Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Those who like to learn are never idle ; although I am char­ged with no impor­tant busi­ness, I am never­the­less conti­nually occu­pied. I spend my life exa­mi­ning ; in the eve­ning I write down what I have noti­ced, what I have seen, what I have heard during the day. Everything inte­rests me, eve­ry­thing sur­pri­ses me ; I am like a child whose imma­ture organs are acu­tely struck by the sligh­test objects.

You might not believe it, but we are plea­santly recei­ved in all com­pa­nies and in all socie­ties. I think I owe much to Rica’s lively wit and natu­ral gaiety, which cause him to seek out eve­ryone, and is equally sought after by them. Our foreign appea­rance no lon­ger offends anyone ; we even bene­fit from the sur­prise peo­ple mani­fest at fin­ding that we pos­sess some refi­ne­ment, for the French do not ima­gine that our clime pro­du­ces men ; never­the­less, it must be admit­ted, they are worth the trou­ble of set­ting them straight.

I have spent a few days in a coun­try house near Paris, at the home of a man of consi­de­ra­tion1 who is deligh­ted to have com­pany. He has a very amia­ble wife, who com­bi­nes with great modesty a gaiety of which the seclu­ded life always depri­ves our Persian ladies.

Foreigner that I was, I had nothing bet­ter to do than study, as is my wont, the crowd of peo­ple who were cons­tantly arri­ving there, whose cha­rac­ters were fore­ver pre­sen­ting me with some­thing new. I imme­dia­tely noti­ced a man whose sim­pli­city appea­led to me ; I atta­ched myself to him, he atta­ched him­self to me, and thus we always found each other close by.

One day when we were tal­king toge­ther in a large cir­cle, lea­ving the gene­ral conver­sa­tions to them­sel­ves : You might find in me, I said to him, more curio­sity than poli­te­ness, but I beg you to allow me to ask you a few ques­tions, for it bothers me to not to be up on any­thing, and spen­ding time among peo­ple whom I abso­lu­tely can­not figure out. My mind has been wor­king for two days ; there is not a sin­gle man here who has not put me to the tor­ture more than two hun­dred times, and yet I would never see through them in a thou­sand years ; to me they are more invi­si­ble than the wives of our great monarch. You have only to speak, he replied, and I shall inform you about any­thing you wish, all the more that I think you are a dis­creet man who will not abuse my confi­dence.

Who is that man, I said, who has tal­ked so much to us about the din­ners he has given for the great, who is on such fami­liar terms with your dukes, and speaks so often to your minis­ters, who, I am told, are so dif­fi­cult to contact ? He must obviously be a man of qua­lity,2 but he has such a com­mon phy­sio­gnomy that he hardly does honor to peo­ple of qua­lity ; and besi­des he seems to lack edu­ca­tion. I am a forei­gner, but it seems to me that there is in gene­ral a cer­tain refi­ne­ment com­mon to all nations, but I do not find any of this in him ; are your per­sons of qua­lity more poorly rai­sed than others ? That man, he replied with a laugh, is a far­mer3 : he is as much above others in wealth as he is beneath eve­ryone in birth. He would have the best table in Paris, if he could decide never to eat at home4 ; he is quite foo­lish, as you see, but he excels by means of his cook ; indeed he is no ingrate, for you have heard him praise him all day.

And that fat man dres­sed in black, I said, whom that lady had sea­ted beside her­self ? Why does he dress so dis­mally with such a bright appea­rance and heal­thy mien ? He smi­les gra­ciously whe­ne­ver he is spo­ken to ; his cos­tume is more modest but more com­po­sed than that of your women. He is a prea­cher, he replied, and worse still, a direc­tor5 : the man you see there is bet­ter infor­med than hus­bands : he knows women’s weak­ness ; they know also that he has one of his own. How is that ? I said. When he is always tal­king about some­thing he calls grace. No, not always, he replied : in the ear of a pretty woman he is more apt to talk about her fall. He thun­ders in public, but he is gentle as a lamb in pri­vate. It seems to me, that made me say, that peo­ple pay him consi­de­ra­ble of atten­tion, and show him great defe­rence. Considerable atten­tion ? That man is neces­sary ; it is he who makes the seclu­ded life agreea­ble : bits of advice, obli­ging atten­tions, regu­lar visits ; he dis­pels a hea­da­che bet­ter than anyone in the world : he is an excel­lent man.

But if I am not put­ting you to any trou­ble, tell me who is that man across from us who is so badly dres­sed, who some­ti­mes gri­ma­ces, and has a lan­guage dif­fe­rent from the others ; who is not cle­ver enough to speak, but speaks to be appear cle­ver ? That, he replied, is a poet, and the cari­ca­ture of the human race. Those peo­ple say they are born what they are6 : that is true, and also what they will be their whole lives, which is to say almost always the most ridi­cu­lous of men. So they are not spa­red : peo­ple pour scorn on them by the fist­ful. Famine made this one enter this house, and he is wel­co­med by the mas­ter and mis­tress here, whose kind­ness and poli­te­ness never fails with res­pect to anyone. He wrote their epi­tha­la­mion7 when they were mar­ried : it was the best thing he ever did, for the mar­riage hap­pens to have been as happy as he pre­dic­ted.

Maybe you will not believe it, he added, as stuck as you are with Oriental pre­ju­di­ces, but there are happy mar­ria­ges here, and women whose vir­tue is a severe defen­der. The peo­ple we are tal­king about enjoy amongst them­sel­ves a peace that can­not be trou­bled ; they are ins­pi­red and estee­med by all. There is just one thing, which is that their natu­ral kind­ness, makes them receive all sorts into their home, which means there is some­ti­mes bad com­pany. Not that I disap­prove them ; one has to live with peo­ple as they are. The peo­ple said to be good com­pany are often merely those whose vice is more refi­ned ; and maybe, as with poi­sons, the subt­lest are also the most dan­ge­rous.

And that old man, I whis­pe­red, who looks so trou­bled ? At first I took him for a forei­gner ; for besi­des being dres­sed unlike the others, he cen­su­res eve­ry­thing that hap­pens in France, and does not approve of your govern­ment. He is an old war­rior, he said, who makes him­self memo­ra­ble to all his hea­rers by the length of his great feats. He can­not bear for France to have won bat­tles when he was not there, or to hear a siege vaun­ted if he was not guar­ding the tren­ches ; he thinks him­self so neces­sary to our his­tory that he ima­gi­nes it fini­shes where he fini­shed ; he consi­ders a few wounds he has recei­ved as the dis­so­lu­tion of the monar­chy ; and unlike those phi­lo­so­phers who say one only enjoys the pre­sent, and that the past is nothing, he on the contrary enjoys only the past, and exists only in the cam­pai­gns he par­ti­ci­pa­ted in. He brea­thes in bygone times as heroes must brea­the in the times that will take place after them. But why, said I, did he leave the ser­vice ? He did not leave it, he replied, but the ser­vice left him ; he was assi­gned to a small role where he will spend the rest of his days recoun­ting ; but will never go far­ther : the road to honors is clo­sed to him. And why is that ? I asked. We have a maxim in France, he replied, which is never to pro­mote offi­cers whose patience has lan­gui­shed in subal­tern posi­tions ; we regard them as men whose mind has more or less shrunk among details, and who in the habit of small things have become inca­pa­ble of the lar­gest ones. We believe that a man who does not have the qua­li­ties of a gene­ral at thirty will never have them ; that one who does not have an imme­diate over­view of seve­ral lea­gues of ter­rain in all its pos­si­ble confi­gu­ra­tions, the pre­sence of mind that makes you use all your advan­ta­ges in a vic­tory, and all your resour­ces in a fai­lure, will never acquire those talents. That is why we have brilliant posi­tions for those great, sublime men whom hea­ven has endo­wed not only with a heart, but also with an heroic genius, and subal­tern posi­tions for those whose talents are subal­tern. Of that num­ber are those men who have aged in an obs­cure war ; they suc­ceed at most at doing what they have done all their lives ; and one must not begin giving them res­pon­si­bi­li­ties at a time when they are losing strength.

A moment later, I got curious again, and said to him : I pro­mise not to ask you any more ques­tions if you will just allow me this one. Who is that tall young man who has hair,8 lit­tle wit, and such imper­ti­nence ? Why does he talk more loudly than the others, and is so plea­sed by his own exis­tence ? He is a ladies’ man, he replied. At these words there was some going and coming, we rose, someone came to talk to my gent­le­man, and I remai­ned as unin­for­med as before. But a moment later, by some chance this young man found him­self at my side, and addres­sing me, said : It is a lovely day : would you like, mon­sieur, to take a turn about the par­terre ? I replied as civilly as I could, and we went out­side toge­ther. I came to the coun­try, he said to me, as a favor to the mis­tress of the house, with whom I am on pretty good terms ; there is to be sure a cer­tain woman of society who will rail a bit, but how can I help that ? I see the pret­ties women in Paris, but I do not set­tle on any, and I string them along : for just bet­ween you and me I am not good for much.9 Clearly, mon­sieur, I said to him, you have some offi­cial func­tion, or some posi­tion that pre­vents you from atten­ding them more assi­duously. No, mon­sieur, I have no other occu­pa­tion than to outrage a hus­band, or drive a father to des­pair ; I like to scare a women who thinks she has me, and put her within an inch of losing me. A few young men like me who share all of Paris this way, and force peo­ple to fol­low our sligh­test move­ments. From what I unders­tand, I said, you cause more talk than the most valiant war­rior, and are more highly regar­ded than a grave magis­trate. If you were in Persia you would not enjoy all these advan­ta­ges ; you would become bet­ter sui­ted to guar­ding our ladies than appea­ling to them. My face flu­shed, and I think that had I said any­thing, I would not have been able to avoid insul­ting him.

What do you say of a coun­try where such per­sons are tole­ra­ted, and where a man who exer­ci­ses such a pro­fes­sion is allo­wed to live ; where infi­de­lity, betrayal, subor­na­tion, per­jury, and injus­tice lead to consi­de­ra­tion ; where a man is thought well of because he takes a daugh­ter from her father, a woman from her hus­band, and dis­rupts the most agreea­ble and sacred socie­ties ? Happy the chil­dren of Ali, who pro­tect their fami­lies from shame and seduc­tion. The light of day is not more pure than the love that burns in the hearts of our wives10 ; our daugh­ters think only in trem­bling of the day that will deprive them of that vir­tue by which they resem­ble the angels and incor­po­real powers. Dear land of my birth, on which the sun casts its first rays, thou art not tain­ted by the hor­ri­ble cri­mes that oblige that star to hide the moment it appears in the dark Occident.

Paris this 5th day of the moon of Rhamazan 1713

The expression does not necessarily denote a nobleman, unlike the term man of quality (see next note) : consideration is, according to Académie 1718 “the esteem and […] reputation that good qualities merit, or dignity and position attract.”

This expression always designates a nobleman, as well as some distinction within his family. “De qualité goes farther than de condition, for this latter expression is used with respect to the bourgeoisie, and the former cannot be used except with respect to nobility” (Gabriel Girard, Les Synonymes français, Paris : Veuve d’Houry, 1736, p. 104.)

Since 1687 the totality of royal income was grouped under what was called the ferme générale, a consortium of financiers (called fermiers ‘farmers’ or fermiers généraux) who shared the contract with the crown for the collection of taxes.

An echo of Cléon in Molière’s Le Misanthrope (II, 4).

A confessor, or more specifically a directeur de conscience, which is to say a priest who also provides almost daily moral guidance.

From the Latin proverb Fiunt oratores, nascuntur poetae (“one becomes an orator, one is born a poet”).

A poem in honor of the newlyweds.

Bernard says with regard to the fops (petits-maîtres) of his time : “The dressing of their heads is not less singular than that of the women : the head of a man of the world is buried in a mass of braided and curled hair, rising half foot above the forehead ; its form changes at least yearly. This false hair is a wonderful aid” (chap. ix, p. 210).

The expression is doubtless an avowal of sexual inadequacy, especially since at the end of the paragraph Usbek assimilates him to the eunuch.

An echo of Racine : “Le jour n’est pas plus pur que le fond de mon cœur” (Phèdre, IV, 2.)