Guide to the Classics: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters at 300 — an Enlightenment story that resonates in a time of culture wars


Knox Peden, The University of Queensland

We have recently seen a spate of books defending the Enlightenment, the period of efflorescence in 18th-century Europe that helped shape the modern world.

At the vanguard has been the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who titled his most recent monument to scientific progress Enlightenment Now. The book earned Bill Gates’s endorsement but was widely criticised by historians since it was not an assessment of the Enlightenment at all, but a compilation of data showing us why life was now better than ever.

Other advocates have been more subtle, stressing that what set the Enlightenment apart from preceding eras was less its confidence in reason per se, than its focus on the secular (as opposed to the sacred) as the space in which happiness ought to be pursued and quite possibly achieved.

Readers might wonder: who could be against this? But Pinker and his allies are pushing back on a tendency to see in the overweening self-confidence of the Enlightenment a blueprint for the horrors of the 20th century. The view is not without merit. The Enlightenment may have given us a new way to think about rights, but it also gave us the atom bomb.

Moreover, its conviction that the same naturalistic perspective that led to scientific innovation could be applied to populations has given rise to social engineering in multiple, often sinister forms.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of a book that contemporaries saw as inaugurating the Enlightenment in France: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Given its exalted status, one would expect to find in Persian Letters an ode to human ingenuity and a confident projection of progress. But its contents are much more surprising — and relevant — than that.

The book’s author, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu — Montesquieu, for short — was an odd sort, an aristocrat with a sympathy for republics and a voracious intellectual appetite.

Born in 1689, he came of age at a time of French predominance in Europe. A lawyer by training, he began writing during the “Regency”, a period of social dynamism that followed the death in 1715 of Louis XIV, the Sun King, when his great-grandson Louis XV was too young to rule on his own.

A new kind of fiction

In 1721 Montesquieu introduced France to a new kind of fiction, a novel composed entirely of letters, mainly authored by Usbek and Rica, two Persians who have travelled to Paris and delight in reporting their bemusement at its customs. The device allows Montesquieu to make the more familiar features of European life appear idiosyncratic.

An anonymous painting of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.
Wikimedia Commons

The nature of the work also gives Montesquieu ample space to deal with subjects that still divide us: the varieties of government, the extravagances of metaphysical speculation, and the dilemmas of tolerance.

In this regard, we can see Persian Letters as a set of working notes for the book that earned Montesquieu his place among the giants of modern political thought: The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. With its case for a “separation of powers” as crucial to a well-functioning republic, this volume inspired Thomas Jefferson and the authors of the US constitution.

Providing a typology of regimes — republics, monarchies, despotisms — and tracing their relationship to material factors from climate to geography, The Spirit of the Laws more or less launched the discipline of political sociology. More prophetic still was the book’s concern for how despotism lies in wait for any regime that sees a loss of civic virtue.

All of this material is dealt with ironically in Persian Letters. The worry about despotism is signalled through what passes for a plot in the book. As Usbek becomes accustomed to Parisian society, he becomes distant from his seraglio (or harem) in Persia.

Persian miniature by Hossein Behzad.
Iranian National Museum.

A revolt ensues in which the women, corrupted by having to live in a degraded state and no longer fearful of their absent authority, stage a bloody uprising. The story ends with a letter from Usbek’s favourite wife Roxane, who is committing suicide, pen in hand.

Constant vigilance

This ghastly conclusion makes for an instructive contrast with the playful tone otherwise permeating the book. Throughout the letters, there is much mirth at Frenchmen who distract themselves with philosophical rumination while their society becomes mired in conflict and sedition.

The irony is to the point; political stability is a matter of constant vigilance, irrespective of the nature of the regime in question.

With his portrayal of the seraglio, a question insists: is Montesquieu indulging in Orientalism, a projection of his Western prejudices on to figures from the East?

Perhaps. And yet Montesquieu never loses sight of the fictional nature of his construction. To see Europe through the eyes of another is to imagine yourself in the position of the other, not to occupy it.

Not coincidentally, this relationship between how we present ourselves and who we are is one of the key themes of the work.

In one of the early letters, Rica recounts the wonder he aroused walking the streets of Paris.

I therefore resolved to set aside my Persian clothing and dress instead as a European, to see whether anything in my appearance would still astonish. From this test, I learnt my true worth: stripped of my exotic finery, I found myself appraised at my real value, and I had good reason to complain of my tailor, through whom I’d lost, in an instant, the attention and esteem of the public.

In reflecting on whether the clothes make the man, Rica suggests the social nature of our identities. In effect, we are as we are seen. But recognising this fact only increases Rica’s desire for public approval.

Elsewhere Usbek remarks that in order to remain powerful a monarch must supply not only necessities, but luxuries. And yet the obsession with luxury — both as a pleasurable experience and opulent display — affects or indeed infects everything, even religion, which is mercilessly pilloried throughout Persian Letters.

Louis XV in Coronation Robes, Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1730.
Wikimedia Commons

The society Montesquieu satirises is one in which moral debates fail to find resolution because agreement is hardly the goal; vindication is. The need for social vindication breeds conflict. We seek out peers who advance what we take to be our interests rather than working with others to discover sites of common interest.

In this aspect, the paint on Usbek and Rica’s portrait of modern life hardly seems dry.

“The reader is urged to note,” Montesquieu wrote in a later edition of Persian Letters, “that the entire charm of the work resides in the constantly recurring contrast between actual reality and the singular, naïve, or strange manner in which reality is perceived”.

The mirror Montesquieu presents to society is one in which its vanities appear in all their absurdity.

With earnestness an increasingly dominant virtue in today’s culture wars, we’d likewise do well to rediscover the charm, indeed the humility, in appreciating the inevitably partial nature of our views.

More than celebrations of science or promises of progress — both of which tend to a self-righteousness foreign to Persian Letters — this seems to be a form of enlightenment we could use, for now.The Conversation

Knox Peden, Senior Lecturer in European Enlightenment Studies, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book shows the folly of painting Mandela as either saint or sellout


Nelson Mandela at the commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in 1994.
Georges MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Colin Bundy, University of Oxford and William Beinart, University of Oxford

There are two widely available views of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa. The first is a reverential and uncritical celebration of his life and achievements. It resonated in the obituaries and eulogies when Mandela died in December 2013.

Madiba (his clan name) was “sent by God”, said Irish newspaper magnate Tony O’Reilly, who’s said to have been a friend of Mandela’s. His purchase of South Africa’s then largest newspaper company, Argus Newspapers, was made possible by Mandela’s support. Former American president Barack Obama declared that Mandela

changed the arc of history, transforming his country, the continent and the world.

A second prevailing view is hostile and dismissive. By 2015, a reputation that had appeared invincible was being shredded in some media outlets, on the streets and especially on university campuses across South Africa. The critique centred on the 1994 negotiated settlement that ended apartheid. It accused Mandela of betraying the black majority to appease the economically powerful white minority.

Both narratives – Mandela as secular saint or Mandela as sellout – are poor history. The suggestion that Mandela single-handedly achieved democracy is as intellectually threadbare as its mirror image: that he was responsible for the failure to transform social and economic relations after 1994.

Our edited collection, Reassessing Mandela, provides a scholarly counterweight to the two polarised positions. It attempts to begin the task of revisiting the canonical biographies, rethinking aspects of Mandela’s life and his politics, and evaluating how he is and should be remembered.

Reassessing Mandela

The first aspect of Mandela’s life reassessed in the book is his family and its background, his childhood and youth, and his Thembu lineage. Two chapters – by the late Phil Bonner and by Xolela Mangcu – complement one another in intriguing ways. Both historians remind us that Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is an unreliable text. Some of its flaws are replicated in the work of others.

Bonner’s archivally based chapter corrects some of the shaky chronology in Long Walk. It identifies Mandela’s father Gadla Mandela as “a significant if little recognised historical figure” but shows that Mandela’s own account of his father defying the white magistrate cannot be read as history.

Mangcu’s chapter challenges Mandela’s own account of his descent. He locates him within a history of the Thembu royal house’s “pragmatic co-operation” with colonial rule. Mandela did not mention this.

Mangcu emphasises the history of “African political modernity” in the Transkei, a territory comprising a number of African kingdoms and chiefdoms annexed in the 19th century. He also considers Gadla’s role in the local administrative body (Bungha), where he is portrayed as resisting both missionary influence and colonial regulations.

Bonner and Mangcu underline the complexity of “indirect rule” in the Transkei. They correct the tendency to discuss Mandela’s early years through a lens of rural nostalgia.

Mandela’s political activism

A second broad area of reassessment emerges from three chapters which consider Mandela’s relationship with the South African Communist Party (SACP), his activism and especially his leadership in underground politics. Tom Lodge produces a fine-grained account of Mandela’s “association with South Africa’s communist left”. His is a study of friendships and social networks, of left-wing readings and writings, and of political alliances and tactics.

Paul Landau’s chapter focuses on the period between the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of black protesters by apartheid police, and Mandela’s arrest in August 1962. It traces the efforts to implement the M-Plan – a template for an underground structure of the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).

Mandela and a small group of like-minded colleagues sought to use the plan to transform the ANC into a militant vanguard movement willing to employ violence against the state.

Thula Simpson’s chapter reconsiders Mandela’s role as commander-in-chief of umKhonto we Sizwe, (an armed wing set up by the ANC and SACP). He suggests that its campaign of urban sabotage was more effective than generally acknowledged.

Three other chapters cast new light on different aspects of Mandela’s life: his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; his years in jail on Robben Island, and his role in the human rights discourse that shaped South Africa’s new constitution.

Shireen Hassim provides a compelling rereading of

one of the most iconic political marriages in history.

First, she establishes Mandela’s wife Winnie’s own political career and significance. She says it offered “a form of intimate political leadership” to young activists. Secondly, she explores the complex relationship between Winnie’s political trajectory and Nelson’s, and how a widening political divide accompanied the breakdown of the marriage.

Martha Evans examines four visits by journalists to Robben Island between 1964 and 1977, their interactions with Mandela and their published accounts. She discusses Mandela’s capacity to capitalise on brief contacts from an apparent position of weakness, and shows how incarceration enhanced his iconic status.

Recalibrating Mandela

These chapters are book-ended by Colin Bundy’s introduction and Elleke Boehmer’s postscript. Boehmer explores how memories of Mandela are constructed and contested, and what fresh interpretations can teach us.

This collection treats Mandela not as an individual miracle-maker or traitor to the cause of transformation. It shows him as one political actor, alongside a multitude of others, within complex political and social forces.

It suggests that scholarship on Mandela will continue to explore and explain his politics and his ability to assert leadership. It will also continue to explore the contradictions and continuities of his personal makeup, and his determination over decades to bring people together. All this, while negotiating the corrugated terrain of race and identity in South Africa.The Conversation

Colin Bundy, Honorary Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford and William Beinart, Professor, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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