Montesquieu

Rhedi to Usbek in Paris


You went on in one of your let­ters about the scien­ces and arts culti­va­ted in the Occident. You are going to think I am a bar­ba­rian, but I do not know whe­ther the uti­lity that we derive from them com­pen­sa­tes men for the misuse that is made of them every day.

I have heard it said that the inven­tion of bombs alone had depri­ved all the peo­ples of Europe of their free­dom.1 The prin­ces being no lon­ger able to entrust the guar­ding of their stron­gholds to the bour­geois, who at the first bomb would have sur­ren­de­red, have had a pre­text for main­tai­ning large corps of regu­lar troops with which they have sub­se­quently oppres­sed their sub­jects.

You know that since the inven­tion of pow­der, there is no lon­ger any impre­gna­ble stron­ghold2 ; which is to say, Usbek, that there is no lon­ger any haven on earth against injus­tice and vio­lence.

I still trem­ble lest someone finally dis­co­ver some secret that will pro­vide a qui­cker path to killing men and des­troying peo­ples and entire nations.

You have read the his­to­rians. Mark this : almost all monar­chies have been foun­ded only on igno­rance of the arts, and have been des­troyed only because they were too much culti­va­ted. The ancient Persian empire can fur­nish us a domes­tic exam­ple.3

I have not been long in Europe, but I have heard sen­si­ble peo­ple speak of the rava­ges of che­mis­try ; it seems to be a fourth scourge that ruins men and des­troys them one by one, but conti­nually,4 whe­reas war, pla­gue, and famine des­troy them who­le­sale, but at inter­vals.

What good did the inven­tion of the com­pass do us, and the dis­co­very of so many peo­ples, except to com­mu­ni­cate to us their disea­ses ?5 Gold and sil­ver had been esta­bli­shed by a gene­ral conven­tion to be the price of all mer­chan­dise and a guage of their value, because of the fact that these metals were rare and use­less for any other pur­pose : why then did we care whe­ther they became more com­mon, and that to desi­gnate the value of a com­mo­dity we should have two or three signs ins­tead of one ?6 That was just more inconve­nient. But on the other hand that inven­tion has been highly per­ni­cious to the coun­tries that have been dis­co­ve­red. Entire nations have been des­troyed ; and those men who esca­ped death have been redu­ced to such harsh ser­vi­tu­de7 that the story has made Muslims shud­der.

Happy the igno­rance of the chil­dren of Muhammad ! Amiable sim­pli­city so che­ri­shed by our holy Prophet, you always remind me of the naï­veté of ancient times, and the tran­quillity that rei­gned in the heart of our first fathers ! Venice this 2nd day of the moon of Rhamazan 1717

It was supposedly the gunners of the Lowlands who invented the modern bomb, which was introduced into France in 1634.

After the bomb, Rhedi goes back to the introduction of artillery, which had ultimately made the fortified city obsolete.

Based on the next letter, this refers to the conquest of Alexander.

Likely an allusion to médecine chimique, which “makes use of violent remedies derived from minerals by fire” (Furetière, 1694, art. “Médecin”). Opposed to this therapy, judged to be dangerous, is the methodic medecine inherited from Galien, based on gentle and ordinary remedies.

Allusion in particular to the syphilis which the sailors in Columbus’s expedition were thought to have contracted in America and spread to Europe : see My Thoughts, nos. 86 and 1813).

By alluding to monetary “signs”, Rhedi recalls the inflation produced by the massive importation of New World gold into Spain, and underscored the fact that the multiplication of specie entails an augmentation in uncertainty and variations in the value of monies. Sign here refers to a monetary unit ; cf. Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, §3.