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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

22. Europe through Persian Eyes

Texte intégral

1In his epistolary novel Persian Letters, Montesquieu (1689–1755) shows France through the foreign gaze of two travellers from Isfahan, Rica and Usbek. In Europe, the Persians discover a variety of political regimes, which lead them to consider the government most in tune with reason. It is also a continent which has had diverse regimes on its soil, including republics. Rhedi speaks of a wind of liberty which comes from the north, and considers the way in which the love of freedom is rooted in the history of European republics.

Rhedi to Rica, at Paris

2One of the things which most exercised my curiosity after my arrival in Europe, was the history and origin of Republics. Thou knowest that generally the Asiatics have not so much as the least idea of this sort of government, and that their imagination never extended so far as to comprehend, there could possibly be any other sort than the despotic throughout the world.

3The first governments were monarchical: it was only by chance, and length of time, that republics were formed.

4Greece having been swallowed up by a deluge, new inhabitants came to people it: she had almost all her colonies from Egypt, and the nearest Asiatic countries: and those countries being governed by Kings, the people that came out of them were governed in the like manner. But the tyranny of those Princes growing too heavy, the people shook off the yoke, and from the broken remains of so many Kingdoms arose those Republics which made Greece so very flourishing, the only polite country amidst Barbarians.

5The love of Liberty and aversion to Kings, preserved Greece a long time in a state of independence, and very far extended the Republican Government. The cities of Greece found allies in Asia Minor: they sent thither colonies as free as themselves, which were so many ramparts against the attempts of the Kings of Persia. This was not all: Greece peopled Italy, Italy Spain, and perhaps Gaul. ’Tis notorious that the great Hesperia, so famous among the Ancients, was at the beginning Greece, which was looked upon by its neighbours as the seat of Felicity: the Greeks not finding at home that happy country, went and looked for it in Italy; those of Italy, in Spain; those of Spain, in Bœtica or Portugal: so that all these regions went by this Name among the Ancients. These Greek colonies carried along with them a Spirit of Liberty, which they had assumed from that kindly climate. And accordingly we seldom or never, in those remote times, meet with monarchies in Italy, Spain, or either of the Gauls. We shall see by and by, that the people of the North and of Germany were no less free than the others; and if there are appearances of anything like Royalty among them, it is because their leaders of armies, or heads of Republics, were mistaken for Kings.

6All this happened in Europe: as for Asia and Africa they were ever oppressed with despotism; excepting some towns of Asia Minor already taken notice of; and the republic of Carthage in Africa.

7The World was divided between two powerful Republics, Rome and Carthage: nothing is so well known as the beginning of the Roman Republic, and nothing so little known as the origin of that of Carthage: we are utterly ignorant of the succession of the African Princes after Dido, nor do we know by what means they came to lose their Power. The prodigious increase of the Roman republic would have been a great blessing to mankind, had there not been that unreasonable difference between the citizens of Rome and the conquered Nations; had they given to the Governors of Provinces a more limited Authority; had they paid due regard to those divine laws made to restrain their tyranny; and had they not, in order to silence those Laws, employed the very treasures which their rapine and injustice had accumulated together.

8Liberty seems to be calculated to the Genius of the Nations of Europe, and Slavery adapted to that of the Asiatics. In vain did the Romans offer that invaluable treasure to the Cappadocians; that worthless Nation refused it, and courted servitude with the same ardour as other Nations pursued Liberty.

9Cæsar crushed the Roman Republic, and brought it under arbitrary Power.

10Europe groaned a long time beneath the military and violent Government; and the Roman mildness was changed into a hardhearted oppression.

11Meanwhile infinite numbers of unknown Nations swarmed from out the North; spread themselves like torrents through all the Roman provinces; and finding it as easy a thing to make conquests, as to exercise their piracies, they dismembered those provinces and made Kingdoms of them. These people were free; and they so confined the authority of their Kings, that they were properly speaking no more than chieftains, or generals. Thus those Kingdoms, though founded in force, felt not the yoke of a conqueror. When the Nations of Asia, namely the Turks and the Tartars, made any conquests, they being accustomed to the will and pleasure of one single person, thought of nothing more than bringing him new subjects, and by the force of arms establish his violent authority: but the Northern Nations being free in their own country, when they had seized the Roman provinces, took care not to bestow on their chiefs too large a power. Nay, some of them, the Vandals, for instance, in Africa, the Goths in Spain, deposed their Kings whenever they were dissatisfied with them; and the others too abridged the authority of the Prince a thousand ways: a great number of Lords took share of it with him; a War was never entered upon without their Consent; the Plunder was divided between the General and the soldiers; no taxation in favour of the Prince; the laws were made in Assemblies of the whole Nation. Such was the fundamental principle of all those States that were formed out of the wrecks of the Roman Empire.

12Venice, 20th of the Moon, Regeb, 1719.

13Montesquieu, Persian Letters (1721).

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