Du sein de ces froides abstractions, du sein de cet
aride exposé vont sortir les plus étranges
événements qui aient jamais tourmenté
l’imagination et agité le coeur des hommes.
Man’s great inventions are words and money, and words about money are therefore of special interest to the philosopher. The word I have in mind is the word millionaire, a word of some importance in the history of money; its coinage can be dated and placed quite precisely, and with much less labour than generations of American philologists have devoted to the useful abbreviation O.K.
The word millionaire, which is French and means celui qui a un million d’ argent, was invented in the open air in a little street near what is now the Beaubourgin Paris—known as the Rue Quincampoix or Quincenpoix—in the autumn of the year 1719. (That it was not admitted by the Académie Française till the 1750s merely shows the glacial processes of that body.) It is the legacy to the languages of the world of a moment when the world turned and of the master and instigator of that manoeuvre, M. Quincampoix himself, the Scotsman John Law of Lauriston.
The man known as Law, Lawe and Laws in English, Lauw and Law in Dutch, and Las, Lass and Laze in French is one of those human beings in whose biography history itself changes direction. In the all-encompassing financial system, known now as the Mississippi Scheme, that Law established for a few months in Regency France, he looked back to an age where both prosperity and salvation were domiciled in the Indies: back through the Colbertian companies, English state-sponsored piracy and Columbus’s great letter from Jamaica, to the geographical and metaphysical fantasies of the Middle Ages. In his notion of money as an object of pure convention, he looks forward to our own era: to the final collapse of a metallic standard in 1970 and the virtual moneys of electronics.
At the summit of his power, a period lasting somewhat more than five hundred days, Law ruled France more completely than its absolute monarchs. He controlled its overseas trade, mints, revenues and national debt, as well as half of what is now the United States (excluding Alaska). Though he cared, as Montesquieu noted sourly, less for his riches than his ideas, and died without a sou, he was for a few months rich as nobody before or—once an adjustment has been made for the greater liquidity of modern societies—since. He owned one-third of the Place Vendôme in Paris, a good piece of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the Hotel Nevers (now the Bibliothèque Nationale) and the Mazarin Palace, most of the real property round today’s Bourse, fifteen country estates in France, the whole of what is now the state of Arkansas and at least 100 million livres tournois (£5 to £10 million sterling) in securities. In a single bear operation against the English East India Company in 1720, he probably lost more money than anybody had made in the City in a lifetime.
We do not need to believe, with the due de Richelieu, that he had an affair with the Regent’s mother, for pornographic fantasies of royalty are not the exclusive property of modern England: we merely note the anxiety of the age that Law, a foreigner and a Protestant, a gambler, adulterer, killer, slaver and coward (also the handsomest man in Europe and possessed, as even his enemies conceded, of a peculiarly beautiful personality) had cuckolded a throne. It may also not be true that the Papal Nuncio kissed Law’s little daughter at her birthday party: all we need record is the sense of the age that this act of condescension by the representative of the representative of Our Saviour revealed the true location of spiritual authority, a hundred years before Heine’s famous ejaculation that money is the religion of modernity.footnote1
Into the ruin of French absolutism, the gambler insinuates himself and shakes it till it totters. In the solvent of Law’s money, power and duty are disarranged for ever; relations between the sexes disintegrate; the estates promiscuously mingle and the duchess, raising her glasses from the river of diamonds on a neighbour’s chest to the face above, recognizes her cook. As Mirabeau himself commented in 1790, the revolutionaries were completing what Law had started (and how they botched it, too!).