Montesquieu

Rica to the same


I was tel­ling you the other day about the pro­di­gious incons­tancy of the French with res­pect to their fashions. Yet it is inconcei­va­ble how obses­sed with them they are ; it is the rule by which they judge eve­ry­thing that hap­pens in other nations. They bring eve­ry­thing back to this ; what is foreign always appears ridi­cu­lous to them. I admit I am una­ble to reconcile this rage for their cus­toms with the incons­tancy of chan­ging them every day.

When I tell you that they scorn wha­te­ver is foreign, I am spea­king only of the tri­fles ; for in impor­tant mat­ters they seem to be so wary of them­sel­ves that they demean them­sel­ves. They rea­dily admit that other peo­ples are wiser, pro­vi­ded one agrees they are bet­ter atti­red. They are willing to sub­ject them­sel­ves to the laws of a rival nation1 pro­vi­ded French wig­ma­kers may deter­mine as legis­la­tors the form of foreign wigs. Nothing seems so won­der­ful to them as to see the taste of their cooks rei­gning from north to south, and the pres­crip­tions of their hair­dres­sers impor­ted into every toi­let in Europe.

With these noble advan­ta­ges, what does it mat­ter the them whe­ther good sense comes here from somew­here else, and whe­ther they have taken eve­ry­thing concer­ning poli­ti­cal and civil govern­ment from their neigh­bors ?

Who can think that a king­dom which is the oldest and most power­ful in Europe should have been gover­ned for more than ten cen­tu­ries by laws that are not made for it ?2 If the French had been conque­red, this would not be dif­fi­cult to unders­tand ; but they are the conque­rors.

They have aban­do­ned the ancient laws made by their early kings in the gene­ral assem­blies of the nation3 ; and what is sin­gu­lar is that the Roman laws which they have adop­ted in their stead were in part made and in part drawn up by empe­rors contem­po­rary with their legis­la­tors.

And so that the acqui­si­tion might be com­plete, and all good sense should come here from elsew­here, they have adop­ted all the cons­ti­tu­tions of the popes,4 and made of them a new part of their law, a new kind of ser­vi­tude.

It is true that in recent times they have set down in wri­ting some sta­tu­tes of cities and pro­vin­ces, but they are almost all taken from Roman law.5

This abun­dance of laws adop­ted, and so to speak natu­ra­li­zed, is so great that it overw­helms jus­tice and jud­ges equally. But these volu­mes of laws are nothing in com­pa­ri­son to that fright­ful army of glos­sers, com­men­ta­tors, and com­pi­lers,6 men as weak by the impre­ci­sion of their minds as they are strong by their pro­di­gious num­bers.

That is not all. These foreign laws have intro­du­ced for­ma­li­ties that are the shame of human rea­son. It would be rather dif­fi­cult to decide whe­ther the form has become more per­ni­cious when it has ente­red into juris­pru­dence, or when it has ens­conced itself in medi­cine ; whe­ther it has cau­sed more damage under a juris­consult’s robe than under the phy­si­cian’s broad hat ; and whe­ther in one case for­mer it has rui­ned more peo­ple than it has killed in the other.

Paris this 12th day of the moon of Saphar 1717

England : the treaty of The Hague (4 January 1717) sealed the “Triple Alliance” between England, the United Provinces and the France of the regent, and confirmed the policy of European equilibrium defined in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. France agreed among other things to expel the Pretender James II, protégé of Louis XIV, and grant commercial privileges to the maritime powers without reciprocity for French merchants in English and Dutch territories.

Roman law.

Barbarian laws inherited from the Salien Francs, from whom is presumed to have come the Salic law.

Papal pronouncements can take several forms, but the term constitution serves here to prepare a discussion of that of 1713 in the next letter.

The various customs of common law.

During his visit to the library (letters 128-131), Rica will not mention works of law, rather numerous in Montesquieu’s own collection (10% of the titles, and much more for the total volume). On compilers, see above, letter 64.