The task of the philosopher was twofold: they had to demolish the old system and to construct a new one. In order to accomplish the first purpose—of destroying an old set of beliefs—they metamorphosed Descartes’s method of doubt into Voltaire’s method of satire.
Satire is a mode of challenging accepted notions by making them seem ridiculous. It usually occurs in an age of crisis, when there exists no absolute uniformity but rather two sets of beliefs. Of the two sets of beliefs, one holds sufficient power to suppress open attacks on the established order, but not enough to suppress a veiled attack. Further, satire assumes a civilized opponent who is sufficiently sensitive to feel the barbs of wit leveled at him. To hold something up to ridicule presupposes a certain respect for reason, on both sides, to which one can appeal. An Age of Reason, in which everyone accepts the notion that conduct must be reasonable, is, therefore, a general prerequisite for satire.
The Enlightenment was more powerful than the Renaissance movement of rational thought because it could base itself on the latter’s accomplishments. Thus, they could finish the task of demolishing, by means of satire, the old foundations of state, society, and religion. Descartes continued what Valla had started; and Voltaire took the place of Erasmus. Earlier, Galileo and Pascal had used the dialogue form to cast ridicule upon their opponents; and, later, Beaumarchais will employ this method in his plays. Now, starting as it were from Descartes’s comment, that travel among varied peoples will unburden our minds of the notion “that everything against our modes is ridiculous, and against reason,” Montesquieu and Voltaire disagreed – travel, they claimed, showed that not other people’s customs, but our own, are ridiculous.
Thus, the imaginary travel story, first successfully published by Montesquieu, became the favorite form of satire for the eighteenth century. His method was simple. Montesquieu’s book of travel professes to be written by two Persians, Rica and Uzbek, who are visiting France. They write home and, in the course of their letters, manage to depict as extraordinary all the customs which seem quite natural to Frenchmen. The book starts by asking why it seems so obvious to Europeans for men to wear trousers, when in Persia they are worn only by women. With straight faces, they make fun of the conventional aspects of social life at the time—the habits of dress, the ways of behavior, and the formalities of social life. He continues to progressively challenge all the accepted things of the time—how people have their hair cut and why they wear wigs—before moving the reader to ask themself more pertinent questions.
Only then can Montesquieu expose more consequential practices of his society, such as doctrinal issues of contemporary religions, to the same type of questioning. If put on the first page, this would have been sure to make the unsympathetic reader close the book, yet instead the Persian Letters enjoyed a great popularity. Montesquieu’s work was perfectly calculated to appeal to the polite, urbane, and sophisticated members of French society. As a result, the book soon had many imitators.
Adapted from “The Western Intellectual Tradition” by J. Bronowski and B. Mazlish. Published by Harper Perennial. 1962.
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