Montesquieu

Rica to Ibben in Smyrna


I have seen the young monarch. His life is very pre­cious to his sub­jects ; it is not less so to all of Europe, for the great trou­bles that his death could pro­duce.1 But kings are like gods, and while they live we must believe they are immor­tal. His phy­sio­gnomy is majes­tic, but win­some ; a super­ior edu­ca­tion seems to col­lude with an excel­lent tem­pe­ra­ment, and already pro­mi­ses a great prince.

They say one can never know the cha­rac­ter of kings of the Occident until they have pas­sed through the two great tests, their mis­tress and their confes­sor. We shall soon see both of them try to cap­ture the mind of this one, and for that great strug­gles will ensue. For under a young prince these two powers are always rivals, but they are reconci­led and join for­ces under an old one. Under a young prince the der­vich has a very dif­fi­cult role to sus­tain ; the king’s strength makes his weak­ness, but the other one triumphs equally over his weak­ness or his strength.

When I arri­ved in France, I found the late king totally gover­ned by women2 ; and yet in his old age I think he was the one monarch who on earth had the least need of them. One day I heard a woman saying : Someone needs to do some­thing for that young colo­nel ; I know his valor ; I shall speak of him to the minis­ter. Another was saying : It is sur­pri­sing that this young abbé has been over­loo­ked, he must become a bishop ; he is a man of good birth, and I could ans­wer for his beha­vior. Yet you must not ima­gine that the women who spoke in this way were favo­ri­tes of the prince : they had per­haps never spo­ken twice with him in their life­time, even though that is very easily done among European prin­ces. The thing is that there is no one who has any func­tion at court, in Paris, or in the pro­vin­ces, who has not a woman through whose hands pass all the favors and some­ti­mes the injus­ti­ces that he can do. These women all have rela­tions with one ano­ther, and make up a sort of repu­blic3 whose mem­bers, ever active, mutually assist and serve each other ; it is like ano­ther state within the state4 ; and the man who is at court, in Paris and in the pro­vin­ces, who sees minis­ters, magis­tra­tes and pre­la­tes act, if he does not know the women who govern them, is like the man can see a machine run­ning but does not know how it works.5

Do you think, Ibben, that a woman gets the idea of being a minis­ter’s mis­tress so she can sleep with him ? What an idea ! It is so she can pre­sent him with five or six peti­tions every mor­ning ; and the good­ness of their tem­pe­ra­ment is shown in their eager­ness to bene­fit an infi­nite num­ber of unfor­tu­nate peo­ple who pro­cure for them a hun­dred thou­sand livres worth of income.

People com­plain in Persia that the king­dom is gover­ned by two or three women ; it is much worse in France, where the women in gene­ral govern, and not only take who­le­sale, but also divide up retail, all the autho­rity.

Paris this last day of the moon of Chalval 1717

Louis XV was only seven in October 1717 ; were he to die, Philip V of Spain, grandson of Louis XIV, might – despite his renunciation of the French throne (one of the conditions of the treaty of Utrecht in 1713) – try to lay claim to the succession.

In 1711, this was essentially Madame de Maintenon, who died in 1719.

In the general sense : the word republic “is used sometimes for any kind of state or government” (Académie, 1694).

This expression was commonly applied to the Church or more particularly to the Jesuits.

This remark is reminiscent of the anecdote about the scenic “machines” at the opera in Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) : unaware that Phaeton is raised into the air by ropes and pullies, pre-cartesian scientists explain his movement by mysterious properties.