Montesquieu: From the Harem to the French Church and Court

For the interpretive virtuoso, the Baron de Montesquieu’s Persian Letters is a godsend. The work that Montesquieu originally published, in 1721, was comprised of 150 letters. The total grew to 161 in the 1758 edition. What do these additions, and their being interspersed among the originals, mean?

The letters purport to be a selection copied and translated from a larger group of originals. Which ones does the nameless translator omit? The letters are presented as having been written by 19 different authors and received by 25 individuals or groups, one of whom is nameless. Why are there different authors, and how do they choose their recipients and themes? A few letters contain long inserts. Why?

The order in which the translator (or Montesquieu, who published all this anonymously) presents the letters differs sometimes from the order in which they were supposedly written and sent. For what reason? Montesquieu forces the reader to discover this changed order through the artful use of “a hybrid system, combining Arabic (Muslim) names of lunar months with Gregorian (Western) solar years.”

Taken together, these veils may appear less as beckoning half-secrets than as blankets so thick or smokescreens so dense that Montesquieu’s thought can neither attract nor be pursued successfully. Montesquieu, in short, guards his intentions more securely than Uzbek’s eunuchs guard the women of his seraglio.

This literary complexity helps to explain why Stuart D. Warner and Stéphane Douard’s excellent new translation of Persian Letters is filled with useful lists and notes (although it lacks an index), and why Warner calls his introduction “Montesquieu’s Literary Art.” To comprehend an author we must grasp how he presents his views, and if he does this obscurely we must understand his allusive devices. This is obviously difficult, because one is trying to grasp the substance of an argument that is being at once displayed and hidden. It is as if one were searching for clues to solve a novel crime that one was unsure had been committed. Persian Letters may well be Montesquieu’s introduction to his own literary art—to how to write, and how to read.

Warner’s judgment about the difference between the letters’ order of presentation and composition is that this “usually indicates that an argument is being mounted by the action of the discrepancy itself.” The “discrepant ordering of the letters points the reader in the direction of an understanding not available in speech.” The evidence he presents, though, does not support the existence of quite so wide a gap. He posits that Uzbek’s authority over his seraglio breaks down more quickly than we might have thought once Uzbek begins the travels that his Persian letters recount. But is not the breakdown of Uzbek’s authority soon visible enough to the reasonably attentive reader from the letters’ substance? Perhaps it is safer to say that the carefully composed order of the letters emphasizes, redoubles, or brings out with added subtlety matters mentioned and discussed in their substance, rather than suggesting an understanding not available in speech.

This leads us to turn to the substance of Persian Letters, the discussions that elevate it above mere puzzles or entertainments. Although Montesquieu’s teaching is often ambiguous, one would hardly wish to reduce him to a professor who shrinks from her controversial opinions by claiming merely to be contributing to “the conversation.” Rather, through his characters he says much that is radical but also calming and salutary, from several points of view. He is at once man, woman, and eunuch in the letters; exalter and debunker of religion; friend and foe of “philosophy” (and science); champion of family and of incest; friend of liberty and of sensual license; admirer of the secret and the open; supporter of glory and modesty. As both explorer and creator, he is as much and as little free as the God he discusses. Perhaps Montesquieu comes to light most comprehensively as a teacher of legislators and thinkers, a “translator,” a political philosopher.

Despite this multiplicity of standpoints, Montesquieu’s views, or the direction of his views, is often clear. It is not difficult to see that he lampoons elements of contemporary French politics and society, for example, and that he also means to teach us about Persia and Islam. It is less apparent (but visible on the whole) that he forces us to consider the connections among religion, despotism, and rule by men in the seraglio. Many of these themes are discussed well in Warner’s introduction and in discussions such as Diana Schaub’s Erotic Liberalism (1995).

Montesquieu does not disparage religion (or religions) simply. But the tone of Persian Letters is hardly favorable to it. To the Persian visitors to France, Catholic priests are dervishes, magicians, despots—one is compelled to wonder whether a similarity, perhaps an unsavory similarity, exists among all priests. We cannot assume miracles to be beyond nature, for kings and artful wives also perform miracles. The demand for purity, or for virtue as purity, appears to be primarily a tool of despotism, certainly in the seraglio. Toleration is more sensible than intolerant establishment, but, to say the least, Montesquieu does not celebrate every Muslim, Christian, and Jew.

Philosophy too does not emerge unscathed. In one of the letters and descriptions that Montesquieu places within another letter, we learn of the purgative properties of “leaves” of Aristotle’s Logic, mixed with pages from Averroes and Plotinus. The philosophic heroine of the 141st letter tells a story in which passion, not thought, is the afterlife’s first reward. Still, it is philosophy—now seen not as metaphysics or as logic simply but, apparently, as the reasonable understanding of natural motion—that allows us to produce “miracles,” and that may ground sublime religious expression.

An obvious central topic in Persian Letters is the nature and relationship of women and men. Can one find in the many elements Montesquieu so strikingly presents a single, unified, portrait? I will briefly address here only the question of what he has in mind by “nature,” an issue that Warner and others also discuss. A fuller examination would also help us to clarify further what Montesquieu thought about religion, the supernatural, philosophy, and science, which presumably seek to know what nature is.

Montesquieu points to several complex elements of “nature,” but his own understanding is elusive, as is the unity among these elements. Conceptually, he draws a contrast between “nature” and art, convention, force, the miraculous and supernatural—but also between “nature” and mind. Moreover, although nature is simple or direct, it can also be complex, and more varied than rigidly obeyed conventional codes. Something’s nature is what it is on its own, yet we can also vary the effects of natural laws—nature, indeed, in some ways appears partially to compensate the eunuch for his loss. Not only natural motions but also women’s weakness and dependence; men’s subservience to beauty and attraction; incest; terrain and climate, are all called natural (or indicated to be so).

One is tempted to say that only the unfettered counters to nature are harmful—tyrannical or despotic force, say, or a-sensual, un-generative “purity.” But apparently harmful, too, is unfettered “nature”—unadjusted terrain, say, or unconstrained sensuality, gentleness, or strength. By what standard, however, or with what intellectual and political authority, does one recognize or limit this harm? The government that “most conforms with reason” and “is the most perfect” is “the one that leads men in the manner that is most suitable to their leanings and inclinations.” Perhaps, for Montesquieu here, the standard is natural virtue as it supports natural independence, where mind and nature conform enough to allow each to be itself, given its possibilities and circumstances.

Of course, the just-quoted statement is made by Uzbek in one of his letters to Rhédi. Montesquieu does not say it directly, so we can hardly be certain that it simply or fully represents his views. Persian Letters is designed to be enigmatic, and this new translation is a welcome guide to its mysteries.