Montesquieu

Usbek to his friend Ibben in Smyrna


The laws are fero­cious in Europe against peo­ple who kill them­sel­ves. They are made to die, so to speak, a second time : they are drag­ged igno­bly through the streets, they are stig­ma­ti­zed, and their pro­perty is confis­ca­ted.

It seems to me, Ibben, that these laws are quite unjust. When I am overw­hel­med with grief, with misery, with scorn, why do they want to pre­vent me from put­ting an end to my suf­fe­rings, and cruelly deprive me of a remedy which is in my hands ?

Why do they want me to work for a society which I consent no lon­ger to be part of ; that I keep des­pite myself a conven­tion that was made without me ? Society is based on a mutual advan­tage ; but when it beco­mes one­rous to me, who pre­vents me from renoun­cing it ?1 Life has been given to me as a favor ; I can the­re­fore give it back when it no lon­ger is one : the cause cea­ses, the effect must also cease.

Does the prince want me to be his sub­ject when I do not receive the advan­ta­ges of sub­jec­tion ? Can my fel­low citi­zens require this evil divi­sion of their uti­lity and my des­pair ? Does God, unlike all bene­fac­tors, mean to condemn me to recei­ving bene­fits that crush me ?

I am obli­ged to fol­low the laws when I live under the laws ; but when I no lon­ger do, can they still bind me ?2

But, they will say, you dis­turb the order of Providence.3 God has uni­ted your soul with your body, and you sepa­rate them ; you the­re­fore are oppo­sing his desi­gns, and resis­ting him.

What does that mean ? Am I dis­tur­bing the order of Providence when I change the modi­fi­ca­tions of mat­ter, and make a square of a ball which the first laws of move­ment, which is to say the laws of crea­tion and conser­va­tion, had made round ? Doubtless not : I merely make use of a right that has been given me, and in that sense I may trou­ble all of nature all I wish without anyone being able to say that I am oppo­sing Providence.

When my soul is sepa­ra­ted from my body, will there be less order and less arran­ge­ment on earth ? Do you believe that that new com­bi­na­tion is less per­fect and less depen­dent on the gene­ral laws ; that the world has lost some­thing the­reby, and that the works of God are less grand, or rather less immense ?

Do you believe that when my body has become a stalk of grain, a worm, or grass, it is chan­ged into a work of nature less wor­thy of her, and that my soul deta­ched from eve­ry­thing ter­res­trial about it is become less sublime ?

All these ideas, my dear Ibben, have no other source than our arro­gance ; we do not sense our pet­ti­ness, and des­pite all we want to be coun­ted in crea­tion, figure in it, and be an impor­tant object in it. We ima­gine that the disap­pea­rance of a being as per­fect as us would degrade all of nature, and we do not conceive that one man more or less in the world – nay, all men toge­ther, a hun­dred mil­lion earths like ours,4 are but a subtle, inchoate atom that God per­cei­ves only because of the immen­sity of his know­ledge.5

Paris this 15th day of the moon of Saphar 1715

Supplementary Letter III of the 1758 edition would be placed here

Usbek’s argument rests on a sort of social or conventional contract and in so doing employs certain of the same terms used by opponents of the right to suicide. Suicide raises radically the question of solidarity but also that of human freedom, not to mention civic duty : it is a subject to which many of the century’s thinkers, notably Rousseau, would return.

St. Paul had written, addressing men of the law, that “the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth” (Romans 7:1).

The argument is explained in the Encyclopédie : “Man, by destroying himself, takes from the world a work that was meant for the manifestation of divine perfections” (article “Suicide”, vol. XV, p. 639.)

Echo of Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (‘Conversations on the plurality of worlds’, 1686). In truth it does not quite speak of “millions” (“I see thousands of them from here”, says the marquise), but that possibility is nevertheless suggested in the title of the fifth evening : “That the fixed stars are so many suns, each of which illuminates a world”.

The letter ends on a Pascalian note, the dialectic of the infinitely large and infinitely small.