Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter XXXIV
Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna
THE PERSIAN women are finer than the French women; but those of France are prettier. It is as difficult not to love the former, as it is to be displeased with the latter: these attract by their tenderness and modesty, while those conquer us with their sprightly humor.  1
  That which preserves the beauty of the women in Persia is the regular life they lead: they neither gamble, nor sit up late; they drink no wine, and are never exposed to the air. It must indeed be admitted that the life of the seraglio is more conducive to health than to happiness, it is so dull and uniform. Everything turns upon discipline and duty; the very pleasures are solemn, and mirth itself is sad; enjoyment is hardly ever tasted except as an indication of authority and dependence.  2
  Even the men are not so cheerful in Persia as in France: one never sees that freedom of spirit, and that air of contentment, which I find here among all sorts and conditions of men.  3
  It is still worse in Turkey. There, families may be found, in which, from father to son, no soul has laughed since the foundation of the monarchy.  4
  This Asiatic gravity is the result of the unsocial life which people lead: they never see each other except on ceremonial occasions. Friendship, that dear solace of the heart, the sweetener of our life below, is almost unknown to them; they withdraw into their houses, where they always have the same companions; and in this way each family is, as it were, isolated.  5
  One day, when I was discussing the subject with a young man of this country, he said, “That which offends me most among your customs is the necessity you are under of living with slaves, whose thoughts and inclinations are always subdued to the vileness of their condition. These wretched creatures, by whom you have been beset from infancy, weaken in you, and ultimately destroy, those virtuous feelings which nature implants.  6
  “For, in short, when you have cleared your mind from prejudice, what is to be expected from an upbringing at the hands of a wretch, who makes his honor consistent with the guardianship of another’s wives, and prides himself upon the most loathsome employment which society affords; whose only virtue, his fidelity, is utterly despicable, because it is prompted by envy, jealousy, and despair; who, belonging to neither sex, burns to be avenged on both, and yet submits to the tyranny of the stronger, in order that he may afflict the weaker; who, deriving from his imperfection, his ugliness, and his deformity, all the éclat of his position, is esteemed only because he is unworthy; who, finally, riveted forever to the gate which he guards, harder than the bolts and bars which secure it, brags of fifty years in this ignoble station, where, as the minister of his master’s jealousy, he has given the reign to all his own vileness?”

  PARIS, the 14th of the moon of Zilhage, 1 1713.
Note 1. More correctly, Zil Haj, the last month of the Persian year. [back]

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