Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter XC
Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna
THE DESIRE 1 of glory is in no sense different from the instinct of self-preservation common to all creatures. We seem to enlarge our existence when we are enabled to extend it to the memory of others; it is a new life which we acquire, and becomes as precious to us as that which we receive from heaven.  1
  But men are as unlike in their attachment to life as they are in their sensibility to fame. This noble passion is always deeply engraved in their hearts; but imagination and education modifies it in a thousand ways.  2
  This difference which exists between man and man, is even more marked among nations.  3
  It may be laid down as a maxim that in each state the desire of glory increases and diminishes with the liberty of the subject; glory is never the companion of slavery.  4
  A sensible man said to me the other day, “In most things we are much freer in France than in Persia; and so we love glory more. This happy idea causes a Frenchman to do with pleasure and inclination what your Sultan obtains from his subjects only by keeping constantly before them rewards and punishments.  5
  “Again, among us the prince is most jealous of the honor of the meanest of his subjects. For its support there exist highly esteemed tribunals: it is the sacred treasure of the nation, and the only one which the sovereign does not control, because to do so would defeat his own interests. So that if a subject finds his honor wounded by his prince, whether by some preference, or by the slightest mark of contempt, he leaves at once his court, his employment, his service, and retires to his estate.  6
  “The difference between the French troops and yours is this: among the latter, composed of slaves who are naturally cowards, the fear of death is overcome only by the fear of punishment, and this produces in the soul a new kind of terror which stupefies it; the former, on the other hand, go where the blows are thickest, and fear is driven out by a feeling of satisfaction which is superior to it.  7
  “But the sanctuary of honor, of reputation, and of virtue, appears to be established in republics, and in countries where one dare pronounce the word Fatherland. In Rome, in Athens, in Lacedæmonia, honor was the sole reward for the most distinguished services. A crown of oak or of laurel, a statue, a panegyric, was a magnificent recompense for a battle gained or a city taken.  8
  “There a man who had performed a brave deed thought the deed itself sufficient recompense. He could not behold one of his countrymen without a feeling of pleasure at having been his benefactor; he reckoned the number of his services by that of his fellow-citizens. Every man is capable of benefiting another, but he who contributes to the happiness of a whole community resembles the gods.  9
  “Now, must not this noble emulation be quite extinct in the hearts of you Persians, with whom office and honor are derived only from the caprice of the sovereign? Reputation and virtue are looked upon as imaginary, if unaccompanied by the favor of the prince with whom is their sole beginning and end. A man who enjoys the public esteem is never sure that the morrow may not bring forth dishonor. To-day he is a general of the army; to-morrow, perhaps, the prince makes him his cook, and leaves him with no hope of any other eulogy than that of having made a good ragout.”

  PARIS, the 15th of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1715.
Note 1. This letter contains the germ of “principles of the three governments,” a theory expounded by Montesquieu in the third book of L’Esprit des Lois. [back]
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