Montesquieu

Rica to Ibben in Smyrna


You have heard a thou­sand times about the famous king of Sweden. He was besie­ging a stron­ghold in a king­dom they call Norway ; as he was visi­ting the trench alone with an engi­neer, he recei­ved a blow in the head from which he died. Immediately they had his prime minis­ter arres­ted ; the Estates assem­bled, and condem­ned him to lose his head.1

He was accu­sed of a great crime, which was to have slan­de­red the nation, and cau­sing it to lose its king’s confi­dence : a deed which, as I see it, deser­ves a thou­sand deaths.

For if it is an evil deed to tar­nish the least of his sub­jects in the mind of the prince, what is it when one tar­ni­shes the entire nation, cau­ses it to lose the bene­vo­lence of him whom Providence has esta­bli­shed to pro­tect its hap­pi­ness ?

I would like for men to speak to kings the way angels speak to our holy Prophet.

You know that at sacred ban­quets, where the Lord of lords2 des­cends from earth’s most sublime throne to min­gle with his sla­ves, I have made it a stern rule to cage an indo­cile ton­gue. No one has ever heard me let loose a sin­gle word that could be bit­ter for the least of his sub­jects ; when I have had to cease being dis­creet, I have never cea­sed being a gent­le­man, and in this test of our loyalty I have ris­ked my life, and never my vir­tue.

I do not know how it hap­pens that there is almost never a prince so cruel that his minis­ter is not even more so ; if he com­mits some evil deed, it has almost always been sug­ges­ted to him, so the ambi­tion of prin­ces is never as dan­ge­rous as the base­ness of spi­rit of his coun­se­lors. But do you unders­tand that a man who has only been in the minis­try since yes­ter­day, and who may not be tomor­row, can the enemy of him­self, his family, his home­land, and of the peo­ple that will fore­ver arise from the man he is going to oppress ?

A prince has pas­sions, the minis­ter stirs them ; that is the direc­tion in which he steers his minis­try. He has no other goal, nor wishes to know one. The cour­tiers seduce him with their praise, and he flat­ters him more dan­ge­rously with his coun­sel, with the desi­gns he sug­gests to him, and by the maxima he pro­po­ses to him.

Paris this 25th day of the moon of Saphar 1719

The Gazette d’Amsterdam of 7 February 1719 reported the circumstances of Görtz’s arrest ; it was said then that a council was formed to examine his conduct on 10 January. On 10 February it related the confiscation of the money he had amassed. To assure Charles XII’s warlike policy, Görtz had taxed private fortunes and created paper money ; his unpopularity was to favor an aristocratic reaction and the king’s death. All this suggests a connection with Law.

The same epithets are employed in letter 49 to put into relief the idolatrous aspects of despotism : cf. I Timothy 6:15 : “the King of kings, and Lord of lords.”