Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter XI
Usbek to Mirza, at Ispahan
YOU waive your own judgment in deference to mine; 1 you even deign to consult me; you profess your belief in my ability to instruct you. My dear Mirza, if there is one thing which flatters me more than your good opinion of me, it is the friendship which prompts it.  1
  In the fulfillment of the task you have prescribed me, I do not think there is any necessity for argument of an abstruse order. There are certain truths which it is not sufficient to know, but which must be realized: such are the great commonplaces of morality. Probably the following fable will affect you more than the most subtle argument:  2
  One upon a time there dwelt in Arabia a small tribe called Troglodites, descendents of the ancient Troglodites, who, if historians are to be believed, 2 were liker beasts than men. They were not, however, counterfeit presentments of the lower animals. They had not fur like bears; they did not hiss like serpents; and they did possess two eyes: 3 but they were so malicious, so brutish, that they lacked all notion of justice and equity.  3
  A king of foreign origin reigned over them. Wishing to correct their natural wickedness, he treated them with severity; but they conspired against him, slew him, and exterminated his line.  4
  They then assembled to appoint a governing body. After many dissensions, they elected magistrates. These had not been long in office, when they found them intolerable, and killed them also.  5
  Freed from this new yoke, the people were swayed only by their savage instincts. Every man determined to do what was right in his own eyes; and in attending to his own interests, the general welfare was forgotten.  6
  The unanimous decision gave universal satisfaction. They said: “Why should I kill myself with work for those in whom I have no interest? I will only think of myself: how should the welfare of others affect me? I will provide for my own necessities; and, if these are satisfied, it is no concern of mine though all the other Troglodites live in misery.”  7
  Each man said to himself in seedtime, “I shall till no more land than will supply me with corn enough for my wants. What use have I for any more? I am not going to bother myself for nothing.”  8
  The land in this little kingdom was not all of the same quality: some of it was barren and mountainous; and other portions, lying low, were well watered. One year a drought occurred, so severe, that the uplands bore no crop at all, while those that were well watered brought forth abundantly. In consequence of this, the highlanders almost all died of hunger, because the people of the lowlands had no mercy on them, and refused to share the harvest.  9
  The year after, the weather being very wet, the higher grounds produced extraordinary crops, while the lowlands were flooded. Again half the people were famine stricken; but the wretched sufferers found the mountaineers as hard as they themselves had been.  10
  One of the chief men of the country had a very lovely wife. A neighbor of his fell in love with her, and carried her off. This gave rise to a bitter quarrel; and after many words and blows, the parties agreed to submit their case to the judgment of a Troglodite, who had been well esteemed during the republic. Having gone to him, they were about to argue the case before him, when he cried: “What does it matter to me whose wife she is? My land waits to be tilled; and I am not going to waste my time settling your quarrels and doing your business, when I might be attending to my own; be kind enough to leave me alone, and trouble me no more with your disputes.” With that he left them, and went to work in his fields. The ravisher, who was the stronger man, swore he would sooner die than give up the woman. The other, smarting under his neighbor’s ill treatment and the unfeeling conduct of the umpire, was going home in despair, when he met a fine young woman returning from the well. Having no longer a wife of his own, he was attracted toward her; and she pleased him all the more when he learned she was the wife of him whom he had solicited to judge his case, and who had proved so pitiless to him. He therefore seized the woman and carried her to his house.  11
  Another man, the owner of some fairly productive ground, took great pains in its cultivation. Two of his neighbors conspired to drive him from his house, and seize his lands. They entered into a compact to oppose all who should try to oust them, and they actually succeeded for several months. One of the two, however, disgusted at having to share what might be his own exclusively, killed the other, and became sole master of the ground. But his reign was soon over: two other Troglodites attacked him, and as he was no match for them, they killed him.  12
  Still another Troglodite, seeing some wool exposed for sale, asked the price of it. The seller argued thus with himself: “At the market price I should receive for my wool as much money as would buy two measures of corn; but I will sell it for four times that sum, and then I can buy eight measures.” As the other wanted the wool, he paid the price demanded. “Many thanks,” said the vendor, “I shall now buy some corn.” “What,” rejoined the buyer, “you want corn? I have some to sell; but the price will rather astonish you. You must know that, as there is a famine in the land, corn is extremely dear. If you return me my money, I will give you one measure of corn: I would not give you a grain more for the price, though you were to die of hunger.”  13
  Meantime a dreadful malady was ravaging the land. An able physician came from a neighboring country, and prescribed with such success that he cured all his patients. When the plague ceased, he called for his fees, but was refused by one and all. There was nothing for it but to return to his own country, which he reached worn to a skeleton by the fatigues of a long journey. Soon after he heard that the same disease had broken out afresh among these thankless people, and with more virulence than before. This time they did not wait for him, but sent to entreat his presence. “Begone,” he cried, “unrighteous men! In your souls there is a poison more deadly than that which you wish me to cure; you are unworthy to live, for you are inhuman monsters, unacquainted with the first principles of justice. I will not offend the gods who punish you by opposing their just wrath.”

  ERZEROUM, the 3d of the second moon of Gemmadi, 4 1711.
Note 1. “Essayer la mienne,” a Gascon provincialism for USER, etc. the meaning is, therefore, as above, and not “to test mine.” [back]
Note 2. Herodotus, Plutarch, Pomponius Mela, and Pliny the Elder, are the authorities for the Troglodites. [back]
Note 3. Contradictions of assertions in Pomponius Mela. [back]
Note 4. Gemal-i-ul-sani, the sixth month of the Persian year. [back]

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