公 法 评 论

et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis


Reflections on Fear: Montesquieu in Retrieval.
Corey Robin
Issue: June, 2000

According to most scholars, Montesquieu argues that fear threatens a loss of self. Disconnected from the exercise of reason, fear is an emotion that is supposed to prevent the individual from acting with any kind of moral or rational agency. Fear is also premised on the liquidation of civil society; intermediate institutions and plural social structures are destroyed so that despots can act with unmitigated power and violence. I argue that this view does not capture Montesquieu's theory. In my alternative account, fear is intimately connected to our capacity for reason and to our sense of self. It is built on a network of elites, the rule of law, moral education, and the traditional institutions of civil society. I conclude that twentieth-century social science remains too indebted to conventional interpretations of Montesquieu's views, and contemporary theorists would be better served by the alternative analysis proposed here.

"Fear," wrote Raymond Aron (1968, 20-1), "needs no definition. It is a primal, and so to speak subpolitical emotion." Many might agree. Living in a liberal democracy, we do not celebrate fear's entrance into the political sphere; it signals a rush of unwelcome emotion. Fear is allowed to lurk at the outer limits of modernity (Bouwsma 1980; Naphy and Roberts 1997) or to stalk the political periphery. [1] But in our own midst, fear is supposed to be confined to right-wing militias, apocalyptic religious sects, or some other manifestation of "the paranoid style in American politics" (Hofstadter 1964). We segregate fear by the boundaries of time and space, relegating it to the occasional episode of collective anxiety or to subcultures of eccentric conviction on the far Right and Left. When these boundaries blur, when fear disrupts the quiet hum of institutional politics, we treat it as an emotional upsurge of the untutored and the untamed (Bell 1963; Bennett 1988; Brownstein 1994; Cantril 1940; Davis 1960, 1971; Lipset and Raab 1971).

This view of fear as a denizen haunting civilization is relatively recent. It is rooted in a selective reading-- and misreading-- of Montesquieu's famous analysis of despotism. Almost since the time that Montesquieu wrote The Spirit of the Laws, his followers and critics have interpreted him as arguing that fear is a totalizing emotion that strips individuals of their capacity for reason or any other motivation besides fear. Fearful men and women cannot conceive any particular goals or goods beyond mere survival. They cannot reason about means and ends. They have none of the attributes of selfhood. Fear is an experience unto itself, a wholly primitive passion that can be reduced to the apprehension of raw, unmediated, physical danger (Aron 1968, 20-1; Cohler 1988, 40; Hulliung 1976, 119, 122; Keohane 1980, 399; Shackleton 1961, 270; Shldar 1987, 83-5). Despotic fear preys upon a society in which the rule of law is weak or nonexistent, political power is monopolized in the hands of a single and arbitrary rule r, there are no secondary or mediating institutions, and what we would now call civil society is entirely absent. Arising out of a sociological void, fear finds its ideal environment atop a flattened plain of atomized particulars (Althusser 1972, 79; Boesche 1990, 743-9; Richter 1973, 9; 1995, 338; Shklar 1987, 85; Venturi 1963, 134-6; Wolin 1989, 102-4, 106, 108-9; Young 1978, 398-9).

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I challenge this account of fear, both as it pertains to Montesquieu's own views and as a coherent theory in its own right. The assumptions that fear strips the self of reason and other emotions and that it thrives on sociological and political simplicity can be found in Montesquieu's work, but they obscure an alternative analysis whereby fearful men and women do not conform to the terrorized stereotypes of totalitarian lore. In this alternative account, fearful individuals do not lose all capacity for rational agency. As rational beings, they attempt to maximize their interests, albeit in bad circumstances. They are not fearful because they have been stripped of their humanity but because they desperately cling to it in the face of appalling choices. They are afraid because they fear the loss of some desired good or the frustration of some envisioned end. Selfhood is thus a precondition for fear.

Montesquieu also argues that despotic fear can coexist--and even depend upon--mediating institutions, the rule of law, and a dense civil society. In his most searching and incisive accounts of fear, he dispenses with the now familiar trope of the violent despot laying waste to all social formations beyond his own limited retinue of vizirs and slaves. Instead, Montesquieu envisions fairly complicated political arrangements, including concentric circles of elites, separate spheres, and pluralist institutions, all of which the despot manipulates--rather than destroys--and presses into his service. Despotic fear, in this alternative account, emerges as an intricate political development generated and sustained by diverse social practices.

In the first section of the article, I set out the standard account of Montesquieu's theory of despotic fear. In the second section, I explore an alternative account of that theory, in which fear is shown to be reconcilable with rationality and selfhood, and flourishes within a highly complex and socially stratified civil society. I argue that fear tracks the individual calculations men and women make regarding their own interests, and it rises and falls in response to their evaluations of the costs and benefits of pursuing one course of action over another. At a political level, fear preys upon the relationship between elites and their followers. Far from destroying these social connections, the despot depends upon them as auxiliaries to his own power. In the final two sections, after assessing the legacy of the standard interpretation of Montesquieu's theory of fear, I show how my alternative analysis may better serve us, both theoretically and practically.


According to most scholars, Montesquieu offers the following account of despotic fear. Fear is a "physiological reaction" of the self to excessive physical force. It is an "involuntary," uncontrollable response to threatening power. Fear is rooted in an immutable physical reality--our physicality as sentient beings and the physicality of what threatens us--which leaves us no choice but to fear those intimidating objects that confront us. Fear is so unalterable precisely because it is so physiological. There is little room for individual agency or judgment in determining what we fear or how we respond to fear. Despotic fear is not mediated by our desires or our values, nor do they influence how we cope with fear. In the face of physical cruelty, men and women can only react in a prescribed, automaton-like fashion. "This is where our physical and moral impulses meet and struggle, and where the former triumph" (Shklar 1987, 84-5). This kind of intensely physical fear usually induces paralysis. Instead of flight, withdrawal, or crafty evasion, the fearful individual stands frozen, mutely surveying the horror that awaits (Aithusser 1972, 80-1; Cohler 1988, 71-5; Shackleton 1961, 270).
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Fear takes over our entire selves. It is immoderate. It induces a "permanent state of foreboding" (Shklar 1987, 84), which makes it nearly impossible for us to experience any other emotion. The fearful person cannot love, desire, reflect, or imagine. She is incapable of honor or virtue. Fear is "far too imperious" for other feelings, thoughts, or aspirations. Because fear is "so tyrannical a passion" (p. 84), its victims can only experience fear. Among the fearful, then, one will find a dull sameness. Incapable of feeling or doing anything but fear, the fearful do not exhibit differences among themselves. They are not really individuals at all. They lack any vestige of those things-personal idiosyncrasies, tastes, spontaneity, character-that make an individual an individual (Shklar 1987, 84; also see Boesche 1990, 745; Richter 1973, 9; 1977, 47; Todorov 1993, 362-3; Wolin 1989, 108-9; Young 1978, 399).

From these basic characteristics--fear's intensity and extremity; its physiological dimensions; its unthinking, unreflexive, automatic qualities; its capacity to eliminate all vestiges of rational agency and personality; its antiindividualist tendencies--one can deduce the type of politics that would give rise to it. Because fear is aroused by intense physical force and excessive violence, despotic governments are designed to unleash that force and violence against hapless victims. Concentrated power is crucial. Separated power not only diminishes the amount of power a despot can wield but also helps the despot's victims resist (Cohler 1988, 40; Keohane 1980, 401-2; Richter 1973, 9; Shldar 1987, 85-6). Despotic power must not be constrained by any rule or law. It must be arbitrary because fear is aroused by the sudden, whimsical cruelty of the despot. If the despot's victims were able to adjust their actions to avoid his wrath, they would cultivate those spaces or zones of security that limit fear (Aron 1968, 25; Cohler 1988, 71-5; Keohane 1980, 406; Richter 1995, 338; Young 1978, 401). For the same reason, no moral principle should check the exercise of power. Even concentrated, intense, and cruel power can be made less fearful when it is subject to moral strictures. Thus, despotic power dispenses with all appeals to moral legitimacy. It is founded only on coercion and the fear that coercion arouses (Hulliung 1976, 45; Richter 1977, 47; 1995, 338).

These political sources of despotic fear have a sociological corollary: the absence of organized forms of association within civil society. To maximize its fearsomeness, despotic power seeks to isolate every individual from everyone else. Isolated men and women are powerless. They lack the concerted resources of a community to help them resist despotic power and thereby overcome paralyzing fear (Aron 1968, 25-6; Richter 1973, 9; Young 1978, 402). Despotism destroys nonstate institutions and social classes because their mere existence poses a challenge. In other words, despotism seeks to eliminate not only organized political forms of opposition but also all forms of social cohesion, even when they present no formal challenge to its authority.
Of special concern are the influential classes-in Montesquieu's day, the aristocratic elites whose authority had been curtailed by Louis XIV. Regardless of the views of these elites, regardless of whether they see themselves as adjutants or opponents of centralized power, their mere existence is threatening. Despotic power inevitably aligns itself against the upper classes, leveling society, eliminating textured social formations so that it can apply its power with lethal effect anywhere and everywhere. Sociological complexity and pluralism are thus the inherent enemies of despotism (Althusser 1972, 69-79; Berlin 1980, 155-8; Berman 1970, 10-1; Keohane 1980, 398, 407; Neumann 1957, 111-2; Wolin 1989, 108-9). At its core, despotism thrives on cultural primitivism and social simplicity; the "unplotted conspiracy of differences" gives way to ignorance, barbarism, and homogeneity (Wolin 1989, 107; also see Boesche 1990, 743-9; Hulliung 1975, 39-40; Richter 1973, 9; 1995, 338; Shackleton 1961, 270).

This scholarly account of Montesquieu's theory of despotic fear has been influential for two reasons. First, as I shall explain later, it has been adopted and adapted by many political theorists as a coherent analysis of fear in its own right. Influenced by their own preoccupations with the various tyrannical regimes that have disfigured the twentieth century, many theorists have found in Montesquieu a valued source of reflection and citation. Second, his texts, particularly The Spirit of the Laws, provide much evidence for such interpretations.

Montesquieu formulated his theory of despotic fear with the avowed polemical purpose of rousing elite opinion in France against creeping royal absolutism. If he could depict a form of fear so absolute that it destroyed all that was good and valued, then he might establish an indisputable moral rationale against those features of French rule that smacked of despotism: political centralization, arbitrary power, and the destruction of traditional privileges. Montesquieu's account was thus meant as a contribution to a tradition of constitutional rhetoric, a rhetoric of defense--sometimes aristocratic, sometimes liberal--against encroaching royal power (Aron 1968, 26; Keohane 1980, 403, 407; Koebner 1951, 293-302; Neumann 1957, 111-2; Ranum 1969, 609-12, 617-22; Richter 1973, 7-9; 1977, 31-2, 45-6; 1995, 334-7; Shackleton 1961, 15-7, 202, 226-8; 1988, 239; Shklar 1987,2-5, 18-9, 69, 74-5, 79-81, 85; Venturi 1963, 134-6; Young 1978, 404-5; for a contrary view, see Hulliung 1976).

This conviction was reflected in Montesquieu's writing and activity throughout his adult life. It did not flag with time, and it found its fullest expression in The Spirit of the Laws (Shklar 1987, 67-9). But there was a cost to his boldness: In Montesquieu's late masterpiece, polemic occasionally managed to eclipse analysis. In his desire to launch a full-scale broadside against French absolutism, Montesquieu sometimes lost sight of his more subtle and often more piercing insights about despotism. He overstated his case about fear's self-sustaining and all-encompassing dimensions, a failing instantly noted by his critics. Inspired by his own and equally polemical support for enlightened absolutism, Voltaire remarked that Montesquieu "satirizes more than he judges." He "makes us wish that so noble a mind had tried to instruct rather than shock" (Voltaire [1764] 1962, 508). Montesquieu's most dramatic account of despotic fear did not reflect Montesquieu at his most searching or probing but, rather, the libera l imagination at its most politically engaged and morally aroused. It is no accident, then, that scholars have seized on this portrait of despotic fear in The Spirit of the Laws. It has a tremendous rhetorical force, but a force that can obscure as much as it reveals.

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I challenge this traditional account of Montesquieu's theory through a close reading of his The Persian Letters, published more than twenty-five years before The Spirit of the Laws. Among Montesquieu scholars there is an overwhelming consensus that the earlier work prefigures the later, particularly in its analysis of despotic fear (Boesche 1990, 742; Hulliung 1976, 138; Kra 1963, 11; Neumann 1957, 102; Richter 1973, 9; 1977, 45; Shackleton 1961, 45; Shklar 1987, 67; Todorov 1993, 353). To some degree, that consensus is justified. As I have suggested, Montesquieu had a lifelong concern about the effects of despotic fear. The Spirit of the Laws was a more mature, more radical, more comprehensive indictment of a phenomenon he had been decrying since the beginning of his writing life. The same intention--to construct a portrait of despotism in the East in order to cut short its career in the West--animated both The Persian Letters and The Spirit of the Laws.

If one reads the earlier work carefully, however, one can piece together a different account of despotic fear from that discussed in the previous section. In The Persian Letters, we discover a fear that works most effectively when it is wielded by multiple political actors and elites, each inspired by different considerations and motivations and even conflicting interests. We find a regime structured on a comprehensive system of moral education, rational calculations of self-interest, overweening personal ambition, and fairly traditional ideas of virtue, duty, law, and morality. The victims of despotic fear are not incapable of familial love and affection. In fact, affection and mutual commitment finance the transactions of the despotic economy. In depicting these various elements of despotism, Montesquieu manages to capture in brilliant detail the intricate social universe of the Versailles court, with all its hierarchy and flattery, its conniving ambition, and its penchant for absolute submission.

To be sure, the distinctions between the two works should not be overstated. Similar evidence can also be found in The Spirit of the Laws. For instance, in the later work, Montesquieu occasionally suggests that despotic fear does not entirely destroy rational calculations and all forms of reason. The victims of despotism, after all, can build houses that last at least a lifetime (Montesquieu [1748] 1988, V.14.61). They are savvy enough to keep silent in the presence of the despot (V.14.60). What Montesquieu seems to be pointing to here is a limited kind of rationality that undergirds despotism. Responding to short-term needs, the victims of despotism act rationally by adjusting their actions to secure the immediate goal of survival. But their quick-fix mentality leads them to reproduce the conditions that keep them in perpetual thrall. They cannot see how their actions, designed to respond to short-term needs, undercut their long-term interests: "When the savages of Louisiana want fruit, they cut down the tr ee and gather the fruit. There you have despotic government" (V.13.59). Silence may buy protection in the short term, but it sustains the despot's power, which threatens survival over the long term. The victims of fear are not without reason. They merely cannot escape the conundrums of a limited instrumental rationality.
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These bits of evidence can be found in The Spirit of the Laws, but they are often eclipsed by more dramatic portraits of total terror. Fear is held to be so omnipresent in despotism that "there is neither honor nor virtue" (V.17.67). "How could honor endure the despot" (III.8.27)? Fear makes it impossible for individuals to experience other sensations or thoughts beside fear. The fearful cannot love, desire, or hope. One cannot appeal to their sense of loyalty or their commitments to others because "it is useless to counter with natural feelings, respect for a father, tenderness for one's children and women, laws of honor, or the state of one's health" (III.10.29). Fear strips a person of all worldliness. To instill fear in someone, "one must take everything away" (IV.3.35). "In despotic countries one is so unhappy that one fears death more than one cherishes life" (VI.9.82). A person's fear of death, in other words, has little or nothing to do with the things that make life worth living. Fear has been disco nnected from those ends or purposes that make one's life one's own. Fear no longer stands in any proximity to the constituent elements of the self. It annihilates the self. To understand fear--both at the individual level and in a larger society--we need not understand the familiar passions of human nature or the normal rules of politics but, rather, what happens when those rules and passions disappear. In describing Montesquieu's theory of fear, scholars have resorted to such phrases as "void," "desert," "subpolitical," the "social equivalent of death" (Althusser 1972, 79; Aron 1968, 21; Shklar 1987, 85)--metaphors that reflect, almost unselfconsciously, a certain tendency in Montesquieu's own thinking about fear. Montesquieu himself uses the word "monstrous" to describe despotic regimes (III.9.28), an allusion both to the cruelty of despotism and to the notion that fear belongs to a world entirely different from our own.

In The Persian Letters there is a more discerning and subtle account of despotic fear, an account that allows for a fuller range of emotions, sympathies, and distributions of power than Montesquieu's later account suggests. One reason for this distinction between the two works may be attributed, as I have argued, to Montesquieu's increasing confidence and radicalism in his mature indictment of royal absolutism. Less constrained in his vision and imagination, Montesquieu was able to give voice in The Spirit of the Laws to his most blistering antipathies and far-reaching aspirations. But as those antipathies came into their own, they assumed a more aggressive, and occasionally more tendentious, shape. We must turn to the earlier work if we are to discover a less polemical and more discerning account of fear.

The Persian Letters is the story of Usbek and Rhedi, two Persian gentlemen who leave their homes and families to travel to France in search of knowledge. In their travels, they encounter many novel ideas and practices, and in a series of letters they recount these pieces of exotica to each other and to their Persian friends. Usbek has a harem of wives and eunuchs back in Persia, and a chief subtext of the novel is the parallel between his tyranny at home and the tyranny he finds abroad. The harem is not a full-blown regime of the sort that Montesquieu describes in The Spirit of the Laws, but it offers a portrait in miniature of the micropolitics of despotism. Through the literary conceit of the harem, Montesquieu provides a concrete and vivid account of the underlying structures and passions of despotic fear.
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The first challenge that The Persian Letters poses to our standard interpretations of despotic fear concerns the figure of the despot himself. For many scholars, the despot is a simple creature of desire with a solipsistic temperament and an insatiable thirst for violence or instant gratification (Althusser 1972, 82; Behdad 1989; Boesche 1990, 749; Cohler 1988, 71-2; Shklar 1987, 83-5). In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu provides much evidence for such interpretations. The despot rules, he writes, "without law" because restrictions of any sort would prevent him from fulfilling his whims and from acting capriciously and arbitrarily (II.1.10).

Usbek, however, is a gentleman and a scholar. He is by turns an intellectual seeking wisdom and truth, a charming husband surrounded by loving wives, a faithful friend, and a teacher admired and respected by his students. He also happens to be a purveyor of fear. One moment he is speculating about the foundations of international law, the next he is ordering his servants to terrorize his wives. He aspires to a pluralist vision of the universe, claiming that no one set of principles is objectively superior to another, but at the same time he forces his wives to accept a regime of moral purity. He speaks with the measured tones of a moderate skeptic but acts with the conviction of a fanatic. He is a humanitarian and a rapist, a rationalist and a terrorist.

In explaining his decision to leave Persia, Usbek writes: "Rica and I are perhaps the first among the Persians who have been moved by a desire for knowledge to leave their country and to give up the savors of a peaceful life that they might go seek wisdom the hard way" (Montesquieu [1721] 1961, letter 1, 47). Usbek is an intellectual. He seeks wisdom, and he willingly disrupts the routines and comforts of his life to get it. He is committed to the strenuous search for truth, not the easy contemplation of ideals. He is convinced that one finds truth only by transcending the limits of one's own parochial world. "We were born in a flourishing kingdom," he says about himself and Rica, "but we did not believe that its borders should be those of our knowledge nor that Oriental insight alone should enlighten us" (letter 1, 47). He is a prototypical representative of one strand of the Enlightenment-not a Condorcet or Helvetius (i.e., a rationalist who submits to the seventies of reason) but a chastened skeptic, awar e of the world's multiplicities and diversities and impatient with monistic models of the truth (Shklar 1987, 26-7, 30).

Usbek is also a moralist. Like all moralists, he finds his virtue tested by the demands of politics. He explains that early in his life he took part in the affairs of state and struggled valiantly to hold onto his principles. He sought to expose lies, counter flattery and vice, and speak truth to power. At the royal court, he "spoke there a hitherto unknown language" (letter 8, 54) but gained more enemies than converts. Like so many moralists who founder on the rocks of compromise and expedience, Usbek beat a hasty retreat from politics. He retired to a country home, turned to his hooks, and set up shop as a gentleman scholar (letter 8, 54). He does not, however, live in isolation. He retains a circle of friends and colleagues, learned men who argue about politics and morality. He is the presiding eminence of this circle, respected for his rare wisdom. He teaches a modified Aristotelianism, arguing that men are by nature virtuous, that they find their utmost happiness in leading a virtuous life (letter 10, 5 8). Despite his exemplary virtue, Usbek is ill at ease in the world of religion. He is too much a doubter, too much a skeptic, to be a believer. His religious commitments are challenged by a scientific bent and a quasi-Lockean epistemology.

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Usbek stands for everything that, according to received wisdom, is opposed to despotic practice. He is wise, learned, lawful, and moral. Moreover, he is not dogmatic. He displays an openness, a willingness to engage with the strange and new, and he has a facility for understanding and penetrating beneath the surface. He delights in the diversity of modern life, and he scorns Rhedi's primitivism and obsession with Spartan virtue. In a fascinating exchange of letters, Usbek and Rhedi anticipate the debate Rousseau would later inspire with his First Discourse. Rhedi tells Usbek that progress and civilization have meant only that science has produced more deadly forms of warfare and that artistic excellence has corrupted popular morals. A return to Spartan virtue would serve society better than would continuing cultural progress. Usbek issues a powerful rejoinder on behalf of the Enlightenment: "Have you ever reflected upon the unhappy and savage condition into which the loss of the arts would drag us?" Instead of bemoaning scientific progress, says Usbek, Rhedi should be advocating international arms control and treaties. Gunpowder and modern weaponry have made military battles "much less bloody than they were before, because there is practically no direct engagement now." He challenges Rhedi's association of cultural simplicity with physical fortitude. The Greeks, after all, "conquered and subjugated [the Persians] so many times" but nonetheless "cultivated the arts with infinitely more care than [the Persians]." Usbek praises dynamic, open societies, in which commerce and culture promote a more humane existence. He condemns Persian slavery because it promotes "an eternal lethargy." Against this crippling society, he envisions a society of "abundance and industry" (letter 17, 68-9; letters 105-6, 195-9; letter 115, 210-2).

Despite his openness and embrace of cultural diversity and pluralism, Usbek is very much a despot. He castrates men so that they will serve him more faithfully. At the slightest sign of disobedience or challenge from his wives, he orders the eunuchs to punish them harshly. He will not tolerate disagreement, and he does everything he can to ensure that his universe is ordered in accordance with his principles. How is it possible that this learned, skeptical individual could preside over such a regime of fear?

Usbek's capacity for compartmentalizing his life into separate spheres--the brilliant intellectual, the political moralist, the vicious husband--is one key to his despotism. He does not demand the absolute reconciliation of opposing principles. Unlike the stereotypical rationalists of the Enlightenment, Usbek tolerates contradictions and accepts the inherent plurality of disparate worlds. But it is precisely this genial tolerance of other cultures that facilitates his exercise of violence at home and his speculation about peace abroad. He can dominate his wives and advocate tolerance because the harem demands a different cultural logic than does the Persian court. In other words, it is precisely his ideas about cultural pluralism that enable him to rise above mere hypocrisy or self-delusion, which is how some scholars have interpreted his behavior (Hulliung 1976, 123; Shklar 1987, 31, 34; Todorov 1993, 355-6). He can be both intellectual and despot because he divides the world into distinct spheres with part icular rules and practices. He tolerates ambiguity and incoherence, the very values that Montesquieu and his adherents claim are antithetical to despotism (Berlin 1980; Shldar 1987; 1989; Wolin 1989).
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Montesquieu's followers often argue that despotisms thrive in the absence of the rule of law and that they dispense with the need for moral justifications. Law and morality only hamper the workings of absolute power. Montesquieu makes just these claims in The Spirit of the Laws (II.1.10; II.4-5.17-20; III.8-10.26- 30; V.10-16.56-66). What is most striking about the harem, however, is its obsession with morality and lawfulness. The harem is nothing but rules and endless homilies about upholding the rules. In the set of instructions that Usbek leaves to his chief eunuch, he claims that the eunuch must preside over a strenuous moral regime based on law. "Your tireless attentions uphold virtue when it vacillates." The eunuch is the "scourge of evil and the pillar of fidelity." He is charged with ensuring that the wives "carry out the laws of the harem." Not only is he responsible for maintaining strict, clear laws, but also he must use his power to uphold them. "You command as a master like myself," Usbek tells the eunuch, "whenever you fear a weakening of the laws of decency and modesty" (letter 2, 47-8). Far from promoting arbitrary violence, Usbek ordains strict rules and conditions for the exercise of violence. Punishments are severe, to be sure, but they are meted out under precise circumstances and with exquisite care. The eunuch must use his power only in response to a specific transgression. He is not to act out of whimsy or passion.

At one point during his travels, Usbek finds out that Zachi, one of his most beloved wives, has allowed a white eunuch into her room, which is one of the cardinal crimes of the harem. Black eunuchs are allowed to enter the rooms of the wives, but white eunuchs are not. [2] When Usbek hears of Zachi's transgression, he immediately writes her: "You have offended me, Zachi, and I feel in my heart emotions that should cause you to tremble if my remoteness did not allow you the time to change your conduct and calm the violent jealousy that torments me (letter 20, 72). He asks: "How can you have forgotten yourself to the point of not realizing that you are not permitted to receive a white eunuch in your room when you have black ones provided to attend on you?" Were she to argue that the white eunuchs were not real men and therefore could not excite her, he would not be convinced, because her actions violate both "the laws of the seraglio" and his "honor." Should she respond that she has never broken previous rules , he would not be impressed. Guarded by the eunuchs twenty-four hours a day, she never had the chance not to be virtuous. She has affected "a virtue that is not free" (letter 20, 73).

As an instrument of fear, this letter is a revealing document. It shows that although Usbek is impassioned and angry, he does not lose his capacity for reason. If anything, the letter is a triumph of Thomistic logic, formulating postulates, posing questions, offering answers. With its prosecutorial back-and-forth, Usbek's letter suggests a despot quite different from our conventional accounts of the voluptuous, pleasure-seeking prince. At various points in the letter, Usbek shows calculated restraint, indicating that he is willing to give Zachi another chance. He holds out the threat of punishment and the possibility for mercy as a means of making her frightened enough to do what he wants but hopeful enough not to forsake the regime. If Zachi were to decide that Usbek would kill her no matter what she did, then she might conclude that open revolt was a more reasonable path to her own preservation.
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Usbek also attempts to create fear in Zachi through a denunciatory moralism. He repeatedly comes back to Zachi's betrayal of him, her flouting of the law, her false virtue. These expressions of moral outrage and invocations of the law are not hypocritical or self-serving. They convey Usbek's sincere conviction that Zachi has transgressed against an entire moral order that will now come crashing down upon her. He claims that her fellow wives view the harem as "a happy shelter against the attacks of vice, a sacred temple where your sex loses its weakness and becomes invincible despite all the disadvantages of its nature" (letter 20, 73). The harem is an oasis of morality and purity that has protected Zachi and her friends. She is thus implicated in the comforts of this order. She should value its protections and the safety it provides against far more dangerous predators. By challenging it, she not only has threatened Usbek and morality in general but also has betrayed herself, threatening the things most dear to her. Usbek writes:

What would you do if, left to yourself, you had for sole defense your love for me (which you have so grievously offended) and your duty (which you have so shamelessly betrayed)? How holy are the customs of the country where you live that you should be snatched from the attacks of the lowest slaves! You ought to thank me for the discomfort in which I make you live, for it is only because of it that you deserve to go on living (letter 20, 73-4).

Usbek appeals to Zachi's guilty conscience, which suggests that, at least for the despot, invoking moral strictures and moral values can work hand in hand with fear. Morality only serves as a tool of discipline to the extent that all parties in the despotism believe in it. That is why Usbek invokes it so often.


One obstacle Montesquieu faces in explaining regimes of terror is how to account for the fact that a single individual is able to terrorize so many. If these other individuals were to join together, they would have far more collective power at their disposal and could easily defeat the despot. The despot, like all agents of domination, must have allies and arms. Montesquieu's solution in The Spirit of the Laws is the "vizir." The despot seeks to fulfill his desires, but to ensure that his power is maintained while he is gratifying himself, he entrusts the means of violence to the vizir. The vizir works with a small circle of subvizirs, each of whom is dedicated to maintaining fear throughout the regime. It is not clear why these vizirs are afraid of the despot. Montesquieu suggests that they are psychologically impoverished characters. They are weak and culturally primitive, which might explain their subjugation to the despot even though they control more weaponry and command more physical force than he does. At a minimum, they cannot have either courage or ambition (the hallmarks of true monarchies), for that might induce them to subvert his authority.
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The prince's immense power passes intact to those to whom he entrusts it. People capable of much self-esteem would be in a position to cause revolutions. Therefore, fear must beat down everyone's courage and extinguish even the slightest feeling of ambition (Montesquieu [1742] 1988, 111.9.28).

And many scholars of Montesquieu have reiterated this claim (Althusser 1972, 70-4; Cohler 1988, 40, 71-2; Hulliung 1976, 39-40; Keohane 1980, 411).

The harem provides a fascinating counterpoint to these received views. Usbek relies upon his own vizirs, the eunuchs, to control his wives. But since he has entrusted them with total power over his wives, he must ensure that they remain afraid of him. Usbek must never allow the eunuchs to discover their own power, and he must never provide them enough incentives to attempt to overcome their fear. Contrary to those who claim that the only way Usbek can keep the eunuchs in check is to exercise force against them (Cohler 1988, 72), Montesquieu reveals two key weapons: first, the authority of the older, more senior eunuchs; second, the ambition of the younger eunuchs. By carefully manipulating a hierarchical world of advancement and promotion, Usbek is able to keep the eunuchs in line.

These paired realities--the mentorship of the senior eunuchs and the ambition of the younger eunuchs--suggest that despotic terror does not arise outside the normal structure of a society but instead depends upon it. It is precisely the connections among people, particularly those connections premised upon unequal power and resources, that undergird fear. The older eunuchs have authority over the younger because of their experience and power, and the younger are willing to collaborate with the older ones because they see in their seniors a means of advancing their own interests and ambitions.

One of Usbek's senior eunuchs confesses that his life has entailed nothing but unmitigated fear. "I sigh, overwhelmed as I am by the weight of fifty years of cares and anxieties. In the course of a long life I can say that I have had not one peaceful day nor any tranquil moment" (letter 9, 55). The eunuch appears to embody the traditional understanding of despotic fear. He lives in a state of constant anxiety and insecurity, never sure what might happen to him, always dreading the worst. His personal history, however, discloses a different face of fear. When he was a young slave, he was asked by Usbek to become a eunuch so that he could assume responsibility over the harem wives. In taking the job, the eunuch made several calculations. First, Usbek threatened him, claiming that he would face severe punishment if he did not agree to be castrated. Second, he was tired of being a slave. The work was difficult and wearying, and he wanted a change. Third, he was ambitious and hoped to work his way up to a higher position. "I planned," he says, "to sacrifice my passions to tranquility and fortune" (letter 9, 55).

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The desire for a promotion undergirded the eunuch's fear in several ways. It enabled him to accommodate his fear, to accede to its dictates because he believed he might gain something by doing so. But it also exacerbated his fear by suggesting to him not only that he would face unbearable pain and suffering if he resisted but also that he might miss out on a promising opportunity. We do not know what he would have decided had he been content with his own position. Perhaps the threats would have been enough. Yet, the mere fact that Usbek felt compelled to tempt him with possibilities, to remind him of how miserable his situation was, suggests that threats alone cannot create fear. Some additional desire is necessary to sustain fear. The promise of advancement made the capitulation to fear a sensible proposition. In fact, the eunuch admits that when he decided to be castrated he could "see the recompense but not the loss" (letter 9, 55). Utility maximization is thus crucial to the structure of fear among the e unuchs (see also letter 64, 134-7; appendix 2, 285-8). Fear takes hold of the individual not by destroying his aspirations but by stoking and manipulating them. It thrives on the highly idiosyncratic ambitions of each person.

The pursuit of ambition, however, is not an idea that occurs naturally among the slaves and eunuchs. They must learn it. Education thus turns out to be a central institution in despotism, but it is neither the education described by Montesquieu scholars (Richter 1973, 9) nor the despotic education described by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws: "Education" in a despotism "is, in a way, null there." Because "education must bring about servility," the despot should only teach "the spirit of a few very simple religious principles." Genuine "knowledge will be dangerous" (IV.3.34-5). In The Persian Letters, education does not make the eunuchs ignorant or downtrodden. It stokes their ambition and encourages them to think about the promise of power and status. It prescribes self-mutilation as a smart career move. One slave, Pharan, tries to resist castration. Like many of the younger men, he does not want to give up his "humanity"--no matter how tempting the career prospects (letter 42, 101). His mentors attemp t to teach him otherwise. The first black eunuch writes to Usbek that he is attempting to persuade Pharan to "allow himself to be consecrated to that office" because the eunuch believes it would "be to [Pharan'sj advantage" (letter 41, 100). The senior eunuchs teach their pupils that it is irrational to resist castration because they will reap untold benefits if they join the harem's managerial rank.

The senior eunuchs also assuage and soften the younger eunuchs' violent emotional reactions, which get in the way of rational calculation. When the younger eunuchs feel sadness or anger, the older ones soothe them. The first eunuch writes to Jaron, one of the younger black eunuchs, that he saw Jaron's "childhood advance with pleasure." The older eunuch was Jaron's mentor, advising him and helping him navigate the dangerous shoals of the harem. When the time came for "the blade" to separate "forever" Jaron from his "nature," the older eunuch was on hand both to soothe and to cut. "I quieted your tears and your outcries." He loved Jaron as a father loves a son. By playing this ostensibly humanitarian role, he inducted him into the despotic regime. Tenderness was used to temper Jaron's anger and sadness, making his life more normal and bearable and making him less of a threat to the regime. Kindness sustained fear by calming emotion and enabling the younger eunuchs to remember what they gain by castration. "I t hought of you," the first eunuch writes to Jaron, "as having a second birth and taking leave of a servitude in which you always had to obey, to enter another kind of servitude, where you were to command" (letter 15, 67).

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By reminding the eunuchs of what their capitulation to fear has earned them, and by tranquilizing their anger and resentment, these older eunuchs reveal the extent to which fear depends upon concentric circles of elites spread throughout society. Without the older eunuchs, Usbek could not wield power because he could not attend to all the unhappiness that his regime creates. The older eunuchs play a pacifying role for a variety of reasons. They have a genuine love and affection for their younger brethren. They hope to cushion their pain and diminish their anguish. They also have their own self-interest at stake. They have attained positions of power, status, and responsibility. Should the younger eunuchs get too angry or grow disruptive, the older ones might lose control of the harem--and the power and prestige that go with that control. Despotic fear is thus sustained by the eunuchs, who act in part for reasons that have little to do with their fear of Usbek. In many interpretations of despotic fear, victim s and victimizers share the same motivation--a simple fear of violence--and they act for no other reason than that fear (Todorov 1993, 362). In this case, however, not only are the eunuchs capable of diverse motivations--including their own self-interest, a genuine compassion for the younger eunuchs, and a pride in their work--but also it is precisely the range and extent of their motivations that enable the despotism to survive.


After Usbek and the eunuchs, there are the wives. If anyone should display the characteristics scholars often attribute to fear--paralyzed will, crippled rationality, total loss of self--it should be the harem women. In fact, the wives maintain a high degree of independence and selfhood, and they also have their own particular concerns and motivations, which serve as props to the harem's stability and survival. The wives launch tiny rebellions and commit small acts of disobedience. One eunuch discovers that a wife, Zephis, has had an affair with a slave girl, Zelid. When she is found out, Zephis craftily drafts a letter to Usbek, protesting her innocence and appealing to his mercy. She paints herself as the unwitting victim of the eunuch's jealously and nastiness, thereby undermining his reputation in the eyes of Usbek and advancing her own (letter 4, 50). Other wives also have affairs and strategically break the rules of the harem, taking every opportunity to fulfill their own desires. Far from beaten down, they are resourceful and strategic about their cooperation and submission. This is not to say they are not frightened. They are frightened enough to avoid overt challenge to Usbek's authority. But short of that, they do what they can to construct a life for themselves.

One resource at their disposal is their ability to make the lives of the eunuchs miserable. They make incessant demands and send the eunuchs scurrying at all hours of the night for some desired pleasure. The wives use this power strategically. In return for not harassing the eunuchs, they receive special privileges (letter 9, 55-8). They also use Usbek's sexual desire as a weapon for their own advancement. If the eunuchs too zealously pursue the wives' transgressions, the women tempt Usbek to bed and, at the moment of his greatest pleasure, extract his promise to punish the eunuchs. One eunuch observes: "I have everything to fear from their tears, from their sighs, from their embraces, from their very pleasure.... Their charms can become terrible for me." His fear rests upon these rational transactions between Usbek and the wives--a pardon in exchange for pleasure--and he laments that the wives' "present services" to Usbek "wipe out in one moment all my services of the past." The eunuch concludes that his ow n fear is heightened by the "amorous negotiation" of the wives and their ability to craft a "treaty made with sighs" (letter 9, 57-8). With all their overtones of bargaining, exchange, and contract, these metaphors suggest that despotic terror rests more on a certain kind of economy of fear--discrete interests and goals are fulfilled through a trade of services--than on the total loss of self that we encounter in much of the secondary literature.

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Even when the wives seem the most degraded, the most stripped of their humanity, they reveal a desire for self-promotion that calls into question some of the rhetoric found in The Spirit of the Laws and among many Montesquieu scholars. Zachi reminds Usbek of a beauty contest he once conducted among his wives. Each was forced to strip in front of him, decorating her body with makeup, jewelry, and exotic accessories. Usbek examined each of them meticulously. His "curious regard" was "extended" to their "most secret spots." He had them "assume a thousand different positions--ever a new command and ever a new submission." In the history of political philosophy, it would be difficult to find a more painfully exacting portrait of personal degradation. The beauty contest seems the perfect metaphor for the stripping down of self that has come to be emblematic of despotism. Nonetheless, Zachi confesses that at this moment of submission, she longed for victory, for that would bring her greater status in the harem. If anointed the most beautiful, she would become the "mistress of [Usbek's] heart." Not unlike the eunuchs, she accepts domination in order to stand above others. She was not weighed down by the strain of total humiliation. Instead, she envisioned a trajectory of personal advancement (letter 3, 49).

Although self-serving, Zachi's ambition--and that of the other wives--has a cost: It keeps Usbek in power. These ambitions for success can only be satisfied if Usbek remains at the top of the hierarchy and then chooses one of the wives as his favorite. Being afraid, being submissive, and keeping an eye on one's personal prospects thus fit together perfectly. Their congruence reveals how fear is structured by and reinforces a limited, short-term rationality, one more focused on personal advancement than collective emancipation.

As in the case of the eunuchs, however, the wives do not automatically subscribe to this short-term rationality. They, too, must develop an elaborate network of authority among themselves in order to teach the younger wives the harem rules. Zelis, for example, writes Usbek that she has decided to enroll her daughter into the harem at the early age of seven. She does not want to wait until the child is ten, the standard age of introduction. Allowing her to run freely for a few more years would only make the girl love the freedom of youth rather than cherish the "holy education within the sacred walls." Thrust into the harem at the usual age, the girl might experience its strictures as a kind of violence. Zelis wishes to coax rather than plunge her daughter into the harem's treacherous seas. Zelis believes in Aristotelian education. The girl should learn slowly the practice of docility so that submission will acquire the "gentle effect of habit." Submission is not natural. It must be learned, and rebelliousnes s must be unlearned: "In vain do they talk to us of the subordinate position in which Nature has placed us. It is not enough to make us feel that. We must practice our role of subordinate so that it may hold us firm through the critical period when passions begin to appear and encourage us toward independence" (letter 62, 132-3).

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We have come to think that familial love does not survive despotic fear, but it does. In fact, it can even sustain fear. Zelis is inspired by a deep love for her daughter. Her desire for her daughter's happiness and well-being leads her to try to indoctrinate the child so thoroughly that she will never challenge Usbek; she will come to accept a regime of fear not as an alien imposition but as part of the manners and mores of her culture. In this case, fear does not depend on violence or vicious acts of cruelty. It is stoked by the love of a mother for her child and by the mother's education of her child. The very humanness of this connection helps reproduce the despotic order. Far from proving that despotism relies upon an entirely different universe of feeling and desire, The Persian Letters shows how ordinary emotions--even love and compassion--can bolster the most terrible regimes of fear.

Contrary to some of the more partisan claims in The Spirit of the Laws, and contrary to the almost universal consensus among Montesquieu scholars, The Persian Letters gives the following account of despotic fear. First, fear is not antithetical to reason. It thrives on an instrumental, cost-benefit analysis, whereby the victims and purveyors of fear calculate what is lost and gained from defying or cooperating with threatening power. Fear does not just coexist with this kind of rationality. It is structured by this rationality: The eunuchs, for example, fear that if they do not accept castration they will miss a promising opportunity. Rationality lends a kind of moral legitimacy to capitulating to fear. Acting out of fear seems less dishonorable when it promises to secure a desired good.

As the calculations of both the wives and eunuchs demonstrate, however, this rationality is limited. It prevents men and women from achieving their long-term, higher-order interests. No one would claim that either the eunuchs or wives are well served by the despotic apparatus they help sustain. Moreover, given that Usbek is absent from home for a good part of the novel, the cooperation of the eunuchs and wives seems particularly irrational. They could easily decide as a group--without any threat from Usbek--that fulfilling their master's commands is not in their interests and that liberation is. But that would require them to see beyond the immediate goods they receive from cooperating, that is, the goods of survival, power, promotion, and position. Their fearful reasoning, then, follows a kind of truncated rationality. Fear is not opposed to rationality; it merely rests upon an incomplete rationality.

Second, implicit in this first point is that fear is intimately connected to the broad range of sympathies, desires, and aspirations that motivate ordinary men and women. The fearful do not lack virtue, honor, ambition, love, loyalty, or any of the other characteristics that make us human. They are fearful precisely because they are human, because they do have ambitions and loyalties, because they do love and have some semblance of honor. Zelis's attempts to indoctrinate her daughter so that she will not suffer from a violent induction into the harem is inspired by a perfectly honorable and virtuous parental impulse--to protect her child from harm. The outsider, of course, can see what the consequences are. But from Zelis's perspective, her attempts are neither craven nor disreputable. They come from a deep reserve of familial connection. One might even say that, given the options, Zelis has made a humanitarian gesture, albeit one with devastating consequences.

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Third, fear is not aroused solely by the cruelty or excessive violence of the despot. Kindness and well-meaning compassion, in fact, can be fear's most terrible adjutants. In Zelis's case, we see that fear will be generated in the child by a mother who has all the best intentions in the world. Like all good parents, Zelis will probably attempt to transmit hard-won lessons of life to her daughter, and these lessons will be framed as coping methods for the little girl to advance herself in the world. The senior eunuchs are likewise inspired, in part, by a desire for their younger colleagues to avoid some of the pain and suffering they themselves experienced. These small acts of kindness, however, only deliver everyone into Usbek's grip. The terrible irony of Montesquieu's novel is that, pace contemporary followers of Montesquieu (Shklar 1984, 1987, 1989), fear does not depend on cruelty. Fear is not solely the product of violence or actions explicitly designed to inspire fear. It just as easily follows from a humanitarian concern to lessen the suffering of one's own.

Fourth, despotic power need not be arbitrary, concentrated, and centralized, and it need not be unregulated by the rule of law or moral strictures. Usbek is cruel. His punishments can be excessive. But they do not just fall upon anyone. They are targeted at those who transgress against the harem. In that regard at least, despotic power is fairly predictable. The eunuchs understand that they can only inflict pain on those who have broken the rules. Individuals who obey the rules avoid punishment. Likewise, Usbek neither monopolizes all power nor delegates it to a small coterie of vizirs. As we have seen, each member of the harem has some kind of power, some resource to deploy against the blandishments of those above them. The wives can manipulate Usbek and the eunuchs. The eunuchs have some power as well against the wives. More important, among the eunuchs and among the wives, there are forms of power and authority that go beyond Usbek's control. The senior eunuchs rule over the junior eunuchs; the wives rule over their daughters. This sharing of power does not diminish the generation and transmission of despotic power. If anything, it is usually used to exacerbate it.

Furthermore, the power that Usbek and the eunuchs do exercise is not entirely freed of moral categories of legitimacy. Usbek, the eunuchs, and even the wives work hard at propagating the virtues of the harem. Power is supposed to be exercised against vice and on behalf of virtue. It is a virtue that we might view as impoverished and debilitating, as false and ultimately destructive of liberal values, but that does not mean power is wielded without any appeal to values and to ethical purposes. What is more, those values and purposes are often framed as principles designed to benefit not just one individual-Usbek-- but everyone. All members of the harem partake of their own particular virtue, and the power that is exercised is designed to enable all to fulfill their particular virtue.

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Finally, the social universe underlying despotic power has all the characteristics of pluralist spheres, separated institutions, multiple associations, and hierarchical elites that we have come to think of as checks against despotic fear. The harem is not a simple arrangement of power whereby a violent individual strides across a wasteland, the flash of his sword illuminating the absence of opposition and social cohesion. Usbek's power rests atop many different kinds of relationships and hierarchies. There is the relationship between Usbek and the senior eunuchs, who in turn have a relationship with their junior eunuchs. The women stand beneath the eunuchs, and among the women there is also the latent hierarchy among the wives and between mothers and daughters. In one regard, then, the harem resembles nothing so much as the pyramidal structure of feudalism, with reciprocal obligations and duties arranged vertically. But the harem is even more complicated: The wives are also in some measure senior to the eunu chs, able to negotiate power and resources through their direct contact with Usbek. The world of the harem, in short, is one in which the avenues of social influence are as crooked and entangled as the streets of eighteenth-century Paris. It is not just that despotic power can thrive amid enormously confusing and complicated social arrangements. Despotic power is transacted entirely through those arrangements, which makes fear the product not of sociological simplicity but of pluralist density and sociological complexity.


For the better part of three centuries, this alternative account of fear is not the one that has captured the attention of Montesquieu's readers. Instead, they have focused on two points: Fear is all-consuming and destructive of selfhood, and it thrives in the absence of civil society and countervailing powers. One reason for this preoccupation has to do with the rhetorical power of Montesquieu himself: The bracing qualities of his vision in The Spirit of the Laws are undeniable. Another reason has to do with his readers. Since the eighteenth century, the traditional account of despotic fear has been used as a political weapon, first by Enlightenment polemicists against the European state, then by social theorists such as Tocqueville against majoritarian democracy, and finally by twentieth-century opponents of totalitarianism (Arendt 1951; Friedrich 1954; Friedrich and Brzezinski 1965; Getty and Manning 1993, 1-18; Tocqueville [1835, 1840] 1969). Because despotic fear has played such a central role in modern political struggles, intellectuals of all stripes have tended to overstate its totalizing dimensions. In the specter of a despotism so horrifying that it destroys all semblance of civilization, theorists and intellectuals have found much ballast for their arguments. There can be no doubt that the shocking imagery of despotic fear has served a useful function. It has rallied men and women of humane sympathy to oppose tyrannies around the world. But this imagery has a price: It has left us with caricature rather than insight.
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When the theory of despotic fear first appeared, intellectuals decried its dehumanizing stereotypes. The most formidable challenge came from Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, who argued that the theory of "Oriental despotism" grew out of inaccurate travel reports about the governments of Turkey, Persia, and India. These accounts, he claimed, overlooked the rule of law, the role of private property, and other elements of sociological and political density that Montesquieu claimed did not exist in despotic regimes. More damningly, Anquetil maintained that, despite the best intentions, Montesquieu so distorted the East that he inadvertently justified European colonial expeditions. An emphasis on the allegedly backward or primitive elements of non-Western societies emboldened Europeans to seize control of them in the name of enlightenment and, later, progress. A theory designed to denounce despotism at home thus provided an excuse, according to Anquetil, for practicing it abroad (Behdad 1989; Richter 1973, 12 -3; 1995; Shackleton 1988, 239; Venturi 1963, 137-9; Young 1978).

In our own time, we can find situations in which a portrait of fear intended to mobilize opposition to tyranny in one place enjoys the dubious irony of defending tyranny in another. Consider the strange career of Hannah Arendt's (1951) acclaimed account of totalitarianism. Although Arendt argued that totalitarian terror was of a radically different order than the despotic terror envisioned by Montesquieu, her analysis owed more to his description than she admitted. According to Arendt, terror keeps people in such a state of permanent dread that they cannot act in any but the most predictable ways. Its victims are stripped of the capacity for "spontaneous human action." They merely behave, repeating patterns of human motion prescribed in advance by nature or history. Under Stalin, they march as unthinking soldiers in an advancing column of history. Under Hitler, they are the germ-free bearers of a racially cleansed society. In either case, they have forsaken the last vestige of humanity--the ability to defy e xpectations, break patterns, forge new courses. There are no criminals in these regimes because no one is capable of transgression. "Guilt and innocence thus "become senseless notions." Fear cannot even serve the function of self-preservation. It loses "its practical usefulness" because "actions guided by it can no longer help to avoid the dangers man fears" (Arendt 1951, 465-7). As in Montesquieu's account of despotism, the social world of totalitarianism has been pulverized. Classes give way to masses, and individuals now find themselves without the protective contours of a hierarchical society. Limited government, the rule of law, decentralized power--all these checks against despotism are eliminated as the totalitarian state imposes an entirely new order of sentiment and being upon a population of rootless and exposed men and women. Arendt's description of the totalitarian state does feature some departures from Montesquieu, but it nonetheless recapitulates and extends his basic defining elements of despo tism (pp. 311-26, 392-437).
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Like Montesquieu, Arendt was inspired by an astringent moral vision, a vision of opposition to tyranny anywhere and everywhere. But in the hands of her followers, the portrait of total terror came to justify a defense of "traditional" authoritarian regimes on the ground that these are less toxic than totalitarian regimes. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the preeminent theoretician of American foreign policy during the 1980s, drew upon this familiar account of fear to defend American opposition to Marxist governments and support for regimes such as those in Chile, El Salvador, and South Africa. In a widely discussed article, Kirkpatrick (1979) claimed that Somoza's Nicaragua and the shah's Iran were soft tyrannies in which the state tolerated the multiplicity and diversity of traditional society. These autocracies were far less terrifying than Marxist regimes, which destroyed mediating institutions, emptied civil society of traditional elites and traditional values, and installed an all-powerful, all-knowing state. Stand ing in solidarity with friendly despots, then, could serve a humane function: It would help ward off the more lethal terror of communist totalitarianism.

More recently, the idea of total terror has inspired much of the revival in Europe and the United States of the concept of civil society. Contemporary theorists now envision intermediary, nonstate institutions as a counter to the statist tyranny that has disfigured so much of the twentieth century. Some theorists even claim Montesquieu as an intellectual forebear. It remains unclear what the consequences of this most recent incarnation of the idea of total terror will be, but we can see some of the same tropes. The family and other close circles of intimacy are presumed to be destroyed by totalitarianism, as are those spaces of civil society not directly under the control of the state. Therefore, to avoid the totalitarian temptation, we must cultivate them anew. Zones of familial and fraternal feeling must be revived to create space for an alternative logic. The dense spaces of a richly textured civil society will foster an ethic of personal loyalty and commitment; regardless of whether this ethic is politic al, by virtue of not being under the control of the state, it will serve as a counter to tyranny (Cohen and Arato 1992; Elshtain 1995, 38-9, 42-3, 45-52; Gray 1993, 158; Keane 1988; Taylor 1995a, 204-5, 214, 222; 1995b, 185, 211).

But how illuminating is this account of total terror? Is it true that fear destroys the person, that it liquidates the family and other institutions of civil society, that we lose all capacity for reason, emotion, and other defining elements of selfhood? The Persian Letters offers an alternative way of viewing the relationship between fear and the self, the state, and civil society. Many of those elements that we have come to believe are antithetical to fear can be reconciled with it. Some of those elements, in fact, can be crucial to the creation and maintenance of fear. Was this account merely the literary speculation of an eighteenth-century Frenchman? Evidence from one of the most notorious episodes of twentieth-century fear suggests otherwise.

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For Western intellectuals, perhaps no single event of the twentieth century better captures Montesquieu's vision of total terror than the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. In a series of staged public events, Stalin trotted out leaders of the Bolshevik revolution who confessed to fantastic crimes against Lenin, socialism, and the Soviet regime. The repression of political opponents and even show trials were hardly unprecedented, but the willingness of political luminaries to denounce themselves seemed to open a new chapter in the history of terror. The most stunning confession came from Nikolai Bukharin, the principal theoretician of the communist movement and beloved heir to Lenin, who admitted that he was the ringleader of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy. How could an individual of Bukharin's stature, a revolutionary leader hailed throughout the world, confess to such extraordinary crimes? It could only mean that he had lost all sense of self, that he was so engulfed by terror that he no longer cared enough to preserve his own life. Bukharin's willingness to cooperate in his own destruction appeared to signal the unhappy triumph of Montesquieu's vision: Terror was indeed the great nullifier of selfhood. In his famous novel, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler (1941) turned Bukharin's actions into a parable of the relationship between totalitarianism and the eclipse of the individual. Bukharin's cooperation with Stalin also inspired a film by Jean Luc Godard, La Chinoise (Cohen 1980, 372, 473; Conquest 1968, 132-3; Koestler 1941; Tucker and Cohen 1965, xxv-xxvi). Bukharin's self-abasement gave credence to Montesquieu's notion that fear is so consuming that it destroys the self and the self s connection to all those institutions--the family, civic associations, and so on--that might lend sustenance to the struggle for freedom and personal dignity.

As we now know, the reasons behind Bukharin's confession were quite different from those suspected by intellectuals at the time. Before his trial, Bukharin was imprisoned for a year, subjected to brutal methods of interrogation, and repeatedly threatened. Despite the threats against his body and life, he managed to hold out for three months "with remarkable vigor." What finally induced his capitulation was Stalin's threat to kill his wife and son. More than anything else, this led Bukharin to make his public confession. Threats against family members were visited upon countless victims of Stalin and proved to be one of the most effective means of securing cooperation with the regime. Bukharin and many others had no hope of saving themselves, but they did hope to save their loved ones (Cohen 1980, 375; Conquest 1968, 142, 301).

Three elements of Bukharin's decision are worth noting, both for what they reveal about the actual nature of terror and for what they show about the limitations of our conventional analysis. First, Bukharin felt a strong connection to his family. In fact, it was precisely his love for his family that made him afraid enough to cooperate with Stalin. Second, Bukharin made a clear choice based on certain calculations. He believed his confession would lead to a desired good, whereas his refusal would only lead to a feared evil. In order to make this choice, he had to understand the relationship between his actions and a desired result. He had to think of himself as an agent. Finally, Bukharin was inspired by a desire to outlive himself. He hoped that his family would survive to tell his story. He thus had to think about the future--beyond his own lifetime--and he had to have enough self-regard to believe that his name and his story were worth preserving. For that reason, he inserted all sorts of qualifications i nto his public confession, which provide close readers of the trial transcript multiple clues about his innocence, the evil of Stalinism, and his place as Lenin's true heir (Cohen 1980, 376-80; Tucker and Cohen, 1965, xlii-xlviii).

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Despotic terror does not rob us of our capacity for reason, love, or selfhood. It preys upon these capacities to force us to act in ways we do not wish to act. When we love the members of our family, a despotic regime will ask us to choose between their survival and actions we do not wish to undertake. Montesquieu's followers might reply that every despotism has its share of Bukharins, that we always can find some incidental case of honor or familial love amid despotic terror. But, they might continue, these cases are not constitutive of the regime's power. They survive despite the regime.

It seems to me that quite the opposite is true. It was Bukharin's sense of honor and virtue--his desire to protect his family, his name, and the movement he worked to create--that motivated his cooperation with Stalin. If Bukharin had not cared about his family, would he have agreed to a public confession and public humiliation? He might just as well have chosen silence or a private execution. There were individuals who refused to make public confessions, and a number of them had no children (Conquest 1968, 142). Beyond Bukharin himself, it is these connections between human beings and the human capacity to make choices between the lesser of two evils that sustain fear. Particularly under despots such as Stalin who recognize no limits to what they will threaten, these capacities can be crucial to coercing even the most resolute opponents. Were it not for the human capacity to imagine and carry out the most horrifying evils--and were it not for the equally human capacity to choose between those evils--these r egimes might not have such sway.

There is something almost perversely comforting about our conventional vision of terror. It suggests that the victims of fear somehow escape its horror because they are so dehumanized, so divested of civilization, that they cannot register the cruelty being visited upon them. They suffer, but it is only we, the spectators, who grasp the catastrophe. In reality, despotic terror seldom allows its victims the refuge of insanity or the grace of unawareness. It forces rational men and women to be conscious witnesses to and active participants in the carnage that surrounds them. The notion of total and absolute terror is a tribute to our desire to preserve the distinctions between barbarism and civilization, fear and selfhood, terror and reason. But it is also a conceit: The tragedy of Bukharin is not that he lost all sense of self. He might have been spared a great deal of suffering if he had. It is that he was forced to reason about the unreasonable and to choose among the unchooseable. Through these choices, th rough discrete decisions about whether to submit or to defy, despotic terror consolidates and exercises power. Stalin got his confession; Bukharin got his family and his legacy. It was a terrible bargain, a contract of self-destruction. But it was a contract nonetheless, one upon which Stalin built his regime (Cohen 1980, 373-4; Conquest 1968, 145-7).
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Seventeen years ago, Norman Hampson (1983, 3) wrote that The Persian Letters was the "first major work of the French Enlightenment." With its racy Orientalism, sympathetic accounts of homosexuality and incest, and thinly veiled criticism of French political culture, it challenged prevailing ideas about sex, morals, politics, religion, and culture. Almost three centuries later, the novel still emits these dissident sparks of the Enlightenment. It is as subversive as ever, although perhaps not quite in the way Montesquieu intended.

The Persian Letters forces us to rethink our assumption that political fear depends on the state's liquidation of the traditional institutions of civil society and the familiar elements of human nature. Careerism, the system of apprenticeship, and moral rules that teach the virtues of obedience are aspects of despotic rule that depend on a set of hierarchical institutions, and they are manipulated rather than destroyed by the despot. These institutions contain leaders, men and women with authority over others. When these leaders choose to cooperate with the state, they will use their relationships with their followers to instill fear among them and to encourage them to submit to the regime's dictates. These relationships between leaders and followers in civil society are the building blocks of political fear. It is the presence of these institutions and leaders--not their absence--that makes a population so vulnerable to political fear.

The collaboration between the state and civil society need not correspond to our stereotypical image of revolutionary tyranny, of a state that mobilizes civil society and whips it into a frenzy. It many of these regimes, a far more quiet association is at work. Collaboration only requires that the state either threaten something of importance to elites or hold out to them some desired good. When faced with the possibility of attaining or losing a good, these elites will put themselves at the service of the regime. As several recent studies of tyrannical regimes in Eastern Europe and Latin America have shown, collaborators work with the state for a variety of reasons (Remnick 1994; Rosenberg 1991, 1995). They seldom follow a single logic or pursue the same goals. Yet, the very range of human sympathies and diversity of aspirations enable the state to penetrate areas of public and personal life that it might not otherwise be able to regulate. The regime need only be flexible in identifying what matters to spec ific elites in order to compel them to cooperate. Once the regime has mapped out this diverse geography of incentives and desires, it can use its power to develop a relatively cooperative relationship with these elites, who in turn will do what they must to deliver their followers into the regime's grip.

We have come to think that fear has only one face: the face of the despot. Everyone else is a shadow of his personality. His is also a face that has been disfigured beyond recognition. It is certainly not a human face. In painting this picture, Montesquieu deliberately invoked a caricature. His distortion was supposed to jolt readers out of their complacent regard for the torture and violence of the Old Regime, violence that Foucault (1979) would later describe in such memorable detail in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish. Montesquieu sought to portray despotic fear as so monstrous that his contemporaries would no longer accept it as customary, as part of the ordinary course of events. His intentions were wholly legitimate and understandable. If today, however, we are to remain true to the Enlightenment spirit of The Persian Letters, then we must see that regimes of fear depend not only on a despot but also on a web of collaborators, each of whom has individual concerns and aspirations. We must see that there is no one face of fear but many, the faces of tyrants, elites, leaders, and followers. Most important, we must realize just how ordinary, how very human, those faces can be.
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Corey Robin is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College, CUNY, 2900 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11210 ([email protected]).

The author thanks the following individuals for their careful readings of and critical responses to earlier drafts of this article: Bruce Ackerman, Shelley Burtt, Paul Frymer, Greg Grandin, Louisa Lund, Sankar Muthu, Jim Scott, Rogers Smith, Michelle Stephens, Roy Tsao, Keith Whittington, and Brian Young.

(1.) Three recent analysts, for example, title their study of state terror in Latin America Fear at the Edge (Corradi, Fagen, and Garret6n 1992).

(2.) Although black sexuality will later come to symbolize a particularly potent threat in Western racial imagery, in Montesquieu's account, blacks are not as sexually menacing as whites.


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