Montesquieu
 

« I am not writing a dedicatory epistle... »

I am not wri­ting a dedi­ca­tory epistle and I seek no pro­tec­tion for this book1 : peo­ple will read it if it is good, and if it is bad, I do not care whe­ther they read it or not.

I have selec­ted out these first let­ters to test the public’s taste ; I have many more in my files which I could offer sub­se­quently.

But it is on condi­tion I will not be known : for if my name came to be known, at that moment I shall fall silent. I know a woman who walks rather well, but limps whe­ne­ver she is wat­ched. The fai­lings of the work are enough, without my also offe­ring to the cri­tics those of my per­son. If peo­ple knew who I am, they would say : his book in unsui­ted to his dignity ; he ought to put his time to bet­ter use ; that is not wor­thy of a man of conse­quence. Critics never fail to make such remarks, because they can be made without much men­tal effort.

The Persians who write here were staying in my house ; we lived in com­mon. As they consi­de­red me as a man from ano­ther world, they hid nothing from me. Indeed men trans­plan­ted from so far away could really have no secrets : they com­mu­ni­ca­ted most of their let­ters to me ; I copied them ; I even hap­pe­ned upon a few which they would have taken care not to share with me, so mor­ti­fying were they for Persian vanity and jea­lousy.

Therefore my only role here is as trans­la­tor : my only care has been to fit the work to our cus­toms. I have spa­red the rea­der as much as I could of Asiatic lan­guage, and saved him from end­less sublime expres­sions that would have borne him into the stra­tos­phere.2

But that is not all I have done for him. I have sup­pres­sed the long com­pli­ments of which the Orientals are not less pro­li­fic than we are, and omit­ted count­less num­bers of the kind of tri­fles that do not rea­dily bear the light of day, and ought always to remain bet­ween two friends.

If most of those who have given us col­lec­tions of let­ters had done like­wise, their work would sim­ply have disap­pea­red.

There is some­thing that has often sur­pri­sed me, which is to find these Persians some­ti­mes as well infor­med as I am myself of the nation’s beha­vior and man­ners, even being fami­liar with its finest cir­cum­stan­ces, and noti­cing things which, I am sure, have esca­ped many Germans who have tra­vel­led in France. I attri­bute this to their long stay here, besi­des the fact that it is easier for an Asian to learn about French beha­vior in a year than it is for a Frenchman to learn about Asian beha­vior in four, because the French are as unguar­ded as the Asians are reti­cent.

Custom has per­mit­ted every trans­la­tor and even the most vicious com­men­ta­tor to embel­lish the com­men­ce­ment of his trans­la­tion or his com­men­tary with an enco­mium of the ori­gi­nal, and unders­core its uti­lity, its merit, and its excel­lence. I have not done so ; the rea­sons for this will easily be intui­ted : one of the best is that it would be quite boring, in a place that is already quite boring in its own right, by which I mean a pre­face.

Letter 1

It is generally a high-ranking protector who is addressed in a dedicatory epistle. This quasi-introduction, which bears no title in the original edition, is attributed to a translator who remains anonymous : as was customary, no French edition bore the author’s name during his lifetime.

“[…] qui l’auraient ennuyé jusque dans les nues” (in the original) is highly ambiguous ; it is possible that envoyé may have been meant in lieu of ennuyé.