Modernity and Enlightenment in The Persian Letters by Charles Montesquieu
The Persian Letters (1721), a fictional piece by Charles Montesquieu,
is representative of ‘the Enlightenment,’ both supporting and showing
conflict with its ideas. The initial perception of European people,
in particular the French, is of a busy people with goals and ambition
whose focus is progress; in this way they are able to gain knowledge -
a core foundation to Enlightenment. One particular section of the
Persian Letters states that the revolt against the authorities was
lead by women, who through reason, saw the inequity of their treatment
and formed a voice. In Montesquieu's story, their decision to change
tradition was part of a powerful movement towards this new found
The pressure for people to conform was greatly impressed by the King.
With the Enlightenment movement, came recognition of this and a
rebellion of what Montesquieu calls, the King’s “invisible enemies”
formed. These were people trying to break the mold and think for
themselves, using reason and searching for answers outside what they
had been told to believe.
However the ignorant authority described in the letters is opposing to
this new movement. The King colluded with the Pope and Gaelic church
over ways to retain control and openly practice the way of life that
the new ideology condemned. Another issue arising with the
Enlightenment was that it was difficult to maintain. This is
illustrated in the story of the Troglodytes. Even these beings who
existed in a Utopia of perfect reason and morality ended up corrupted
by the burden of their own virtue.
Both Europe and the American colonies, during the 18th century were
enveloped by a new trend in thinking and way of life. The thought was
that human kind was emerging from an age of darkness into
‘Enlightenment’. This idea was focused around the advancement of
scientific knowledge, the development of respect for humanity and
above all, reason. People of this time believed that knowledge had to
be earned and that ‘through experience and observation, guided by
reason,’ progress was inevitable. The idea of Enlightenment filtered
its way into society and was became institutionalized.
During this period, European traditions also came under the microscope
and were challenged by many scholars and philosophers. Economical,
social and political attitudes were studied and began to move away
from negativity. People then focused on the positives of life and
human nature. The monarch and general hierarchy of society was
questioned and related back to natural intentions for mankind.
Frenchmen felt enslaved by their current authorities and tried to
overthrow them through the improvement of literacy, anonymous tracts
and social exploration.
As the focus of...