Montesquieu
 

Supplementary letter VIII

Usbek to ***1


A cle­ver man is ordi­na­rily dif­fi­cult in com­pany. He choo­ses few per­sons ; he is bored with that whole large num­ber of peo­ple whom he likes to call bad com­pany. He can­not pre­vent com­mu­ni­ca­ting some of his dis­taste : so many ene­mies.

Sure to please when he wishes, he often neglects to do so.

He is incli­ned to cri­ti­cism, because he sees more things than ano­ther, and has a bet­ter sense of them.

He almost always ruins his for­tune, because his mind pro­vi­des him with a lar­ger num­ber of means of doing that.

He fails in his enter­pri­ses, because he risks much. His eye­sight, which always car­ries far, lets him see objects that are too far away. Not to men­tion that, in the concep­tion of a pro­ject, he is less struck by the dif­fi­culties that come from the thing itself, than of the reme­dies that are his own, and which he draws from his own resour­ces.

He neglects the small details, on which howe­ver depends the suc­cess of almost all great mat­ters.

The medio­cre man, on the contraire, seeks to take advan­tage of eve­ry­thing : he is quite aware that he must not lose any­thing by neglect.

Unanimous appro­val is more ordi­na­rily for the medio­cre man. To him one gives cheer­fully ; from the other one is deligh­ted to take. While envy swoops down on the one, and nothing is for­gi­ven him, the other is com­ple­ment in every way ; vanity decla­res for him.

But if a cle­ver man has so many disad­van­ta­ges, what shall we say of the harsh situa­tion of scho­lars ?

I never think of them without remem­be­ring a let­ter from one of them to a friend of mine. Here it is :

MONSIEUR,

I am a man who spends every night wat­ching with thirty-foot spy glas­ses those great bodies that orbit ove­rhead : and when I want to relax, I take my lit­tle micro­sco­pes and observe a ver­min or a mite.2

I am not rich, and have but one room. I dare not even make a fire here, because I keep my ther­mo­me­ter here, and the exter­nal heat would make it rise. Last win­ter I nearly died of cold ; and though my ther­mo­me­ter, which was as low at it could go, war­ned me that my hands were going to freeze, I took no action. And I have the conso­la­tion of being exactly infor­med about the most imper­cep­ti­ble chan­ges in the wea­ther all last year.

I have very lit­tle contact ; and of all the peo­ple I see, I know not a one. But there is a man in Stockholm, ano­ther in Leipsig, and ano­ther in London, whom I have never seen, and will no doubt never see, with whom I carry on such a regu­lar cor­res­pon­dence that I never let a mai­ling go by without wri­ting to them.3

But although I know no one in my neigh­bo­rhood, I am in such poor repu­ta­tion here that I will ulti­ma­tely be obli­ga­ted to move away. Five years ago I was cru­dely insul­ted by a neigh­bor for having per­for­med a dis­sec­tion on a dog which, she clai­med, belon­ged to her. A but­cher’s wife, who was pre­sent, joi­ned the fray. And while the for­mer was sho­we­ring me with insults, the lat­ter was thro­wing sto­nes at me, as well as at Dr. ***, who was with me, and who took a ter­ri­ble blow on the fron­tal and occi­pi­tal bone, greatly sha­king the seat of his rea­son.

Since that time, as soon as some dog down the street goes astray, it is at once deci­ded that I have had a hand in it. A good bour­geoise who had lost a small one, which she loved, she said, more than her chil­dren, came the other day and fain­ted in my room ; and not fin­ding it, she sum­mo­ned me before the magis­trate. I believe I shall never be deli­ve­red from the impor­tu­nate malice of these women who, with their yap­ping voi­ces, are cons­tantly dea­fe­ning me with the fune­ral ora­tion of all the auto­mata4 that have died in the last ten years.

I am, etc.

All scho­lars were for­merly accu­sed of sor­cery. This does not sur­prise me. Everyone said to him­self : I have taken natu­ral talents as far as they can go, yet a cer­tain scho­lar has advan­ta­ges over me ; there must be some devilry mixed up in it.

Now that these sorts of accu­sa­tions have fal­len into dis­re­pute, they have taken ano­ther tack, and a scho­lar can­not avoid the reproach of irre­li­gion or heresy. Even if he is absol­ved by the peo­ple, the wound is there, and will never really heal ; it is always for him a sore spot. An adver­sary will come thirty years later, and say to him modestly : God for­bid I should say that what you are accu­sed of is true, but you were obli­ged to defend your­self. In this way they turn even his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion against him.

If he wri­tes some his­tory, and has some nobi­lity of mind and some rec­ti­tude in his heart, they drum up a thou­sand per­se­cu­tions for him. They will go rouse the magis­trate against him over an inci­dent that took place a thou­sand years ago.5 And they will want his pen to be cap­tive if it is not venal. Happier never­the­less than these cowardly men who aban­don their faith for a modest sti­pend ; who, to take all their impos­tu­res in detail, sell them for not even a half­penny ; who over­turn the cons­ti­tu­tion of the empire, dimi­nish the rights of an autho­rity, increase those of ano­ther, give to prin­ces, take away from peo­ples, revive elap­sed rights, flat­ter the pas­sions most in vogue in their time, and the vices that are on the throne ; deceive pos­te­rity all the more unwor­thily that it has fewer means of detroying their tes­ti­mony.6

But it is not enough that an author have suf­fe­red all these insults ; it is not enough for him to have been in conti­nual anxiety over the recep­tion of his book. It comes out finally, this book that has cost him so much. It attracts quar­rels on every side. And how can he avoid them ? He had an opi­nion ; he sup­por­ted it with his wri­tings ; he did not know that a man two hun­dred lea­gues away had said exactly the oppo­site. Yet now war is being decla­red.

Even then, if he could have hoped to obtain some consi­de­ra­tion ! No. He is at best estee­med by those who have applied them­sel­ves to the same science as he. A phi­lo­so­pher has a sove­reign dis­dain of a man whose head is full of facts ; he is in turn regar­ded as a visio­nary by the man who has a good memory.

As for those who pro­fess an arro­gant igno­rance, they would like the whole human race to be buried in the obli­vion where they them­sel­ves will be.

A man who lacks a talent conso­les him­self by dis­dai­ning it ; he remo­ves the obs­ta­cle he encoun­te­red bet­ween merit and him­self, and in that way finds him­self on the same level as the man whose wri­tings he fears.

Moreover, we must add, to an equi­vo­cal repu­ta­tion, the pri­va­tion of plea­su­res and the loss of health.

Paris this 26th day of the moon of Chahban 1720

First published in edition B (1721).

The contrast parallels Pascal’s opposition of the “infinitely large” and “infinitely small” in his Pensées (no. 230).

This is the traditional model of the “republic of letters” based on a network of correspondences, with which the network of academies was now competing, privileging direct contact and discussion, as Montesquieu himself had experienced in Bordeaux.

Animals, in accordance with Descartes’s theory of animals as machines (Discourse on Method, part V).

In December 1714, Nicolas Fréret, a friend of Montesquieu’s, had been sent to the Bastille, perhaps in fact for Jansenism, but the general opinion was that it was due to a “Mémoire sur l’origine des Français” (‘Memoir on the origin of the French’) read at the Académie des Inscriptions, which had displeased the authorities.’’

Probably an allusion to the historians or historiographers whose writings serve to justify royal pretensions against the prerogatives of lords, or the pretensions of lords against the rights of peoples.