Rica to Usbek in ***

The other day I was in a house where there was a cir­cle of all sorts of peo­ple ; I found the conver­sa­tion occu­pied by two old women, who had wor­ked all mor­ning in a vain effort of reju­ve­na­ting them­sel­ves. You must admit, said one of them, that men today are very dif­fe­rent from those we saw in our youth : they were polite, gra­cious, and obli­ging, but now I find them unbea­ra­bly blunt. Everything has chan­ged, said then a man who see­med crip­pled by gout ; the times are not what they were forty years ago ; eve­ryone was heal­thy, we wal­ked, we were gay, we were always ready to laugh and danse ; today eve­ryone is unbea­ra­bly sad. A moment later the conver­sa­tion tur­ned toward poli­tics : By Jove, said an old lord, the state isn’t gover­ned any more ; find me today a minis­ter like Monsieur Colbert. I saw this Monsieur Colbert often1 ; he was a friend of mine ; he always had my pen­sions paid before anyone else’s. What good order there was in the finan­ces ! Everyone was well off ; but today I am rui­ned. Monsieur, a church­man then said, you are tal­king there about the most mira­cu­lous times of our invin­ci­ble monarch : is there any­thing as great as what he was doing then to des­troy heresy ?2 And do you count for nothing the abo­li­tion of duels ?3 said conten­tedly ano­ther man who had not yet spo­ken. The remark is judi­cious, someone whis­pe­red to me : that man is char­med at the edict, and obser­ves it so well that six months ago he allo­wed him­self to be roundly caned to avoid vio­la­ting it.

It seems to me, Usbek, that we never judge things except by an inner appli­ca­tion we make to our­sel­ves. I am not sur­pri­sed that Negroes depict the devil in bright white and their gods black as coal, that the Venus of cer­tain peo­ples has dugs that hang down to her thighs, and in short that all ido­la­ters have repre­sen­ted their gods with a human face,4 and trans­fer­red to them all their own incli­na­tions. It has well been said that if trian­gles crea­ted a god, they would give him three sides.5

My dear Usbek, when I see men who creep on an atom,6 that is to say the earth, which is nothing but a point in the uni­verse, offer them­sel­ves directly as models for Providence, I do not know how to reconcile such extra­va­gance with such mean­ness.

Paris this 14th day of the moon of Saphar 1714

Colbert died in 1683.

One of numerous allusions in Persian Letters to the anti-Protestant campaign and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) ; see letters 22 and 83.

Notably in an edict against duels in 1679.

This includes Christianity : representative art was forbidden in Islam.

A manifest echo of Spinoza : “I believe that the triangle, were it endowed with speech, would say […] that God is eminently triangular, and the circle, that the nature of God is eminently circular. Similarly, no matter what being would affirm of God its own attributes, would make himself resemble God and any other manner of being would to it appear ugly.” (Opera posthuman, 1677, Epistola LVI ; Œuvres, Paris, La Pléiade, 1954, p. 1302.)

The relative smallness of our planet was a theme of Pascal’s Pensées and Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686). Voltaire made frequent use of such comparisons and epithets (he calls it a “heap of mud” [un amas de boue] in Micromégas, 1752).