Montesquieu’s Persian Letters – observations of French society

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters – observations of French society.

Montesquieu wrote Persian Letters in 1721. It is set in France from 1712 to 1720.

French-born Montesquieu’s real name is Charles-Louis de Secondat (1689-1755) who set about writing this diarist-novel, which is series of letters comprising vignettes and observations of French society. 

Two fictional Persian male travellers – Usbek and Rica – arrive in Paris in 1712. They stay with Montesquieu, travel widely across the countryside, write letters home, and receive letters (mostly from their wives, relatives, and friends). 

There are 160 letters. Yes, a lot of letters: it’s a dense book.

In 1712, Rica writes:

‘Yesterday I saw something rather singular, although it takes place daily in Paris. All the people assemble in the late afternoon to act a kind of scene, which I have heard called a play, the main action is on a platform which is called a theatre.’

Usbek writes in 1713: 

‘In France, there are three Estates: the church, the army, and the law. Each holds the others in supreme contempt.’ 

In 1715, in Rica’s letter, he writes: 

‘A Frenchman, I feel, is more [social] that the rest of us … he has the important responsibility of asking every man he meets where he is going and where he has been.’

In 1791, Rica visits a library in which there are curators of the collection. The curators have to, by law, allow the public access to the library every day. Therefore, they must open the library at certain hours. Rica enters the library and is impressed by the number of books on display. Unfortunately, he adds that he read ‘a very fat book’ but was outraged when he learned nothing from it. 

Usbek and Rica describe the luxurious and sensuous French tastes in fiction, architecture, and the arts. They write about their views on society, politics, religion, women, fashion, science, culture, and literature.

This book was initially being viewed as ‘Oriental fiction’ in which Oriental travellers perceive the West and then the Westerners read the published account – thus associating orientalism with entertainment from an imperialist view. 

But this book is a bit more philosophical and historical. Sometimes, while reading, I forgot that Usbek and Rica were fictitious characters. This story is really Montesquieu predicting his view of their view. Or perhaps he has heard much of this from his foreign friends. In any case, this long satirical tale has a rollicking tone, to the musical tune of farce and folly.

Travel for Montesquieu, as well as for the Persians, is a means of gaining wisdom, and encapsulates the libertarian spirit of France in the early 18th century. This book can even be seen as a witty attempt at the genre of travel-writing.

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