7 Jun 2024 11:00 - 17:30 Room SG1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge


Quentin Skinner lecture

Given by William Selinger, Quentin Skinner Fellow

Montesquieu was among the most important political thinkers of the eighteenth century. Yet his writings remain enigmatic. Partly this is due to their complex literary character, partly to the number of contexts and sources which were incorporated into them. Montesquieu was interested in understanding the principles of morality and the moral obligations between sovereign and subject. However, an even greater preoccupation was to grasp why human beings acted as they did, and to discover the forces and mechanisms that could direct their actions toward more just and humane ends. This led him to an intensive study of the history and geography of the world. He was in dialogue with Machiavelli, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf—but also with travel-writers, ministers of state, theologians, poets, natural philosophers, social critics, and indeed the whole republic of letters of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This lecture will focus on Montesquieu’s first major work, Persian Letters (1721), which is about the relationship between love and despotism. In it, Montesquieu suggests that despotism is incompatible with love, and that a monarchy grounded on the mutual love of subject and sovereign will break down into sheer Machiavellianism. Montesquieu also shows how the drive to purify love and desire is inherently despotic. In making these arguments, Montesquieu criticized not only prominent justifications of absolute monarchy in seventeenth-century France but also the political-theological ideas of the foremost French critic of absolute monarchy, François Fénelon. Persia served as Montesquieu’s backdrop because of parallels between Persian and French political structures as well as between ideas about pure love in Catholicism and Islam.

This lecture will reveal how Montesquieu’s thought was formed in contexts distant from the current canon of modern political thought. It will also bring out Montesquieu’s doubt that a system of ethics can motivate human action, and thus the rationale that led him to study the concrete history of human action across space and time. In Persian Letters, Montesquieu sketches a system of ethics, one in which love is sharply distinguished from justice. Justice is grounded in reason and motivated by mutual interest; love is a sentiment of good will that can humanize justice. Yet the overall arc of the text reveals that such a system is ineffective at motivating human conduct. It thus foreshadows Montesquieu’s later work, which will be devoted to showing not why despotic politics is “repugnant to morality, reason and justice” but rather “how little utility” rulers and subjects alike draw from it.

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Supported by:





11:00 - 11:30

Registration and refreshments

11:30 - 13:00

Keynote address

‘Love and Despotism in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters
William Selinger (University of Oklahoma)


13:00 - 14:00


14:00 - 15:30

Panel 1: 

‘Montesquieu and the politics of venality’ Daniel Luban (Columbia University)

‘Persuasion and the desire of Dominion in Mandeville and Smith’
Robin Douglass (Kings College London)

Chair: Emma Mackinnon (University of Cambridge)

15:30 - 16:00

Tea and coffee break

16:00 - 17:30

Panel 2:

‘Barbarism, religion, and the Tsars: Eighteenth-Century Europe imagines the Treaty of Nerchinsk”
Shiru Lim (University of Leiden)

‘Cugoano, Condorcet, and the climate of abolition on the eve of revolution’
Jennifer Pitts (University of Chicago)

Chair: Georgios Varouxakis (Queen Mary, University London)

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