Montesquieu

Rica to Ibben in Smyrna


It is a great ques­tion among scho­lars whe­ther it is more advan­ta­geous to deprive women of free­dom than to let them have it ; it seems to me that there are many rea­sons for and against. If the Europeans say that there is no gene­ro­sity in making per­sons you love unhappy, our Asians reply that there is some­thing base in men giving up the domi­na­tion which nature has given them over women. If you tell them that the large num­ber of women locked up is one­rous, they reply that ten women who obey are less one­rous than one who does not. Now if they object in turn that Europeans can­not expect to be happy with wives who are not fai­th­ful to them, they reply that that fide­lity they so vaunt does not pre­vent the disaf­fec­tion that always fol­lows sated pas­sions ; that such tran­quil pos­ses­sion lea­ves us nothing to desire or to fear ; that a lit­tle coque­try is a salt that sea­sons and pre­vents cor­rup­tion. A wiser man than I would be hard pres­sed to decide ; for if the Asians do very well to seek means that can calm their anxie­ties, the Europeans do very well also not to have any.

After all, they say, even if we were we unhappy as hus­bands, we should always find the means of conso­ling our­sel­ves as lovers. For a man to have the right to com­plain of his wife’s infi­de­lity, there would have to be no more than three peo­ple in the world ; they will always be tied1 when there are four.

It is ano­ther ques­tion whe­ther natu­ral law subor­di­na­tes women to men. A very gal­lant phi­lo­so­pher told me no the other day : nature never dic­ta­ted such a law. The domi­na­tion we have over them is a real tyranny ; they have allo­wed us to assume it only because they are mee­ker than we are, and conse­quently pos­sess more huma­nity and rea­son : these advan­ta­ges, which doubt­less ought to have given them the super­io­rity if we had been rea­so­na­ble, have made them lose it because we are not.

Now if it is true that we have only a tyran­ni­cal power over women, it is no less so true they have a natu­ral domi­nance over us, which is that of beauty, which no one can resist. Ours does not pre­vail in all coun­tries ; but that of beauty is uni­ver­sal. Why should we then have a pri­vi­lege ? Is it because we are the stron­gest ? But that is a real injus­tice. We employ all sorts of means to under­mine their cou­rage. Our strengths would be equal if edu­ca­tion were as well : let us try them in the talents that edu­ca­tion has not wea­ke­ned, and we will see whe­ther we are so strong.

It must be admit­ted, though it shocks our ways of thin­king : among the most refi­ned peo­ples, women have always had some autho­rity over their hus­bands. It was esta­bli­shed by a law among the Egyptians, in honor of Isis,2 and among the Babylonians, in honor of Semarimis. It was said of the Romans that they com­man­ded all nations, but obeyed their wives.3 I am not tal­king about the Sarmatians, who were truly in ser­vi­tude to that sex ; they were too bar­ba­ric for their exam­ple to be cited here.

You will see, my dear Ibben, that I have deve­lo­ped a liking for this coun­try, where peo­ple like to argue for extra­or­di­nary opi­nions, and reduce eve­ry­thing to para­doxe. The Prophet has deci­ded the ques­tion, and regu­la­ted the rights of each sex : women, he says, must honor their hus­bands ; their hus­bands must honor them ; but they have a degree of super­io­rity over them.4

Paris this 26th day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 1713

À but : a sporting term (from the jeu de paume).

According to Diodorus of Sicily, because of the great benefits given to man by Isis, “the custom was established that the queen should obtain more power and honor than the king and that among individuals woman should prevail over man, husbands promising in marriage contracts to obey their wives in everything” (Bibliothèque historique, i, 27, 1-2 ; Paris : Belles Letters, 1993, vol. I, p. 64.)

Plutarch quotes Cato to this effect (Life of Cato, VIII, 4) adding that it is borrowed from Thucydides (XVIII, 4).

“And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority].” (Qur’an, 2:228) ; but the application to Jews as to Christians is evident : cf. Genesis 2:18 and 20-24 and Ephesians 5:22.