Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


A long time ago it was said that good faith was the soul of a great minis­ter.1

An indi­vi­dual may enjoy the obs­cu­rity he is in : he loses cre­dit only among a few ; he keeps out of sight for others ; but a minis­ter who fails in pro­bity has as many wit­nes­ses, as many jud­ges, as there are peo­ple whom he governs.

Dare I say it ? The grea­test evil accom­pli­shed by a minis­ter lacking pro­bity is not to ill serve his prince and ruin his peo­ple ; there is ano­ther, in my view a thou­sand times more dan­ge­rous : it is the bad exam­ple he gives.

You know that I long tra­vel­led in the Indies ; there I saw a natu­rally gene­rous nation per­ver­ted in an ins­tant, from the last of sub­jects to the grea­test, by the bad exam­ple of a minis­ter ; I saw there an entire peo­ple in whom gene­ro­sity, pro­bity, can­dor, and good faith have fore­ver pas­sed for natu­ral qua­li­ties, become all of a sud­den the last of peo­ples, the disease spread and spare not even the holiest mem­bers ; the most vir­tuous men com­mit unwor­thy acts, and vio­late on every occa­sion in their lives the pri­mary prin­ci­ples of jus­tice, on the vain pre­text that it had been vio­la­ted against them.

They cal­led odious laws to sup­port the most cowardly actions, and gave to injus­tice and betrayal the name of neces­sity.

I have seen the faith of contracts bani­shed, the most sacred conven­tions blot­ted out, all the laws of fami­lies over­tur­ned. I have seen ava­ri­cious deb­tors proud of an inso­lent poverty, unwor­thy ins­tru­ments of the fury of the laws and the rigor of the times, feign a pay­ment rather than making it, and plant a knife in the breast of their bene­fac­tors.

I have seen others even more unwor­thy buy for almost nothing, or rather gather oak lea­ves from the ground, to put them in place of the sub­stance of widows and orphans.2

I have seen the sud­den birth in every heart of an insa­tia­ble thirst for riches. I have seen the for­ma­tion in a moment of a detes­ta­ble cons­pi­racy of self-enrich­ment, not by honest and hard work, but by the ruin of the prince, of the state, and of fel­low citi­zens.

I have seen an honest citi­zen in these unhappy times never go to bed without saying to him­self : Today I have rui­ned a family ; I will ruin ano­ther tomor­row.

Another would say, I am going with a black man who car­ries a wri­ting case in his hand and a poin­ted blade behind his ear,3 to assas­si­nate all those with whom I have any debt.

Another would say : I see that I am get­ting my affairs in order. It is true that when I went three days ago to make a cer­tain pay­ment, I left a whole family in tears ; that I dis­si­pa­ted the dowry of two inno­cent maids ; that I depri­ved a lit­tle boy of his edu­ca­tion. The father will die of grief, the mother is was­ting with sor­row ; but I have done only what the law allows.

What grea­ter crime than that which a minis­ter com­mits when he cor­rupts the stan­dards of an entire nation, degra­des the most gene­rous souls, tar­ni­shes the lus­ter of digni­ties, obs­cu­res vir­tue itself, and confounds the highest birth in the uni­ver­sal contempt ?

What will pos­te­rity say when it has to blush at the shame of its fathers ? What will the rising peo­ple say when they com­pare the iron of their ances­tors with the gold of those from whom they imme­dia­tely sprang ? I do not doubt that those nobles will sup­press from their quar­ters an unwor­thy degree of nobi­lity4 that disho­nors them, and leave the pre­sent gene­ra­tion in the hor­ri­ble obli­vion it got itself into.

Paris this 11th day of the moon of Rhamazan 17205

Cicero, in De legibus (III, 14).

An allusion to the practice of gleaning, widespread in France and England at the time, based on the Mosaic precept (see Deuteronomy 24:19). But the oak leaves probably allude to paper money.

A clerk of the court, carrying behind his ear the knife with which he trims his quill.

“Quality” of nobility was counted in “quarters”, each quarter representing one parent, grandparent, etc., who was noble.

This letter of 11 November 1720 is the last of the novel by date, insofar as Roxane’s letter 150, the very last letter, is dated 8 May of the same year. Since this amounts to an interval of six months, and no interval in the series running from letters 139 to 150 exceeds five months and ten days, one must suppose that Usbek, in writing this letter, has already received no. 150. Nothing here indicates – no more than in Supplementary Letter 8 – any intention on his part to return to Isfahan, as his letter 147, dated in fact more than a year earlier, had seemed to portend.