Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
THOSE who take pleasure in their own instruction are never idle. Although I am not employed on any business of importance, I am yet constantly occupied. I spend my time observing, and at night I write down what I have noticed, what I have seen, what I have heard, during the day. I am interested in everything, astonished at everything: I am like a child, whose organs, still over-sensitive, are vividly impressed by the merest trifles. 1  1
  You would scarcely believe it, but we have been well received in all circles, and among all classes. This is largely owing to the quick wit and natural gayety of Rica, which lead him to seek out everybody, and make him equally sought after. Our foreign aspect offends nobody; indeed, we are delighted at the surprise which people show on finding us not altogether without manners; for the French imagine that men are not among the products of our country. Nevertheless, I must admit that they are well worth undeceiving.  2
  I spent some days in the country near Paris at the house of a man of some note, who delights in having company with him. He has a very amiable wife, who, along with great modesty, possesses what the secluded life they lead stifles in our Persian women, a charming gayety.  3
  Stranger as I was, I had nothing better to do than to study the crowd of people who came and went without ceasing, affording me a constant change of subject for contemplation. I noticed at once one man, whose simplicity pleased me; I allied myself with him, and he with me, in such a manner that we were always together.  4
  One day, as we were talking quietly in a large company, leaving the general conversation to the others, I said, “You will perhaps find in me more inquisitiveness than good manners; but I beg you to let me ask some questions, for I am wearied to death doing nothing, and of living with people with whom I have nothing in common. My thoughts have been busy these two days; there is not one among these men who has not put me to the torture two hundred times; in a thousand years I would never understand them; they are more invisible to me than the wives of our great king.” “You have only to ask,” replied he, “and I will tell you all you desire—the more willingly because I think you a discreet man, who will not abuse my confidence.”  5
  “Who is that man,” said I, “who has told us so much about the banquets at which he has entertained the great, who is so familiar with your dukes, and who talks so often to your ministers, who, they tell me, are so difficult of access? He ought surely to be a man of quality; but his aspect is so mean that he is hardly an honor to the aristocracy; and, besides, I find him deficient in education. I am a stranger; but it seems to me that there is, generally speaking, a certain tone of good-breeding common to all nations, and I do not find it in him. Can it be that your upper classes are not so well trained as those of other nations?” “That man,” answered he, laughing, “is a farmer-general; he is as much above others in wealth, as he is inferior to us all by birth. He might have the best people in Paris at his table, if he could make up his mind never to eat in his own house. He is very impertinent, as you see; but he excels in his cook, and is not ungrateful, for you heard how he praised him to-day.”  6
  “And that big man dressed in black,” said I, “whom that lady has placed next her? How comes he to wear a dress so solemn, with so jaunty an air, and such a florid complexion? He smiles benignly when he is addressed; his attire is more modest, but not less carefully adjusted than that of your women.” “That,” answered he, “is a preacher, and, which is worse, a confessor. Such as he is, he knows more of their own affairs than the husbands; he is acquainted with the women’s weak side, and they also know his.” “Ha!” cried I, “he talks forever of something he calls Grace?” “No, not always,” was the reply; “in the ear of a pretty woman he speaks more willingly of the Fall: in public, he is a son of thunder; in private, as gentle as a lamb.” “It seems to me,” said I, “that he receives much attention, and is held in great respect.” “In great respect! Why! he is a necessity; he is the sweetener of solitude; then there are little lessons, officious cares, set visits; he cures a headache better than any man in the world; he is incomparable.”  7
  “But, if I may trouble you again, tell me who that ill-dressed person is opposite us? He makes occasional grimaces, and does not speak like the others; and without wit enough to talk, he talks that he may have wit.” “That,” answered he, “is a poet, the grotesque of human kind. These sort of people declare that they are born what they are; and, I may add, what they will be all their lives, namely, almost always, the most ridiculous of men; and so nobody spares them; contempt is cast upon them from every quarter. Hunger has driven that one into this house. He is well received by its master and mistress, as their good nature and courtesy are always the same to everybody. He wrote their epithalamium when they were married, and it is the best thing he has done, for the marriage has been as fortunate as he prophesied it would be.  8
  “You will not believe, perhaps,” added he, “prepossessed as you are in favor of the East, that there are among us happy marriages, and wives whose virtue is a sufficient guard. This couple, here, enjoy untroubled peace; everybody loves and esteems them; only one thing is amiss: in their good nature they receive all kinds of people, which makes the company at their house sometimes not altogether unexceptionable. I, of course, have nothing to say against it; we must live with people as we find them; those who are said to be well bred are often only those who are exquisite in their vices; and perhaps it is with them as with poisons, the more subtle, the more dangerous.”  9
  “And that old man,” I whispered, “who looks so morose? I took him at first for a foreigner; because, in addition to being dressed differently from the rest, he condemns everything that is done in France, and disapproves of your government.” “He is an old soldier,” said he, “who makes himself memorable to all his hearers by the tedious story of his exploits. He cannot endure the thought that France has gained any battles without him, nor hear a siege bragged of at which he did not mount the breach. He believes himself so essential to our history that he imagines it came to an end when he retired; some wounds he has received mean, simply, the dissolution of the monarchy; and, unlike the philosophers who maintain that enjoyment is only in the present, and that the past is as if it had not been, he, on the contrary, delights in nothing but the past, and exists only in his old campaigns; he breathes the air of the age that has gone by, just as heroes ought to live in that which is to come.” “But why,” I asked, “has he quitted the service?” “He has not quitted it, but it has quitted him. He has been employed in a small post, where he will retail his adventures for the rest of his days; but he will never get any further; the path of honor is closed to him.” “And why?” asked I. “It is a maxim in France,” replied he, “never to advance officers whose patience has been worn out as subalterns; we look upon them as men whose minds have been narrowed by detail; and who, through a constant application to small things, are become incapable of great ones. We believe that a man who, at thirty, has not the qualities of a general, will never have them; that he, whose glance cannot take in at once a tract of several leagues as if from every point of view, who is not possessed of that presence of mind which in victory leaves no advantage unimproved, and in defeat employs every resource, will never acquire such capacity. Therefore we employ in brilliant services those great, those sublime men, on whom Heaven has bestowed not only the courage, but the genius of the hero; and in inferior services those whose talents are inferior. Of this number are such as have grown old in obscure warfare; they can succeed only at what they have been doing all their lives; and it would be ill-advised to start them on fresh employment when age has weakened their powers.”  10
  A moment after, curiosity again seized me, and I said, “I promise not to ask another question if you will only answer this one. Who is that tall young man who wears his own hair, and has more impertinence than wit? How comes it that he speaks louder than the others, and is so charmed with himself for being in the world?” “That is a great lady-killer,” he replied. With these words some people entered, others left, and all rose. Some one came to speak to my acquaintance, and I remained in my ignorance. But shortly after, I know not by what chance, the young man in question found himself beside me, and began to talk. “It is fine weather,” he said. “Will you take a turn with me in the garden?” I replied as civilly as I could, and we went out together. “I have come to the country,” said he, “to please the mistress of the house, with whom I am not on the worst of terms. There is a certain woman in the world who will be rather out of humor; but what can one do? I visit the finest women in Paris; but I do not confine my attentions to one; they have plenty to do to look after me, for, between you and me, I am a sad dog.” “In that case, sir,” said I, “you doubtless have some office or employment which prevents you from waiting on them more assiduously?” “No, sir; I have no other business than to provoke husbands, and drive fathers to despair; I delight in alarming a woman who thinks me hers, and in bringing her within an ace of losing me. A set of us young fellows divide up Paris among us in this pursuit, and keep it wondering at everything we do.” “From what I understand,” said I, “you make more stir than the most valorous warrior, and are more regarded than a grave magistrate. If you were in Persia, you would not enjoy all these advantages; you would be held fitter to guard our women than to please them.” “The blood mounted to my face; and I believe, had I gone on speaking, I could not have refrained from affronting him.  11
  What say you to a country where such people are tolerated, and where a man who follows such a profession is allowed to live? Where faithlessness, treachery, rape, deceit, and injustice lead to distinction? Where a man is esteemed because he has bereaved a father of his daughter, a husband of his wife, and distresses the happiest and purest homes? Happy the children of Hali who protect their families from outrage and seduction! Heaven’s light is not purer than the fire that burns in the hearts of our wives; our daughters think only with dread of the day when they will be deprived of that purity, in virtue of which they rank with the angels and the spiritual powers. My beloved land, on which the morning sun looks first, thou art unsoiled by those horrible crimes which compel that star to hide his beams as he approaches the dark West!

  PARIS, the 5th of the moon of Rhamazan, 1713.
Note 1. Montesquieu describes himself in this passage. [back]
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