By Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (Author), C. J. Betts (Translator, Introduction)
Montesquieu's "Persian Letters" consist primarily of the collected correspondence of Usbek and Rica, two Persian travelers abroad in Europe in search of knowledge. For those familiar with Said's theories of Orientalism, this is an exemplary text to see how 18th century France thought of its Ottoman rivals, and how those views reflect the state of French society.
Usbek, Rica, and their various correspondents discuss matters touching on gender, politics, the nature of the self, history, religion, and culture. While these letters make up the majority of the novel, the few letters Montesquieu inserts from Usbek's wives and eunuch servants are by far the novel's most interesting pieces, and unfortunately, the most frequently overlooked.
As Usbek sojourns across Europe over the course of many years, contemplating universal issues, his wives and eunuchs bring a sense of stark reality to the "Persian Letters". In these letters, we see all too clearly the domestic unrest arising out of even enlightened monarchy. The neglected wives, locked away from society in the harem, and the pitiable eunuchs, who must guard them, offer profoundly personal opinions on the causes and effects of a rigid class structure.
"Persian Letters" is a valuable text for the layman interested in gauging the currents of thought in the early 18th century. A best-seller in its own time, Montesquieu's most abstracted philosophies are rendered accessible through story and fable, showing his authorial range. For the casual reader, the letters are for the most part very short and quite entertaining. For the scholarly-minded, this is a work with seemingly limitless critical appeal.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment. He is famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers, which is taken for granted in modern discussions of government and implemented in many constitutions throughout the world. He was largely responsible for the popularization of the terms "feudalism" and "Byzantine Empire."