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.