Montesquieu

Rica to Usbek in ***


Here is a let­ter which I recei­ved yes­ter­day from a scho­lar ; you will find it sin­gu­lar.

MONSIEUR,

Six months ago I inhe­ri­ted from a very rich uncle, who left me five or six hun­dred thou­sand livres and a super­bly fur­ni­shed house. There is plea­sure in pos­ses­sing wealth when you know how to make good use of it. I have no ambi­tion, nor any taste for plea­su­res ; I am almost always shut up in a study where I lead the life of a scho­lar ; that is where a curious lover of vene­ra­ble anti­quity is to be found.

When my uncle had clo­sed his eyes, I would very much have liked to have him buried with the cere­mo­nies obser­ved by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but at the time I had nei­ther lachry­ma­to­ries, nor urns, nor ancient lamps.

But since, I have acqui­red many of those pre­cious rari­ties ; a few days ago I sold my sil­ver plate to buy a clay lamp which had ser­ved a Stoic phi­lo­so­pher. I have dives­ted myself of all the mir­rors which my uncle had used to cover almost all the walls of his apart­ments in order to have a small, slightly cra­cked mir­ror that was once in use by Virgil ; I was char­med to find my face reflec­ted in it rather than that of the swan of Mantova.1 Nor is that all : for a hun­dred gold louis I have bought five or six cop­per coins that were in use two thou­sand years ago. I do not know that I now have in my house a sin­gle piece of fur­ni­ture that was not made before the decline of the empire. I have a small col­lec­tion of very pre­cious and costly manus­cripts ; although it is des­troying my eye­sight to read them, I much pre­fer to use them rather than prin­ted copies, which are not as accu­rate, and which anyone can get. Although I almost never go out, I never­the­less have an inor­di­nate pas­sion to learn all the ancient paths that date from Roman times. There is one which is very near my house, which a pro­consul of the Gauls had built about twelve hun­dred years ago. When I go to my coun­try house, I never fail to pass by there, although it is most inconve­nient, and makes me go more than a lea­gue far­ther. But what really angers me is that they have pla­ced woo­den posts along it at inter­vals to mark the dis­tance from the neigh­bo­ring cities ; I am dis­traught to see these mise­ra­ble indi­ca­tors ins­tead of the mile columns that once were there ; I do not doubt that I can get my inhe­ri­tors to reins­tate them, and com­mit them to that expen­di­ture in my will. If you have, mon­sieur, any Persian manus­cript, you would do me plea­sure to sell it to me ; I will pay any­thing you want for it, and will give you in addi­tion some works by my hand which will show you that I am not a use­less mem­ber of the Republic of Letters. There you will find among other things a dis­ser­ta­tion where I show that the crown that used to be used in triumphs was of oak and not lau­rel ; you will admire ano­ther in which I show by astute conjec­tu­res drawn from the most solemn Greek authors that Cambyses was woun­ded not in the right leg but in the left ; ano­ther where I show that a small fore­head was a beauty much sought after by the Romans. I shall send you also a quarto volume in the form of an expli­ca­tion of a verse in the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. You will receive all this only in a few days ; and for now, I shall be content to send along this frag­ment from an ancient Greek mytho­lo­gist, pre­viously unpu­bli­shed, and which I have dis­co­ve­red in the dust of a library. I leave you now for an impor­tant mat­ter I must attend to, which is to res­tore a fine pas­sage of Pliny the natu­ra­list which the fifth-cen­tury copyists have stran­gely dis­fi­gu­red.2 I am, etc.

FRAGMENTS from an ancient MYTHOLOGIST

On an island near the Orcades was born a child whose father was Eolus, god of the winds, and whose mother a Caledonian nymph.3 They say of him that he lear­ned to count on his fin­gers all by him­self, and that at the age of four he already reco­gni­zed the various metals so well that when his mother tried to give him a ring of brass ins­tead of gold, he reco­gni­zed the fraud and threw it on the ground.

When he was grown, his father taught him the secret of cap­tu­ring the winds in a wines­kin, which he then sold to all tra­vel­lers ; but as that mer­chan­dise was not greatly valued in his coun­try, he left it, and set out to see the world in the com­pany of the blind god of chance.4

He lear­ned during his tra­vels that in Baetica gold shone eve­ryw­here, for which rea­son he has­te­ned there. He was very badly recei­ved by Saturn, who then rei­gned ; but that god having left the earth, he came up with the idea of going into all the cross­roads, where he cried out end­lessly in a hoarse voice : Peoples of Baetica,5 you think you are rich, because you have gold and sil­ver. Your error makes me pity you ; take my advice and leave the land of base metals ; come to the empire of the ima­gi­na­tion, and I pro­mise you riches that will asto­nish even you. Thereupon he ope­ned a good num­ber of the wines­kins which he had brought, and dis­tri­bu­ted his mer­chan­dise to whoe­ver would have some.6

The next day he retur­ned to the same cross­roads and cried : Peoples of Baetica, would you be rich ? Imagine that I myself am very rich, and the you are too ; put your­sel­ves every mor­ning in mind that your for­tune has dou­bled during the night ; then get up, and if you have cre­di­tors, go pay them with what you have ima­gi­ned, and tell them to ima­gine in their turn.7

He reap­pea­red a few days later, and spoke as fol­lows : Peoples of Baetica, I quite see that your ima­gi­na­tion is not as active as the first days ; let your­sel­ves be direc­ted by mine. Every mor­ning I shall place before your eyes a panel which will be a source of riches for you ; you will see only four words on it,8 but they will be highly signi­fi­cant, for they will deter­mine your wives’ dowries, the inhe­ri­tance of your chil­dren, and the num­ber of your ser­vants. And as for you, he said to those of the crowd who were nea­rest him, as for you, my dear chil­dren, I can call you by this name, for you have recei­ved from me a new birth : my panel will decide the magni­fi­cence of your horse and car­riage, the sump­tuous­ness of your feasts, the num­ber and sti­pend of your mis­tres­ses.

A few days later he arri­ved at the cross­road all out of breath and beside him­self with anger, he cried : Peoples of Beatica, I had advi­sed you to ima­gine, and I see that you are not doing it. Well, now I order you to.9 Thereupon he brus­quely left them, but on reflec­tion he retra­ced his steps. I learn that some of you are detes­ta­ble enough to hold onto their gold and their sil­ver ; the sil­ver is all right, but as for the gold… as for the gold… Ah, that puts me in an indi­gna­tion… I swear by my sacred wines­kins that if they do not come and bring it to me, I will punish them seve­rely.10 Then he added in an enti­rely per­sua­sive man­ner : Do you believe it is in order to keep these mise­ra­ble metals that I ask them of you ? It is a sign of my can­dor that when you brought them to me a few days ago, I imme­dia­tely yiel­ded half of it to you.11

The next day they saw him coming, and he stole up to them in a gentle and cares­sing voice : Peoples of Baetica, I learn that you have a part of your trea­su­res in foreign coun­tries ; I beg you, have them sent to me, you will make me happy, and I will be eter­nally gra­te­ful to you.12

The son of Eolus was spea­king to peo­ple who did not much want to laugh, but they could not help it ; and as a result he went back quite befudd­led. But taking cou­rage once more, he again ven­tu­red a lit­tle sup­pli­ca­tion : I know you have pre­cious sto­nes ; in the name of Jupiter, get rid of them ; nothing makes you poo­rer than that kind of thing ; get rid of them, I say13 ; if you can­not do it by your­sel­ves, I will give you excel­lent busi­ness­men : what riches are going to roll in for you if you do what I am advi­sing ! Yes, I pro­mise you all that is purest in my wines­kins.

Finally he clim­bed onto a stage, and assu­ming a more confi­dent voice, he said : Peoples of Baetica, I have com­pa­red the happy state you are in with that in which I found you when I came here : I see you as the richest peo­ple on earth ; but to cap your for­tune, allow me to take away half of your hol­dings.14 With these words, the son of Eolus waf­ted away, and left his hea­rers in inex­pres­si­ble cons­ter­na­tion. For this rea­son he retur­ned the next day, and spoke thus : I per­cei­ved yes­ter­day that my words dis­plea­sed you extre­mely. Well, do as if I had said nothing.15 It is true, half is too much ; we will just have to find other expe­dients for achie­ving the end I had in mind. Let us gather our riches in a sin­gle place ; we can easily do that, for they do not fill a great deal of space : in an ins­tant three-fourths of them disap­pea­red.16

Paris this 9th day of the moon of Chahban 1720

A surname of Virgil, born near Mantova.

Father Hardouin. His edition of Pliny the Elder (1685) was a landmark.

Caledonia was the Roman name of Scotland. John Law was born in Edinburgh, where his father was a goldsmith and banker, in 1671.

An avid gambler, Law made good use of the calculation of probabilities. His passage was noted in France in 1692, 1695 (at the court of St Germain), in 1707 in Genoa and Venice, finally in Holland in 1712 ; he settled in France in 1714. In 1713 he made contact with the comptroller general Desmarets. The king’s death and especially the opposition of Rouillé de Coudray overturned his bank project, presented to the Council in October 1715. It was in August 1719 that the System began its real establishment.

In Antiquity, Baetica was one of the two Roman provinces in Spain, corresponding roughly to Andalusia, and could also designate the Iberian peninsula. Spain’s great wealth was in fact diminished by the flood of precious metals from America (see letters 18, 102, 114, 130 and the notes), but it is really France that this allegory targets.

Reference is to the annuities bought from the Compagnie des Indes beginning in August 1719. The first reactions were enthusiastic, as the promised level of gains was supposed to reach 2000%.

Satire of paper money or stocks in the place of metals.

Presumably figures showing the price of shares ; or perhaps Tel est notre plaisir, the operational clause of a royal edict.

The edict of 28 January 1720 ordered the immediate mandatory rate of bank notes and forced those holding specie or precious metals to yield them to the treasury.

An edict of 11 March 1720 announced that as of 1 May, gold would no longer be legal tender, silver alone being retained.

An edict of 3 December 1719 devalued metalic moneys, while since 1 December specie was no longer accepted at the bank.

On 20 June the king’s subjects were ordered to repatriate funds placed abroad.

A declaration on 4 February 1720 forbade the wearing of diamonds, pearls, and other precious stones ; others (18 February) limited goldsmiths’ use of precious metals. The prohibitions were reiterated on 4 July in the deflationary context following the crisis of 21 May.

The edict of 21 May 1720, after the habitual preamble evoking the catastrophic situation inherited from the late king, depreciated the value of stocks and notes by 50%.

On 29 May, by an edict prepared by Law himself, but not bearing his name, gold and silver moneys were reintroduced. The return of gold was confirmed by new coinage (17 June).

Perhaps an allusion to an edict of 15 September 1720 which reduced bank accounts by three-quarters (Faure, p. 509-513), which aroused the most intense reactions.