Montesquieu

Usbek to Mirza in Isfahan


You are renoun­cing your rea­son in order to test mine ; you condes­cend to consult me, and think I am able to ins­truct you. My dear Mirza, there is one thing that flat­ters me even more than the good opi­nion you have concei­ved of me, and that is your friend­ship, to which I owe it.

To ful­fill what you are pres­cri­bing, I did not think I should use very abs­tract rea­so­ning : there are some truths of which per­sua­sion does not suf­fice, but which one must also be made to feel ; and moral truths are such. Perhaps this bit of his­tory will affect you more than a subtle phi­lo­so­phy.

There was in Arabia a short peo­ple cal­led Troglodytes,1 who were des­cen­dants of those ancient Troglodytes who, if we are to believe the his­to­rians, were more like ani­mals than men. These were not so mis­sha­pen ; they were not furry like bears ; they did not whistle2 ; they had two eyes. But they were so mean and ornery that there was among them no prin­ci­ple of equity nor of jus­tice.

They had a king of foreign ori­gin, who inten­ding to cor­rect their natu­ral mean­ness, trea­ted them har­shly ; but they cons­pi­red against him, killed him, and exter­mi­na­ted the entire royal family.

When the revolt was over, they assem­bled to chose a govern­ment, and after much dis­sen­sion, they crea­ted magis­tra­tes : but scarce had they elec­ted them than they found them unbea­ra­ble ; and once more they slaugh­te­red them.

That peo­ple, freed from that new yoke, no lon­ger took any­thing into account but its savage nature : eve­ryone agreed that they would no lon­ger obey anyone, and that eve­ryone would look out solely for his own inte­rest, taking no account of those of others.3

This una­ni­mous reso­lu­tion was exactly what they all wan­ted. They said : Why should I work myself to the bone for peo­ple I care nothing about ? I shall think only of myself ; I shall live hap­pily ; what do I care whe­ther the others are happy ? I shall sup­ply all my needs ; and if I can, it is nothing to me if all the other Troglodytes are impo­ve­ri­shed.

It was the month when the sowing is done. Each indi­vi­dual said : I shall till my field only to fur­nish me the grain I need for my table. A lar­ger quan­tity would be of no use to me ; I shall not take pains for nothing.

The lands of this small realm were not all alike : some were arid and rocky, and others, which were in low coun­try, were wate­red by seve­ral streams. It was a very dry year, such that the fields which were in high pla­ces were com­ple­tely bar­ren, whe­reas those that could receive water were very fer­tile : and so it was that the moun­tain peo­ple nearly all died of hun­ger because of the piti­less­ness of the others, who refu­sed so share their har­vest with them.

The fol­lo­wing year was very rainy : the higher pla­ces were extra­or­di­na­rily pro­duc­tive, while the low­lands were sub­mer­ged. Half the peo­ple again cried famine : but these wret­ches found peo­ple as unfee­ling as they them­sel­ves had been.

On of the prin­ci­pal inha­bi­tants had a very lovely wife ; his neigh­bor fell in love with her and abduc­ted her. A huge quar­rel ensued ; and after many insults and blows, they agreed to leave the deci­sion to a Troglodyte who, in the time of the repu­blic, had enjoyed some repu­ta­tion. They went to him, and tried to lay out their claims : What dif­fe­rence does it make to me, the man said, whe­ther this woman is yours, or yours ? I have my field to plow ; I am not about to spend my time resol­ving your dis­pu­tes, and ten­ding to your busi­ness while neglec­ting my own. Please leave me alone, and do not bother me again with your quar­rels ; and the­reu­pon he left them, and went to till his fields. The abduc­tor, who was the stron­ger, swore he would soo­ner die than give this woman back ; and the other, appal­led at his neigh­bor’s injus­tice and the judge’s insen­si­ti­vity, was retur­ned home bro­ken­hear­ted, when along the way he found a young and fair woman who was retur­ning home from the spring. He no lon­ger had a wife ; he like this one, he liked her even more when he lear­ned she was the wife of the man he had wan­ted to be his judge, and who had been so unin­te­res­ted in his plight : he abduc­ted her, and took her home with him.

There was a man who owned a rather fer­tile field, which he ten­ded with great care. Two of his neigh­bors got toge­ther, threw him out of his house, and occu­pied his field. They uni­ted to defend them­sel­ves against all who might wish to usurp it ; and indeed they main­tai­ned them­sel­ves in this way for some months. But one of them, weary of sha­ring what he could have all to him­self, killed the other, and became sole mas­ter of the field. His pos­ses­sion did not last long : two other Troglodytes came and atta­cked him ; he was too weak to defend him­self, and was slaugh­te­red.

A nearly naked Troglodyte saw some wool for sale ; he asked its price. The mer­chant said to him­self : really I ought to expect from my wool only as much money as it will take to buy two mea­su­res of grain ; but I am going to sell it four times higher, so I can have eight mea­su­res. There was no way around paying the asking price. I am very plea­sed, said the mer­chant, now I will have some grain. Did you say, replied the stran­ger, that you need some grain ? I have some to sell ; only the price will per­haps sur­prise you : for you will find that grain is extre­mely expen­sive, and there is famine almost eve­ryw­here. But give me my money back, and I will give you one mea­sure of grain ; for I will not let it go for less, were you to die of hun­ger.

Meanwhile a cruel disease was rava­ging the ter­ri­tory. An able doc­tor came from the next coun­try over, and dis­tri­bu­ted his reme­dies so skill­fully that he cured all those who put them­sel­ves in his hands. When the disease was past, he went to all those he had trea­ted to col­lect his fee ; but he met nothing but refu­sals. He retur­ned to his own coun­try, and rea­ched home exhaus­ted by the fati­gues of such a long jour­ney. But soon after­wards he lear­ned that the same disease was again ram­pant, and cau­sing more suf­fe­ring than ever in that thank­less land. This time they went to him, and did not wait for him to come to them : Go away, he said to them, unjust men ; you have a poi­son in your soul more fatal than the one you want to be cured of ; you do not deserve to occupy a spot on earth, because you have no huma­nity, and know nothing of the rules of equity. I would think I was offen­ding the gods, who are puni­shing you, if I oppo­sed the jus­tice of their wrath.

Erzerum this 3rd day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 1711

They were cave dwellers on the shores of the Red Sea.

An echo of an assertion in Herodotus and Pomponius Mela that the ancient Troglodytes whistled when they spoke.

The corruption and anarchy of the Hebrew people are summarized in the refrain : “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).