In Baron de Montesquieu’s philosophical novel The Persian Letters, the narrator is a Persian named Usbek who travels throughout Europe and critiques the French life from the position of a person who is used to living under oriental despotism but who finds elements of despotism in the monarchical France too. Montesquieu considers two types of the government: an oriental despotic state and a European monarchy, opposing them both to a republic as a more progressive form of the organization of society.
On the one hand, Montesquieu suggests that the unjust authority of the French kings who defy their subjects’ interests is even more tyrannical than that of the oriental sultans. While the Persians obey their monarch implicitly, the French are self-conscious about serving their despotic king.
On the other hand, however, monarchy per se has some advantages over a purely despotic state according to Montesquieu. As Usbek notes, people enjoy greater liberties under monarchy, and women are not as much oppressed in Europe as in Persia. Under monarchy, a person’s main motivation is honor, while in a despotic state, a person’s actions are conditioned by fear. Yet, a monarchy can easily degenerate into a despotic state.
A republic has great economic advantages over a despotic state. Montesquieu affirms that public equality contributes to people’s welfare while despotism brings the majority of the population to poverty. Setting milder governments (such as those in Switzerland and in Holland) against those that are headed by despotic monarchs, the author shows that the latter will inevitably suffer a decrease in population:
In countries subject to an arbitrary power it is not the same: the prince, the courtiers, and some private persons, possess all the riches, whilst all the rest groan beneath extreme poverty. If a man is in bad circumstances, and is sensible that his children would be poorer than himself, he will not marry; or if he does marry, he will be afraid of having too great a number of children, who may complete the destruction of his fortune, and sink into the condition of their father (Letter 122).