Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Most legis­la­tors have been limi­ted men, whom chance has pla­ced in charge of the others, and have taken account of lit­tle but their pre­ju­di­ces and their whims.

It appears as if they have unde­res­ti­ma­ted the gran­deur and even the dignity of their pro­duct ; they have busied them­sel­ves crea­ting pue­rile ins­ti­tu­tions with which they have indeed confor­med to petty minds, but have dimi­ni­shed them­sel­ves to peo­ple of good sense.

They have pored over use­less details ; they have gone into par­ti­cu­lar cases, which is a sign of a nar­row genius that sees things only in their parts, and embra­ces nothing of an ove­rall view.

Some have affec­ted the use of a lan­guage other than the ver­na­cu­lar,1 which is absurd for a law­ma­ker : how can the laws be obser­ved if they are not known ?

They have often need­lessly abo­li­shed those they have found esta­bli­shed, which is to say that they have plun­ged peo­ples into the disor­ders inse­pa­ra­ble from chan­ges.

It is true that by a pecu­lia­rity that comes rather from the nature of men than from their minds, it is some­ti­mes neces­sary to change cer­tain laws. But the case is rare, and when it hap­pens, they should be tou­ched only with trem­bling hand : such solem­ni­ties should be obser­ved and such pre­cau­tions taken that the peo­ple will natu­rally conclude that the laws are indeed sacred, since it takes so many for­ma­li­ties to abro­gate them.

Often they have made them too subtle and fol­lo­wed the notions of a logi­cian rather than natu­ral equity. Subsequently they were found to be too harsh, and by a spi­rit of equity it was dee­med they should not be applied ; but this remedy was a new disease. Whatever the laws may be, we must always fol­low them, and regard them as the public cons­cience, to which that of indi­vi­duals must always conform.

Yet it must be admit­ted that some of them have had been care­ful for one thing that reveals shows much wis­dom ; it is to have given fathers great autho­rity over their chil­dren. Nothing relie­ves jud­ges more, nothing bet­ter clears the cour­thou­ses ; in short, nothing pro­mo­tes more tran­quillity in a state where the stan­dards always make bet­ter citi­zens than the laws do.

Of all powers, that is the one that is least abu­sed ; it is the most sacred of all magis­tra­cies ; it is the only one that is not depen­dent on conven­tions, and even pre­ce­ded them.

We observe that in coun­tries where more rewards and punish­ments are pla­ced in pater­nal hands, fami­lies are more orderly. Fathers are the image of the crea­tor of the uni­verse2 who, although he can guide men with his love, still atta­ches them even more by the moti­ves of hope and fear.

I shall not end this let­ter without poin­ting out to you the pecu­lia­rity of the French mind. It is said that they have retai­ned from Roman law an infi­nite num­ber of things that are use­less or even worse, and they have not taken from them the pater­nal power which they esta­bli­shed as the pri­mary legi­ti­mate autho­rity.

Paris this 18th day of the moon of Saphar 1715

Churchmen, that is, council fathers and popes whose texts make up canon law.

A Biblical analogy ; see letter 91 ; cf. The Spirit of Law, I, 3.