Persian Letters

The Persian Letters(1720), written by Charles Montesquieu, was a precursor to some of his greater contributions to the 18th century enlightenment and society.  He’s better known as a political theorist famous for the separation of powers in a republic; most notably the separation between executive, legislative, and judicial powers.   His book Of the Spirit of Laws (1748) was his masterpiece and was more influential than any other book on the founding fathers who wrote the constitution of the United States of America.  The Persian Letters is a good start-off book for anyone interested in reading Montesquieu as it is a much more laid back and easy read than his other works.  The book makes observations of politics, fashion, and religion in 18th century Europe; often times with a healthy dose of satire.  Freedom of religion is another concept Montesquieu influenced us with and is perhaps just as important as any other freedom a person can have. This book demonstrates very well Montesquieu’s disdain for religious intolerance and religious persecution.  Many of my favorite quotes from the book that will be shared in this post series have to do with Montequieu’s view and insight on religion.

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Montesquieu, like many from the 18th century enlightenment including many of our founding fathers, was a Deist.   A Deist believes God to be more like a watchmaker.  When God created the universe, He started the watch and put into motion a set of fundamental laws of nature that all of His creation would abide by and then He was hands-off.  To have any religious view that went contra to that of the Catholic Church, however, was a dangerous thing in the early 18th century; that’s why the Persian Letters was published in Holland under an alias.  This was a tumultuous time for anyone with a view not exactly lined up with Catholic Church.  The inquisitors could come in the middle of the night and snatch you up and take you off to Spain or Italy and have you burned at the stake or chop your head off.  In this sense, Montesquieu had some brass balls to publish this book and marry a Huguenot.   His nobility and dowry gave him a little more protection than someone like you or I, but he had some brass cajones nonetheless; or maybe, for this post, it would be more appropriate to say he had chutzpah.

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This post series will examine various passages in selected letters.  To start, however, let’s begin with an overview of the book:  In 1711, Usbek, our main character, is planning a sabbatical.  He will leave Persia and travel west to Paris to observe and study the people, their culture, and their religion.  He will be leaving his seraglio in Isfahan and have his many beautiful wives watched over by his best eunuchs.  I believe that Montesquieu envisioned himself as Usbek and the other characters were most likely versions of other folks that Montesquieu knew.  Rica, a younger man who was traveling with Usbek may have been a younger apprentice or protégé of Montesquieu and the women in the seraglio may have been past lovers or personalities that he had drawn from.  Those are my theories, and they could meet with argument and disagreement, but I couldn’t tell you how many times when I was reading Usbek’s letters that I felt as if that was Montesquieu trying to say what he really thought while leaving himself the pardon of saying that Usbek was just a fictional character.   What Montesquieu was trying to do with Usbek’s and the other characters’ letters was to contrast and satire Western culture from the viewpoint of Persians that would be seeing it for the first time from an alien and objective viewpoint.  Simultaneously, he was trying to show that even though we are all very different, our similarities far outweigh our differences.

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The trip that Usbek and Rica take starts by leaving Isfahan in 1711 and moves northward through different cities in what is now Iran and then through Asia Minor which is now Turkey.  The first group of letters our characters exchange is over the course of about a year which covers their period of travel from Isfahan to Paris.   When they arrive in Paris, all of France is under the rule of Louis XIV.  The next group of letters covers the time period during the regency of Philippe d’Orléans.  Subsequent to Louis XIV’s demise and while Philippe d’Orléans was regent, the seraglio started to fall into disarray and collapse because of Usbek’s absence for so many years.  From the start of Usbek’s journey, there are letters written back and forth from all the characters talking about observations of the West from a Muslim perspective and just general observations from a human perspective.

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The book is terrific and was a smashing success in its day.  It propelled Montesquieu to fame as evidenced by the fact that I’m writing this post 300 years to the year after this fictional journey started.  If you want to know more about the characters or plot summary, I encourage you to read the book or check out some of the thousands of sources available on the internet.  Many folks have been reviewing and dissecting this classic for hundreds of years and there is a wealth of information about it.

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I will now separate from a normal type of book review as I endeavor to show and analyze some of my favorite excerpts from the book.  I should mention that my version is the Penguin Classics one and was translated to English by C.J. Betts.  I have selected excerpts from certain letters that I believe foreshadow some of the greater insights into freedom of religion, separation of powers, and justice that Montesquieu would later put into exposition form with his later works.

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When I originally started writing this review I got about half way through and had already written 25 pages in MS Word.  Under the sage advice of a web developer that I’m doing some contract work with, I decided to break this post up into many posts in a series.  He told me:  “People don’t like to read.  Try not to use much text when you’re building a website.  And, if you do, keep it to a minimum”.   This cracked me up when I heard it and I took it with a grain of salt, but the more I think about it, he’s correct: most people don’t like to read.  But, if you’ve found this post series, it’s because you love to read and can’t get enough of it.  Even though I know you love to read, to make this book review easier to digest and because of its gravitas on my soul, I have broken it up into several posts.  I hope you’ll enjoy this series and can click the top of the page on the series menu button if you want to follow this series chronology.

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The next post in this series is titled:
Persian Letters Series:  Letter 8 – Usbek to his friend Rustan, at Isfahan

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