Montesquieu

Rhedi to Usbek in Paris


During my stay in Europe, I am rea­ding the ancient and modern his­to­rians. I com­pare all the times ; I enjoy seeing them go by, so to speak, in front of me, and espe­cially pause my mind on those great chan­ges that have made some eras so dif­fe­rent from others, and the earth so unlike itself.

You have per­haps not noti­ced some­thing that cau­ses me sur­prise every day. Why is the world so spar­sely popu­la­ted in com­pa­ri­son to what it once was ?1 How could nature have lost the pro­di­gious fecun­dity of the ear­liest times ? Could it be already in its old age, and could it be fal­ling from exhaus­tion ?

I spent more than a year in Italy, where I saw only the remains of that ancient Italy that was once so famous. Although eve­ryone lives in the cities, they are enti­rely deso­late and under­po­pu­la­ted ; it seems they still sub­sist only to mark the place where once were those power­ful cities of which his­tory has spo­ken so much.

There are peo­ple who main­tain that the city of Rome alone once contai­ned more peo­ple than the lar­gest king­dom in Europe has today ; one Roman citi­zen might have had ten or even twenty thou­sand sla­ves, not coun­ting those who wor­ked in the coun­try hou­ses ; and as they num­be­red four or five hun­dred thou­sand citi­zens, one can­not set the num­ber of inha­bi­tants without the ima­gi­na­tion rebel­ling.

Once there were power­ful king­doms in Sicily, and nume­rous peo­ples who have since disap­pea­red ; that island has nothing consi­de­ra­ble left except its vol­ca­nos.

Greece is so empty that it contains not the hun­dredth part of its for­mer inha­bi­tants.

Spain, once so well filled, has nothing but unin­ha­bi­ted coun­try­side to show today,2 and France is nothing com­pa­red to the ancient Gaul of which Caesar speaks.

The nor­thern coun­tries are greatly dimi­ni­shed, and its peo­ples are far from the nec­ces­sity they once saw of divi­ding up and sen­ding away like swarm colo­nies and entire nations to seek new abo­des.

Poland and Turkey in Europe have hardly any peo­ple left.

You could not find in America the two-hun­dredth part of the men who once made up such great empi­res there.3

Asia is hardly bet­ter off. The Asia minor that contai­ned so many power­ful monar­chies and such a pro­di­gious num­ber of large cities now has no more than two or three. With res­pect to grea­ter Asia, the part that is under Turkish rule is not bet­ter filled ; and as for the part that is under the domi­na­tion of our kings, if we com­pare it to the flou­ri­shing state it once was in, we will see that it has but a small por­tion of the inha­bi­tants who were count­less there in the times of men like Xerxes and Darius.

As for the small sta­tes which sur­round these great empi­res, they are really aban­do­ned : such are the king­doms of Imeretia, Circassia, and Guria. All these prin­ces with their vast sta­tes count scar­cely fifty thou­sand sub­jects.

Egypt has been no less deple­ted than the other coun­tries.

In short, I range over the earth and find nothing but decay ; it is as if I were seeing it emer­ging from the rava­ges of pla­gue and famine.

Africa has always been so unk­nown that we can­not speak of it with as much pre­ci­sion as other parts of the world ; but to focus only on the coasts of the Mediterranean, which have always been known, we see that it has enor­mously decli­ned from what it was when it was a Roman pro­vince. Today its prin­ces are so weak that they are the smal­lest powers in the world.4

After a cal­cu­la­tion as exact as it can be in these sorts of things, I have found that there is scar­cely on the earth the fif­tieth part of the men who were there in Caesar’s time. What is sur­pri­sing is that it is losing popu­la­tion by the day ; and if that conti­nues, in ten cen­tu­ries it will be nothing but a desert.

That, my dear Usbek, is the most ter­ri­ble catas­tro­phe that ever occur­red in the world ; but it has scar­cely been noti­ced, because it came about gra­dually, and over the course of many cen­tu­ries : which points to an inner vice, a unk­nown and hid­den poi­son, a lan­guo­rous disease that afflicts the human race.

Venice this 10th day of the moon of Rhegeb 1718

The source of the depopulation myth was the calculations put forth by Isaac Vossius in De antiquae Romae et aliarum quarundam urbium magnitudine, in Variarum observationum liber (London : Robert Scott, 1685), of which Pierre Bayle gave a detailed account in Nouvelles de la République des Lettres in January 1685, judging his estimations excessive (OD, I, 212-215). David Hume was to show in his essay “Of the populousness of ancient nations” that the calculations of Vossius were exaggerated and Montesquieu’s conclusions uncertain. Recent calculations show a growth of the French population from 21.5 million in 1690 to 23.8 million in 1730 (Dupâquier, vol. II, p. 65) ; Europe in the same interval went from 120 to 174 million, with an annual growth rate of 4%. But Montesquieu, like most of his contemporaries, was obsessed by the idea that the world was losing steam.

See letter 75.

Leitmotiv of all the denunciators of Spanish and Portuguese colonization, following the Relación de las Indias (1542) of Las Casas. The immense depopulation of the Americas following the arrival of the Europeans was owing more to microbes than to weapons.

See letter 42.