The case is plain, you must put on a Sword, Kill a Beau or two, get into Newgate, be condemned to be hanged, break Prison, IF YOU CAN – remember that by the way – get over to some Strange Country, turn Stock-Jobber, set up a Mississippi Stock, bubble a Nation, and you may soon be a great man; if you would have but great good luck, according to an old English Maxim:
Dare once to be a Rogue upon record
And you may quickly hope to be a Lord. [Defoe 1869,
189 in: Daniel Defoe his Life and recently discovered writings, I]
“...as that may be, I have not read anywhere, since the fable of King Midas, still less seen, that anyone has the talent for converting to gold all that he touches; I don’t believe, as well, that M. Law is endowed with this virtue, but I think all his knowledge is but a shrewd game, a new and skillful move in the shell game, which puts the goods of Pierr in the pocket of Jean, and only enriches the one from despoiling the other; that sooner or later this will stop, the game will be seen through, an infinite number of gentlemen will be ruined, and I foresee all the difficulty, even the impossibility, of restitutions of that gain, and even more, who to restore gains of that sort; that I abhorred the goods of others, and I wouldn’t charge myself with it, even equivocally.” – Saint-Simon, Journal xvii
When Montesquieu came to Venice in the summer of 1728, he was on a long fact finding tour through Europe. He was 38. He was a celebrity for the Persian Letters, which he’d written at thirty; one of those letters, 142, http://www.wm.edu/history/rbsche/plp/letter142.htm had attacked John Law’s “system,” pretty much following the same line of thought as Saint Simon. It must have been written at some point close to February 1720, when Law made one of the boldest move in European economic history by having a decree published which practically prohibited specie currency – that is, gold coins. About which, we will write in another post. Montesquieu was a virtuoso – a dabbler in natural history – as well as a philosopher. As he toured Europe, he kept notes not only on the people and the gossip he heard, but on the mines he toured, the factories he was ushered into. Coming into Venice, for instance, he noted the number of estimated whores, 10,000, as a pertinent economic fact, as much as he later noted famous mirror works. Whores and disgraced men who had fled their native lands were, in Montesquieu’s opinion, the key symbols of the Venice of his time: not the doge, not the lions of St. Mark. In Montesquieu’s account, Venice was definitely going through dog years. No one came to the carnivals anymore, or attended the opera, which once drew foreigners to the city – at least, according to Montesquieu. He paints a picture of a city in full decay – a place in which the cathedrals smelled of the fats of the corrupting corpses in the catafalques.
Of the disgraced men that Montesquieu came to see, one of them was John Law, born of “Aeolus, the god of the winds”, and a “Caledonian nymph”, and come to the gambler’s paradise to die, the only person he loved, his wife/mistress, left behind in France and making due as the mistress of a nobleman. Montesquieu notes that he interviewed Law on the 29 August, 1728, but he doesn’t say where. One thinks of a palazzo, rented of course, moldy, cluttered with old bric a brac, the household overseen by a sinister looking valet wearing a shabby fez. Obviously, Montesquieu was looking for the inside story to the mystery of how, exactly, the “system” had been put into operation. Montesquieu’s interview has been used ever since as a crib to the scandals surrounding the Bubble but, as Law’s biographer, Antoin E. Murphy, notes, Montesquieu didn’t seem to understand what Law was trying to tell him about the system. Instead, he noted a lot of figures – and Law’s figures were amazing, a million here, a billion there, which were almost demonic numbers in the Europe of the time – while Law’s deeper explanation of what he was trying to do seemed to go over our philosophe’s head. I was thinking that this meeting would make a nice contrast with Sganarelle and Dom Juan’s talk in the forest, but that’s a prettier idea than the historic reality it is built on.
So: what is the convergence here between Law’s system and Bayle’s society of atheists? It has to do with the difference between general belief and particular belief. The belief about the meaning of the cosmos – a belief that gives us a variety of Gods – was, you remember, discounted by Bayle as a factor in particular human behaviors. At the same time, Bayle was bothered by, and wrote against, superstition. Tolerance and the war against superstition go hand in hand – not only in Bayle, but in Locke, and in the Enlightenment tradition. Similarly, Law tried to institute a sort of economic atheism. This creed disbelieved in gold and silver. That is, disbelieved that gold was special. Briefly, Law got the unbelievable chance to enforce his beliefs on the primary nation in Europe. There are those who think France actually recovered from the lugubrious Louis XIV and his endless, bankrupting wars because of Law. But in the popular culture, Law’s system became a byword for a mass delusion.
Well, I’ll go from there when I have time.
"I drive a Rolls Royce
Cause it's good for my voice..."