Montesquieu

Rica to Usbek in ***


I am sen­ding you the copy of a let­ter which a Frenchman who is in Spain has writ­ten here ; I think you will be most gra­ti­fied to see it1 : For six months I have been tra­vel­ling in Spain and Portugal, and living with peo­ples who, loo­king down on all others, pay only the French the honor of detes­ting them.

Gravity is the outs­tan­ding trait of the two nations ; it mani­fests itself prin­ci­pally in two ways : with eye­glas­ses and with mus­ta­ches.

Eyeglasses make one demons­tra­bly aware that their wea­rer is a man consum­ma­tely ver­sed in the scien­ces, and buried in pro­found rea­dings, to such a point that his eye­sight has been dimi­ni­shed ; and every nose that is gra­ced or bur­de­ned with them can pass without objec­tion as the nose of a scho­lar.

As for the mus­ta­ches, it is res­pec­ta­ble in itself, and inde­pen­dently of the conse­quen­ces ; although none­the­less it does not fail often to ren­der great bene­fits for the prince’s ser­vice and the honor of the nation, as was shown by a famous Portuguese gene­ral in the Indies2 : for fin­ding him­self in need of money, he cut off half his mus­ta­che, and sent to ask the inha­bi­tants of Goa for twenty thou­sand pis­to­les on that secu­rity ; they were promptly loa­ned to him, and sub­se­quently he hono­ra­bly redee­med his mus­ta­che.

It is easily concei­ved that grave and phleg­ma­tic peo­ples like these can have some vanity, and so they do. They base it ordi­na­rily on two very consi­de­ra­ble things. Those who live on the conti­nent of Spain and Portugal feel their hearts extre­mely exal­ted when they are what they call old Christians, in other words they are not des­cen­dants of those whom the Inquisition per­sua­ded these past cen­tu­ries to embrace the Christian reli­gion.3 Those who are in the Indies are not less flat­te­red when they consi­der that they have the sublime merit of being, as they say, men of white flesh. There has never been in the sera­glio of the Great Lord a sul­tana so proud of her beauty as the oldest and ugliest dog is of the olive-toned whi­te­ness of his skin when he is in a city in Mexico sit­ting at his door with his arms cros­sed. A man of such conse­quence, a crea­ture so per­fect, would not work for all the trea­su­res on earth, and would never consent by base and mecha­ni­cal effort to com­pro­mise the honor and dignity of his skin.4

For you must know that when a man has a cer­tain merit in Spain, as for exam­ple when he can add to the qua­li­ties I have just men­tio­ned that of being the owner of a large sword or having lear­ned from his father the art of plun­king an off-key gui­tar, he no lon­ger works ; his honor is inves­ted in the repose of his limbs. He who remains sea­ted for ten hours per day obtains pre­ci­sely half again as much consi­de­ra­tion as ano­ther who remains for only five, because it is on chairs that nobi­lity is acqui­red.5

But although these invin­ci­ble ene­mies of work make a great show of phi­lo­so­phi­cal tran­qui­lity, still they have it not in their hearts, for they are fore­ver in love. They are the pre­mier men in the world for dying of lan­guor under the win­dows of their mis­tres­ses, and no Spaniard who does not have a cold could pos­si­bly pass for a gal­lant man.

They are pri­ma­rily devout, and seconda­rily jea­lous. They will strictly avoid expo­sing their wives to the enter­pri­ses of a sol­dier with mul­ti­ple wounds or a decre­pit magis­trate, but they will enclose them with a fer­vent novice6 who lowers his eyes, or a robust Franciscan who lifts them.

They are more fami­liar than others with women’s weak­nes­ses ; they do not want anyone to see their heel, or glimpse of the tip of their toes.7 They know that the ima­gi­na­tion always goes for­ward, and that nothing dis­tracts it along the way ; it arri­ves, and there one was some­ti­mes war­ned in advance.8

People say eve­ryw­here that the rigors of love are cruel. They are even more so for the Spaniards : the women cure them of their pains, but they only make them change pains, and they always retain a long and disa­greea­ble memory of an extin­gui­shed pas­sion.9

They have petty forms of poli­te­ness that in France would seem out of place : for exam­ple, a cap­tain never beats his sol­dier with first asking his per­mis­sion,10 and the Inquisition never has a Jew bur­ned without first offe­ring an apo­logy.11

The Spaniards who are not bur­ned seem so atta­ched to the Inquisition that it would be inconsi­de­rate to take it away from them. I would sim­ply like them to esta­blish ano­ther one, not against here­tics, but against here­siarchs, who attri­bute to tri­vial monas­tic prac­ti­ces the same effi­ca­cious­ness as to the seven sacre­ments ; who wor­ship eve­ry­thing they vene­rate, and are so devout that they are hardly Christians.

You can find wit and good sense in the Spanish ; but do not look for any in their books. See one of their libra­ries, novels on one side and the scho­las­tics on the other : you would say the parts have been made, and the whole assem­bled, by some secret enemy of human rea­son.

The only one of their books that is good is the one that expo­sed the stu­pi­dity of all the others.12

They have made immense dis­co­ve­ries in the New World, and do not yet know their own conti­nent : on their rivers are ports not yet dis­co­ve­red, and in their moun­tains peo­ples unk­nown to them.13

They say the sun rises and sets in their coun­try14 ; but it must also be said that it encoun­ters nothing in its path but rui­ned coun­try­side and empty lands.15

I would not be dis­plea­sed, Usbek, to see a let­ter writ­ten to Madrid by a Spaniard tra­vel­ling in France : I think he would avenge his nation well. What a vast field for a phleg­ma­tic and thought­ful man ! I ima­gine he would begin his des­crip­tion of Paris this way :

There is a house here where they put luna­tics16 ; off­hand you would think it is the lar­gest in the city : no, the remedy is very small for the disease. No doubt the French, extre­mely decried by their neigh­bors, lock a few luna­tics up in a house to make it appear that those out­side are some­thing else.

I leave there my Spaniard. Adieu, my dear Usbek.

Paris this 17th day of the moon of Saphar 1715

This letter is a parody of relations of travel to Spain, above all of the factitious Relation du voyage d’Espagne by Mme d’Aulnoy (1691), who is one of the sources of abbé Jean de Vayrac’s État présent de l’Espagne (1718) ; she denounces in her work “a tissue of fictional tales, or sharp satires to make the Spanish look ridiculous” (vol. I, p. 7).

Jean de Castro [author’s note], i.e. João de Castro (1500-1548). It is not known where Montesquieu got this anecdote ; Vernière speculates that it could have come, directly or indirectly, from the Vida de Joam de Castro by Freire de Andrada (Lisbon, 1651).

“New Christians” were Jews, converted on pain of expulsion or worse, and their descendants.

An allusion to the fact that the Aztecs, and in particular their chief Mochtezuma, had taken the so-called conquistadores for gods in virtue of a legend about a white god. This allusion is rendered ironic by the characterization of these proud “whites” as having skin of “olive-toned whiteness” ; see also letter 117.

An implicit criticism of a nobility transformed into “pillars of the antechamber” under Louis XIV, and of the fact that in France, manual or merchant labor was unworthy of nobility.

I.e., a young priest.

Mme d’Aulnoy quotes a woman who barricades her door to put on her shoes, saying she would rather lose her life than let men see her feet (vol. II, p. 190).

Camusat cites this sentence with the comment : “I admit in good faith that I have not understood the meaning of this sentence, and I am not the only one who has sweated over the understanding of this passage” (p. 21).

According to Mme d’Aulnoy, foreigners coming to Madrid find that the women who are available carry dangers to one’s health. Vayrac confirms the endemic state of venereal diseases and discusses their effects on depopulation (vol. I, p. 73-74).

The source of this anecdote has not been identified.

A paraphrase of instructions found in the inquisitors’ manual. On the operation of the Inquisition in Spain, see letter 27, note 1 ; on the hypocrisy of the inquisitors, see letter 27.

Don Quixote.

Las Batuecas [author’s note (added in edition D)]. An old legend analyzed by Benito Jerónimo Feijoó y Montenegro in “Fábula de las Batuecas, y payses imaginarios”, in vol. IV (1730) of his Teatro critico universal (Madrid : Real Compañía des Impresores y Libreros, 1777, p. 261-292). Its nonexistence had been definitively proven, according to him, by the publication of the Verdadera Relacion, y manifiesto apologético de la antigüedad de las Batuecas by Thomás Gonzalez de Manuel (Madrid 1693).

“When the sun sets on one part of its realms, it rises on another” (d’Aulnoy, vol. II, p. 97), according to the proud assertion of Charles V.

This theme is again taken up in the letters on depopulation, 108-118, notably letter 108.

The hospice called Petites Maisons, founded in 1557 for the infirm and sick as well as for the insane.