Montesquieu

Rica to Usbek in ***


The other day I was cros­sing the Pont Neuf with one of my friends. He encoun­te­red a man of his acquain­tance who he told me was a geo­me­ter ; and he bore every sign of it, for he was com­ple­tely in a fog. My friend had to pull him by the sleeve for a long time and shake him to get him to come down to his level, so absor­bed was he with a curve that might have been tor­men­ting him for over a week. They mutually expres­sed many civi­li­ties, and exchan­ged some lite­rary news ; and all this talk brought them to the door of a café which I ente­red with them.1

I noti­ced that our geo­me­ter was eagerly gree­ted there by eve­ryone, and that the café wai­ters were much more atten­tive to him than to two mus­ke­teers who were in a cor­ner. He for his part see­med to be in an agreea­ble place, for he unwrink­led his face somew­hat and began to laugh as if he had not had the least fami­lia­rity with geo­me­try.

Yet his exac­ting mind sized up eve­ry­thing that was said in the conver­sa­tion ; he was like the man who in a gar­den cut off with his sword the heads of the flo­wers that rose above the others.2 A mar­tyr to his pre­ci­sion, he was offen­ded by an irre­gu­la­rity the way sen­si­tive eye­sight is offen­ded by too bright a light. Nothing was indif­fe­rent to him, pro­vi­ded it was true ; and his conver­sa­tion for this rea­son was sin­gu­lar. He had arri­ved that day from the coun­try with a man who had seen a splen­did cha­teau and magni­fi­cent gar­dens, while he has seen nothing but an edi­fice sixty feet long by thirty-five wide, and a rec­tan­gu­lar grove of ten arpents3 ; he would much have wished the rules of pers­pec­tive had been well enough obser­ved so that the alleys of the ave­nues would seem to be of equal width throu­ghout ; and for that he would have offe­red an infal­li­ble method. He see­med quite satis­fied with a sun­dial he had dis­cer­ned,4 of most sin­gu­lar struc­ture, and he became very angry at a scho­lar who was beside me, who unhap­pily asked him if that dial mar­ked Babylonian hours.5 A news­mon­ger tal­ked about the bom­bard­ment of the cha­teau of Fuenterrabia,6 and he gave us on the spot the pro­per­ties of the line which the bombs had des­cri­bed in the air ; and deligh­ted with kno­wing that, he was totally obli­vious to the out­come. A man com­plai­ned of having been rui­ned the pre­vious win­ter by a flood : I am very glad to hear you say that, the geo­me­ter then said ; I see that I was not mis­ta­ken in the obser­va­tion I made, and that at least two inches more rain have fal­len on the earth this year than last.

A moment later he left, and we fol­lo­wed him. As he was wal­king rather briskly, and was for­get­ting to look in front of him, he was met head-on by ano­ther man ; they col­li­ded shar­ply, and from the impact they reboun­ded in sepa­rate direc­tions in direct pro­por­tion to their speed and mass.7 When they had reco­ve­red somew­hat from their diz­zi­ness, this man, put­ting his hand to his brow. said to the geo­me­ter : I am very glad you ran into me ; for I have great news to tell you : I have just deli­ve­red my Horace to the public. How can that be ? said the geo­me­ter : he has already been in public for two thou­sand years. You do not unders­tand, replied the other : it is a trans­la­tion of that ancient author which I have just brought out. I have been doing trans­la­tions for twenty years.8

Do you mean, mon­sieur, said the geo­me­ter, that it has been twenty years since you have thought ? You think for others, and they think for you ? Monsieur, said the scho­lar, have I not, in your view, ren­de­red the public a great ser­vice by making the rea­ding of the good authors acces­si­ble ? I am not exactly saying that ; I esteem as much as ano­ther the sublime geniu­ses you tra­vesty ; but you are not like them : for if you always trans­late, no one will ever trans­late you.

Translations are like those cop­per coins which indeed have the same face value as a gold piece, and are even more widely used by the com­mon peo­ple ; but they are always worn and of dubious weight.

You say you want to revive for us those illus­trious dead, and I admit that you do give them a body ; but you do not res­tore their life to them : there is always a spi­rit lacking to qui­cken them.

Why do you not rather apply your­self to fin­ding as many won­der­ful truths we dis­co­ver every day by sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion ?9 After this bit of advice they sepa­ra­ted, I think, most dis­plea­sed with each other.

Paris this last day of the moon of Rebiab II, 1719

See letter 34 ; on cafés and newsmongers, see letters 36 and 126.

The episode comes from Livy (I, 54) and is part of a stock of common references at the time. “Being somewhat severe to one of his sons, he went away to the Gabii, where having got great power, he sent to acquaint his father Tarquinius therewith ; who walking in his garden when he received the message, returned no answer, but struck off the heads of the poppies that stood before him. The son, when the messenger told him this at his return, understood very well what his father meant, and so cut off the heads of the chiefest of the Gabii.” (Collier 1701, art. “Tarquin II”.)

The arpent, a measure of area, varied by region ; the sense of the passage will be clear if it is estimated at about sixty square meters.

If he must “discern” the sundial, it must be because it is integrated into the garden’s design so that most people would not notice it.

Babylonian hours are determined by sunrise and sunset and are therefore variable by season ; their incorporation in a sundial would be unexpected in an ornamental garden.

Discreet homage to Marshall Berwick, governor of Guyana, who had besieged the citadel that surrendered on 18 June 1719 (this letter being dated 30 June).

In other words, in accordance with Cartesian mechanics. In Newtonian terms, momentum would rather be the square of their combined speed ; at this time the Académie des Sciences was still very divided between the Cartesian formula (mv) and the notion of vis viva (mv2).

Probable allusion to André Dacier, who from 1681 to 1689 published a Horace in ten books, besides translations of Marcus Aurelius, Sophocles, Plato, and Plutarch.

The opposition between calculation and translation is emblematic, for Joseph McAlhany, of a long debate since Antiquity over the status of translations : “Montesquieu’s geometer and the tyrannical spirits of translation”, Translation and the intersection of texts, contexts and politics : historical and socio-cultural perspectives, Cham (Switzerland) : Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p. 11-38.