Montesquieu

Usbek to Ibben in Smyrna


The most power­ful sta­tes of Europe are those of the empe­ror, the kings of France, Spain, and England. Italy, and a large part of Germany, are divi­ded into an infi­nite num­ber of small sta­tes whose prin­ces are pro­perly spea­king the mar­tyrs of sove­rei­gnty. Our glo­rious sul­tans have more wives than most of these prin­ces have sub­jects. Those of Italy, who are not so uni­ted, are more to be pitied : their sta­tes are open like cara­van­se­rais,1 where they are obli­ged to lodge the first come ; they must the­re­fore become atta­ched to the great prin­ces, and share their fear with them rather than their friend­ship.

Most govern­ments in Europe are monar­chi­cal, or rather so cal­led ; for I do not know whe­ther there truly have ever been any such, or at least they could not pos­si­bly have las­ted for long : it is a vio­lent state that always dege­ne­ra­tes into des­po­tism of into a repu­blic.2 Authority can never be equally divi­ded bet­ween the peo­ple and the prince ; the balance is dif­fi­cult to main­tain : power must dimi­nish on one side while it increa­ses on the other ; but the advan­tage is gene­rally on the side of the prince, who is head of the armies.

So the power of European kings is very great, and one can say that they have it as they desire ; but they do not exer­cise it as exten­si­vely as do our sul­tans : first of all because they do not wish to go against the peo­ples’ ways and reli­gion ; secondly, because it is not in their inte­rest to carry it so far.

Nothing brings prin­ces clo­ser to the condi­tion of their sub­jects than this immense power they exer­cise over them ; nothing sub­jects them more to the rever­sals and whims of for­tune.

Their cus­tom of put­ting to death eve­ryone who dis­plea­ses them at the sligh­test sign they make, rever­ses the pro­por­tion that must exist bet­ween offen­ses and punish­ments,3 which is like the soul of sta­tes and the har­mony of empi­res ; and this pro­por­tion scru­pu­lously kept by the Christian prin­ces gives them an infi­nite advan­tage over our sul­tans.

A Persian who by impru­dence or mis­for­tune has drawn on him­self the prince’s dis­fa­vor is sure to die ; the sligh­test mis­take or the sligh­test whim pla­ces him in this neces­sity. But if he had made an attempt on his sove­reign’s life, if he had tried to deli­ver his stron­gholds to the enemy, he again would get off with losing his life : he the­re­fore runs no more risk in the lat­ter case than in the for­mer.

Thus in the least dis­fa­vor, seeing that death is cer­tain, and seeing nothing worse, he is natu­rally incli­ned to trou­ble the state and cons­pire against the sove­reign, the only resource he has left.4

The same does not apply to the gran­dees of Europe, whom dis­fa­vor depri­ves of nothing but bene­vo­lence and favor ; they with­draw from the court, and think only of enjoying a tran­quil life and the advan­ta­ges of their birth. As they are hardly made to die for any crime short of lese majesty, they fear fal­ling into that by the consi­de­ra­tion of what they have to lose and the lit­tle they have to gain ; for which rea­son we see few revolts and few prin­ces who have died a vio­lent death.

If in the unli­mi­ted autho­rity which our prin­ces have, they did not take such great pre­cau­tions to put their lives in safety, they would not live one day ; and if they did not have in their pay an innu­me­ra­ble num­ber of troops to tyran­nize the rest of their sub­jects, their domi­na­tion would not last one month.

Only four or five cen­tu­ries ago a French king enga­ged guards, against the cus­toms of those times, to pro­tect him­self from the assas­sins whom a petty Asian prince had sent to put an end to him.5 Until then the kings had lived tran­quilly amidst their sub­jects, as fathers amidst their chil­dren.

Far from French kings being able of their own accord to take the life of one of their sub­jects, like our sul­tans, on the contrary they always bear with them the par­don of all cri­mi­nals. It is enough for a man to have the good for­tu­nate of seeing the august visage of his prince for him to cease being unwor­thy to live. These monarchs are like the sun6 that brings warmth and life eve­ryw­here.7

Paris this 8th day of the moon of Rebiab II, 1717

See letter 44.

This passage provides an outline for book VIII of The Spirit of Law, “On the corruption of the principles of the three governments.”

This idea of proprotionate punishment which was to inspire book XII of The Spirit of Law and give rise to Beccaria’s Trattato dei delitti et delle pene in 1764 is already part of current discourse.

An allusion to the revolt of Mir-Weiss in 1719 ; this intendant of the province of Candahar shrugged the Persian yoke to found the kingdom of Afghanistan.

An anecdote drawn from the Gesta Philippi Augusti by the monk Rigord and related by Nicolas de Baudot de Juilly in Histoire de Philippe Auguste (Paris : Brunet, 1702, vol. I, p. 207). According to Moreri, it was Louis XI who hired Swiss guards, after making a treaty of alliance with them in 1481 (1707, art. “Gardes-du-corps du roi”).

Rhetorically, the comparison with Biblical overtones (cf. II Samuel [II Kings] 23:4) is doubtless overdetermined ; here it can only be an oblique commentary on the pretensions of the “sun king” Louis XIV.

Clemency, and more particularly the right to pardon, was a right reserved to the king, but could be delegated to certain others (prelates and princes of the royal blood) in exceptional circumstances.