Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Rica to Nathaniel Levi, Jewish Physician at Leghorn
YOU ask me what I think of the virtues of amulets, and the power of talismans. Why do you address yourself to me? You are a Jew and I am a Mohammedan, that is to say, two very superstitious people.  1
  I carry about with me always two thousand passages from the holy Koran: on my arms I fasten a little slip on which are written the names of more than two hundred dervishes: the names of Hali, of Fatima, and of all the saintliest ones, are hidden in my clothes in more than twenty places.  2
  However, I do not disapprove of those who refuse to believe in the power ascribed to certain words. We find it more difficult to reply to their arguments, than they to our experience. I carry about me all these sacred scraps through long habit, and in order to conform to a universal practice: I am certain that if they do not possess more virtue than the rings and other ornaments with which we deck ourselves, they have at least as much. You, on the other hand, place your entire confidence in some mysterious letters; and without that safeguard would be in perpetual dread.  3
  Men are most unfortunate beings. They hover constantly between false hopes and ridiculous fears: and instead of relying on reason, make themselves monsters to terrify them, or phantoms to mislead them.  4
  What effect do you think can be produced by an arrangement of certain letters? What evil effect can their derangement produce? What connection have they with the winds that they should calm tempests; with gunpowder, that they should overcome its force; with peccant humors, as doctors call them, and the morbific cause of diseases, that they should cure them?  5
  What is most extraordinary is, that those who tire out their minds endeavoring to show the connection between certain events and occult powers, are forced to take as much trouble again to keep themselves from perceiving the true cause.  6
  You will tell me that a battle was gained by means of certain spells; whereas I hold that you must be blind, not to see that the situation of the field, the number or courage of the soldiers, the experience of the captains, are sufficient to produce that effect, of which you willfully ignore the true cause.  7
  I will grant for a moment that spells may exist: grant in your turn, for a moment, that they may not; which is far from impossible. What you grant me will not prevent two armies from encountering each other in battle: would you hold in that case that neither could defeat the other?  8
  Do you believe that the battle will remain dubious until an invisible power comes to decide it? that every blow will be thrown away; all strategy in vain; and all courage useless?  9
  Do you imagine that death, present on such occasions in a thousand forms, cannot produce in the minds of men those wild panics which you have such difficulty in explaining? Will you have it that in an army of a hundred thousand men there may not be a single coward? Do you think that the discouragement of such a one may not produce discouragement in another? That the second influencing a third, would soon make him produce a like effect upon a fourth? No more would be necessary to cause a whole army to be suddenly seized with despair, and the larger the army, the more sudden the seizure.  10
  The whole world knows and feels that men, like all creatures actuated by self-preservation, are passionately attached to life: this is known to be the general rule; and yet people ask why on a particular occasion, they should fear to lose it.  11
  Although the holy writings of all nations abound with accounts of these wild and supernatural panics, I can imagine nothing more ridiculous; because, to be certain that an effect which may be produced in a hundred thousand natural ways is supernatural, would require first of all proof positive that none of these causes had operated; which is impossible.  12
  But I shall say no more about it, Nathaniel; it seems to me that it is not a subject deserving such serious treatment.

  PARIS, the 20th of the moon of Chahban, 1720.
  P. S.—As I was concluding, I heard crying in the streets a letter from a country physician to one in Paris (for here every trifle is printed, published, and bought). I believe it is worth while sending it to you because it has some bearing on our subject.  14
  “There was once in our town a sick person who had had no sleep for thirty-five days. His physician ordered him opium; but he could not make up his mind to take it, and when he had the cup in his hand he was less inclined than ever. At last, he said to his physician, ‘Sir, give me only till to-morrow: I know a man who, although he does not practice medicine, has in his house an immense number of cures for insomnia; let me send for him: and if I do not sleep to-night, I promise to return to you.’ The physician being dismissed, the sick man had his curtains closed, and said to his page, ‘Go to M. Anis and ask him to come to me.’ When M. Anis came the patient said to him, ‘My dear sir, I am dying; I can’t sleep: have you not in your shop the C. of the G., 1 or some other book of devotion written by an R. P. J., 2 which you have not been able to sell, for long-kept remedies are often the best?’ ‘Sir,’ replied the bookseller, ‘I have the “Holy Court” of Father Caussin, 3 in six volumes, at your service; I will send it to you; and I hope you will be the better of it. If you would prefer the works of the reverend Father Rodrigo, a Spanish Jesuit, you need not want them. But, believe me, you had better stick to Father Caussin; I trust, with the help of God, that a single sentence of Father Caussin’s will do you more good than a whole page of the C. of the G.’ With that M. Anis left, and went to his shop to get the remedy. The ‘Holy Court’ arrived; and the dust having been shaken off it, the son of the sick man, a schoolboy, began to read it: he was the first to feel its effects; at the second page his utterance began to be almost inarticulate, and already the whole company was growing drowsy; in a moment, everybody was snoring except the sick man, who, after having stood it a good while, was at last overcome, too.
  “The physician arrived early next morning. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘has my opiate been taken?’ Nobody answered him: the sick man’s wife, daughter, and little boy, radiant with joy, showed him Father Caussin. He asked what it was. They answered, ‘Long life to Father Caussin; we must send him to be bound. Who would have said it? Who would have thought it? It is a miracle. Look, sir, look! here is Father Caussin; it is this book which has given my father sleep.’ And thereupon they explained the matter to him as it had happened.  16
  “The physician was a skillful man, versed in the mysteries of the Cabala, and in the power of words and spirits. He was much struck, and, after deep thought, resolved to change his practice entirely. ‘Here is indeed a notable fact!’ said he. ‘It is a new experience; and I must experiment further. And why should a spirit not be able to transmit to its work the same qualities which itself possesses? Do we not see it every day? At least it is well worth the trying. I am tired of the apothecaries; their syrups, their juleps, and all their galenical drugs destroy the health and the lives of their patients. Let us change the method, and try the power of the spirits.’ With this idea, he drafted a new system of pharmacy, as you will see by the description which I am about to give you of the principal remedies which he employed.  17
  “Take three leaves of Aristotle’s logic in Greek; two leaves of a treatise on scholastic theology, the keener the better, as, for example, that of the subtle Scotus; four of Paracelsus; one of Avicenna; six of Averroes; three of Porphyry; as many of Plotinus, and as many of Jamblicus. Infuse the whole for twenty-four hours, and take four doses a day.
  “Take ten A——— of the C———, concerning the B——— and the C——— of the I———; 4 distil them in a water-bath; dilute a drop of the bitter and pungent product in a glass of common water; swallow the whole with confidence.
  “Take six harangues; any dozen funeral orations, carefully excepting those of M. of N.; 5 a collection of new operas; fifty novels; thirty new memoirs. Put the whole in a large flask; leave it to settle for two days; then distil it on a sand-bath. And if all this should be insufficient, here is,
  “Take a leaf of marbled paper which has served as cover to a collection of the pieces of the J. F.; 6 infuse it for three minutes; warm a spoonful of the infusion, and drink it off.
  “Read all the works of the reverend Father Maimbourg, 7 formerly a Jesuit, taking care to pause only at the end of each sentence; and you will gradually find your power of breathing return to you so completely, that you will have no need to repeat the cure.
  “Take three of Aristotle’s categories, two metaphysical degrees, one distinction, six lines of Chapelain, one phrase from the letters of the Abbé of Saint-Cyran; write them all on a piece of paper, fold it up, tie it to a ribbon, and carry it round your neck.
Miraculum chymicum, de violenta fermentatione, cum fumo, igne, et flamma
  “Misce Quesnellianam infusionem, cum infusione Lallemanianâ; fiat fermentatio cum magna vi, impetu et tonitru, acidio pugnantibus, et invicem penetrantibus alcalinos sales; fiet evaporatio ardentium spiritium. Pone liquorem fermentatum in alembico; nihil inde extrahes, et nihil invenies, nisi caput mortuum.
  “Recipe Molinæ anodine chartas duas; Escobaris relaxativi paginas sex; Vasquii emollientis folium unum; infunde in aquæ communis lib. iiij. Ad consumptionem dimidiæ partis colentur et exprimantur; et, in expressione, dissolve Bauni detersivi et Tamburini abluentis folia iij.
  “Fiat clister.  26
“In chlorosim quam vulgus pallidos-colores, aut febrim amatoriam appellat
  “Recipe Aretini figuras iiij.; R. Thomæ Sanchii de matrimonis folia ij.
  Infuditur in aquæ communis libras quinque.  28
  “Fiat ptisana aperiens. 8  29
  These are the drugs which our physician prescribed with remarkable success. ‘He did not wish,’ he said, ‘lest he should kill his patients, to employ rare remedies, and such as are difficult to find—for example, a dedicatory epistle which had never made anybody yawn; too short a preface; a bishop’s charge written by himself; and the work of a Jansenist despised by a Jansenist, or else admired by a Jesuit.’ He held that remedies of that kind were only fit to maintain quackery, to which he had an insurmountable antipathy.”  30
Note 1. La Connaissance du Globe, according to the early editors. [back]
Note 2. Révérend père Jésuite. [back]
Note 3. A Jesuit, born at Troyes. He was the confessor of Louis XIII., and was exiled by Richelieu. [back]
Note 4. Ten Decrees (Arrêts) of the Council, concerning the Bank and the Company of the Indies; or, according to the earlier editors, concerning the Bull and the Constitution of the Jesuits. [back]
Note 5. Fléchier, Bishop of Nimes (Monsieur de Nimes). [back]
Note 6. The Jeux Floraux, established in 1324 by the magistrates of Toulouse to revive the decaying art of the troubadours. [back]
Note 7. Louis Maimbourg, expelled from the Company of Jesus in 1685 for having defended the liberties of the Gallican Church in his Traité historique de l’Énglise de Rome. [back]
Note 8. “A marvel in chemistry, concerning a violent fermentation, accompanied with smoke, heat, and flame. Mingle an infusion of Quesnel1 with one of Lallemand;2 let fermentation proceed with much violence, energy, and noise, as the acids fight together, and eat their way into each other’s alkaline salts;3 the fiery spirits will thus evaporate. When fermentation is over, put the liquid in an alembic: you will get nothing out of it, and find nothing left in it, but a caput mortuum.—A Gentle Aperient. Take two papers of Molina as pain-killer; of Escobar, to keep the bowels open, take six pages; take of Vasquez, to keep the passage easy, one leaf; infuse in four pounds of common water. When half has evaporated, strain and squeeze; and, while squeezing, dissolve in the mixture three leaves of Bauni to act as detergent, and three of Tamburini4 to wash away impurities. Make a clyster of the result.—A cure for chlorosis, vulgarly called the green-sickness, or hot fit of love. Take four plates from Aretinus; take of Thomas Sanchez’ work on “Marriage,” two leaves. Infuse them in five pounds of common water, and you will have a pleasant aperient.”

  Note 1. A Jansenist, and great opponent of the Jesuits.
Note 2. A Jesuit father.
Note 3. A pun in the original; “sales” meaning also “witticisms.”
Note 4. Molina, Escobar, Vasquez, Bauni, and Tamburini were Jesuits who replied to the attacks of the Jansenists. Their names are frequently mentioned in Pascal’s “Provincials.” The name of Escobar makes at least one appearance in English literature:
  “Now they prick pins at a tissue
Fine as a skein of the casuist Escobar’s
Worked on the bone of a lie.”
    —BROWNING’S “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha.”
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