Letter 42

, par Stewart

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice

There are three kinds of estate in France : the Church, the Sword, and the Robe. [1] Each has supreme disdain for the other two ; for example, a certain person who ought to be disdained because he is a fool is often disdained only because he is a man of the robe.

Even the basest artisans quarrel over the excellence of the art they have chosen : each one raises himself above one in a different profession, proportionate to the notion he has conceived of the superiority of his own. [2]

All men are a lot like that woman from the province of Erivan [3] who, after receiving some favor from one of our monarchs, wished a thousand times in the benedictions she gave him that heaven might make him governor of Erivan.

I read in some account that, a French ship having dropped anchor off the coast of Guinea, a few members of the crew wanted to go ashore to buy some sheep. They were taken to the king, who was dispensing justice to his subjects under a tree ; he was on his throne, which is to say on a piece of wood, as proud as if he had been sitting on the throne of the Great Mogul ; he had three or four guards with wooden pikes ; a parasol shaped like a canopy kept him from the sun’s rays. All his ornaments and those of his wife the queen consisted in their black skin and a few rings. This prince, even more vain than pathetic, asked these strangers whether people talked a lot about him in France [4] : he thought his name must passed from pole to pole, and unlike that conqueror of whom it was said that he had reduced the whole earth to silence, [5] this one thought that he should make the whole world talk. [6]

When the Khan of Tartary has dined, a herald cries that all the princes of the earth may go dine if they so wish ; and that barbarian, who eats nothing but milk, has no house, and lives by pillaging, regards every king in the world as his slave, and insults them regularly twice a day.

Paris this 28th day of the moon of Rhegeb 1713


[1A metonymy for the magistracy. These are not the three orders of the realm recognized under the name états in dictionaries of the period. Usbek’s mistake is heavy with meaning : he leaves out the Tiers État (commoners) and makes the nobility more central than it is supposed to be ; but as he only calls them “kinds” of estate, the term might be used as synonym of station or rank.

[2A possible allusion to scene II of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, where the arms master, the music master, and the philosophy master each asserts his superiority.

[3See letter 6, note 1.

[4This curious presumption is attributed to the king of Bar, in Gambia, by François Froger in his Relation d’un voyage fait en 1695, 1696, et 1697, aux côtes d’Afrique, détroit de Magellan, Brézil, Cayenne, et Isles Antilles (Paris : Brunet, 1698), p. 34-35.

[5Alexander the Great : “and he went through to the ends of the earth, and took he spoils of many nations ; and the earth was quiet before him” (I Maccabées 1:3).

[6This aspiration is attributed to Louis XIV in letters 35 and 89.