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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Montesquieu formed many distinguished acquaintances


Nothing, however, interested him so much as the phenomena of human society; he had no aptitude for metaphysical speculations; his feeling for literature and art was defective; he honoured the antique world, but it was the Greek and Latin historians and the ideals of Roman virtue and patriotism which most deeply moved him. At the same time he was a man of his own generation, and while essentially serious, he explored the frivolous side of life, and yielded his imagination to the licence of the day.

With enough wit and enough wantonness to capture a multitude of readers, the _Lettres Persanes_ (1721) contain a serious criticism of French society in the years of the Regency. It matters little that the idea of the book may have been suggested by the Siamese travellers of Dufresny's _Amusements_; the treatment is essentially original. Things Oriental were in fashion--Galland had translated the _Arabian Nights_ (1704-1708)--and Montesquieu delighted in books of travel which told of the manners, customs, religions, governments of distant lands. His Persians, Usbek and Rica, one the more philosophical, the other the more satirical, visit Europe, inform their friends by letter of all the aspects of European and especially of French life, and receive tidings from Persia of affairs of the East, including the troubles and intrigues of the eunuchs and ladies of the harem. The spirit of the reaction against the despotism of Louis XIV. is expressed in Montesquieu's pages; the spirit also of religious free-thought, and the reaction against ecclesiastical tyranny. A sense of the dangers impending over society is present, and of the need of temperate reform. Brilliant, daring, ironical, licentious as the _Persian Letters_ are, the prevailing tone is that of judicious moderation; and already something can be discerned of the large views and wise liberality of the _Esprit des Lois_. The book is valuable to us still as a document in the social history of the eighteenth century.

In Paris, Montesquieu formed many distinguished acquaintances, among others that of Mlle. de Clermont, sister of the Duke de Bourbon. Perhaps it was in homage to her that he wrote his prose-poem, which pretends to be a translation from the Greek, _Le Temple de Gnide_ (1725). Its feeling for antiquity is overlaid by the artificialities, long since faded, of his own day--"naught remains," writes M. Sorel, "but the faint and subtle perfume of a _sachet_ long hidden in a _rococo_ cabinet." Although his publications were anonymous, Montesquieu was elected a member of the Academy in 1728, and almost immediately after this he quitted France for a long course of travel throughout Europe, undertaken with the purpose of studying the manners, institutions, and governments of foreign lands. At Venice he gained the friendship of Lord Chesterfield, and they arrived together in England, where for nearly two years Montesquieu remained, frequently hearing the parliamentary debates, and studying the principles of English politics in the writings of Locke. His thoughts on government were deeply influenced by his admiration of the British constitution with its union of freedom and order attained by a balance of the various political powers of the State. On Montesquieu's return to La Brede he occupied himself with that great work which resumes the observations and meditations of twenty years, the _Esprit des Lois_. In the history of Rome, which impressed his imagination with its vast moral, social, and political significance, he found a signal example of the causes which lead a nation to greatness and the causes which contribute to its decline. The study made at this point of view detached itself from the more comprehensive work which he had undertaken, and in 1734 appeared his _Considerations sur les Causes de la Grandeur et de la Decadence des Romains_.

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