Montesquieu

Usbek to the same in Smyrna


From this gene­ral pas­sion which the French nation has for glory, a cer­tain some­thing has for­med in the minds of indi­vi­duals, which is cal­led the point of honor1 : it is pro­perly the cha­rac­ter of every pro­fes­sion, but it is more pro­mi­nent in men of war, and theirs is the point of honor par excel­lence. It would be dif­fi­cult for me to make you sense what it is, for we have no notion quite like it.

Formerly the French, espe­cially the nobi­lity, obeyed vir­tually no other laws than those of this point of honor ; these laws deter­mi­ned their life’s entire conduct, and were so strict that one could not, I do not say vio­late them, but even elude their least pro­vi­sion, without a punish­ment more cruel than death.

When it came to set­tling dis­pu­tes, they pres­cri­bed really only one means of deci­sion, which was the duel, which ended all the dif­fi­culties. But what was bad about it was that often the judg­ment was ren­de­red bet­ween par­ties other than the par­ties concer­ned.

If a man was known by ano­ther, that was enough to requi­red him to enter into the dis­pute, and pay with his per­son as if he had him­self been ange­red.2 He always felt hono­red at such a choice and such a flat­te­ring pre­fer­ment ; and a man who would have been unwilling to give four pis­to­les to a man to save him from the gal­lows, him and all his family, might without hesi­ta­tion go risk his life a thou­sand times for him.

This man­ner of deci­ding was rather ill-concei­ved : for because a man was more skilled or stron­ger than ano­ther, it did not fol­low that he had the bet­ter rea­sons.

So kings have for­bid­den it under very severe penal­ties3 ; but it is in vain : honor, which always wants to pre­vail, revolts and reco­gni­zes no laws.

Thus the French are in a most vio­lent state ; for the same laws of honor oblige an honest man to avenge him­self when he has been offen­ded ; but on the other hand, jus­tice puni­shes him with the cruel­lest punish­ments when he exacts ven­geance.4 If you fol­low the laws of honor, you perish on a gal­lows ; if you fol­low those of jus­tice, you are fore­ver bani­shed from the society of men. There is the­re­fore only this cruel alter­na­tive : either to die, or to be unwor­thy to live.

Paris this 18th day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 1715

Supplementary Letter IV of the 1758 edition would be placed here

This term summarizes a whole system of protocols regulating duels, long forbidden but persistent none the less.

Usbek refers to the role of the second : when chosen as second, one could not honorably refuse, and thus ran the same life risk as the principal party to the dispute.

Duels had been forbidden several times since the reign of Henri IV. Richelieu was particularly severe on duelists, going so far as to apply capital punishment. In 1679 Louis XIV promulgated an edict extending the death penalty to seconds and others ; it was to be renewed in February 1723 by Louis XV ; see letter 57 and note 3.

The usual solution for the man who prevailed in a duel was prompt voluntary exile, with the hope that his family could in the long term arrange for a pardon.