Montesquieu’s *Persian Letters*

by on October 31, 2017 at 12:47 am in Books, Education, History, Law, Philosophy, Political Science, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

There is a new edition out, edited and translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.  This eighteenth century bestseller could hardly be more relevant today.  Is it possible to lead a philosophic life?  How do political leadership and wisdom intersect?  How do Christianity and Islam differ politically?  How does politics reflect gender relations in a society?  Is there a case for optimism in modernity?  I still am not sure we have improved on Montesquieu’s investigations, although I cannot claim he gives us final answers.  This is a volume of polyphony, with travel as a source of learning and liberation as a major theme throughout.

Harems play a role too, here are the final paragraphs from Roxane to her sultan master Usbek:

You were astonished not to find in me the ecstasies of love.  If you had known me well, you would have found in me all the violence of hatred.

But you have had for a long time the advantage of believing that a heart such as mine was submissive to you.  We were both happy you believed me deceived, and I was deceiving you.

This language, without doubt, appears new to you.  Could it be possible that after having overwhelmed you with grief, I could still force you to admire my courage?  But it is done: poison consumes me; my strength abandons me; the pen falls from my hand; I feel even my hatred weaken; I am dying.

The introduction and notes are outstanding, and also of interest for those of you who are piqued by Straussianism.  You will note that the book was first published anonymously.

“Jokes in a serious work are acceptable on the condition that they hide a profound sense beneath a trivial form. It is in this way that Montesquieu, in his novel, Persian Letters, has written one of the most philosophical books of the eighteenth century.” – Alexis de Tocqueville [link]

I am pleased, by the way, to have once had the chance to spend two days with co-editor Stuart Warner discussing Persian Letters and nothing but (thank you again Liberty Fund!).  I cannot think of any person more qualified to have undertaken this endeavor.

You can order the volume here.

1 dearieme October 31, 2017 at 6:39 am

“endeavor”: be careful; pomposity can be terminal.

Reply

2 msgkings October 31, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Then how are you still around?

Reply

3 efim polenov November 1, 2017 at 12:10 am

Dearieme is an amusing commenter. He does not read replies to his comments, obviously: why should he? His job is to say what he wants to say, not to reply – with all due respect, MSG – to everybody with an internet connection who likes to criticize. If he were to read this comment (and I hope he doesn’t, under the general principle that I wouldn’t want him to read any replies to any of his comments because I , for one, have not had the energy to defend him from all the slander he has been subjected to on this libertarian unpoliced blog – word!) – I would urge him to wrestle with the subtleties of the apostle Paul’s developing growth of understanding in the light of truth, as any honest gifted person should do at least once in their life, or to study in detail the wondrous visions of Eden described in the long poem ‘Eve’ that Peguy wrote, at the height of his powers, soon before successfully (but, obviously, fatally – sad!, as we say in America) stopping a bullet with his skull while bravely moving forward at the head of his little company of brave French soldiers standing against the common enemy (reconciliation followed: musique pour orgue; but that is another tropic): said soldiers had so much bravery , and saved so many English lives, but that was long ago, before even Dearieme was a wee little bairn. But – why is he still around?, as MSG asks – the question answers itself. Sorry for the long comment. Off topic, but when I was a little kid we had some neighbors with relatives in the mob and once one of the little kids amongst those neighbors threw a stone at my little brother, and maybe I told him I would beat the crap out of him if he did that again. (Probably I just, non-ironically, glared at him the next time I say him. Well, that is better than nothing). No more stones were thrown at my little brother, in any event, and that was a very very long time ago (as the retired submarine captain said when asked to sing that song that was so popular on Broadway – Sound of Music, scene with guitar and voices, alpine flowers, chord changes that would have made Mozart smile).

Reply

4 efim polenov November 1, 2017 at 1:20 am

the better version is the one where Christopher Plummer sings. Listen to that, and ask yourself: did that not sound like Ralph Richardson would sing, if he could sing? Too many names? No. How else can I explain that Ralph Richardson knew how to act, and Laurence Olivier – who I never would have imagined singing that song that well, bless his little heart – only knew how to be an actor – the Platonic ideal of an actor, maybe, but still just an actor (I know it sounds stupid to compare actors to each other – I do not even believe in prizes for actors – but the point was – some people understand that we need to be the sort of people who remember how things were, long long ago – why? because all times are still present – time present, time past – well, I remember, London, or some place like that, 1987, or some year like that, and a conversation at an establishment, not much light through the windows but on a wonderful street on a wonderful afternoon and there was, after all, enough light for us to see each other clearly, at that table in that tavern – sunlight, through English lace windows – if you have seen English lace windows once you will know what that is – 1987 … you said something, your friend said something even better, I listened. I remember.) The best part is where he (Christopher Plummer) can’t help but stop singing for a moment, to laugh for a moment, just a little, at how good the harmonies are. A touch that Olivier, at his very good best, would not have thought of. Too many names, I know – but the point is, I have had a hard life, and I appreciate every single one of the thousands of entertainers who have made me laugh, and who have made me forget, for a moment, the evildoers who foolishly tried to make our lives difficult. So when one entertainer is a little better than another (Ralph reading the sonnets as Shakespeare would have read them, the other guy reading them some other way) you – not me anymore, but you – might remember that detail. In the end, there will be nothing more foolish than the memory of how people who did not care about other people tried to make worse the lives of people who, on time, did care. (thus ends my pastiche of Montesquieu, or at least the Montesquieu of the translators, God bless their hearts). Sorry to be so intense, I had a dream a few months ago about walking into Manhattan from the south – in order, at the last moments of the dream, to rejoice at the wonderfully unique stores and restaurants of a simplified Greenwich village (one is greedy when one is sleeping) and when I woke up I thought that dream was fiction and I was happy about that – the dream had trees platooned on a broad seaside field, at the most southern point of Manhattan, in a line reminiscent of the ziggurats of the ancient empires, but in a nice suburban way that the ancient empires could never have in their cold-heartedness have achieved, so no that dream was not a dream about the real Manhattan, I thought – and today, in pictures from the heart-breaking murder scene in Manhattan (God bless the victims, I hope they are in heaven already – and God will deal with the evil murderer, I don’t know much, but I know that), I saw those same trees, positioned in a way, in the southernmost parts of Manhattan, that had nothing to do with ziggurats, but which nevertheless reminded me of the trees in that dream, where people generally decided to walk into Greenwich Village from the south, passing those trees on their way to Greenwich Village and its various establishments : magna est veritas, et praevalebit. Just saying.

Reply

5 efim polenov November 1, 2017 at 1:25 am

2:31.

6 efim polenov November 1, 2017 at 1:54 am

Stefan Bain, youtube commenter, got more than 900 thumbs up for pointing out how good that video – Christopher Plummer, Edelweiss, Sound of Music – was at the 1:27 point. I will probably get no replies for this (and if I do get even one I won’t know it – as there are no emojis for the statement that I am not checking back on this, I will just say, if there were such an emoji, consider it done) – well, Stefan, God bless you and your 900 thumbs up – and may I add to those 900, well played, Stefan – (God wants us all to be happy) but 1:27 was maybe as good as you said, but 2:31 was better. Well. just as good, anyway, in a different way.

7 efim polenov November 1, 2017 at 8:37 pm

ok I figured out why I dreamed about those trees then and just remembered them now – Lion of the Blogosphere blogged about a murder (that was originally thought to be a terrorist attack) a few months or years ago, near Stuyvesant High School, near the southern shores of Manhattan, and I remembered, vaguely, after yesterday’s real attack from the deluded nasty little person, the heartbreaking innocent lines of green leafy trees in the neighborhood near his alma mater.

8 rayward October 31, 2017 at 7:15 am

Are deception and Straussianism synonymous? Is Roxane’s deception for a greater purpose and therefore excused? Richard Cohen excuses Martin Luther’s antisemitism because it was for a greater purpose, namely to undermine Catholicism which is even worse than Luther’s Protestantism. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/martin-luther-hated-jews-does-he-deserve-a-splash-of-red-paint/2017/10/30/bd011d64-bd9b-11e7-97d9-bdab5a0ab381_story.html Deception brings to mind Trumpism and the deceptor-in-chief. Is his deception for a greater purpose and therefore excused?

Reply

9 Butler T. Reynolds October 31, 2017 at 7:58 am

Trump doesn’t fit the bill. It’s not deception if everyone knows that you’re lying.

I felt the same way about Bill Clinton’s “Slick Willie” moniker. If that’s your nickname, are you really that slick?

Reply

10 Dick the Butcher October 31, 2017 at 8:43 am

In Trump We Trust. America is immeasurably fortunate to have President Donald J. Trump instead of Crooked, Incompetent Hillary.

Trump does not bother me.
Does your conscience bother you?
It should, rayward.

It’s going to be a great seven-plus years.

Reply

11 jorod November 1, 2017 at 12:36 am

Trump refuses to be intimidated. He gives tit for tat. If you lie about him, he can lie about you. This drives the liberals and the media wild.

Reply

12 msgkings November 1, 2017 at 12:32 pm

He’s more inclined to lie about you when you tell the truth about him.

Reply

13 Edward Burke October 31, 2017 at 11:25 am

Hmmm: Amazon links perhaps pique at least as much as Straussianism . . . .

Reply

14 jorod November 1, 2017 at 12:35 am

Many Native Americans prefer tribal life to individual family life. They refuse to be assimilated. Is this bad?

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: