Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXLV
Usbek to ——
A MAN 1 of genius is usually fastidious in society. He chooses few acquaintances; he finds the vast majority of people whom he is pleased to call bad company very tedious; and as he cannot altogether hide his disgust, he makes many enemies.  1
  Sure of pleasing when he likes, he very often does not like.  2
  He is much given to criticism, because he sees and feels more than others.  3
  He almost always ruins his fortune, because his genius supplies him with a great variety of means for that purpose.  4
  He fails in his undertakings because he attempts too much. His vision, which carries far, causes him to have in view objects which are too remote. It must also be remembered that, in projecting a scheme, he is less impressed by the difficulties which spring from it, than by the means of overcoming them, which he derives from his own resources.  5
  He neglects minor details, although upon them the success of almost all great enterprises depends.  6
  The mediocre man, on the other hand, tries to make use of everything, he is so well aware that he cannot afford to neglect trifles.  7
  Universal approbation is very generally accorded to the mediocre man. Every one is delighted to give the latter praise, and enchanted to withhold it from the former. While envy expends itself on the one and nothing is forgiven him, everything is construed in the other’s favor; vanity declares itself on his side.  8
  But if so many disadvantages burden the man of genius, what is to be said of the hard lot of a scientific man?  9
  I never think of it without recalling a letter written by a savant to one of his friends. Here it is:—  10
  “SIR,—I am a man whose nights are spent in studying through telescopes thirty feet long those great bodies which roll over our heads; and when I wish for relaxation, I take my little microscopes and examine a maggot or a mite.  11
  “I am not rich, and I have only one room; I dare not even light a fire in it, because the unnatural warmth would cause the mercury to rise in my thermometer. Last winter, I thought I would die of cold; and although my thermometer, which was at the lowest, told me that my hands were freezing, I did not put myself about. And I have the consolation of knowing exactly the slightest changes in the weather for the whole of the past year.  12
  “I have little intercourse with others; and among all the people whom I meet, I know no one. But there is a man at Stockholm, another at Leipsic and another at London, whom I have never seen, and whom I shall doubtless never see, but with whom I keep up a correspondence so punctual, that I do not miss a single post.  13
  “But although I know no one in my neighborhood, my reputation here is so bad, that I shall sooner or later require to leave t. Five years ago I was grossly insulted by a woman for having dissected a dog which she pretended belonged to her. The wife of a butcher, who happened to be present, took her side. And, while the one abused me heartily, the other pelted me with stones, along with Dr. ———, who was in my company, and who received such dreadful blows on the head, both back and front, that his mind was much shaken.  14
  “Since that time, whenever a dog strays away from the street corner, it is at once taken for granted that he has passed through my hands. A decent citizen’s wife, who had lost her pet dog, which she said she loved better than her children, came the other day and fainted in my room; not finding her dog, she summoned me before the magistrate. I believe I shall never be delivered from the persistent malice of these women, who, in shrieking tones, din me daily with the funeral oration of all the beasts that have died during the last six years. I am,” etc.  15
  All scientific men were formerly accused of magic. I am not surprised at it. Each one said to himself, “I have carried human capacity as far as it can go; and yet a certain savant has distanced me: beyond a doubt he deals in sorcery.”  16
  Now that accusations of that kind have been discredited, another course has been taken; and the scientific man can hardly escape the reproach of ungodliness or of heresy. It is of little consequence that the people hold him innocent: the wound once made can never be quite closed again. It will always be a tender spot. An opponent will come thirty years after and say to him in an unassuming way, “God forbid that I should think you have been accused justly; but you were obliged to defend yourself.” And thus his justification itself is turned against him.  17
  If he writes a history, and shows himself possessed of high intelligence and some share of righteousness, a thousand unjust accusations are brought against him. Some one will stir up the magistrate against him about an incident that took place ages ago, and if his pen is not to be bought they would have it restrained.  18
  They are more fortunate, however, than those recreants who renounce their faith for trifling pension; who hardly make a single farthing by all their impostures; who overturn the constitution of the empire, diminish the rights of one state to increase those of another, give to princes what they have taken from the people, revive obsolete rights, humor the passions which are in vogue in their time, and the favorite vices of the king; imposing upon posterity all the more infamously, that means are lacking to destroy their evidence.  19
  But it is not enough that an author should have to endure all these insults; it is not enough that he should have been continually anxious about the success of his work. When it sees the light at last, that work, which has cost him so much, brings down upon him quarrels from all quarters. How can he avoid them? He holds an opinion, and maintains it in his writings, quite unaware that another man two hundred leagues away asserts the very reverse. There you have the way in which war arises.  20
  But may he not hope to acquire some degree of fame? No; at the most he is only esteemed by those who have studied the same branch of science as he. The philosopher has a supreme contempt for the man whose head is stuffed with facts; and he in his turn is looked upon as a visionary by the possessor of a good memory.  21
  As for those who profess haughty ignorance, they would have all mankind buried in the same oblivion as themselves.  22
  When a man lacks a particular talent, he indemnifies himself by despising it: he removes the impediment between him and merit; and in that way finds himself on a level with those of whose works he formerly stood in awe.  23
  Lastly, an author requires in pursuit of an equivocal reputation to abstain from all pleasure and sacrifice his health.

  PARIS, the 26th of the moon of Chahban, 1720.
Note 1. The eighth letter added in 1754. [back]

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