In order to be able to tell the hypocrisy of political institutions in eighteenth-century France and at the same time escape the censorship ofAncien Régime, Montesquieu is forced to resort to literary devices such as satirical writing.

In 1721, the Enlightenment philosopher in fact published the Persian letters written as an exchange of correspondence between two Persians traveling to Europe. Through the fictional narrative Montesquieu manages to circumvent censorship and to criticize the behavior of the powerful of his time. The two In fact, imaginary Persians are very surprised by the habits they encounter in the various countries visited – in particular in France – and they recount their perplexities in writing.

This exchange of letters on the habits and customs of eighteenth-century Paris ends up painting a society dominated by pride, hypocrisy and arrogance. This letter, number 74, is an example:


A few days ago, a man of my acquaintance said to me: “I promised to introduce you to the best houses in Paris: now I am taking you to a great gentleman, who is one of the most representative dignitaries of the kingdom.”

“And what does that mean, sir?” Is he perhaps more courteous and more affable than another? ‘

“No, it’s not like that,” he replied.

“Ah understood! He continually makes his superiority felt over all who approach him. If this is the case, I don’t see why to go there: I declare myself defeated and I grant him all the superiority of him ».

However, I had to go there, and I saw such a pompous little man, who sniffed a pinch of tobacco with such haughtiness, blew his nose so mercilessly, spat with such phlegm and caressed his dogs in such an offensive way to men, that I could not get tired to admire it.

“Ah, good God!” I said to myself, “If, when I was at the court of Persia, I had given this image of myself, I would have made the figure of a great fool.”

We should have had a really bad temper, Usbek, to reserve a hundred little insults to people who came to us every day to testify their goodwill.

From Paris, the 10th of the Safar moon, 1715.

The irony that confused censorship in Montesquieu’s time today leaves a clear and distinct trace on the hypocrisy that reigned in France; there elegant and sophisticated shape of the Letters it remains an unmatched literary model of social criticism.

Melissa Pignatelli

Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, Persian lettersMondadori editore, link to the book here

Image: Grant Wood, Daughters of Revolution1932, public domain image, Cincinnati Art Museum

#masterpiece #hypocrisy #Montesquieus #France

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