Montesquieu’s Attack on the Nobility

In his Persian Letters, published anonymously and abroad in 1721, Charles–Louis de Sécondat, Baron de Montesquieu, president of the Parlement of Bordeaux and a noble himself, made a scathing critique of nobility that set the tone for the philosophes’ attack on the inequality of eighteenth–century French society.


LETTER LXXIV

Usbek to Rica, at ———

It was a few days ago that a man I know said to me, "I promised to introduce you into the best houses in Paris, and I will now take you to the home of a great noble, one of the men who best represents the realm."

"What does that mean, sir? Is it that he is more polished or more affable than the others?" "No," he said. "Ah, I understand; he makes his superiority constantly felt by those who approach him. In that case, it is of no use if I go. I grant him everything and accept my sentence as an inferior."

But I had to go, and I met a little man who was so proud, who took snuff with such haughtiness, blew his nose so mercilessly, spat with such composure, and who caressed his dogs in such an offensive manner, that I could not help but admire him. "Oh, good heavens," I said to myself. "If I acted like that at the court in Persia, I would be quite a fool!" Rica, we would have to have been of quite mean character to go and insult in a hundred petty ways those people who came every day to show us their respect. They knew well that we were above them, and if they did not, our kind deeds would [have] made them aware of it every day. Not having to do anything to make ourselves respected, we did all we could to make ourselves liked. We were accessible to the humblest, and although we lived in a grandeur that always tends to harden feelings, they found us to be sensitive. We descended to their needs, keeping only our hearts above them. But when it was a matter of sustaining the prince's majesty in public ceremonies, or of building respect for the nation in the eyes of foreigners, or when, finally, it was necessary to lead soldiers in perilous times, then we held ourselves a hundred times higher than we had ever descended. We became proud once more, and sometimes we were deemed to have made a rather good showing for ourselves.

Paris, the 10th of the moon of Saphar, 1715

Source: Charles-Louis de Sécondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Persian Letters, no translator listed, 3d ed. (London: J. Torson, 1736), no. 74, 157–58.