Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXLVI
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
IT 1 was long ago said that a minister cannot be great unless he is sincere.  1
  A private person may avail himself of the obscurity in which he is placed; he discredits himself only in the opinion of a few, and the mask he wears deceives others; but a minister who steps aside from the straight path has a witness, a judge, in every subject of the state he governs.  2
  Is it too daring to say that the greatest evil done by an unscrupulous minister is not the damage to the interests of his sovereign, not the ruin wrought among his people, but quite another thing, and in my opinion a thousand times more dangerous, namely, the bad example which he sets?  3
  You know that I have for a long time traveled in the Indies. There I beheld a nation, upright by nature, led away in an instant, from the lowest to the highest in the land, by the bad example of a minister; I beheld an entire race, in whom generosity, integrity, candor, and sincerity had always been regarded as natural qualities, become, in a flash, the most despicable of peoples; I beheld the contagion spread, sparing not even the healthiest members, and the most upright men act in the unworthiest manner, violating the first principles of justice, upon the vain pretext that injustice had been done to them.  4
  They appealed to detestable laws, necessity, injustice and treachery, in support of the most iniquitous deeds.  5
  I saw honesty banished from business, the holiest contracts become void, and all the laws of the family overturned. I saw miserly debtors, insolent in their poverty, unworthy instruments of the anger of the law and of the exigency of the time, make a pretense of payment, while they plunged a dagger into the bosom of their benefactors. I saw others, viler still, buy for next to nothing, or rather gather from the ground, oak leaves, 2 and give them in exchange for the substance of widows and orphans.  6
  I saw suddenly spring up in all hearts an insatiable thirst for riches. I saw men form in a moment a detestable conspiracy to acquire wealth, not by honest labor and liberal industry, but by the ruin of the sovereign, of the state, and of their fellow-citizens.  7
  I saw a respectable citizen, in these disastrous times, never retire to rest without saying, “To-day I have ruined one family, to-morrow I shall ruin another.”  8
  “I am going,” said another, “with a man in black who carries an inkhorn in his hand, and a pointed weapon 3 behind his ear, to assassinate all my creditors.”  9
  Another said, “I find that I am prospering: it is true that when I went three days ago to make a certain payment, I left a whole family in tears; that I have squandered the portions of two well-born girls; that I have deprived a boy of the means of education—his father will die of grief, the mother pines away broken hearted: but I have only done what the law allows me.” 4  10
  What crime can be greater than that which a minister commits when he corrupts the morals of a whole nation, debases the loftiest spirits, tarnishes the lustre of rank, obscures virtue itself, and levels the highest born with the most despised?  11
  What will posterity say when it has to blush for the shame of its forefathers? What will the next generation say when it compares the iron age of earlier times with the age of gold which gave it birth? I doubt not that the nobles will remove from their genealogies a degree of nobility dishonoring to them, and leave the present generation in the oblivion it has so well deserved.  12
Note 1. Another satire on the “system” of Law. [back]
Note 2. Paper money. [back]
Note 3. A pen. [back]
Note 4. That is, paid a debt in worthless paper. [back]

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