Montesquieu

Rica to ***


In this let­ter I will tell you about a cer­tain nation that is cal­led news­mon­gers, who assem­ble in a magni­fi­cent gar­den where their idle­ness1 is ever occu­pied. They are quite use­less to the state, and fifty years of their dis­cour­sing has had no dif­fe­rent an effect than an equally long silence would have pro­du­ced ; never­the­less they believe them­sel­ves consi­de­ra­ble because they dis­cuss magni­fi­cent pro­jects and deal with impor­tant inte­rests.

The basis of their conver­sa­tions is a fri­vo­lous and silly curio­sity. There is no study so secret that they do not pre­tend to get inside it ; they would never consent not to know some­thing. They know how many wives our august sul­tan has, and how many chil­dren he begets each year ; and though they spend nothing on spies, they are infor­med of the mea­su­res he takes to humi­liate the Turkish and Mogul empe­rors.

Scarcely have they exhaus­ted the pre­sent than they rush into the future, and going to meet Providence, they anti­ci­pate it with regard to all human actions. They lead a gene­ral by the hand ; and after prai­sing him for a thou­sand stu­pid mis­ta­kes he has not made, they pre­pare a thou­sand more for him that he will not make.

They make armies fly like cra­nes, and make walls fall like card­board ; they have brid­ges over every river, secret paths in all the moun­tains, immense sto­re­hou­ses in bur­ning sands ; the only thing they lack is com­mon sense.

There is a man with whom I am lod­ging, who recei­ved this let­ter from a news­mon­ger ; since it appea­red sin­gu­lar to me, I kept it. Here it is :

MONSIEUR,

I am rarely mis­ta­ken in my conjec­tu­res about cur­rent events. On the first of January 1711 I pre­dic­ted that the empe­ror Joseph would die in the course of the year. It is true that, since he was in excel­lent health, I fea­red I would be mocked if I expres­sed myself in a very clear man­ner, for which rea­son I used somew­hat enig­ma­tic terms ; but peo­ple who can rea­son knew what I meant. On the 17th of April of that same year he died of small­pox.2

As soon as war was decla­red bet­ween the empe­ror and the Turks, I sought out all of our men in every cor­ner of the Tuileries ; I assem­bled them near the basin, and pre­dic­ted to them that we would besiege Belgrade and that it would be taken. I was for­tu­nate enough for my pre­dic­tion to come true. It is true that toward the middle of the siege I wage­red a hun­dred pis­to­les that it would be taken the 18th of August3 ; it was not taken until the next day4 : can one lose such a good bet ?

When I saw that the Spanish fleet was disem­bar­king in Sardinia, I figu­red it would conquer it ; I said so, and it tur­ned out to be true.5 Emboldened by this suc­cess, I added that this vic­to­rious fleet would go land at Finale to conquer the duchy of Milan. As I found resis­tence to get­ting this thought accep­ted, I wan­ted to main­tain it glo­riously : I wage­red fifty pis­to­les, and again lost them, for that devil Alberoni, des­pite the faith of trea­ties, sent his fleet to Sicily, and foo­led at the same time two great poli­ti­cians, the Duke of Savoy and me. All that, mon­sieur, so dis­concerts me that I have resol­ved always to pre­dict and never to wager. Formerly we in the Tuileries did not know the use of wagers, and the late M. l. c. d. L.6 never allo­wed them ; but since a band of fops has infil­tra­ted our ranks, we no lon­ger know what is going on. We can scar­cely open our lips to announce a piece of news without one of these young men pro­po­sing to bet against it.

The other day, as I was ope­ning my manus­cript and adjus­ting my eye­glas­ses on my nose, one of these brag­garts, sei­zing pre­ci­sely on the inter­val bet­ween the first word and the second, said to me : I wager a hun­dred pis­to­les against. I pre­ten­ded not to notice this out­lan­dish beha­vior, and begin­ning again, but lou­der, I said : Marshall de ***, having lear­ned… That is false, he said ; you always have out­lan­dish news, none of it makes any sense. I entreat you, mon­sieur, to do me the plea­sure of len­ding me thirty pis­to­les, for I confess that these wagers have greatly com­pro­mi­sed me. I am sen­ding you a copy of two let­ters which I have writ­ten to the minis­ter. I am, etc.7

Letter from a news­mon­ger to the minis­ter :

MONSEIGNEUR,

I am the most zea­lous sub­jet the king has ever had. I is I who obli­ged one of my friends to carry out the pro­ject which I had concei­ved of a book to demons­trate that Louis the Great was grea­ter than all the prin­ces who have meri­ted the name great.8 I have long been wor­king on ano­ther work that will do even more honor to our nation, if your great­ness will grant me a pri­vi­lege.9 My pur­pose is to prove that since the begin­ning of the monar­chy the French have never been defea­ted, and that what the his­to­rians have said so far of our disad­van­ta­ges are veri­ta­ble impos­tu­res. I am obli­ged to cor­rect them on many occa­sions, and dare flat­ter myself that I am espe­cially brilliant in cri­ti­que. I am, Monseigneur…

MONSEIGNEUR,

Since our loss of M. le c. d. L., we beseech you to have the good­ness to allow us to elect a pre­si­dent. Disorder has come into our confe­ren­ces,10 and the affairs of state are not trea­ted there with the same dis­cus­sion as in the past ; our young men live utterly without defe­rence to the elders, and among them­sel­ves without dis­ci­pline. It is truly the coun­sel of Rehoboam, where the young hold sway over the old.11 It does not help to point out to them that we were pea­ce­fully in pos­ses­sion of the Tuileries twenty years before they came into the world ; I think they will finally drive us out, and that, for­ced to leave these pre­mi­ses, where we have so often conju­red the sha­des of our French heroes, we will have to go hold our confe­ren­ces in the Jardin du Roi, or in some other more dis­tant place. I am…

Paris this 7th day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 1719

The Tuileries, a royal garden, was the meeting center of the most notable newsmongers (nouvellistes).

Joseph I was emperor of the house of Austria (1678-1711), and indeed died of smallpox on 17 April 1711. But the newsmonger’s science more resembles astrology.

1717 [author’s note].

Prince Eugene of Savoy, generalissimo of emperor Charles VI, launched his troops against the Turks in July 1716 ; “having won a signal victory near this fort on 16 August 1717, it was taken two days later by capitulation” (Moreri, 1732). Cf. letter 119.

Alberoni, chief minister of Philip V of Spain, attacked Sardinia on 20 August 1717. Eight thousand Spaniards and six hundred horses overran the island in less than two months. Then he attacked Sicily in July 1818.

Count Joachim de Lionne, who died on 31 March 1716. According to the obituary in the Mercure de France, he was first squire in the royal stable, “but had not exercised that function for a long time when he died. The greatest politicians and the oldest newsmongers of the Jardin Royal des Tuilleries all recognize him as their sovereign, and consider him a marvel” (April 1716, p. 181-182).

A standard formula, shortened from “I am, monsieur, your very humble and very obediant servant.”

This project was carried out by the royal historiographer, Claude Guyonnet de Vertron, in Le Nouveau Panthéon, ou le rapport des divinités du paganisme, des héros de l’Antiquité, et des princes surnommés grands, aux vertus et aux actions de Louis le Grand (Paris : Morel and Charpentier, 1686).

A privilège was exclusive right to publication for a fixed period of time.

The newsmongers were organized into societies, and their sessions recorded.

See I Kings (III Kings) 12:6-14.