Montesquieu

Rica to ***


Five or six months ago I was in a café ; I noti­ced there a rather well-dres­sed gent­le­man who was attrac­ting atten­tion ; he was spea­king of the plea­sure it was to be living in Paris, and depo­ring his situa­tion which obli­ged him to live in the pro­vin­ces. I have fif­teen thou­sand livres of land income, he said, and I would feel hap­pier if I had the quar­ter of that worth in money and assets trans­por­ta­ble anyw­here.1 However I pres­sure my far­mers and weigh them down with judi­cial expen­ses, I only make the them more insol­vent ; I have never been able to see a hun­dred pis­to­les2 at a time ; if I owed ten thou­sand francs, they would have all my pro­per­ties sei­zed, and I would be in the poo­rhouse.

I left without paying much atten­tion to all this talk ; but fin­ding myself yes­ter­day in that neigh­bo­rhood, I ente­red the same house, and saw there a grave man with a pale and elon­ga­ted face who in the middle of five or six spee­chi­fiers see­med som­ber and dis­trac­ted until the moment when, sud­denly spea­king up : Yes, mes­sieurs, he said, rai­sing his voice, I am rui­ned. I have nothing left to live on : for I pre­sently have in my house two hun­dred thou­sand livres in bank notes and a hun­dred thou­sand écus of sil­ver ; I find myself in a deplo­ra­ble situa­tion : I thought I was rich, and here I am in the poo­rhouse. If at least I had just a small piece of land where I could retire, I would be sure of having some­thing to live on ; but I have nothing any­thing even as big as this hat in real estate.

By chance I tur­ned my head in ano­ther direc­tion, and saw ano­ther man who was gri­ma­cing like a man pos­ses­sed. Who can you trust today ? he cried. There is a trai­tor whom I thought such a good friend that I had lent him my money, and he has paid it back : what a hor­ri­ble betrayal ! No mat­ter what he does now, in my mind he will fore­ver be disho­no­red.3

Right nearby him was a very poorly dres­sed man, who, rai­sing his eyes to hea­ven, was saying : God bless the pro­jects of our minis­ters ; may I see stocks at two thou­sand4 and all the foot­men in Paris richer than their mas­ters. I had the curio­sity to ask his name. He is an extre­mely poor man, I was told, for he has a poor trade : he is a genea­lo­gist, and he hopes his art will be pro­fi­ta­ble if for­tu­nes conti­nue, and all these nou­veaux riches will have need of him to reform their names, scrub clean their ances­tors, and put arms on their car­ria­ges.5 He ima­gi­nes he is going to make as many men of qua­lity as he wants, and qui­vers with joy at seeing his clients mul­ti­ply.

Finally I saw an old man enter, pale and thin, whom I reco­gni­zed as a news­mon­ger before he had taken a seat6 ; he was not among those who have a vic­to­rious assu­rance against all set­backs, and are fore­ver fore­seeing vic­to­ries and tro­phies ; he was on the contrary one of those qua­kers who have nothing but bad news. Business is really bad on the Spanish side, he said ; we have no cavalry on the bor­der, and it is to be fea­red lest Prince Pio, who has a large corps, raise levies throu­ghout Languedoc7 Opposite me was a rather seedy phi­lo­so­pher, who took pity on the news­mon­ger and shrug­ged his shoul­ders as the other rai­sed his voice ; I approa­ched him, and he whis­pe­red to me : You see that this smug fel­low has been tel­ling us for an hour about his fears for Languedoc, and I yes­ter­day eve­ning sigh­ted a spot on the sun, which, if it increa­sed, could cause all of nature to atro­phy ; and I said not a word.

Paris this 17th day of the moon of Rhamazan 1719

I.e., such as letters of credit, loans, etc., in contrast to the real estate values that constitute his present fortune.

About a thousand livres or francs.

This is either an irony on the indebtedness of much of the nobility, or a protest at being paid back in devalued paper money in the fluctuations of 1720 (an anachronism, since this letter is from November 1719).

Those of the Compagnie des Indes, which had soared in the summer of 1719.

I.e., (fanciful) coats of arms.

See letter 124.

Pio de Savoye-y-Corte Real became governor of Madrid in February 1714 and of all of Catalona in May 1715 (Moreri, 1732, art. “Pio de Savoye-y-Corte Real”).