Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Coffee is very popu­lar in Paris1 ; there are a large num­ber of public hou­ses where it is ser­ved.2 In some of these hou­ses they relate news ; in others they play chess. There is one where the cof­fee is pre­pa­red in such a way that it confers wit on those who consume some ; at least among all who are lea­ving there is not one who does not believe he has four times more than when he ente­red.

But what shocks me about these wags is that they do not make them­sel­ves use­ful to their home­land, and amuse their talents in pue­rile things. For exam­ple, when I arri­ved in Paris, I found them hea­ted up over the slim­mest dis­pute one can ima­gine : it was about the repu­ta­tion of an old Greek poet, whose home­land, as well as the time of his death, have been unk­nown for two thou­sand years.3 The two par­ties admit­ted that he was an excel­lent poet ; the only ques­tion was how much more or less merit should be attri­bu­ted to him. Everyone wan­ted to set the rate. But among these dis­pen­sers of repu­ta­tion some car­ried more weight than the others : such that is what the quar­rel was about. It was quite lively : for on both sides they cor­dially prof­fe­red such ugly insults to each other, they made such bit­ter jokes, that I mar­vel­led not less at the man­ner of deba­ting than at the sub­ject of the debate. If someone were foo­lish enough, I said to myself, to stand before one of these defen­ders of the Greek poet and attack the repu­ta­tion of some good citi­zen before, he would be qui­ckly cor­rec­ted, and I think that this deli­cate zeal over the repu­ta­tion of the dead would be qui­ckly infla­med to defend that of the living ; but howe­ver that may be, I added, God for­bid I should ever draw on myself the enmity of the poet’s cen­sors, whom a stay of two thou­sand years in the tomb has not been able to pro­tect from such impla­ca­ble hatred. Right now they are pun­ching air ; but what would it be like if their fury were ins­pi­red by the pre­sence of an enemy ?

These men of whom I have just spo­ken argue in the vul­gar ton­gue, and we must dis­tin­guish them from ano­ther kind of deba­ter who use a bar­ba­rous lan­guage that seems to add some­thing to the fury and tena­city of the com­ba­tants. There are neigh­bo­rhoods where you see a thick, dark crowd of these sorts of men.4 They thrive on dis­tinc­tions, they live by obs­cure rea­so­ning and false conse­quen­ces. This pro­fes­sion in which one ought to die of hun­ger is never­the­less remu­ne­ra­tive : there was a time when an entire nation expel­led from their coun­try cros­sed the seas to set­tle in France,5 brin­ging nothing with them to cope with the neces­si­ties of life but an awe­some talent for dis­pu­ta­tion. Adieu.

Paris this last day of the moon of Zilhagé 1713

Cafés, unlike taverns, where wine was served, spread first in London, then in Paris late in the seventeenth century. They were sociable places where literary and other crowds gathered.

Several hundred in 1720, according to Gérard-Georges Lemaire, Les Cafés littéraires (Paris : Georges Veyrier, 1987).

Allusion to the quarrel over Homer (1714-1716) ; see Hepp, especially p. 629-772 ; Salvatore Rotta, “L’Homère de Montesquieu”, Homère en France après la Querelle (1715-1900) (Françoise Létoublon et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ed.), Paris : Champion, p. 141-148 ; and Christophe Martin, “‘L’esprit parleur’ : Montesquieu lecteur de Homère, Virgile, Fénelon et quelques autres”, CM 9.

The Latin Quarter.

Irish Catholics exiled after the fall of James II in 1689. The Collège des Irlandais was on Rue des Carmes in the Latin Quarter.