Montesquieu

Rica to Nathanial Lévi, a Jewish phy­si­cian in Livorno


You ask me what I think of the vir­tue of amu­lets and the potency of talis­mans. Why do you ask me ? You are a Jew, and I am a Muhammadan, which is to say that we are both quite cre­du­lous.

I always carry on me more than two thou­sand pas­sa­ges of the holy Qur’an ; I attach a lit­tle packet to my arms in which are writ­ten the names of more than two hun­dred der­vi­ches ; those of Ali, Fatmé, and all the pure are hid­den in more than twenty pla­ces in my clo­thing.1

Yet I do not disap­prove of those who reject the vir­tue we attri­bute to cer­tain words ; it is much more dif­fi­cult for us to ans­wer their argu­ments than for them to ans­wer our expe­rien­ces.

I wear all these holy scraps from long habit, to conform to a uni­ver­sal prac­tice ; I think that if they have no more vir­tue than the rings and other orna­ments we put on, they have no less. But you, you place all your confi­dence in some mys­te­rious let­ters, and without that pro­tec­tion you would be in conti­nual anxiety.2

Men are truly unfor­tu­nate : they float end­lessly bet­ween false expec­ta­tions and ridi­cu­lous fears, and ins­tead of depen­ding on rea­son, they think up mons­ters to inti­mi­date them or phan­toms that seduce them.

What effect do you expect the arran­ge­ment of cer­tain let­ters to have ? What effect do you expect their disar­ran­ge­ment to be able to trou­ble ? What rela­tion have they with the winds, to calm tem­pests ; with gun­pow­der, to defeat its energy ; with what the phy­si­cians call humeur pec­cante,3 and the mor­bi­fic cause of ill­nes­ses, to cure them ?

What is extra­or­di­nary is that those who tax their rea­son to make it connect cer­tain events to occult vir­tues, have no less an effort to make to keep them­sel­ves from seeing the true cause.

You will tell me that cer­tain spells have cau­sed bat­tles to be won ; and I will tell you that you must blind your­self not to find in the situa­tion of the ter­rain, the num­ber or cou­rage of the sol­diers, and the expe­rience of the cap­tains, suf­fi­cient cau­ses to pro­duce that effect, the cause of which you want not to know.

I will allow with you for the moment that there are spells ; sup­po­sed with me in turn for a moment that there are none, for that is not impos­si­ble. This conces­sion you make to me does not pre­vent two armies from being able to fight : would you have it that, in that case, nei­ther of the two can achieve the vic­tory ?

Do you believe their des­tiny will remain unde­ci­ded until some invi­si­ble power comes to deter­mine it : that all blows will be lost, all the pru­dence vain, and all the cou­rage use­less ?

Do you think that death, made pre­sent in such occa­sions in a thou­sand ways, can­not pro­duce in the minds those frigh­te­ned panics which you have such dif­fi­culty explai­ning ? Do you expect that in an army of a hun­dred thou­sand men there can­not be a sin­gle timid man ? Do you believe that that man’s dis­cou­ra­ge­ment can­not pro­duce the dis­cou­ra­ge­ment of ano­ther ; that the second who is lea­ving a third does not soon cause him to aban­don a fourth ? It takes no more than that for des­pair of win­ning sud­denly to seize an entire army, and seize it all the more easily the more nume­rous it is.

Everyone knows and eve­ryone feels that men, like all crea­tu­res that tend to pre­ser­ving their being, pas­sio­na­tely love life. We know that in gene­ral, and we ask why in a par­ti­cu­lar situa­tion they have fea­red losing it ?

Although the holy books of all nations are filled with these panic or super­na­tu­ral ter­rors, I am ima­gi­ning nothing so fri­vo­lous, because in order to make sure that an effect that can be pro­du­ced by a hun­dred thou­sand natu­ral cau­ses is super­na­tu­ral, one must first have exa­mi­ned whe­ther none of those cau­ses has acted, which is impos­si­ble.

I shall not say more about it, Nathanial ; it seems to me that the mat­ter does not merit such serious dis­cus­sion.

Paris this 20th day of the moon of Chahban 1720

P. S. As I was clo­sing, I heard someone in the street haw­king a let­ter from a pro­vin­cial phy­si­cian to a phy­si­cian in Paris (for here all tri­fles are prin­ted, publi­shed, and pur­cha­sed) ; I thought I should send it to you, because it has some connec­tion with our sub­ject. There are many things that I do not unders­tand, but you who are a phy­si­cian must unders­tand the lan­guage of your col­lea­gues.

Letter from a provincial physician to a physician in Paris

There was in our city a sick man who had not slept for thirty-five days. His phy­si­cian pres­cri­bed him opium, but he could not resign him­self to taking it, and when he had the cup in his hand he was more uncer­tain than ever. Finally he said to his phy­si­cian : Monsieur, leave me in peace just until tomor­row ; I know a man who does not prac­tice medi­cine, but who has in his house a limit­less num­ber of reme­dies for insom­nia : allow me to send for him, and if I do not sleep tonight, I pro­mise you I will come back to you. The phy­si­cian dis­mis­sed, the patient had the bed cur­tains clo­sed, and said to a lit­tle ser­vant : Listen, go to the house of M. Anis, and tell him to come talk with me. M. Anis arri­ves : My dear M. Anis, I am on my dea­th­bed ; I can­not sleep : might you not have in your shop La C. du G.4 or some devo­tio­nal book com­po­sed by an R. P. J.5 that you have been una­ble to sell ?6 For often the most kept reme­dies are the best. Monsieur, said the book­sel­ler, I have Father Caussin’s La Cour sainte in six volu­mes7 to serve you ; I shall send it to you ; I hope it helps. If you want the works of Reverend Father Rodriguez, a Spanish Jesuit,8 be sure to get it ; but take my advice, and let us stick with Father Caussin ; I hope that with God’s help one period of Father Caussin’s will do as much for you as an entire sheet of La C. du G. Thereupon M. Anis left and rushed to get the remedy in his shop. La Cour sainte arri­ved ; they shake the dust from it ; the patient’s son, a young school­boy, begins to read it. He felt its first effect ; at the second page he was pro­noun­cing in an ill-arti­cu­la­ted voice, and already the whole com­pany was fee­ling a weak­ness coming on ; an ins­tant later eve­ryone was sno­ring but the patient, who after a long dis­tress, finally dozed off.

The phy­si­cian arri­ved early in the mor­ning : Well, did we take my opium ? No one ans­we­red ; the wife, the daugh­ter, and the lit­tle boy, in the throes of joy, sho­wed him the Father Caussin. He asks what that is ; they say to him : Long live Father Caussin ; we must have him bound. Who would have thought it ? Who would have belie­ved it ? It is a mira­cle. Here, mon­sieur, have a look at Father Caussin, this is the volume that put my father to sleep ; and the­reu­pon they explai­ned to him how that had come about.

The phy­si­cian was a subtle man, full of the secrets of the cabala and the power of words and spi­rits. That struck him, and after seve­ral reflec­tions he deci­ded utterly to change his prac­tice. There is a most sin­gu­lar fact, he said. I have an expe­ri­ment in hand ; it must be pur­sued fur­ther. Now why could a spi­rit not trans­mit to its work the same qua­li­ties it has itself ? Do we not see this every day ? At least that is worth being tried ; I am tired of apo­the­ca­ries, their syrups, their juleps,9 and all the Galenic drugs10 ruin patients and their health : let us change our method, let us test the vir­tue of spi­rits. On this thought he set up a new phar­macy, as you shall see by the des­crip­tion I am going to give you of the prin­ci­pal reme­dies he put into prac­tice.

A purgative infusion

Take three folios of Aristotle’s Logic in Greek, two folios of the most inci­sive trea­tise of scho­las­tic theo­logy, as for exam­ple the subtle Scot,11 four of Paracelsus, one of Avicenna, six of Averrhoes, three of Porphyry, as many of Plotinus, as many of Iamblicus12 : infuse them all toge­ther for twenty-four hours, and take four pin­ches per day.

A more violent purgative

Take ten A** du C*** concer­ning the B** and the C** des I**,13 dis­till them in a dou­ble boi­ler ; dilute a drop of the pun­gent, piquant humour they will yield into glass of ordi­nary water ; confi­dently swal­low the whole.

An emetic

Take six ora­tions, any twelve fune­ral ora­tions, taking care howe­ver not to use those of M. de N.,14 a col­lec­tion of new ope­ras, fifty novels, thirty new memoirs ; put all into a crock, let it digest for two days, then dis­till it with a feu de sable15 ; and if all that is not suf­fi­cient :

Another, stronger one

Take a folio of mar­bled paper16 that has been used to cover a col­lec­tion of the wri­tings of the J. F.17 ; infuse them for three minu­tes’ time ; heat a spoon­ful of this infu­sion and swal­low.

A very simple remedy to cure asthma

Read all the works of the Reverend Father Maimbourg, for­mer Jesuit,18 taking care not to stop before the end of each sen­tence, and you will gra­dually the faculty of brea­thing retur­ning to you, with no need to repeat the remedy.

To protect against scabies, rash, ringworm, and horse farcy19

Take three cate­go­ries20 of Aristotle, two meta­phy­si­cal degrees,21 a dis­tinc­tion,22 six ver­ses of Chapelain,23 one phrase taken from the let­ters of the abbé de Saint Cyran24 ; write it all on a piece of paper which you will fold, attach to a rib­bon, and wear around the neck.

Miraculum Chymicum de violenta fermentatione cum fumo, igne, et flammā

Misce Quesnellianam infu­sio­nem25, cum infu­sione lal­le­ma­niana26 ; fiat fer­men­ta­tio cum magnā vi, impetu, et toni­tru, aci­dis pugnan­ti­bus, et invi­cem pene­tran­ti­bus alca­li­nos sales : fiet eva­po­ra­tio arden­tium spi­ri­tuum ; pone liquo­rem fer­men­ta­tum in Alembico ; nihil inde extra­hes, et nihil inve­nies, nisi caput mor­tuum27.

Lenitivum

Recipe Molinae28 ano­dini char­tas duas, Escobaris relaxa­tivi pagi­nas sex29, Vasquii emol­lien­tis folium unum30 ; infunde in aquæ com­mu­nis lib. iiii ad consump­tio­nem dimi­diæ par­tis colen­tur et expri­man­tur ; et in expres­sione dis­solve Bauni deter­sivi31, et Tamburini abluen­tis folia iii.32

Fiat clis­ter33.

In clo­ro­sim, quam vul­gus pal­li­dos colo­res,34 aut febrim ama­to­riam appe­lat

Recipe Aretini figu­ras qua­tuor35, R. Thomæ Sanchii de Matrimonio folia ii36 ; infun­dan­tur in aquæ com­mu­nis libras quin­que. Fiat pti­sana ape­riens37.

These are the drugs which our phy­si­cian put into prac­tice, with the suc­cess one can ima­gine. He did not wish, he would say, in order not to ruin his patients, make use of rare reme­dies, which are almost nonexis­tent, as for exam­ple a dedi­ca­tory epistle that has made not a sin­gle per­son yawn, too short a pre­face, a pas­to­ral let­ter writ­ten by a bishop, and the work of a Jansenist scor­ned by a Jansenist or admi­red by a Jesuit. He said that these sorts of reme­dies are only good for sup­por­ting char­la­tanry, against which he had an invin­ci­ble aver­sion.

[Supplementary Letters VII and VIII of the 1758 edi­tion would be pla­ced here.] |Supplementary Letter VII|

Chardin had described the “mania” of talismans and amulets in Persia (V, 145-146). The analogous Jewish practice is the use of phylacteries based on a literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:8 and the parchments which Jews attached to their doors.

Mysterious letters allude to the cabala, the practitioners of which “principally study the combination of certain words, certain letters, certain numbers, by means of which they claim to discover future things, and fathom the meaning of several difficult passages of scripture” (Calmet D, vol. I, p. 174).

Medical term for malign or excess humours which need to be evacuated.

La Corruption du goût, in other words the famous treatise of Mme Dacier, Des causes de la corruption du goust (‘On the causes of the corruption of taste’, 1714) ; Montesquieu might have camouflaged the title because Mme Dacier had just died when the Persian Letters was published.

Révérend Père jésuite (reverend Jesuit Father).

Jean Anisson (1642-1721), a Lyon bookseller, who in 1691 set up shop in Paris and became director of the royal publishing house at the Louvre. His catalogue indeed included many serious writers : Bossuet, Cicero, Du Cange.

Nicolas Caussin (1583-1651), author of La Cour sainte ou institution chrétienne des grands (Paris : Chapelet, 1625).

Alonso Rodriguez (1538-1616), author of Exercicio de Perfección y vertudes cristianas (1609). There were many translations into several European tongues ; a well-known English translation of 1697 was entitled Practice of Christian Perfection.

“A medicinal potion made with distilled waters and other ingredients” (Académie, 1694).

Inspired by Claude Galien, a celebrated second-century Greek physician.

“A subtle spirit is one that easily understands things.[…] Scot was called in the School the subtle doctor” (Furetière, 1690.) The Fransiscan John Duns Scot (1265-1308), was a professor at Oxford, Paris and Cologne ; he occupied a dominant position in his order ; his conception of God divided scholastics between Thomism and Scotism.

The common trait of most of these philosophers, whom Montesquieu did not necessarily all know first-hand, is that they appear as the “subtlest” of thinkers, but also as commentators who compound the complexity of the authors to whom they apply themselves.

Ten edicts of the Council (actes du conseil) concerning the Bank and the Compagnie des Indes (readings proposed by Adam et Vernière) ? Or concerning the Bull and the Constitution of the Jesuits (Barckhausen, 1897) ? Though one might hesitate between Constitution and Compagnie, it seems that Barckhausen’s interpretation is more in keeping with the “pungent, piquant humour” subsequently evoked.

No doubt Esprit Fléchier, bishop of Nîmes.

In chemistry the fire of sand is, according to Furetière, the ninth of ten degrees of the heat of fire, “that of great glassworks, which serves to vitrify the ashes of plants, sand and stones” (1690, art. “Feu”).

Paper in variegated colors used for flyleaves.

The Jeux Floraux (of Toulouse), a poetic academy dating back to 1323.

Louis Maimbourg (1610-1686), preacher and historian, was ordered by the pope in 1681 to leave the Jesuits for having defended Anglican freedoms.

“Illness of horses or steers. It is a poison or corruption of the blood that appears in the form of knobs or cords along the veins, and by ulcers which resist healing even by inserting a glowing iron” (i.e., by cauterization ; Furetière, 1690).

A category is “a division of all beings according to whether they are in nature, and can be conceived by the mind […]. Most of the ancient philosophers established ten categories after Aristotle : substance, quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, situation, habit or disposition.” (Furetière, 1690.)

Metaphysics : “The last part of philosophy, in which the spirit rises above created and corporal beings, fixes on the contemplation of God, of the angels, and spiritual things, and judges the principles of all knowledge by abstraction and detachment from material things.” (Furetière, 1690).

See letter 27, note 8.

His La Pucelle ou la France délivrée (‘The Maid, or France delivered’, 1656), an epic about Joan of Arc, had given rise to the virulent sarcasms of Boileau.

A major figure in the Jansenist movement.

The Nouveau Testament en français avec des réflexions morales sur chaque verset (‘New Testament, with moral observations on each verse’, 1693) by Pasquier Quesnel (1634-1719) contributed greatly to the birth of the bull Unigenitus, which condemned 115 propositions taken from his work ; see letter 22, notes 11 and 16.

Jacques Philippe Lallemant, Jesuit author of Le Père Quesnel séditieux dans ses Réflexions sur le Nouveau Testament (1704). Jesuits and Jansenists are thus dismissed with equal disregard.

“A chemical miracle born of violent fermentation with smoke, fire, and flame. Mix an infusion of Quesnel with one of Lallemant. Allow to take place a fermentation of great violence, with impact and terrible noise, the acids and salts mutually affronting and infiltrating each other : an evaporation of the ardent spirits will occur ; place the fermented liquor in an alambic ; nothing will come of it, and nothing will be found there if not a death’s head.”

Louis Molina (1553-1601), Spanish Jesuit and author of De concordia gratiæ et liberi arbitrii, which aroused the opposition of Jansenists by defending the idea of grâce suffisante (‘sufficient’ grace) as opposed to grâce efficace or ‘efficacious grace’.

Antonio Escobar (?-1669) was a Spanish casuist whose Summa theologiæ moralis (1659) brought him 53 mentions in Pascal’s satirical Lettres provinciales.

Gabriel Vazquez Vazquez (1549-1604), S. J., called the “Spanish Augustine.”

Étienne Bauny (1564-1649), S. J., author of a Somme des péchés qui se commentent en tous états (1630) which went through several editions and was placed on the Index in 1640.

An allusion probably not to Michel-Ange Tamburini (1648-1730), general of the Jesuits since 1706 and opposed to Cartesianism, but rather Tommaso Tamburini (1591-1675), another Jesuit, author of an Explicatio Decalogi (1659) and numerous other theological works, which aroused violent controversies.

“Lenitive. Take two folios of Molina, a sedative ; six folios of Escobar, a laxative ; a folio of Vasquez, an emollient ; put into four pounds of ordinary water. Filter them and make them render their juice until it is reduced by half. In this juice dissolve three folios of Bauny, a detersive, and of Tamburini, a purifier. Take as an enema.”

“Girls […] who are too amorous have pale colors » (Furetière, 1690, art. “Couleur”).

Pietro Aretino (1492-1557), “famous for his filthy and satirical works,” wrote the Sonetti lussuriosi and the Ragionamenti, in which he “treats the disorders of nuns, married women, and whores” (Bayle, DHC, art. “Aretin”). As his sonnets had accompanied sixteen obscene engravings of Raimondi, the “postures” of Aretino are often evoked at the time as a metonym for pornography.

Thomas Sanchez, Spanish casuist, wrote De matrimonio (1637), in which he discusses all the cases of conscience concerning marriage. In Bayle’s view, “This prodigious volume […] contains a very subtle examination of all the impurities imaginable ; it is a cloaca that encloses horrible things which one would not dare speak” (quoting Jurieu : DHC, art. “Sanchez, Thomas,” remarque B.) Cf. letter 128, note 4.

“Against chlorosis, commonly called ‘pale colors’ or ‘lovesickness’. Take four illustrations of Aretino, two folios of the Reverand Thomas Sanchez, De matrimonio ; place them in five pounds of ordinary water. Take this as an appetizer infusion.”