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Les Lettres Persanes

letters, montesquieu and voltaire

LES LETTRES PERSANES. The Per sian Letters (1721) of Montesquieu was a lively political satire, spiced with rather warm imaginings of life in an Oriental seraglio. Behind the transparent veil of a setting for eign to French ways, the Letters offer a keen and trenchant criticism of the whole social and political structure of France, scourging the insatiable cupidity of the courtiers, the privi leged idleness of the nobility, the impudence in business of parvenu financiers. In exposing the meaner side of the decaying years of Louis XIV, Montesquieu is as pitiless as Saint-Simon. But he is constructive also. Much of the future of the Laws" is here in embryo, and in the myth of the troglodytes he touches the origin and bases of all society. This myth tells how a people by surrender to their natural instincts brought about their own destruction and how two families, escaping the general ruin, founded a stable society on the domestic and military virtues and the sanctions of an official religion. In this aspect the Letters

range themselves with such tales of Voltaire as 'Candide) and in their ethical and artistic aspect the connection is closer with Prevost's 'Mann Lescaut' or Du Clos' 'Liai sons dangereuses.) The position is that of a dilettante sceptic, without ideals, with scientific curiosity, a very lukewarm interest in art and letters and a peculiar libertine precocity, a coquettish Rabelaisianism, one of the beginnings of the refined indecency that was to character ize nearly all the century. In more serious portions of the Letters the agility and variety of the thought recalls La Bruyere and fore shadows Voltaire and Beaumarchais. In the history of fiction the Letters are significant for the stimulus that they gave to the novel by correspondence soon to be made very popular by the translations of Richardson and the novels of Rousseau. There are two English versions.