Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna
IT is an all-important question among men, whether it is better to deprive women of their liberty, or to leave them free. It seems to me that much is to be said on both sides. When Europeans declare that it is most ungenerous to keep those whom we love in misery, we Asiatics reply that men lower themselves by renouncing the dominion which nature has given them over women. If we are told how troublesome it must be to have a crowd of women shut up together, our reply is, that ten women who obey are less bother than one who does not. If we object, in our turn, that Europeans cannot be happy with women who are unfaithful to them; they answer that the fidelity we boast of does not prevent that disgust, which always follows a surfeit of desire; that our women belong to us too absolutely; that possession obtained so easily leaves no scope for hope or fear; that a little coquetry, like salt, stimulates the appetite, and prevents corruption. Perhaps even a wiser man than I would find this question difficult to decide; for, if the Asiatics do well in seeking due means to quiet their uneasiness, the Europeans do equally well in not being uneasy.  1
  After all, they say, though we should be unfortunate as husbands, we can always find compensation as lovers. A man could have just reason to complain of the infidelity of his wife only if there were no more than three people in the world; odd may be made even, as long as a fourth can be found.  2
  Another much-discussed question is, whether women are intended by nature to be subject to men. “No,” said a very gallant philosopher to me the other day; “nature never dictated such a law. The dominion which we exercise over them is tyrannical; they yield themselves to men only because they are more tender-hearted, and consequently, more human and more rational. These advantages, which, had we been reasonable, would, without doubt, have given them the superiority, have been the cause of their subordination, because we are irrational.  3
  “Now, if it is true that it is a tyrannical power which we have over women, it is none the less true that they exercise over us a natural dominion—that of beauty, which nothing can resist. Our power does not extend to all countries, but that of beauty is universal. Why, then, should we have any privilege? Is it because we are stronger than they? But that would be the height of injustice. We use every possible means to discourage them. Our powers would be found equal if we were educated alike. Try women in those gifts which education has not weakened, and we will soon see which is the abler sex.”  4
  It must be admitted, although shocking to our ideas of propriety, that, among the most polite people, women have always borne sway over their husbands; their authority was established by law among the Egyptians in honor of Isis, and among the Babylonians in honor of Semiramis. It was said of the Romans that they, who ruled all the world, were ruled by their wives. I say nothing of the Sauromates, 1 who were held in a state of slavery by their women; they were too barbarous to be cited as an example.  5
  You see, my dear Ibben, that I have fallen in with the fashion of this country, where they are fond of defending extraordinary opinions, and of reducing everything to a paradox. The prophet has decided this question, and has settled the rights of both sexes. “Women,” he says, “ought to honor their husbands; and husbands, their wives: but men are a degree higher in the scale of creation than women.”

  PARIS, the 26th of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1713.
Note 1. Herodotus, iv. 110–47. [back]

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