Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
You do not think as you say,
or else your actions are better than your thoughts. You left your
country to acquire knowledge, and you despise all knowledge; you go to
form yourself in a country where the fine arts are cultivated, and you
regard them as hurtful. May I say it, Rhedi? –I am more of
your mind than you are yourself.
Have you properly considered the barbarous and unhappy condition which the loss of the arts1would entail upon us? There is no need to imagine it; it can be seen. There are still people upon the earth, among whom a tolerably trained monkey could live with credit; he would be almost on a level with the other inhabitants; and they would not think him a curious creature, or an odd character; he would pass as well as another, and would even be distinguished by his elegance.
You say that the founders of empires have almost all been ignorant of the arts. I do not deny that barbarians have poured over the earth like impetuous torrents, and covered with their wild armies the most civilised kingdoms; but, observe this, they learnt the arts, or made the conquered races exercise them; without that, their power would have passed away like the noise of a thunderstorm.
You fear, you say, that some more dreadful method of destruction than that at present in use will be invented. No; if a fatal invention were to be brought out, it would soon be prohibited by the law of nations, and suppressed by unanimous consent. It is not in the interest of princes to make conquests by such means; they wish to gain subjects, not soil.
You complain of the invention of gunpowders and bombs; you think it strange that no place should now be impregnable- that is to say, you think it strange that wars should be brought to an end sooner to-day than they were formerly.
You must have remarked in reading history, that since the invention of gunpowder, battles are much less bloody than they used to be, because the armies are seldom intermingled.
Why, because an art is found injurious in some particular instance, should it be rejected entirely? Do you think, Rhedi, that the religion which our holy Prophet brought from heaven is harmful, because one day it will serve to confound the unbelieving Christians?
You think that the arts enervate people, and are therefore the cause of the fall of empires. You speak of the fall of that of the ancient Persians, which was the result of their effeminacy; but this example is not by any means decisive, since the Greeks, who defeated them so often, and conquered them, were much more assiduous than they in the cultivation of the arts.
When they talk of the arts making men effeminate, they are not referring at all to the people that work at them, since they know nothing of indolence, which of all vices weakens courage the most.
It is, then, those who enjoy the fruits of labour who are intended. But, as in a civilised country those who enjoy the products of one art are obliged to cultivate another on pain of being reduced to a shameful poverty, it follows that indolence and effeminacy are incompatible with the arts.
Paris is perhaps the most luxurious city in the world; in it pleasure is carried to the highest pitch of refinement; yet life there is perhaps harder than in any other city. That one man may live delicately, a hundred must labour without intermission. It comes into a lady’s head that she ought to appear at an assembly in a certain dress; from that moment fifty workmen must go without sleep, and without time to eat or drink; she commands, and is obeyed as promptly as our monarch would be, because interest is the greatest monarch in the world.
This ardour for work, this passion for wealth, runs through every rank, from the workmen up to the highest in the land. Nobody likes to be poorer than he who is his immediate inferior. You may see at Paris a man with sufficient to live on till the end of the world, labouring constantly, and running the risk of shortening his days, to scrape together, as he says, a livelihood.
The same spirit prevails throughout the nation; nothing is to be seen but toil and industry. Where, then, is this effeminate people of which you talk so much?
I will suppose a kingdom, Rhedi, in which only those arts absolutely necessary for the cultivation of the land are allowed, which amount after all to a goodly number; and that all those which minister only to pleasure or to fancy are banished; I maintain that that state would be one of the most miserable in the whole world.
Though the inhabitants might have sufficient hardihood to do without so many things which their needs require, the people would decay daily; and the state would become so feeble, that there would be no force too petty to overcome it.
It would be easy to discuss this in detail, and to show you that the incomes of the subjects would cease almost entirely, and consequently that of the prince. There would hardly be any exchange of goods among the citizens, and there would be an end of that circulation of wealth, and of that increase of revenue, which arises from the dependence of the arts upon each other; each person would live upon his land, and would take from it only just enough to keep him from dying of hunger. But as this is sometimes not a twentieth part of the revenue of a state, the number of the inhabitants would diminish in proportion, until there remained of them also only a twentieth.
Consider attentively how much the revenue of industry amounts to. Land produces annually to its owner only a twentieth part of its value; but with one pistoleworth of colour a painter will make a picture which will be worth fifty. The like may be said of goldsmiths, of workers in wool and silk, and of all kinds of artisans.
From all this, one may conclude, Rhedi, that if a prince is to be powerful, it is necessary that his subjects should live in luxury; he ought to labour to procure all sorts of superfluities with as much care as the necessities of life.
Paris, the 14th of the moon of Chalval, 1717.
1. Used by Montesquieu
as inclusive of both the industrial and the fine arts