Wednesday, March 6, 2013

persian letters

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, better known as simply, Montesquieu, penned the Persian Letters while in his late twenties and early thirties, and had them published in 1721. Montesquieu published them anonymously, but it was common knowledge in his native France, and elsewhere, that he was the author.

The book is essentially a novel in the form of a series of letters to, from and between two Persians, Usbek and Rica, during their travels to Turkey and Europe, between the years of 1711 and 1720. In it, Montesquieu basically uses his imagined characters as mouthpieces for his thoughts on governance, economics, religion, the church, the monarchy, the French Parliament, women's rights, etc. Essentially, armchair political philosophy of a pretty high caliber. I'm not a philosophy reader typically, so you'll have to bear with me if you did your under-grad in Philosophy.

What surprised me is how fun, and funny Montesquieu is. I imagine this guy was great at parties. He  actually talks about other men in Paris who strive to be witty at all costs. There is a story he tells via the (supposed) correspondence between two such men, who agree to meet to practice their wittiness ahead of time, so that when called upon by circumstances, they each have a complete repertoire with which to delight their acquaintances, carefully orchestrated to shine the light equally upon each of them, in turn.

The series of letters between Usbek and his home--which he has left for more than a decade--runs as a kind of thread through the entire story. Usbek is cast as a wealthy man, with many wives, all kept under the watchful eye of his eunuchs and slaves, in his seraglio.* Letters dart back and forth between Usbek, a number of his wives, the head eunuch and other eunuchs and slaves. The story from home is garbled by the different voices, each claiming to represent the truth. Montesquieu uses this as a comment on the various voices that rise in support and opposition to any of a variety of realities from law, to taxes, to religious doctrine; leaving his Usbek to listen to what he may, weigh the truth for himself and make a decision based on what he knows and intuits about the situation from afar.

With either a little patience, or the inclination, this was an interesting read.

Translated by George R. Healy, Dean of Faculty, Bates College, copyrighted in 1964, First Printing, soft bound, as part of the Library of Liberal Arts collection Oskar Piest, founder, published by the Bobbs-Merrill Co. Healy also provides an interesting introduction to his translation.

* seraglio - The women's apartments in a Muslim palace. Healy points out that this term is similar to, but not the same as, harem.

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