Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Since I have been in Europe, my dear Rhedi, I have seen many a govern­ment ; it is not as in Asia, where the rules of poli­tics are eve­ryw­here the same.

I have often won­de­red to myself which of all govern­ments best confor­med with rea­son. I has see­med to me that the most per­fect is the one which achie­ves its goal at the least cost, and thus that the one that steers men in the man­ner best sui­ted to their pen­chant and their incli­na­tion is the most per­fect.

If under a mild govern­ment the peo­ple are as docile as under a harsh one, the for­mer is pre­fe­ra­ble, because it is most in confor­mity with rea­son, and that seve­rity is a foreign motive.

You may be sure, my dear Rhedi, that within a state, more or less cruel penal­ties do not make peo­ple obey the laws bet­ter. In coun­tries where punish­ments are mode­rate, they are fea­red as in those where they are tyran­ni­cal and awful.

Whether a govern­ment is mild or cruel, one always puni­shes by degrees ; one inflicts a more or less great punish­ment for a more or less great crime. The ima­gi­na­tion bends on its own to the ways of the coun­try in which one lives ; a week in pri­son or a light fine make as much impres­sion on the mind of a European, rai­sed in a land of lenience, as the loss of an arm inti­mi­da­tes an Asian. They attach a cer­tain degree of fear to a cer­tain degree of penalty, and each sorts it out in his own way ; the des­pair of infamy may grieve a Frenchman who has just been sen­ten­ced to a penalty that would not cost a Turk fif­teen minu­tes’ sleep.

Besides, I do not see that order, jus­tice, and equity are bet­ter obser­ved in Turkey, Persia, or in the land of the Mogul, than in the repu­blics of Holland, Venice, and even in England ; I do not see that they com­mit fewer cri­mes there, or that men inti­mi­da­ted by the magni­tude of the punish­ments are more sub­mis­sive to the laws.

I note on the contrary a source of injus­tice and vexa­tion in the midst of these very sta­tes.

I find even the prince, who is him­self the law, less mas­ter than eve­ryw­here else.

I see that in these rigo­rous moments there are always tumul­tuous move­ments where no one is in charge ; and that when vio­lent autho­rity has once been rejec­ted, no one has enough of it left to make it return ;

that the very des­pair of impu­nity confirms disor­der and makes it grea­ter ;

that in those sta­tes no small revolt is for­med, and there is never any inter­val bet­ween mur­mur and sedi­tion ;

that great events do not have to be set up by great cau­ses ; on the contrary, the sligh­test acci­dent some­ti­mes pro­du­ces a great revo­lu­tion, often as unfo­re­seen by those who make it as by those who suf­fer it.1

When Osman, empe­ror of the Turks, was depo­sed, none of those who com­mit­ted this coup had in mind to com­mit it ; they were sim­ply peti­tio­ning as sup­pli­cants that jus­tice be done them over some com­plaint ; a voice that has never been iden­ti­fied came by chance from the crowd, the name of Mustapha was utte­red, and sud­denly Mustapha was empe­ror.2

Paris this 2nd day of the moon of Rebiab I, 1715

At this time the word revolution suggests great change or calamity rather than massive overthrow of the government.

Osman II was deposed in 1622, after a four-years reign, and replaced by Mustapha I ; in 1678 Antoine Galland had published La Mort du sultan Osman, ou le rétablissement de Mustapha sur le trône.