Persian Letters/Introduction

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202904Persian Letters — IntroductionJohn DavidsonMontesquieu

Introduction (1721)


I am not about to write a dedication, nor do I solicit protection for this work. It will be read, if it is good; and if it is bad, I am not anxious that it should be read.

I have issued these first letters in order to gauge the public taste; in my portfolio I have a goodly number more which I may hereafter publish. 1

This, however, depends upon my remaining unknown: let my name once be published and I cease to write. I know a lady who walks well enough, but who limps if she is watched. 2 Surely the blemishes of my book are sufficient to make it needless that I should submit those of my person to the critics. Were I known, it would be said, “His book is at odds with his character; he might have employed his time to better purpose; it is not worthy of a serious man.” Critics are never at a loss for such remarks, because there goes no great expense of brains to the making of them.

The Persians who wrote those letters lodged at my house, and we spent our time together: they looked upon me as a man belonging to another world, and so they concealed nothing from me. Indeed, people so far from home could hardly be said to have secrets. They showed me most of their letters, and I copied them. I also intercepted some, mortifying to Persian vanity and jealously, which they had been particularly careful to conceal from me.

I am therefore nothing more than a translator: all my endeavor has been to adapt the work to our taste and manners. I have relieved the reader as much as possible of Asiatic phraseology, and have spared him an infinitude of sublime expressions which would have driven him wild,

Nor does my service to him end there. I have curtailed those tedious compliments of which the Orientals are lavish as ourselves; and I have omitted a great many trifling matters which barely survive exposure to the light, and ought never to emerge from the obscurity proper to “small beer.”

Had most of those who have given the world collections of letters done likewise, their words would have disappeared in the editing. One thing has often astonished me, and that is, that these Persians seemed often to have as intimate an acquaintance as I myself with the manners and customs of our nation, an acquaintance extending to the most minute particulars and not un-possessed of many points which have escaped the observation of more than one German traveler in France. This I attribute to the long stay which they made, without taking it into consideration how much easier it is for an Asiatic to become acquainted with the manners and customs of The French in one year, than it would be for a Frenchman to become acquainted with the manners and customs of the Asiatics in four, the former being as communicative as the latter are reserved.

Use and wont permits every translator, and even the most illiterate commentator, to adorn the beginning of his version, or of his parody, with a panegyric on the original, and to extol its usefulness, its merit, and its excellence. It should not be very difficult to divine why I have not done so. One very excellent reason may be given: it would simply be adding tediousness to what is in itself necessarily tedious, namely, a preface.