear. There is only one ruler. There are no intermediaries between the King and the people. The despot who rules arbitrarily does stand much of a chance if the people, living like a herd of animals, were to rebel against him en masse. Despotism can not oppose rebellions because the King will be the only target of a huge upsurge, and therefore the life of the king and the continuity of the regime can easily be threatened. However, if there are intermediary classes-of which Montesquieu was a member-who stand between the king and the people, they would be the target of the masses. The king would be free from blame and he would not be a direct target. Finally, Montesquieu concludes: “O Kings! Distance yourself from despotism if you want to protect your reign from the violence of the people.”5

    Montesquieu denigrates despotism, particularly in his Letters from Persia, by giving examples from the administration of the Ottoman sultan and the Iranian shah (the Ottomans and the Safavids became the devils in this despotism context and were the parties accused of despotism).6 Yet, as Althusser cleverly recognized, Montesquieu’s problem was not with the Ottoman Empire or Iran. They were just distorted mirrors, fake images, or boogeyman chosen to serve the aim of the feudal rightist opposition that was trying to stand against the king. In short, Althusser wanted the Turks and the Ottomans to be left alone and he was calling for European thought to confess their faults.

    Concepts should be perceived as an umbrella rather than as a shopping bag into which we can cram everything. If we use them in the latter fashion then, as implied by Braudel, they tell us nothing, while trying to tell everything. Likewise, Karl Popper-a philosopher of science-was right when he said if we do not limit a concept, a theory, or a scheme and if we try to use it to explain everything, then it is difficult to call it scientific. This is also true for the concept of despotism. If this term is used in an unrestricted sense and is universalized, there will be a superficiality that eliminates all minor differences within the concept. This leads to an evaporation of the deep meanings that are hidden in the nuances, an atrophy of complex thinking and an establishment of thinking based on limits and ease. Because of this we need to talk about multiple despotisms rather than unique despotism.

    In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought, 7 there are four meanings for the term despotism:
    1. In political terms, despotism emerged for the first time in the war between the Persians and Greeks in 5th century B.C. However, the term was formulated by Aristotle. According to him, despotism was an administration confined to Asian barbaric people. Therefore, the first conceptual iron door between Asia and Europe was constructed by Aristotle, who is known as “the first teacher” in Islamic philosophy. According to him, Asian peoples are natural born slaves and are accustomed to living under the authority of a single leader. He thought that their power was derived from despotism. However, since Greek (Europeans) people were superior to Asians in terms of rational capability and spirit, they should be the rulers. Thus, despotism was commonly used in a pejorative sense.

    2. In the 16th century, the colonial powers that went to discover new lands to plunder frequently remembered Aristotle’s legitimizing despotism concept. The slave trade was inspired by this ancient obsession with despotism. The people who divided the world into two camps, the free and the barbaric, like Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes, and Grotius, believed that the soldiers of European republics were more virtuous than those of the barbarians. According to this belief, it was therefore acceptable for the virtuous to convert the slavish barbarians into slaves.

    3. In the 17th and 18th centuries two opposing groups in France, the French aristocrats and the Huguenots (French Protestants, some of who took refugee in the Ottoman Empire after the Edict of Nantes) used the term despotism as a tool of criticism for a European state. Therefore, the content of the term despotism expanded to European rulers who were ruling over free people. In conclusion, the term became two-sided; one for “Western despotism” and the other for “Eastern.” The despotism concept of Montesquieu emerged in the context of this century.

    4. There is one other thesis which originated from the Swedish-born French liberal Benjamin Constant and was developed by Tocqueville. This thesis argues that the term of despotism had lost its ancient and original meaning after the French Revolution. These discussions allowed despotism to enter European politics and led to many interesting discussions, like “democratic despotism” or “the tyranny of the majority.”

    After all these definitions those of Hegel, Marx, Weber, J. Stuart Mill, and Wittfogel follow; these are not very different in the main line of thought, also seeing despotism as something reserved for the East. They use terms “petrification, “resistance to change” and “static” as symbols of despotism and see it as the reason why eastern societies did not create democratic tendencies and a civil society.


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