Montesquieu

Rica to the same in Smyrna


The inha­bi­tants of Paris are endo­wed with a curio­sity that ver­ges on extra­va­gance. When I got here, I was regar­ded as if I had been sent from hea­ven : the aged, men, women, and chil­dren all wan­ted to see me. If I went out, eve­ryone was at the win­dows ; if I was in the Tuileries,1 a cir­cle imme­dia­tely for­med about me, even the women made a rain­bow of a thou­sand sha­des sur­roun­ding me ; if I was at the thea­tre, a hun­dred bino­cu­lars were imme­dia­tely focu­sed on my face. In a word, never has any man been as much seen as I. I would some­ti­mes smile hea­ring peo­ple who had almost never left their own room saying to each other : You have to admit he really looks Persian. What a won­der ! I found por­traits of me eve­ryw­here ; I saw myself repro­du­ced in all the shops and on all the man­tel­pie­ces, so did they fear they had not seen me enough.2

So many honors do not fail to be tire­some. I did not think myself a man so curious and so rare ; and though I have a very good opi­nion of myself, I would never have ima­gi­ned that I could trou­ble the calm of a great city where I was not known. For this rea­son I deci­ded I would quit my Persian cos­tume and don a European one, to see whe­ther there would still remain some­thing remar­ka­ble about my phy­sio­gnomy. This test let me see what I was really worth. Free of all the foreign orna­ments, I was eva­lua­ted very clo­sely. I had cause for com­plai­ning to my tai­lor, who had cau­sed me to lose the public’s atten­tion and esteem in a moment, for I sud­denly ente­red a frigh­te­ning void. I would some­ti­mes remain an hour in a com­pany without been loo­ked at or pres­sed to open my mouth ; but if by chance someone told the com­pany that I was Persian, imme­dia­tely I heard a buz­zing around me : Ah, ah, Monsieur is a Persian ? How extra­or­di­nary ! How can a per­son be Persian ?3

Paris this 6th day of the moon of Chalval 1712

See letter 124, note 1.

Siamese ambassadors who came to Paris in 1686, Moroccans in 1699, the Persian ambassador in 1715 (see S. L. 4), had excited immense curiosity, evidence of which is in Antoine Coypel’s painting Louis XIV reçoit l’ambassadeur de Perse (1715), which was immediately published in engraved version. But this phenomenon might also reflect the observations of Montesquieu as friend of the young Chinese visitor Arcadio Hoangh or Houange, whom he knew in Paris in 1713.

The exclamation “Comment peut-on être Persan ?” became proverbial and has been echoed in many variations down to the present in French culture.