Montesquieu

To the same


Not all the peo­ples of Europe are equally sub­mis­sive to their prin­ces ; for exam­ple, the impa­tient humor of the English scar­cely allows their king the time to press his autho­rity ; sub­mis­sion and obe­dience are the vir­tues they pride them­sel­ves on least. They say quite extra­or­di­nary things about that. According to them, there is only one tie that can bind men toge­ther, and that is gra­ti­tude : a hus­band, a wife, a father, a son, are bound toge­ther only by the love they bear one ano­ther, or by bene­fits they pro­cure for each other ; and these various rea­sons of remem­brance are the ori­gin of all king­doms and all socie­ties.1

But if a prince, far from making his sub­jects live hap­pily, tries to crush and des­troy them, the groun­ding of obe­dience cea­ses ; nothing binds them, nothing atta­ches them to him, and they regain their natu­ral free­dom.2 They main­tain that any power without limits can­not pos­si­bly be legi­ti­mate, because it could never have had a legi­ti­mate ori­gin. For we can­not, they say, give to ano­ther more power over us than we have our­sel­ves ; now we do not have unli­mi­ted power over our­sel­ves ; for exam­ple, we can­not take our own lives3 : the­re­fore, they conclude, no one on earth has such power.

The crime of lese majesty is, in their view, nothing other than the crime which the wea­kest com­mits against the stron­gest by diso­beying him, in wha­te­ver man­ner he diso­beys. Thus the peo­ple of England, who tur­ned out to be the stron­ger against one of their kings, decla­red that it is a crime of lese majesty for a prince to make war on his sub­jects.4 They are then quite right when they say that the pre­cept of their Qur’an which com­mands us to sub­mit to autho­ri­ties5 is not very dif­fi­cult to fol­low, since it is impos­si­ble for them not to observe it, inso­far as it is not to the most vir­tuous that they are obli­ged to sub­mit, but to him who is the stron­gest.

The English say that when one of their kings who had conque­red and taken pri­so­ner a prince who had rebel­led and contes­ted his crown, began to reproach him for his dis­loyalty and betrayal : It was just a moment ago, said the unfor­tu­nate prince, that it was deci­ded which of us is the trai­tor.6

A usur­per decla­res that all those who have not like him oppres­sed the home­land are in rebel­lion ; and belie­ving there are no laws where he sees no jud­ges, he cau­ses the whims of chance and for­tune to be reve­red as decrees from hea­ven.

Paris this 20th day of the moon of Rebiab II, 1717

Although the idea goes back to Cicero, who declares that the ties between husband and wife and the children of their union are the basis of the city and the origin of the state (De officiis, part I, § XVII, 54), here Usbek attributes it specifically to the English. Locke, in his Treatises of Civil Government (1690), places the emphasis on duties of gratitude that children, once independent, owe their parents rather than on a natural bond of vassalage and dependence.

This passage is marked by the memory of two English revolutions, that of Cromwell in 1648 and that of William of Orange in 1688. Since, according to the Orangists, James II had not respected the clauses of the monarchical contract, the English people no longer considered him the seat of sovereignty ; once again free, they invested William with it.

The question of suicide is examined in letter 74 ; it concerns precisely whether one can dispose of oneself as one sees fit.

It was as traitor and enemy of his own people that Charles I of England was judged and executed in January 1649.

See I Peter 2:13-18 and Romans 13:1.

The source of this anecdote has not yet been identified. It probably concerns prince Edward, son of Henry IV, adressing king Edward IV after the battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part three (V, 5), the prince indeed calls the king a traitor.