Persian Letters/Letter 87

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Persian Letters by Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson
Letter 87

Letter 87[edit]

Rica to * * *

IT seems that every member of a family in this country controls his own actions. The authority exercised by a husband over his wife, a father over his children, a master over his slaves, is merely nominal. The law interferes in all differences; and you may be certain that it is always against the jealous husband, the sorrowing father, the exasperated master.

The other day I visited the place where justice is administered. Before getting there, I had to run the gauntlet of a crowd of young shopwomen who press you to buy in a most seductive manner. At first, the sight is sufficiently amusing; but it becomes dismal when one enters the great halls, where all the people wear dresses even more solemn than their faces. At last one comes to the sacred place where all the secrets of families are revealed and the most hidden actions brought to light.

Here a modest girl comes to confess the torments of a virginity too long preserved, her struggles and her painful resistance; she is so little proud of her victory that she is always on the verge of accepting defeat; and, in order that her father may no longer be ignorant of her wants, she exposes them to everybody.1

Then some shameless woman appears to publish the injuries she has done her husband, as a reason for a separation.

With equal modesty another comes to declare that she is tired of wearing the title, without enjoying the rights of a wife; she reveals the hidden mysteries of the marriage night; she wishes to be examined by the most skilful experts, and prays for a decision re-establishing her in all the rights of virginity. Some even dare to challenge their husbands, and demand from them a public contest which the presence of witnesses renders so difficult; a test as disgraceful for the wife who passes it, as for the husband who fails to stand it.

A great number of young women, ravished or seduced, represent the men as being much worse than they are. This court resounds with love; nothing is talked of but enraged fathers, deluded daughters, faithless lovers, afflicted husbands.

According to the law which here holds sway, every infant born in wedlock is considered the husband’s; should he have good reasons to believe it not his, the law believes it for him, and relieves him of his scruples and of the necessity for inquiry.

In this tribunal judgment goes by the majority; but it is said that experience teaches that it would be wiser to follow the decision of the minority; which is natural enough, for there are very few just minds, and plenty of ill-balanced ones, as all the world knows.

Paris, the 1st of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1715.