Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CIII
Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna
THE MOST powerful states in Europe are those of the Emperor, and of the kings of France, Spain, and England. Italy, and a large part of Germany, are divided into a great number of small states, the princes of which are, properly speaking, martyrs to sovereignty. Our glorious sultans have more wives than some of these princes have subjects. Those of Italy, being less united, are most to be pitied; their states are as open as caravansaries, in which they are forced to accommodate the first comer: they therefore require to join themselves to great princes, and share their fears with them rather than their friendship. Most European governments are monarchical, or rather are called so; for I do not know whether there ever was a government truly monarchical; at least they cannot have continued very long in their original purity. It is a state in which might is right, and which degenerates always into a despotism or a republic. Authority can never be equally divided between the people and the prince; it is too difficult to maintain an equilibrium; power must diminish on one side while it increases on the other; but the advantage is usually with the prince, as he commands the army.  1
  Accordingly, the power of the kind of Spain is very great; one may say that they have as much as they desire, but they do not exercise it to such a degree as our sultans: firstly, because they are not willing to offend the manners and the religion of the people; secondly, because it is not in their own interests to carry things with so high a hand.  2
  Nothing brings our princes nearer the condition of their subjects than the immense power which they wield over them; nothing makes them more subject to reverses and caprices of fortune.  3
  The custom which princes have of putting to death all those who displease them upon the slightest pretense, destroys the proportion which ought to exist between crime and punishment; and that proportion, scrupulously preserved by the Christian princes, gives them an immeasurable advantage over our sultans.  4
  A Persian who, imprudently or by mischance, draws upon himself the displeasure of his prince, is sure to die; the slightest fault or the slightest caprice reduces him to that necessity. But if he had attempted the life of his sovereign if he had intended to betray his towns to the enemy, he would have atoned as before by losing his life; he runs no greater risk in the latter case than in the former.  5
  And so, under the least disgrace, death being certain and nothing worse to fear, he naturally applies himself to disturb the state, and to conspire against the sovereign—his only remaining resource.  6
  It is not the same with the grandees of Europe, who, when in disgrace, lose only the royal favor and good will. They withdraw from the court and give themselves up to enjoy a quiet life and the privileges of their birth; as they are seldom done to death except for high treason, they dread to commit that crime, remembering what they may lose, and how little they are likely to gain; this is why one sees here few rebellions, and few princes who die a violent death.  7
  If, with that unlimited power which our princes have, they did not take every precaution for the safety of their lives, they would not live a single day; and if they had not in their pay innumerable troops to coerce their other subjects, their rule would not last for a month.  8
  It is only some four or five centuries since a king of France, 1 contrary to the custom of the times, levied guards to secure himself from the assassins which a petty prince of Asia 2 had sent to kill him; till that time kings had lived peacefully among their subjects, like fathers with their children.  9
  Although the kings of France are quite unable, of their own motion, to take away the life of one of their subjects like our sultans, yet they carry about with them always mercy for all criminals; that he should have been fortunate enough to behold the august countenance of his prince, is sufficient to make a man once more worthy to live. These monarchs are like the sun, which sheds everywhere heat and life.

  PARIS, the 8th of the second moon of Rebiab, 1717.
Note 1. Philip-Augustus. [back]
Note 2. He who was called the “old man of the mountains.” [back]

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