India in the Work of Montesquieu
The East Indies presented a particularly intricate problem on the vast map of social and political diversity for which Montesquieu wanted to propose new criteria of analysis and classification in the Esprit des Lois. The most salient feature of this complex body that was - only apparently – held together by geographical terms, was its extreme heterogeneity. As Jaucourt explained succinctly in the Encyclopédie entry «Indes» – which, like many of his other contributions to the encyclopaedia project, reveals a heavy reliance on Montesquieu and the clear use of topics and opinions expressed in the Esprit des Lois – the modern geographical framework for India meant the inclusion of «quatre grandes parties de l’Asie», i.e. «l’Indoustan, la presqu’île en-deçà du Gange, la presqu’île au-delà du Gange, et les îles de la mer des Indes, dont les principales sont celles de Ceylan, de Sumatra, de Java, de Bornéo, les Célèbes, les Maldives, les Moluques, auxquelles on joint communément les Philippines et les îles Mariannes». These were the geographical horizons that mid-eighteenth century European culture used for ‘the East Indies’, as did Montesquieu when his attention focused on this part of the social and political universe. He could fuel his interest by drawing from a varied pool of documentation including classical literature and mainly modern sources, and his extensive reading yielded a large crop of notes and summaries that went into his preparations for the Esprit des Lois.