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The Myth of Ottoman Despotism
Jul 1, 2006

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.

Edward Said in his Orientalism has already shown that the concept of "the East" is a fiction. To put it more correctly, it is an image constructed by the European imperial subject in his mind and then imposed on the world. Therefore, there is no fixed "reality" of the East; rather there is only the ideologically distorted image of the "East" constructed over the ages in the Western imagination. Yet, our mission seems more difficult, as Said does not present us with any clue that can differentiate the "factual" and "fictional" faces of the East. He only diagnoses the existence of the fiction and analyzes the roles of the most important actors (Orientalists) in creating such a fiction. This critical tradition of Orientalism developed greatly after the pioneering role of Edward Said. According to his perception, the East has been singly constructed in the West. Arif Dirlik in his The Postcolonial Aura elegantly criticizes Said"s thought and says that Said is obsessed with external Orientalists; however, Dirlik puts it that Said seems to be unable to recognize the internal Orientalists among easterners.

According to Dirlik, Edward Said takes Orientalism as something that has finished; however Dirlik suggests that it is a continuing process. Thus, he advises that we closely examine local compradors. He asks the question that if there were not collaborationists in the "Orient" would it be so easy for a perspective like Orientalism to settle there? Finally, departing from the Chinese example, he tries to display how Asian intellectuals supported and adopted the Orientalist discourse at its birth and throughout its evolution, and how they worked hard in order to make their societies adopt this perspective.8 This striking thought of Arif Dirlik may facilitate our task, as it is very interesting to note how eastern intellectuals adopted a pejorative and humiliating term like eastern despotism for defining their own histories without questioning and criticizing it, how they were able to take on the habit of seeing their societies through the eyes of a Western subject and in the name of liberation and modernization. According to this approach, the commoditization of Chinese culture and its presentation as a static and petrified entity and marketing it like a commodity to Western people are one side of the Orientalization of the Orient itself.

The other side is glorifying the superior Western race, its land and its culture after humiliating the Orient. Furthermore, the East believes that if it possesses superior properties to that of the West it will be also superior and have a free-minded society. To sum up, much as Hegel strived to achieve, Easterners have put themselves onto this scale of frozen, static and unchanging societies because that is what the West thinks of them. So we have to admire the success of the Orientalist project. Lucette Valensi, in his encompassing and striking study, The Birth of the Despot: Venice and the Sublime Porte, draws conclusions from reports of Venetian ambassadors and arrives at how the concept of the "despot" was constructed in Europe. He says that the Ottoman sultan had not been called a despot and the Ottoman order had not been conceptualized as despotism before. On the contrary, the power, brilliance, and progressiveness of the Ottoman administration were often discussed.

However, beginning with the 17th century, the discourses of the Venetian ambassadors started to change. It was strange, according to Valensi, how the "grand Turc" was transformed into a "despot" in the 17th century. He rightfully asks why the Venetian ambassadors had glorified the Ottoman sultan until the 16th century and then humiliated him in the 17th century. It is clear that there was a change in the Venetian perspective of the Ottomans during this century. As Valensi himself elegantly points out: In the end, the ambassadors and then Montesquieu dressed an ancient Greek concept in a Turkish robe. To say it more correctly, that time is not very distant from us. The fantasy of pure power follows us and transforms its vision continuously.9 According to Valensi, Oriental despotism is just an image reflected onto non-western societies by the West in order to satisfy its fantasy of power. Yet, this image reflects the passion of power in the West; a passion that desires to be as powerful as the Ottomans. Voltaire declares the concept of despotism as presented by his contemporary Montesquieu as ridiculous; he defends that a mass of people ruled by a regime led by a single leader cannot survive; even though it might be possible for it to remain standing, it will not be for long. There was no despotic rule according to Voltaire because it could not exist. It is nothing less than a lie to talk about the existence of such a regime.

As I mentioned above, the concept of despotism, which Voltaire found absurd and fictive, has been used with the aim of concealing rather than describing, complicating rather than explaining. However, we should direct our energy and attention to understanding the facts rather than thinking within limits and fantasies. Then, our attempt to find the realities will remind us that our past is not "a foreign country," it will give us sound clues about our present and past. Likewise, Voltaire, addressing Montesquieu, explained the Ottoman reality to those who thought like Montesquieu. Voltaire underlined that not only were the Turks free, but they also did not discriminate according to class. Their only criterion of privilege was merit. The facts Voltaire provides about the Ottomans are in complete contrast with the fiction. In conclusion, when carefully examined, myths like "Oriental despotism" do not amount to anything more than European fantasies about the East. Seeing despotism as an oriental concept is no more realistic than the Western misconception of the harem, where the sultan is depicted with hundreds of women. As long as we adopt orientalist presumptions without thoroughly questioning them, we will be unable to tell where the fictional ends and where the factual starts.


  1. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, The John Hopkins University Press, 1976, p.80
  2. Louis Althusser, Politika ve Tarih: Montesquieu-Rousseau, (Politics and History: Montesquieu-Rousseau) Ankara: Verso, 1987. Translated by Alaattin Azenel and Ömür Sezgin.
  3. For this transitional period, the seigneurs or landlords were delivering their rights to central government, that is, the central state was becoming a universal seigneurate, see W. H. Lewis, The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV, Anchor Books, 1957, pp. 73-79.
  4. Stephan J. Lee, Aspects of European History, 1494-1789, Routledge, 1986, p. 167.
  5. Micheal Curtis, "The Oriental Despotic Universe of Montesquieu&", Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies, n. 3, 1994, pp. 1-33.
  6. Montesquieu, Ãran Mektuplari (Letters from Persia), Anka, Istanbul, 2001, p. 88-89. Translated by Muhiddin Gaklu.
  7. David Miller (ed), The Blackwell Encylopedia of Political Thought, Blackwell, 1998.
  8. Arif Dirlik, Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism, Westview Press, 1998
  9. Lucette Valensi, The Birth of the Despot: Venice and the Sublime Porte (Despotun Dogusu: Venedik ve Bab-i Âli), tr. A. Turgut Arnas, Baslam, Istanbul: 1994.