Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Either you do not think what you say, or else you do bet­ter than you think. You left your home­land in order to learn, and you scorn all lear­ning ; you come for an edu­ca­tion to a coun­try where the fine arts are culti­va­ted, and you regard them as per­ni­cious. Let me tell you some­thing, Rhedi, I agree with you more than you do with your­self.

Have you quite reflec­ted on the bar­ba­rous and unfor­tu­nate state into which the loss of the arts would lead us ?1 It is not neces­sary to ima­gine it, we can see it. There are still peo­ples on earth among whom a pas­sa­bly well-trai­ned mon­key could live hono­ra­bly. He would be about on a par with the other inha­bi­tants : they would not find his mind odd nor his cha­rac­ter bizarre ; he would pass just like any other, and even be dis­tin­gui­shed by his good dis­po­si­tion.

You say that the foun­ders of empi­res have almost always been igno­rant of the arts. I do not deny that bar­ba­rous peo­ples have been able to spread across the globe like raging streams and cover the most civi­li­zed realms with their fero­cious armies. But mark this : they have lear­ned the arts, or had the conque­red peo­ples prac­tice them ; other­wise their power would have pas­sed like the sound of thun­der and tem­pests.

You fear, you say, lest someone invent some means of des­truc­tion cruel­ler than the ones already in use. Not so : if such a fatal inven­tion were dis­co­ve­red, it would soon be out­la­wed by the law of peo­ples,2 and the una­ni­mous consent of nations would bury that dis­co­very. It is not in the inte­rest of prin­ces to conquer in such ways : they are after sub­jects, and not lands.

You com­plain of the inven­tion of pow­der and bombs ; you find it strange that there is no lon­ger any impre­gna­ble stron­ghold ; in other words you find it strange that wars should today be over soo­ner than they used to be.

You must have noti­ced in rea­ding the his­to­ries that since the inven­tion of pow­der, bat­tles have been much less bloody than they were, because there is almost no skir­mish any more.

And were there some par­ti­cu­lar case where an art appea­red pre­ju­di­cial, ought one for that rea­son to reject it ? Do you think, Rhedi, that the reli­gion which our holy Prophet brought from hea­ven is per­ni­cious because it will some day serve to confound the per­fi­dious Christians ?

You think that the arts ener­vate peo­ples and the­reby cause the fall of empi­res.3 You speak of the ruin of that of the ancient Persians, which was the effect of their ener­va­tion ; but this sin­gle exam­ple is far from deci­sive, since the Greeks, who sub­ju­ga­ted them, culti­va­ted the arts far more intently than they.

When it is said that the arts make men effe­mi­nate, it can­not be by refe­rence to those who apply them­sel­ves to them, since they are never idle, and idle­ness is of all vices the one that most ener­va­tes cou­rage.

Therefore it can only mean those who enjoy the arts ; but as in a civi­li­zed coun­try those who enjoy the advan­ta­ges of one art are obli­ged to culti­vate ano­ther so as not to be redu­ced to sha­me­ful poverty, it fol­lows that idle­ness and ener­va­tion are incom­pa­ti­ble with the arts.

Paris is per­haps the most sen­sual city on earth, and where there is the most refi­ne­ment in plea­su­res, but it is per­haps the one where one leads a har­der life. For one man to live delec­ta­bly, three hun­dred others must work cea­se­lessly. A woman got it into her head that she should appear in an assem­bly in a cer­tain out­fit ; from that moment fifty arti­sans must sleep no more and not have the lei­sure to drink and eat ; she com­mands, and she is obeyed more punc­tually than our monarch would be, because self-inte­rest is the world’s grea­test monarch.

This ardor for work, this pas­sion to get rich pas­ses from one sta­tion to ano­ther, from the arti­sans to the gran­dees ; no man likes to be poo­rer than the one he has just seen imme­dia­tely beneath him. In Paris you see a man who has enough to live on until the day of the day of judg­ment, who toils without end, and risks shor­te­ning his days to amass, he says, enough to live on.

The same spi­rit spreads to the nation ; all you see is toil and indus­try : where then is that effe­mi­nate peo­ple you talk so much about ?

I will assume, Rhedi, that a king­dom tole­ra­ted only those arts that are abso­lu­tely neces­sary to the culti­va­tion of the lands, of which are in any case a great num­ber, and that all those are ban­ned that serve only for sen­sual plea­sure and fan­tasy ; I main­tain that that state would be the most mise­ra­ble on earth.

If the inha­bi­tants had cou­rage enough to do without so many things they owe to their needs, the peo­ple would waste away by the day, and the state would become so fee­ble that the most insi­gni­fi­cant of powers would be in a posi­tion to conquer it.

I could here enter into a long detail and make you see that the reve­nues of indi­vi­duals would almost totally cease, and conse­quently those of the prince. There would be almost no more rela­tions of abi­li­ties among citi­zens ; that cir­cu­la­tion of wealth and that pro­pa­ga­tion of reve­nues that comes from the depen­dence of the arts on each other would totally cease ; each per­son would draw reve­nue from his land only, and would draw only pre­ci­sely what he requi­res in order not do die of hun­ger. But as that is not the hun­dredth part of the reve­nue of a king­dom, the num­ber of inha­bi­tants would have to dimi­nish pro­por­tio­na­tely, so that only the hun­dredth part remai­ned.

Consider care­fully how far the reve­nues of indus­try go. A hol­ding only pro­du­ces annually for its mas­ter a twen­tieth part of its value ; but with a pis­tole’s worth of colors a pain­ter will make a pain­ting that will earn him fifty. The same can be said of gold­smiths, wool or silk wor­kers, and all sorts of arti­sans.4

From all this we must conclude, Rhedi, that in order for a prince to be power­ful, his sub­jects must live in the midst of delights ; he must work to pro­cure for them all sorts of super­flui­ties with as much atten­tion as the neces­si­ties of life.

Paris this 14th day of the moon of Chalval 1717

This term, by opposition to the expression fine arts in the preceding paragraph, also includes what we would call technology or applied sciences.

This droit des gens is what we would call international law (see SL, I, 3). Yet the “unanimous consent of nations” on which, according to Usbek, this law is based, does not necessarily imply conventions or international treaties, but merely adhesion to the universal principles of human reason. In this sense, the droit des gens is akin to natural law, and such is the way it was understood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by theoreticians like Pufenforf, Barbeyrac and Burlamaqui.

An allusion to the traditional notion that luxury contributed to the fall of the Roman empire. It can be seen from the force of this formula and the following paragraph that the general proposition on the pernicious effects of the arts was hardly new when Rousseau took it up in 1750 in answer to the question posed by the Dijon academy.

In a few lines Usbek sketches a theory of value added : see SL, VII, 4 and XXI, 6. The way he plays on the multiple meanings of the word art, assimilating artists and artisans as was commonly done in the eighteenth century, indicates that he places the question of luxury not on the moral and esthetic level but rather on an economic level. It will be noted that Montesquieu, a landowner attentive to the exploitation of his lands, devotes almost no theoretical reflection to agriculture.