Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXLII
Rica to Usbek, at ——
HERE is a letter which I received yesterday from a learned man: you will think it remarkable.  1
  “SIR,—Six months ago I inherited from a very rich uncle five or six thousand livres and a magnificently furnished mansion. It is delightful to have wealth, when one knows how to make a good use of it. I have no ambition, nor any taste for pleasure: I am almost always shut up in a little room, where I lead the life of a savant. It is in such a place that the diligent antiquary is to be found.  2
  “When my uncle died, I was very anxious to have him buried with the ceremonies observed by the ancient Greeks and Romans: but at that time I had neither lachrymatories, nor urns, nor antique lamps.  3
  “Since then, however, I have provided myself with these precious rarities. Some days ago I sold my silver plate in order to buy an earthenware lamp which had given light to a Stoic philosopher. I have disposed of all the glass with which my uncle had covered almost all the walls of his rooms, that I might possess a little mirror, somewhat cracked, which had formerly been used by Virgil: it charms me to see my own features where those of the swan of Mantua have been reflected. That is not all: I have bought for a hundred louis d’or five or six pieces of copper money which were current two thousand years ago. I do not think I have now in my house a single piece of furniture which was not made before the fall of the Roman empire. I have a cupboard full of the most valuable and costly manuscripts. Although it is ruining my sight, I much prefer to read them than printed copies which are not so correct, and which are in everybody’s hands. Although I hardly ever go out, that does not prevent me from having an ungovernable passion to be acquainted with all the old roads which date from the time of the Romans. There is one near my house which was made by a proconsul of Gaul about twelve hundred years ago. When I go to my place in the country, I never fail to take it, although it is very inconvenient, and leads me more than a league out of my way: but what really angers me are the wooden posts stuck up at certain intervals to indicate the distances of the neighboring towns. I am in despair at the sight of these signposts, wretched substitutes for the military columns that stood there formerly: I have no doubt that I shall cause them to be set up again by my heirs, and that I shall be able to leave a will compelling them to do it. If, sir, you have such a thing as a Persian manuscript, you would oblige me very much by letting me have it: I will pay you your own price, and will give you into the bargain some works of mine, from which you will see that I am not a useless member of the republic of letters. Among them you will notice a dissertation in which I prove that the crown used formerly in triumphs, was of oak and not of laurel: you will admire another in which I show clearly, by learned conjectures deduced from the weightiest Greek authors, that Cambyses was wounded, not in the right leg, but in the left; in another I demonstrate that a low forehead was a beauty much in request among the Romans. I will send you also a quarto volume, containing the explanation of a line in the sixth book of Virgil’s “Æneid.” All these things you will receive in a few days; and in the meantime I content myself with sending you the accompanying fragment of an ancient Greek mythologist, which has not yet been published, and which I discovered in the dust of a library. I must leave you now for an important matter which I have in hand, namely, the restoration of a beautiful passage in Pliny the naturalist, which has been strangely disfigured by the copyists of the fifth century. I am,” etc.  4
  “In an island near the Oscades, a child was born whose father was Æolus, the god of the winds, and his mother a nymph of Caledonia. 1 They tell of him that he learned unaided to count with his fingers; and that from his fourth year he distinguished metals so well, that his mother, having given him a ring of tin in exchange for one of gold, he perceived the deceit, and threw it away.
  “When he had grown up, his father taught him the secret of inclosing the winds in skins, which he afterward sold to all the travelers: but as the trade in winds was not very brisk in his country, he left it, and went up and down the world, accompanied by the blind god of chance.  6
  “During his travels he learned that gold glittered in every part of Betica; 2 and he hurried thither at once. He was very badly received by Saturn, 3 who reigned then: but that god having quitted the earth, he judged it wise to go into all the crossroads and cry continually in a hoarse voice, ‘People of Betica, you think yourselves rich, because you have silver and gold! I pity your error. Be ruled by me: leave the land of the base metals; come into the empire of the imagination, and I promise you riches which will astonish even you.’ He immediately opened a great number of the skins which he had brought with him, and dealt out his merchandise to all who wished it.  7
  “Next morning he returned to the same crossroads, and cried, ‘People of Betica, would you be rich? Imagine that I am very rich, and that you are very rich: get yourselves into the belief every morning that your fortune has been doubled during the night: rise, then, and if you have any creditors, go and pay them with what you have imagined, and tell them to imagine in their turn.’  8
  “A few days after he appeared again, and spoke as follows: ‘People of Betica, I perceive that your imagination is weaker than it was a day or two ago; try to bring it up to the strength of mine: I will place before you every morning a bill, which will be the source of wealth for you: you will see only four words, 4 but they will be of the highest significance, as they will settle the portions of your wives, the fortunes of your children, and the number of your domestics. And, as for you’—addressing those of the crowd who were nearest him—‘as for you, my dear children (I may call you by that name, since you have received from me a second birth), my bill shall decide as to the magnificence of your equipages, the splendor of your feasts, and the number and pensions of your mistresses.’  9
  “Some days later he came into the street, quite out of breath, and cried out in a violent passion, ‘People of Betica, I counseled you to imagine, but you have not done so: well then, I now command you to imagine.’ With that he left them abruptly; but on second thoughts retraced his steps. ‘I understand that some of you are odious enough to keep your gold and silver. For the silver, let it go: but the gold … the gold … Ah! that stirs my anger!… I swear, by my sacred windbags, that if you do not bring it to me, I will inflict dire punishment upon you.’ 5 Then he added, in the most seductive manner imaginable, ‘Do you think it is to keep these wretched metals that I ask them from you? A proof of my good faith is, that when you brought me them some days ago, I gave you back at once one half.’ 6  10
  “Next day, he kept at some distance, and endeavored with soft and flattering voice to worm himself into their favor. ‘People of Betica, I learn that a portion of your wealth is in foreign countries: I beg you to have it sent to me; 7 it will oblige me very much, and I will never forget your kindness.’  11
  “The son of Æolus was addressing people who were in no mood to be amused, yet they could not restrain their laughter; which caused him to slink away in a shame-faced manner. But, his courage having returned, he risked another little petition. ‘I know that you have precious stones; in the name of Jupiter, get rid of them; nothing will so impoverish you as things of that kind; get rid of them, I tell you. 8 Should you be unable to do so yourselves, I can provide excellent agents. What wealth will pour in upon you, if you follow my advice! Yes, I promise you the very best my windbags contain.’  12
  “Then he got up on a platform, and, in a more resolute tone, said, ‘People of Betica, I have compared the happy condition in which you now are with that in which I found you when I first came here; I behold you the richest people in the world: but, in order to crown your good fortune, allow me to deprive you of the half of your wealth.’ With these words, the song of Æolus soared away on rapid wings, and left his audience dumb with amazement, a result which brought him back next day, when he spoke as follows: ‘I perceived yesterday that my speech displeased you very much. Very well! suppose that I have said nothing at all as yet. It is quite true; one half is too much. We must find some other expedient to arrive at the result which I have proposed. Let us gather all our wealth into one place; we can do so easily, because it does not occupy much space.’ Immediately three-quarters of their wealth had disappeared.” 9

  PARIS, the 9th of the moon of Chahban, 1720.
Note 1. The Scotch financier, Law, of whose system this allegory is a satire. [back]
Note 2. France. [back]
Note 3. Louis XIV. [back]
Note 4. Le cours des actions, the price of shares. [back]
Note 5. It had been decreed that all specie should be taken to the Bank. [back]
Note 6. At the beginning of Law’s “system,” claims on the Bank were paid half in paper and half in cash. [back]
Note 7. A royal order, issued 20th of June, 1720. [back]
Note 8. A decree of the 4th of July, 1720. [back]
Note 9. A decree of the 15th of September, 1720. [back]

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