Montesquieu

Rica to ***


I have heard of a sort of tri­bu­nal they call the Académie Française ; there is none less res­pec­ted in the world, for they say that the minute it has deci­ded, the peo­ple strike down its decrees, and impose laws on it which it is obli­ged to fol­low.1

Some time back, in order to ins­tall its autho­rity it issued a code of its judg­ments : this child of so many fathers was almost old when it was born ; and although it was legi­ti­mate, a bas­tard which had already appea­red had nearly smo­the­red it at birth.2

Those who cons­ti­tute it have no other func­tion than to chat­ter end­lessly. Eulogy takes a place as if on its own ini­tia­tive in their end­less bab­ble, and as soon as they are ini­tia­ted into its mys­te­ries,3 the fury of the pane­gy­ric comes to seize them and never­more lea­ves them.4

This body has forty heads chock full of figu­res, meta­phors, and anti­the­ses ; all these voi­ces speak almost exclu­si­vely in excla­ma­tions ; its ears always want to be struck by cadence and har­mony. As for eyes, it has none : it seems to be made for tal­king, and not for seeing. It is not steady on its feet : for time, which is its scourge, sha­kes it at every moment, and des­troys eve­ry­thing it has done. It used to be said that its hands were greedy ; I will say nothing to you about that, and leave the deci­sion to those who know bet­ter than I.5

These are strange things, ***, which we do not see in our Persia ; our mind is not incli­ned to these sin­gu­lar and strange ins­ti­tu­tions ; we always seek nature in our sim­ple cus­toms and naive man­ners.

Paris this 27th day of the moon of Zilhagé 1715

Founded by Richelieu in 1635 to regulate usage and style in language, the Academy was often satirized for its formalism and uselessness ; it was nevertheless a respected institution, and Montesquieu himself was soon to seek admission (see below, note 5).

The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française first appeared in 1694, with a second edition in 1718 ; its preparation, launched in 1674, had been long and difficult. For this reason there was ample time in the interim for the publication first of a dictionary under the name of Richelet (1680) and a second by Furetière (1690).

Possibly by analogy with the rites of Freemasonry, which was beginning to establish itself in Europe.

The tradition in the Academy has always been that a newly elected member delivers a eulogy of the predecessor whose seat he fills.

In 1727, Montesquieu was to have difficulties obtaining admission to the Academy because of the opposition of Cardinal Fleury, less on account of this letter than because of the steamy overall reputation of the Persian Letters (notably with regard to letter 22).