Montesquieu

Usbek to Ibben in Smyrna


There is no coun­try on earth where for­tune is as incons­tant as in this one. Every ten years there occur revo­lu­tions that plunge the rich man into misery and raise the poor man on swift wings1 to the height of riches. The for­mer is asto­ni­shed at his poverty, the lat­ter at his abun­dance. The nou­veau riche2 admi­res the wis­dom of Providence ; the poor man, the blind fata­lity of des­tiny. ` Those who col­lect the tri­bu­tes3 swim in the midst of trea­su­res ; there are few Tantaluses among them.4 Yet they begin this pro­fes­sion in the worst poverty. They are as dis­dai­ned as mud while they are poor ; when they are rich, they are rather estee­med, and so they neglect nothing in order to acquire esteem.

They are pre­sently in a most ter­ri­ble situa­tion. A cham­ber has just been esta­bli­shed cal­led the cham­ber of jus­tice,5 because it is going to steal all their wealth away. They can nei­ther divert nor hide their hol­dings, for they are being requi­red to decla­rer them pre­ci­sely on penalty of their lives ; thus they are being made to file through a very nar­row strait, I mean bet­ween life and their money. To cap off their bad luck, there is a minis­ter known for his wit who honors them with his jokes and ban­ters about all the deli­be­ra­tions of the Council.6 It is not every day one finds minis­ters dis­po­sed to make the peo­ple laugh, and this one has to be than­ked for giving it a try.

The corps of man­ser­vants is more res­pec­ta­ble in France than elsew­here ; it is a school for great lords ; it fills the vacan­cies in the other esta­tes.7 Those who com­pose it replace unfor­tu­nate gran­dees, rui­ned magis­tra­tes, and gent­le­men killed in the furies of war ; and when they can­not them­sel­ves com­pen­sate, they raise up all the great hou­ses back up by means of their daugh­ters, who are like a sort of manure8 that fer­ti­li­zes rocky and arid lands.

I find Providence won­der­ful, Ibben, in the man­ner in which it has dis­tri­bu­ted riches. If they had been given only to good peo­ple, they would not have been suf­fi­ciently dis­tin­gui­shed from vir­tue, and all of their vanity would not have been appre­cia­ted. But when one exa­mi­nes who are the peo­ple who have the most of them, by dint of dis­dai­ning the rich one ulti­ma­tely comes to dis­dain riches.

Paris this 26th day of the moon of Maharram 1717

The goddess Fortune was associated by the Greeks with events that occur accidentally ; for the Romans, she dispensed goods and favors. Eusebius and Plutarch give her wings (Montfaucon, vol. II, p. 312).

This expression in French was relatively recent, it seems, not attested in literature before 1699. It is found again (in the plural) in letter 126.

I.e., the taxes. There was a corporation of farmers general (fermiers généraux) who under contract with the crown collected the indirect taxes. The concentration of the tax farms took place gradually over the seventeenth century, creating an ever wealthier set of beneficiaries. For want of a central bank which could advance it money, the state was dependent on a system of generalized credit and financiers.

Tantalus, in Greek mythology, was condemned to stand in water to his chin, but unable to drink, with fruit hanging overhead which he could not eat.

An edict created a royal chamber of justice in August 1716 ; its mission was to punish crimes relating to state finances, striking some so as to intimidate others, and help dissimulate the state’s near-bankruptcy. In fact the reaction was such that it was suppressed in March 1717, the very month of this letter (see DGS, art. “Chambres de justice”).

See the end of letter 61. A possible allusion to Duke Adrien Maurice de Noailles (1678-1766), president of the council of finance from 1715 to 1718.

Social ascension was becoming a cliché and literary theme, already figuring in the early parts of Lesage’s Gil Blas in 1715 and even more prominently in the sequels of 1724 and 1735 ; see also the comedy Turcaret (1709) by the same author.

By means of the rich dowries thanks to which their daughters could marry into the nobility. This expression, reported several times by Saint-Simon, originated with Mme de Grignan, speaking of her own daughter-in-law, a daughter of the farmer general Saint-Amand : she “would say that sometimes the best pieces of land required a little manure” (year 1704, vol. II, p. 523 ; see also Additions au Journal de Dangeau, ibid., p. 1084, no. 538, dated 21 August 1705).