Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


The world, my dear Rhedi, is not incor­rup­ti­ble ; even the hea­vens are not. Astronomers are eye­wit­nes­ses to all the chan­ges that are the very natu­ral effects of the uni­ver­sal move­ment of mat­ter.

The Earth is sub­ject like the other pla­nets to the same laws of motion. It suf­fers within itself a per­pe­tual com­bat of its prin­ci­ples ; sea and conti­nent seem to be eter­nally at war ; every ins­tant pro­du­ces new com­bi­na­tions.

Men in a dwel­ling so sub­ject to change are in an equally uncer­tain state : a hun­dred thou­sand cau­ses can act, the smal­lest of which can des­troy them, and a for­tiori increase or dimi­nish their num­bers.

I will not talk to you about those indi­vi­dual catas­tro­phes, so com­mon in the his­to­ries, that have des­troyed cities and entire king­doms ; there are gene­ral ones that have many times put the human race within an inch of its life.

The his­to­ries are full of those uni­ver­sal pla­gues that have by turns rava­ged the world. They speak of one among others that was so vio­lent it bur­ned plants to the very roots and was felt throu­ghout the known world, as far as the empire of Cathay ; one degree more cor­rup­tion might have des­troyed all of human­kind in a sin­gle day.

Less than two cen­tu­ries ago the most sha­me­ful of all disea­ses mani­fes­ted itself in Europe, in Asia, and in Africa.1 In a very short time it had pro­di­gious effects ; men were fini­shed if it had conti­nued its advance with the same fury. Stricken with ill­nes­ses from birth, una­ble to sus­tain the weight of social func­tions, they would have peri­shed mise­ra­bly.

What if that poi­son had been a lit­tle more potent ? And it doubt­less would have become so, if they had not been for­tu­nate enough to find a remedy as power­ful as the one that was dis­co­ve­red.2 Maybe that disease atta­cking the repro­duc­tive organs would have atta­cked repro­duc­tion itself.

But why speak of the des­truc­tion that could have come to the human race ? Did it not indeed occur, and did the Flood not reduce it to a sin­gle family ?

Can those who are fami­liar with nature, and have a rea­so­na­ble notion of God, unders­tand that mat­ter and things crea­ted should date back no far­ther than six thou­sand years ?3 That God should have post­po­ned his han­di­work for all eter­nity, and only yes­ter­day made use of his crea­tive power ? Could it be because he could not have, or because he did not want to ? But if he was una­ble to at one time, he was una­ble at ano­ther : it is the­re­fore because he did not want to. But as there is no suc­ces­sion in God, if we allow that he could have wan­ted some­thing once, he has always wan­ted it, and from the begin­ning.

Therefore we must not count the years of the world ; the num­ber of grains of sand in the sea is not more com­pa­ra­ble to them than an ins­tant.

Nevertheless all the his­to­rians speak to us of a first father ; they depict for us the begin­nings of human­kind. Is it not natu­ral to think that Adam was saved from a com­mon cala­mity as Noah was from the Flood, and that these great events have been fre­quent on earth since the crea­tion of the world ?

I have had the satis­fac­tion of offe­ring you these gene­ral notions before I reply more spe­ci­fi­cally to your let­ter on the dimi­nu­tion of peo­ples that has occur­red in the last seven­teen or eigh­teen cen­tu­ries ; I shall show you in a later let­ter that, inde­pen­dently of the phy­si­cal cau­ses, there are moral cau­ses that have pro­du­ced this effect.

Paris this 8th day of the moon of Chahban 1718

Syphilis, which was believed to have originated in the New World : see letter 102, note 5.

Treatment by mercury.

According to English chronologist John Marsham (Chronicus Canon ægyptiacus, 1672), the creation of the world occurred in 4004 B.C.E.