Persian Letters/Letter 135
Rica to the Same
I returned at the appointed time; and my friend led me to the very spot we had left. “Here,” he said, “are the grammarians, the glossers, and the commentators.” “Father,” said I, “have not all these people been able to dispense with common sense?” “Yes,” said he, “they have; and yet it does not appear, and their works are not a penny the worse, which is very convenient for them.” “True,” said I; “and I know plenty of philosophers who would do well to occupy themselves with sciences of this kind.”
“There,” continued he, “are the orators who can convince people without employing reason; and the geometers, who compel a man to be convinced in spite of himself, and conquer him by sheer force.
“Here are metaphysical books, which deal with very lofty concerns indeed, and in which the infinite meets one at every turning; books of physics, which detect nothing more marvellous in the economy of the vast universe, than in the simplest machine of our craftsmen.
“Books of medicine, those monuments of the frailty of nature and of the power of art, which when they treat even of the slightest disorders make us tremble by bringing the idea of death home to us; but which when they discuss the power of remedies make us feel secure as if we were immortal.
“Near these are the books of anatomy, which do not so much contain descriptions of the parts of the human body, as the barbarous names which have been given them – neither likely to cure the patient of his disease nor the physician of his ignorance.
“Here are the alchemists, who inhabit now the hospital, now the madhouse, dwellings equally suitable for them.
“Here are the books of science, or rather of occult ignorance; of such are those which contain any kind of sorcery – execrable according to most people; in my opinion contemptible. Such also are the books of judicial astrology.” “What do you say, father? The books of judicial astrology!” I cried with enthusiasm. “These are the books we make most of in Persia. They rule all the actions of our lives, and determine us in all our undertakings: in fact, the astrologers are our spiritual fathers, and more, for they take part in the government of the state.” “If that is so,” said he, “you live under a yoke much heavier than that of reason. Yours must be the strangest of all governments: I pity from my heart a family, and above all a nation, which permits the planets to have such ascendancy over them.” “We make use of astrology,” replied I, “just as you make use of algebra. Every nation has its proper science, according to which it guides its policy. All the astrologers together have never committed so many follies in Persia, as a single algebraist has done here. Do you think that the fortuitous concourse of the stars is not as sure a guide as all the fine reasoning of your system-monger?1 If the votes on that subject were counted in France and in Persia, astrology would have good reason to triumph; you would see the schemers properly humbled, from which how disastrous a corollary might be deduced against them!”
Our dispute was interrupted, and I had to leave him.
Paris, the 26th of the moon of Rhamazan, 1719.