Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.
It’s not Montesquieu who changed of course; he’s been dead for three hundred years. I on the other hand… well, I’d like to say that I changed for the better but if I’m entirely honest, that is debatable.
The Dangers of Re-Reading
When I first read Persian Letters I was a teenager; the world was a largely unknown place and my mind a blank wax tablet awaiting the inscription of ideas. Persian Letters is definitely not short on ideas – Montesquieu was a great political philosopher and the first important figure of the French enlightenment – and all these ideas had been, perforce, new to me. The problem is that half a lifetime later I found these same ideas familiar to the point of banal; sadly it seemed that I was no longer enlightened by the ideas of enlightenment.
Which left the book to captivate me – or not – merely on literary merit.
France Under the Sun King
Persian Letters is set in the last years of the rule of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and the first years of the regency that followed it. The two Persian visitors to France observe and comment on French society; their letters cover a wide variety of subjects from politics to morals, from law to Christianity (not to mention Parisian women) according to their experiences and temperament. Usbek tends to write somewhat ponderously upon weightier subjects and is in correspondence with not only his family back home but with learned men of his own religion; Rica is chattier and more relaxed.
The idea of seeing our society through the eyes of an outsider appealed when I was an adolescent and appeals more now that I am the outsider. (Let no-one convince you that you can be anything other than an outsider if you change countries.) It’s easy to see how this scenario allows not just commentary on French but on Persian customs as well – at least inasmuch as Montesquieu understood them. What the Persians find strange, admirable or detestable in France say as much about their own culture as they do about the one they’re visiting. And Montesquieu was not only aware of this duality but put it to use to explain his ideas also in reverse.
A Little Light Relief? Usbek’s Seraglio
Reading Persian Letters is like reading two separate books at first. There are the experiences of Usbek and Rica in France and elsewhere… and there are the tales from Usbek’s seraglio. Usbek left five wives behind in his seraglio under the guard of a number of eunuchs and he continues to exchange letters with his household throughout the book.
Introducing unrelated tales into a longer narrative was common practice a few centuries ago, but it’s not a practice I’m a fan of. Montesquieu might have meant these letters from the harem for light relief between the more philosophical letters but unfortunately my taste in light relief doesn’t run to harem tales; more than once I felt giving up on the book. It would have been a mistake: Montesquieu’s tales of the seraglio are not self-serving, nor are they meant merely for light relief. Every letter in the book – although this is not apparent at first – does in fact contribute to driving the narrative forward to the climax. The twist that makes sense of it all however only comes at the end.
The Ideas of Enlightenment
I admit that history is full of wars of religion; but on this point we must be very careful; it is not the multiplicity of religions that produced these wars, but the spirit of intolerance animating the religion that believed itself to be dominant.
I had to sit down and write this post to make sense of Persian Letters. And it made me realise that I was much more open minded aged sixteen than I am now. At age sixteen I was willing to be impressed; now I’m more inclined to be critical, dismissive, bitter even. Is this what life does to us? One of the great things about the Enlightenment was its open-mindedness, its desire to see things from more than one point of view and Persian Letters is a prime example. I thought that the ideas of enlightenment can no longer enlighten me; I was wrong.
Persian Letters doesn’t read as easily as today’s novels; but Montesquieu had something to say and what he had to say still stands. Even when you’re familiar with his ideas, he has the ability to make you stop and think. He ushered in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe; among others, he advocated religious freedom and the separation of powers… ideas that in our time are self-evident.
He wrote this book in 1721. But there are many parts of the world where the ideas of the enlightenment are still an anathema.
You might also like: ⇒ Persian Letters on Wikisource ⇒ Or in the original: Lettres persanes I & II on Project Gutenberg ⇒ Montesquieu and the Separation of Powers ⇒ Baron Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)