Persian Letters/Letter 81
1 Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
SINCE I have been in Europe, my dear Rhedi, I have seen many forms of government. It is not here as in Asia, where the rules of policy are everywhere the same.
I have often inquired which form of government is most conformable to reason. It seems to me that the most perfect is that which attains its object with the least friction; so that the government which leads men by following their propensities and inclinations is the most perfect.
If under a mild government the people are as submissive as under a severe one, the former is to be preferred, since it is more rational, severity being a motive foreign to reason.
Remember, my dear Rhedi, that obedience to the laws in a state is not measured by the degree of cruelty in the punishments. In countries where penalties are moderate, they are dreaded as much as in those where they are atrocious and tyrannical.
Whether a government be mild or cruel, there must be degrees of punishment; the gravity of the chastisement must always be in proportion to the gravity of the crime. Our imagination adapts itself to the customs of the county in which we live. Eight days’ imprisonment, or a lighter punishment, has a greater effect on the mind of a European brought up in a mild-mannered country, than the loss of an arm had upon an Asiatic. A certain degree of dread attaches to a certain degree of punishment, and each feels it in his own way: a punishment which would not rob a Turk of a single quarter of an hour’s sleep, would overwhelm a Frenchman with infamy and despair.
Besides, I do not see that police regulations, justice, and equity, are better observed in Turkey, in Persia, or in the dominions of the Mogul, than in the Republics of Holland, and of Venice, and even in England: it does not appear that fewer crimes are committed there, and that men, intimidated by the greatness of punishments, are more obedient to the laws.
On the contrary, I note a source of injustice and vexation in the midst of these very states.
I find even the prince, who is himself the law, less master there than anywhere else.
I observe that, at times when severe punishments are inflicted, there are always tumults, which nobody commands, and that when once authority depending upon violence is set at nought, there remains with no one sufficient power to restore it;
That the certainty of punishment itself strengthens and increases the disorder;
That in these states a petty revolt never takes place; and that an uprising follows the first murmur of sedition without a moment’s interval;
That in them great events are not necessarily prepared by great causes: on the contrary, the least accident produced a great revolution, often as unforeseen by those who cause it as by those who suffer from it.
When Osman, Emperor of the Turks, was deposed2, none of those who committed that crime had any intention of doing so: they simply asked, as suppliants, that justice should be done for some wrong: a voice, which no one knew, issued from the crowd by chance; it pronounced the name of Mustapha, and suddenly Mustapha was Emperor.
Paris, the 2nd of the first moon of Rebiab, 1715.