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Banned! — Persian Letters

“I here present the English Reader with the most diverting as well as instructive Book that France has produced these many Years. It is wrote with a Strength of Reasoning, a Freedom of Thought, and a Vein of just Humour, which that Nation was hardly thought capable of…”

Persian Letters
Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689-1755)
London: J. Tonson, et al., 1722
First edition in English
PQ2011 L513 1722

Montesquieu created a satire of European institutions, literature, and social mores in this collection of imaginary letters by two Persian noblemen who visit Paris. Montesquieu lambastes the absurdities and abuses of contemporary French high society.

“…The first Letter in the Second Vol. is a fine Satyr not only on the Gentlemen of the French Academy, but on all others who pretend to fix the Standard of a living Language, like the mad Taylor who said he wou’d make a Coat for the Moon.”

Satire was at an all-time literary high, used by Moliere and Voltaire in France, and John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and others in England, all of whom produced anti-establishment works.

“I have heard much talk of a kind of Court of Judicature, call’d the French Academy: There is certainly no Tribunal upon the face of the Earth so little respected as this is; For the Judges no sooner make a Decree, but the People reverse it, and impose Laws even on them, which they are obliged to obey.”

Persian Letters took France by storm and authorities by the tail. Persian Letters was first published in Paris in 1721 and issued anonymously from Holland, as was standard practice of the time, when there was always risk of official disapproval – the eighteenth-century book trade was under strict surveillance.

“But it is upon Condition that I am not found out; for as soon as my Name is known, I am silent for ever. I know a Lady who walks very well, and yet limps if any one looks on her.”

Forty years after its first printing, Persian Letters was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books.

This was Montesquieu’s first book and reveals Montesquieu’s recognition of the importance of cross-cultural comparison, differences between societies and classes and the roots of those differences. He took on the court of Louis XIV and the politics of David Hume and the power of the papal office. He also paid attention to the treatment of women and the place of wives in society.

At the time Montesquieu wrote this, European accounts of travels to “exotic” parts of the world were very popular. The reverse — how European culture might look to non-Europeans — was not a new trope, but Montesquieu adapted it with extraordinary astuteness.

“Rica and I are perhaps the two first Persians that ever left their own Country out of a desire of Knowledge; and renounc’d the sweets of Tranquility, for the laborious search of Wisdom.”

“No: I liv’d indeed in servitude, but still I was free: I reformed thy Laws by those of Nature, and my Mind still kept it self independant.”

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