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Persian Letters 1st Edition
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Text: English, French (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
This means that the translators have attempted to render the same word throughout the work as consistently as good sense allows. Nevertheless, due attention has been paid to the beauty of the literary character of the work.This will be the standard translation for years to come.
Persian Letters journeys across the unending landscape of things human, providing readers the opportunity to think through an astonishing number of themes – mastery and slavery, jealousy, philosophy and tyranny, self-deception, commerce, nature and convention, the best life for a human being, vanity, glory, and human sexuality. Given its fascination with the relationship between Islam and the West, and the power of religion in the world generally, the book is especially timely.
The volume includes a brilliant introduction by Stuart D. Warner on the philosophical meaning of Persian Letters; a translation of the French index from the 1758 edition, which was the first-ever index of the book, as this edition will be the first-ever index in English; editorial footnotes to help with historical and literary allusions; and a chart detailing the chronological order of the composition of the letters.
Top customer reviews
I would warn that the sweep of domestic household events is Persia will be tragic: Montesquieu is speculating on where a too-repressive society will lead and it seems to lead to the antithesis of 'family' love and social order that the noble traveler Usbek intends. Usbek is, in theory, the absolute monarch of his household, even as he travels, but Montesquieu also sees his travels as an abdication of social responsibility that has horrific consequences. Aside from that, Usbek has an irrepressibly curious relative, Rica, whose penetrating intellect observes and comments on cornerstones of European and French society. Of course these Muslims are also very curious about the practices of Christianity. Enlightenment criticisms of Catholic practice find expression here in a whimsical way. Rica is able to offer a devastatingly funny essay on the workings of the French Academy, showing the overblown deference the French cultural elite gives to their opinions. A great deal is said about 'life in a state of nature' through a group of essays about a 'Troglodyte' nation. These and other essays show the positive effects of a moral society and a cooperative community. Such subjects are addressed in lighter ways and in more palatable doses that one finds in Montesquieu's great work, Spirit of the Laws.
Readers of 'the Old School' of intellectual life will be delighted by these essays disguised as letters.
One of the travelers observes, “The Pope is the chief of the Christians; he is an ancient idol, worshipped now from habit. Once he was formidable even to princes, for he would depose them as easily as our magnificent sultans depose… kings…But nobody fears him any longer… Bishops are men of the Law who are subordinate to him… When they are assembled together, they compose articles of belief, like him; when they are on their own, virtually their only function is to dispense people from obedience to the Christian Law. For you must know that this religion is burdened with an infinity of very difficult observances… [So] if you want to marry when the Christian Law forbids it… you go to a bishop or Pope, who immediately gives a dispensation… There is an infinite number of theologians… and they raise thousands of new questions about religion among themselves. They are left to argue for a long time, and the war goes on until a decision arrives to end it. So that I can assure you that no kingdom has ever had as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ.” (Pg. 81)
Another letter states, “I observe that people here argue about religion interminably: but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout. Not only are they no better as Christians, they are not even better citizens, which is what affects me most; for, whatever religion one may have, obedience to the laws, love of mankind, and respect for one’s parents are always the principal acts of religion.” (Pg. 101) Later, it notes, “every Christian wants to go to Paradise, except for a few libertines, but there is nobody who does not want to go there as cheaply as possible… Some men do not aspire to the heights of perfection, and since they have no ambition they don’t mind who is in front; so they just manage to squeeze into Paradise.” (Pg. 121)
A letter states, “there is no cause to be surprised if some of our theologians have dared to deny that God has infinite fore knowledge, on the grounds that it is incompatible with his justice… it is not possible for God to foresee things which are determined by the decision of a free cause, because what has not yet happened does not exist, and in consequence cannot be known… Often indeed [the soul] comes to a decision only to make use of its liberty, so that God cannot see the decision in advance… In what way could God foresee things which are determined by the decision of a free cause? … by seeing them as effects which are necessary, in that they inevitably follow from a cause which also produces them inevitably; and this is even more contradictory… [God] knows everything that he wants to know. But although he can see everything, he does not always use his power. He usually allows created beings the possibility of taking action or not, so as to allow them the possibility of showing merit or demerit… he has only to want it to come to pass as he sees it… he selects, among all the things that are purely possible, the things that must happen, fixing the future decisions of a mind by his decrees… The Koran and the books of the Jews contradict the dogma of absolute prescience continually. In them God never appears to know the future decisions of minds, and this seems to have been the first truth that Moses revealed to mankind.” (Pg. 146) A letter points out, “I admit that the history books are full of religious wars; but it should be carefully noted that these wars are not produced by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance, urging on the one which believed itself to be dominant.” (Pg. 165)
Another letter argues, “Monarchy is a state of tension, which always degenerates into despotism or republicanism. Power can never be divided equally between prince and people; it is too difficult to keep the balance. The power must necessarily decrease on one side and increase on the other, but usually the ruler is at an advantage, being in control of the armed forces.” (Pg. 187)
Another letter predicts, “I will go so far to say that with Europe in its present state the Catholic religion cannot possibly last another five hundred years. Before the power of Spain was reduced, the Catholics were much stronger than the Protestants. The latter have gradually got onto an equal footing. The Protestants will become richer and more powerful, and the Catholics weaker… There is not a single Protestant ruler who does not raise more taxes from his people than the Pope from his subjects; yet the latter are poor, while the former live in opulence. With them, commerce brings everything to life, while with others monasticism carries death with it everywhere. (Pg. 212-213)
One letter make the pertinent observation, “Nothing is more absurd than to cause the death of countless thousands of men so as to get gold and silver out of the depths of the earth. These metals are absolutely useless in themselves, and are identical with wealth only because they have been chosen to be the sign of it.” (Pg. 214)
Montesquieu’s observations are witty yet intelligent; this book may whet one’s appetite to take on his major work, The Spirit of Laws.