Montesquieu

Rica1 to Ibben in Smyrna


We have been in Paris for a month, and have been the whole time in conti­nual motion : a lot is invol­ved in fin­ding lod­gings, loca­ting the per­sons to whom we have been refer­red, and get­ting our­sel­ves sup­plied with the neces­sary things, which are all lacking at once.

Paris is as large as Isfahan. The hou­ses are so tall that one would swear they are inha­bi­ted only by astro­lo­gers.2 You can judge that a city built upward, which has six or seven hou­ses on top of each other, is extre­mely popu­lous, and that once eve­ryone has des­cen­ded into the street, it is very crow­ded.3

What you might not believe is that in the month I have been here, I have yet to see anyone walk. There are no peo­ple on earth who get more out of their machi­nes4 than the French : they run, and they fly. The lei­su­rely car­ria­ges of Asia, the steady gait of our camels, would make them faint dead away. As for me, who am not used to such a pace, I often go on foot without chan­ging my stride. I some­ti­mes get in a rage like a Christian : for allo­wing that I will get spla­shed from foot to head, I can­not for­give the elbows that hit me regu­larly and perio­di­cally : being regu­larly and pre­dic­ta­bly. A man who comes from behind and over­ta­kes me gives me a half-turn around, and ano­ther, who is coming the other way, sud­denly puts me back where the first had caught me, and I have not gone a hun­dred paces without being more pom­me­led that if I had gone six lea­gues.

Do not expect me for now to tell you much about European beha­vior and cus­toms ; I only have a slight notion of them myself, and have scar­cely had time to regis­ter my sur­prise.

The king of France is the most power­ful prince in Europe. He has no gold mines like his neigh­bor the king of Spain, but he has more wealth than he, because he draws it from the vanity of his sub­jects,5 more inex­haus­ti­ble than mines. He has been able to under­take or sus­tain great wars, with no other funds than hono­red tit­les to sell6 ; and by a mira­cle of human pride, his troops get paid, his for­tres­ses sup­plied, and his fleets equip­ped.

This king is, moreo­ver, a great magi­cian : he extends his autho­rity over the very minds of his sub­jects, making them think what he will. If he has but a mil­lion écus in his trea­sury, and he needs two, he only has to per­suade them that one écu is worth two, and they believe him. If he has a war dif­fi­cult to sup­port, and has no money, he only has to get them to thin­king that a piece of paper is money,7 and they are at once per­sua­ded it is so. He even goes so far as to make them believe that he cures them of all sorts of disea­ses by tou­ching them,8 so great is the power he has over their minds.

Let not what I am tel­ling you about this prince sur­prise you : there is ano­ther magi­cian even more skilled than he, who is not less mas­ter of his mind than him­self he is of others’. This magi­cian is cal­led the pope. Sometimes he makes him believe that three are only one,9 that the bread one eats is not bread, or the wine one drinks is not wine,10 and a thou­sand other things of the sort.

And in order to keep him always in shape, and not let him lose the habit of belie­ving, from time to time he gives him for prac­tice cer­tain arti­cles of faith. Two years ago he sent him a docu­ment which he cal­led Constitution,11 and tried to oblige this prince and his sub­jects under heavy penal­ties to believe eve­ry­thing that was in it. He suc­cee­ded with res­pect to the prince, who promptly sub­mit­ted, and gave the exam­ple to his sub­jects ; but some of them revol­ted, and said they wan­ted to believe nothing of eve­ry­thing that was in the docu­ment. It is the women who have fomen­ted this whole revolt, which is divi­ding the whole court, the whole realm and every family. This Constitution for­bids them to read a book that all Christians say was brought from hea­ven ; it is pro­perly their Qur’an. The women, outra­ged at the insult com­mit­ted against their sex, are arou­sing eve­ryone against the Constitution ; they have got the men to go along, who on this occa­sion claim no pri­vi­lege. Yet it must be admit­ted that this mufti12 does not rea­son badly, and by the great Ali he must have been schoo­led in the prin­ci­ples of our holy Law : for since women are of infe­rior crea­tion to ours, and our pro­phets tell us that they will not enter para­dise, why should they pre­sume to read a book that exists only to show the path to para­dise ?

I have heard sto­ries about the king that verge on the mira­cu­lous, and do not doubt that you will hesi­tate to believe them.

They say that while he was waging war on his neigh­bors, who had all uni­ted against him,13 he had in his realm a count­less num­ber of invi­si­ble ene­mies14 who sur­roun­ded him. They add that he sear­ched for them for over thirty years, and that des­pite the unflag­ging efforts of cer­tain der­vi­shes,15 who have his ear,16 he could not find a one. They live along­side him ; they are in his court, in his capi­tal, in his troops, and in his tri­bu­nals ; and yet they say he will have the dis­plea­sure of dying without having found them. It is as if they exist in gene­ral, and vanish in par­ti­cu­lar ; it is a body, but there are no mem­bers.17 No doubt hea­ven wishes to punish this prince for not being suf­fi­ciently mer­ci­ful to the ene­mies he has conque­red, since it gives him invi­si­ble ones, whose genius and des­tiny are above his own.

I shall conti­nue to write to you, and tell you things very unlike the Persian cha­rac­ter and genius. It is, to be sure, the same Earth that bears both of us : but the men of the coun­try where I am living, and those of the coun­try where you are, are very dif­fe­rent men.18

Paris this 4th day of the moon of Rebiab II, 171219

First letter from Rica, whose name had been mentioned in letter 1, and who is the first to describe Paris. Rica indeed plays an epistolary role quite different from Usbek’s, for he never writes from anywhere but Paris, and himself receives only two letters, numbers 76 and 125.

That is, they must have been made to accommodate observatories in their upper storeys. As Chardin makes clear, astrology is a powerful force in Persian society.

The theme of the modern city also furnishes the opening scene of Robert Challe’s Les Illustres Françaises (1713), which is situation in a traffic jam in central Paris.

Their bodies (Cartesian sense of the term).

This “vanity” might be seen as the seed of what in The Spirit of Law, in a less satirical mode, will be labelled “honor” as the driving force of monarchy (see SL, III, 9).

Allusion to the great financial difficulties of the crown in this period, and to the long-standing sale of offices (called la vénalité des charges) and noble titles.

An apparently double allusion, both to false letters of credit and hence the crown debts, and to the paper money put into circulation by John Law (see letter 138).

An old popular belief held that the king’s touch could cure scrofula.

Allusion to the Trinity.

Allusion to the transubstantiation of the Eucharist.

Conventional name given to the papal bull Unigenitus of 1713 against Jansenism, promulgated in fact on 8 September 1713, a date posterior to the date ascribed to this letter (4 June 1712).

A Muslim ecclesiastical dignitary.

The triple alliance established in 1700 against France (promoted in Spain by the Castillians) included England, the Lowlands, and the Empire (with the exception of the electorates of Cologne and Bavaria).

The Jansenists.

Chardin saw beggars called dervishes who were “more or less like monks or pilgrims in the Roman Church ; for they pretend to leave the world for principle or devotion, and profess willful poverty and beggary” (VIII, 109-111).

The Jesuites, among whom Louis XIV chose all his confessors : La Chaise, much more hostile to the Protestants than to the Jansenists, was succeeded in 1709 by Le Tellier, a determined adversary of Jansenist Port-Royal and unflagging supporter of the bull Unigenitus. The regent was to exile him after the death of Louis XIV.

Allusion to proposition LXXV of Unigenitus : “The Church is a single man composed of many members, of which Jesus Christ is the head, the subsistance and the person” ; and to St Paul : “the body is one, and hath many members” (I Corinthians 12:12).

This letter is reputed to have provoked the indignation of Cardinal Fleury, and his opposition to Montesquieu’s entrance into the Académie Française en 1727 (cf. letter 71).

Thus it has taken 161 days (see Schneider, “Le jeu du sens dans les Lettres persanes : temps du roman et temps de l’histoire”, Revue Montesquieu 4, 2000, p. 127-159 [http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/IMG/pdf/RM04_Schneider_127-159.pdf], p. 153) to reach Paris from Isfahan ; the letters exchanged subsequently between the two capitals normally also take about five and a half months to reach their destination.