Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Rica to Usbek, at ——
I SEND you a copy of a letter, written by a Frenchman who is in Spain: I believe that you will be glad to see it.  1
  I have traveled for six months in Spain and Portugal, where I lived among people despising all nations except the French, whom they honor with their hate. Gravity is the distinctive characteristic of both nations: it has two chief methods of manifestation—spectacles and moustaches.  2
  Spectacles demonstrate clearly that the wearer of them is an accomplished man of science, who has injured his sight by the extent and profundity of his reading; and every nose which they adorn or burden, may pass, without contradiction, for the nose of a savant. 1  3
  As regards the moustache, in itself it is respectable, independently of results; although sometimes it has been of great use in the service of the king, and in the maintenance of national honor, as appears from the case of a famous Portuguese general in the Indies, 2 for, being in want of money, he cut off one of his moustaches, and offered it to the inhabitants of Goa as a pledge for the loan of twenty thousand pistoles, and the money was advanced at once; afterward he redeemed his moustache with honor.  4
  One can easily understand how such a grave and phlegmatic people might very well be haughty; and so they are. They usually base their pride upon two matters of sufficient importance. Of those who live in Spain and Portugal, the most uplifted are such as are called old Christians; that is to say, such as are not descended from the converts to Christianity made by the Inquisition in later times. Those who dwell in the Indies are not less elated by the consideration that they have the sublime merit to be, as they say, white-skinned men. There was never in the seraglio of the Grand Seigneur, a sultana so proud of her beauty, as the oldest and ugliest rascal among them is of his complexion of pale olive, when in a Mexican town he sits at his own door with his arms folded. A man of such importance, a creature so prefect, would not work for all the wealth of the world; and could never persuade himself to compromise the honor and the dignity of his color by vile mechanic industry.  5
  For you must know, that, when a man possesses some special merit in Spain, as, for example, when he can add to the qualities which I have already described, that of owning a long sword, or that of having learned from his father to strum a jangling guitar, he works no more: his honor is concerned in the repose of his limbs. He who remains seated ten hours a day obtains exactly double the respect paid to one who rests only five, because nobility is acquired by sitting still.  6
  But, although these invincible foes of work make a great show of philosophic calm, they have nothing of the sort in their hearts; for they are always in love. In dying of languor under their mistress’s windows they have not their match in the world; no Spaniard is esteemed gallant who is without a cold.  7
  They are, firstly, bigots—secondly, jealous. They are particularly careful not to expose their wives to the attempts of a soldier riddled with wounds, or of some decrepit magistrate; but they will shut them up with a fervent novice who casts down his eyes, or a robust Franciscan with a bold glance.  8
  They allow their wives to appear with uncovered bosoms; but they would not have any one see their heels, lest hearts should be ensnared by a glimpse of their feet. 3 They say all the world over that love is cruelly rigorous: in Spain it is especially so. The women cure love, but only with the substitution of other suffering: there often remains a long and disagreeable memorial of an extinguished passion.  9
  They have certain little courtesies which in France would appear out of place; for example, an officer never strikes a soldier without asking his permission; and the Inquisition always apologizes to a Jew before burning him.  10
  Spaniards who are not burned seem so fond of the Inquisition, that it would be ill natured to deprive them of it. Indeed, I should like to see another established; not for heretics, but for heresiarchs who ascribe to paltry monkish practices the same efficacy as to the seven sacraments; who worship what they should only respect; and who are so devout that they are hardly Christians.  11
  Wit and common sense are to be found among the Spaniards; but let no one seek for them in their books. Glance at one of their libraries, with romances on the one side, and the schoolmen on the other; and you would say that the arrangement had been made, and the whole collected by some secret foe of human reason.  12
  Their only good book 4 is one which was written to expose the absurdity of all the others.  13
  They have made immense discoveries in the New World, and yet they do not know throughly their own country: there are upon their rivers an undiscovered bridge or two, and among their mountains races unknown to them. 5  14
  They say that the sun rises and sets within their dominions; but it must also be said that in making his journey he encounters only ruined fields and desolate countries.  15
  It would not grieve me, Usbek, to see a letter written to Madrid, by a Spaniard who was traveling in France; I think he would have little difficulty in avenging his nation. What a grand opportunity for an even-tempered, thoughtful man! I imagine he would begin his description of Paris in this way:  16
  There is a house here in which they place mad people: one would at first expect it to be the largest in the city; but no, the remedy is much too insignificant for the disease. Without doubt, the French, being held in very slight esteem by their neighbors, shut up some madmen in this house, to create the impression that those who are at large are sane.  17
  There I leave my Spaniard. Farewell, my dear Usbek.

  PARIS, the 17th of the moon of Saphar, 1715.
Note 1. Madame d’Aulnoy has a similar eulogy of spectacles in her Voyage d’Espagne. [back]
Note 2. Jean de Castro.—(M.) [back]
Note 3. The exhibition of the foot, according to Madame d’Aulnoy’s Voyage d’Espagne, was regarded in Spain as being “la dernière javeur.” [back]
Note 4. “Don Quixote.” [back]
Note 5. The Batuecas.—(M.) This is an invention of some wag whom Montesquieu seems to have taken seriously. [back]
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors