I read Montesquieu’s Persian Letters as an attempt to theorize a liberated alternative to despotic rule. As Montesquieu argues in The Spirit of the Laws, fear—specifically fear of the ruler’s emotional and material excesses—dominates the life of the despotic subject. Although in the Letters the seraglio is the despotic state’s parallel, the seraglio is the site of overflowing and barely governed passions. Montesquieu’s solution to the excesses of the seraglio is not the eradication of emotion; rather, he offers a template for transforming negative passion—fear—into courage, a prelude to a potentially liberating experience. This transformation is portrayed most clearly in the character of Roxane, the rebellious wife whose courageous actions precipitate the collapse of the seraglio. I argue that Roxane’s insurrection and suicide evoke a model established by the Roman matriarch Lucretia. Though not traditional political actors themselves, both Lucretia and Roxane anticipate the possibility of a personal and political liberation through their refusal of fear-based, despotic politics in favour of alternative emotional regimes based in courage.


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pp. 623-644
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