Montesquieu

Rica to the same


In the fol­lo­wing inter­view, my scho­lar led me into a pri­vate study. Here are the books of modern his­tory, he said : you see first of all the his­to­rians of the Church and the popes, books which I read for my edi­fi­ca­tion, and which often have quite the oppo­site effect on me.

Over there are those who have writ­ten of the deca­dence of the for­mi­da­ble Roman empire, which had for­med from the debris of so many monar­chies, and upon the fall of which also so many new ones were for­med. An infi­nite num­ber of bar­ba­ric peo­ples, as unk­nown as the coun­tries where they lived,1 sud­denly appea­red, floo­ded it, rava­ged it, tore it into pie­ces, and foun­ded all the king­doms you pre­sently see in Europe. These peo­ples were not exactly bar­ba­ric, since they were free ; but they have become so since, most of them sub­jec­ted to an abso­lute autho­rity, they have lost that sweet liberty so conso­nant with rea­son, huma­nity, and nature.

Here you see the his­to­rians of Germany, which is but a sha­dow of the first empire,2 but which is, I think, the only power there is on earth that divi­sion has not wea­ke­ned ; the only one, I also think, that grows stron­ger in pro­por­tion to its los­ses ; and which, slow to pro­fit from its suc­ces­ses, beco­mes indo­mi­ta­ble through its defeats.

Here are the his­to­rians of France, where we first see the autho­rity of the kings form, die twice,3 like­wise return, then lan­guish for seve­ral cen­tu­ries ; but gra­dually gathe­ring strength, aug­men­ted in all direc­tions, rise to its final apo­gee, like those rivers which in their course lose their waters, or hide under­ground, then resur­face, swol­len by the rivers that flow into them, rapidly sweep away any­thing that stands in their way.

There you see the Spanish nation emerge from a few moun­tains ; the Muslim prin­ces defea­ted as gra­dually as they had conque­red rapidly ; so many king­doms brought toge­ther under a vast monar­chy which became almost the only one, until the time when, weigh­ted down by its false opu­lence, she lost her strength and even her repu­ta­tion, and kept only the pride of her early power.

These are the his­to­rians of England, where we see liberty cons­tantly emer­ging from the fires of dis­cord and sedi­tion, the prince always tee­te­ring on an unsha­ka­ble throne,4 an impa­tient nation, wise even in her folly, and which, mis­tress of the sea (some­thing pre­viously unheard-of), mixes trade with empire.

Close by are the his­to­rians of that other queen of the sea, the repu­blic of Holland, so res­pec­ted in Europe and so fear­some in Asia, where her tra­ders see so many kings pros­trate before them.

The his­to­rians of Italy des­cribe a nation that was once mis­tress of the world, today the slave of all the others, its prin­ces divi­ded and weak, and lacking any attri­bute of sove­rei­gnty except a vain poli­tics.

Here are the his­to­rians of the repu­blics : of Switzerland, which is the image of liberty ; Venice, whose only resour­ces lie in her eco­nomy5 ; and Genoa, which is majes­tic only by its for­ti­fi­ca­tions.

Here are those of the north, and among others Poland, which makes such poor use of her liberty6 and the right she has of elec­ting her kings that she seems to wants to console the­reby the neigh­bo­ring peo­ples who have lost both.7

Thereupon we sepa­ra­ted until the mor­row.

Paris this 2nd day of the moon of Chalval 1719

See letter 79.

I.e., the so-called Holy Roman Empire is but a shadow of the first (Roman) empire.

Under the two first dynasties, Merovingian and Carolingian.

See letter 101 on the trial of Charles I. Montesquieu’s principal source is doubtless Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, published in French in 1704.

In the sense not just of commerce but also the “good use made of one’s mind and other qualities” (Trévoux, 1704, art. “Œconomie”).

No doubt an allusion to abuse of the liberum veto and the frequence of changes : Augustus, elector of Saxe, was deposed in 1704 to the benefit of Stanislas Leszczynski, but returned and prevailed in 1709.

Probably Denmark and Sweden.