Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter XCI
Usbek to the Same, at Smyrna
FROM the general passion which the French have for glory, there has been developed in the minds of individuals a certain something which they call “the point of honor”; it is properly the characteristic of every profession, but most marked in military men—theirs, indeed, is the point of honor par excellence. It would be very difficult to make you understand what this is, because the idea is so foreign to us.  1
  Formerly the French, especially the aristocracy, obeyed no other laws than those of this point of honor, and by them they regulated the whole conduct of their lives. These laws were so severe, that without incurring a penalty more cruel than death, one might not, I do not say infringe them, but even evade their slightest punctilio.  2
  When they had occasion to arrange their differences, almost the only method of decision prescribed was the duel, which resolved all difficulties. The worst part of it, however, was that frequently the trial took place between other parties than those immediately concerned.  3
  However little one man might know another, he had to enter into the quarrel, and pay with his person as if he himself had been enraged. He always felt himself honored by such a choice, and a distinction so flattering; and one who would have been unwilling to give four pistoles to a man to save him and all his family from the gallows, would make no difficulty in risking his life for him a thousand times.  4
  This method of decision was badly enough conceived; for although a man might be more dexterous and stronger than another, it did not follow that he had more right on his side.  5
  Accordingly the kings prohibited it under very severe penalties, but in vain; 1 honor which wishes always to reign, revolts, and regards not the laws.  6
  On this account violence prevails amongst the French; for these laws of honor require a gentleman to avenge himself when he has been insulted; but, on the other hand, justice punishes him unmercifully when he does so. If one follows the laws of honor, one dies upon the scaffold; if one follows those of justice, one is banished forever from the society of men: this, then, is the barbarous alternative, either to die, or to be unworthy to live.

  PARIS, the 18th of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1715.
Note 1. By an edict of Louis XIV. duelists incurred the penalty of death. [back]
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