Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter XXXVI
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
COFFEE is very much used in Paris; there are a great many public houses where it may be had. In some of these they meet to gossip, in others to play at chess. There is one 1 where the coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: at least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it.  1
  But that which shocks me most in these geniuses, is, that they are quite useless to their country, and amuse their talents with puerilities. For example, when I arrived at Paris I found them warm in dispute over the most trifling matter imaginable. 2 It was all about an old Greek poet, whose birthplace and time of dying no one has known for two thousand years. Both sides agreed that he was a most excellent poet: it was only a question of the degree of merit to be ascribed to him. Each wished to fix his rank; but among those apportioners of praise, some carried more weight than others. Here you have the whole dispute. It was a lively quarrel; for both sides abused each other most heartily with such gross aspersions, and such bitter raillery, that I admired the conduct of the quarrel, as much as the subject of it. “If any one,” said I to myself, “were fool enough to attack, in the presence of the defenders of the Greek poet, the reputation of some honest citizen, he would surely find a warm reception; and, indeed, I believe that this extreme zeal for the reputation of the dead, would blaze up to some purpose in defense of the living. But, however that may be,” added I, “God keep me from ever drawing on myself the enmity of these censors of this poet, who has not been saved from their implacable hate even after having lain two thousand years in his grave! At present they fight the air; but how would it be, if their rage were animated by the presence of an enemy?”  2
  Those of whom I have told you dispute in the vulgar tongue; and must be distinguished from another set of disputants, who employ a barbarous language, 3 which seems to increase the fury and the obstinancy of the combatants. There are places 4 where these people are to be seen struggling as in a battle, dismal and confused; they are fed upon subtleties, they live upon obscure arguments and false inferences. This profession, although one would think its followers would die of hunger, must pay in some way. A whole nation, driven from their own country, 5 has been seen to cross the sea and establish itself in France, carrying with it no other means of providing for the necessities of life, than a notable talent for debate. Farewell.

  PARIS, the last day of the moon of Zilhage, 1713.
Note 1. The Café Procope, a rendezvous of the wits of the eighteenth century. [back]
Note 2. The quarrel regarding the relative merits of the ancients and the moderns, in which Homer was the chief subject of dispute. [back]
Note 3. The Latin of schools. [back]
Note 4. The Sorbonne and the University. [back]
Note 5. An allusion to a seminary of Irish priests instituted in 1677 by some refugees. [back]

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