Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Wine is so dear in Paris because of the taxes levied on it, that it seems they have under­ta­ken here to apply the pre­cept of the divine Qur’an which for­bids us to drink it.

When I think of the dread­ful effects of that liquor, I can­not help regar­ding it as the most fear­some pre­sent nature has made to men. If there is some­thing that has disho­no­red the life and the repu­ta­tion of our monarchs, it has been their intem­pe­rance ; it is the most poi­so­ned source of their injus­ti­ces and cruel­ties.1

I will say it to men’s shame, the law for­bids our prin­ces the use of wine, and they drink it with an excess that even degra­des them from huma­nity. Its use is on the contrary per­mit­ted to Christian prin­ces, and one does not observe that it makes them make any mis­ta­kes. The human mind is contra­dic­tion itself : in licen­tious drun­ken­ness, one rebels with furor against pre­cepts ; and the law, inten­ded to make us more just, often ser­ves only to make us more guilty.

But when I disap­prove the use of that liquor that depri­ves us of rea­son, I do not at the same time condemn those beve­ra­ges that cheer him up. It is the wis­dom of Orientals to seek reme­dies against sad­ness as care­fully as against the most dan­ge­rous disea­ses. When some mis­for­tune befalls a European, he has no other resource than rea­ding a phi­lo­so­pher they call Seneca2 : bus Asians, more sen­si­ble than they, and in that bet­ter phy­si­cians, take concoc­tions that can make a man cheer­ful and beguile the memory of his pains.3

There is nothing so dis­maying as conso­la­tions drawn from the neces­sity of evil, the inef­fec­tual­ness of reme­dies, the ine­vi­ta­bi­lity of des­tiny, the order of Providence, and the tra­gedy of the human condi­tion. It is mockery to try to pal­liate an evil by the consi­de­ra­tion that we are born in misery ; it is bet­ter to lift the spi­rit above its reflec­tions, and consi­der man as sen­si­tive rather than trea­ting him as rea­so­na­ble.

The soul joi­ned with the body is end­lessly tyran­ni­zed by it. If the move­ment of the blood is too slow, if the spi­rits are not suf­fi­ciently puri­fied,4 if they are of insuf­fi­cient quan­tity, we fall into dejec­tion and into sad­ness ; but if we take beve­ra­ges that can change this dis­po­si­tion of our bodies, our soul again beco­mes capa­ble of recei­ving impres­sions that cheer it up, and it feels an inner plea­sure at seeing its machine5 resume, so to speak, its move­ment and life.

Paris this 25th day of the moon of Zilcadé 1713

Chardin gives examples : “Indeed, when the king is angry, or drunk on wine, no one around him is sure of his possessions or his life. He removes ministers and favorites from one moment to the next. He has hands and feet cut off, noses and ears, he has people put to death, all at the slightest caprice, and a man may be a victim of his fury at the end of his drunkenness who at the beginning was his dearest companion.” (VI, 19-20).

The image of Seneca at the time was that of rigid stoic.

Chardin had spoken of a concoction called coquenar (II, 69) ; cf. reference to an “essence of hemp” which gives them “thoughts so agreeable and pleasures so intense that for several hours they seem to be outside themselves” – a stage followed by lethargy (Essai sur les causes, OC, IX, 242-243).

After the double distillation which transforms the natural spirit into a vital spirit (at the level of the heart) and then into animal spirit (at the level of the brain), according to the Galienic theory of animal spirits.

Machine designates the body, especially in a context which opposed the soul to the body ; see letter 22, note 4.