Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter LXXIX
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
MOST legislators have been men of inferior capacity whom chance exalted over their fellows, and who took counsel almost exclusively of their own prejudices and whims.  1
  It would seem that they had not even a sense of the greatness and dignity of their work: they amused themselves by framing childish institutions, well devised indeed to please small minds, but discrediting their authors with people of sense.  2
  They flung themselves into useless details; and gave their attention to individual interests: the sign of the narrow genius, which grasps things piecemeal and cannot take a general view.  3
  Some of them have been so affected as to employ another language than the vernacular—a ridiculous thing in a framer of laws; for how can they be obeyed if they are not known?  4
  They have often abolished needlessly those which were already established—that is to say, they have plunged nations into the confusion which always accompanies change.  5
  It is true that, by reason of some extravagance springing rather from the nature than from the mind of man, it is sometimes necessary to change certain laws. But the case is rare; and when it happens it requires the most delicate handling; much solemnity ought to be observed, and endless precautions taken, in order to lead the people to the natural conclusion that the laws are most sacred, since so many formalities are necessary to their abrogation.  6
  Often they have made them too subtle, following logical instead of natural equity. As a consequence such laws have been found too severe; and a spirit of justice required that they should be set aside; but the cure was as bad as the disease. Whatever the laws may be, obedience to them is necessary; they are to be regarded as the public conscience, with which all private consciences ought to be in conformity.  7
  It must, however, be admitted that some legislators in their attention to one matter have shown sufficient wisdom; and that is, in giving fathers so much power over their children: nothing is a better lightener of the magistrate’s labors, nothing tends more to keep the courts of justice empty, in short, nothing is more conducive to tranquillity in a state, for morality always makes better citizens than law.  8
  Of all powers it is that which is least abused; it is the most sacred of all magistracies—the only one which does not spring from a contract, which, indeed, precedes all contracts.  9
  It has been noticed that families are best ruled in those countries where there is a large paternal discretion in matters of reward and punishment; fathers represent the Creator of the universe, who, although able to lead men by His love, does not refrain from binding them to Himself still more closely by motives of hope and fear.  10
  I cannot finish this letter without pointing out the capricious turn of mind of the French. It is said that they have retained many things in the Roman laws which are useless, and even worse than useless; from them, however, they have not derived the paternal power, which they have established as a source of all lawful authority.

  PARIS, the 18th of the moon of Saphar, 1715.

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