Montesquieu's Letter On Conceited Talkers

"Everywhere I see people who talk continually about themselves. Their conversation is a mirror which always shows their own conceited faces. They will talk to you about the tiniest events in their lives, which they expect to be magnified in your eyes by the interest that they themselves take in them."

--- Montesquieu, in a letter to a friend, 1713

Montesquieu is remembered today primarily for his Of the Spirit of Laws, but his first book, Persian Letters, offers many insightful passages and flashes of wit and humor. The following is Letter 50 of that volume, translated by C.J. Betts (1973).

I have seen people in whom virtue was so natural that it was not even noticeable; they followed their duty without forcing themselves, performing it as if by instinct. Far from drawing attention to their unusual qualities by talking about them, it seemed as if the knowledge of these qualities had not penetrated to them. That is the sort of person I like, not these virtuous people who seem amazed by it, and who regard a good action as a remarkable phenomenon which must cause surprise when they tell of it.

If it is necessary for those to whom Heaven has given great talents to possess the virtue of modesty, what can one say of these insects who have the effrontery to display the kind of pride that would be dishonourable in the greatest of men?

Everywhere I see people who talk continually about themselves. Their conversation is a mirror which always shows their own conceited faces. They will talk to you about the tiniest events in their lives, which they expect to be magnified in your eyes by the interest that they themselves take in them. They have done everything, seen everything, said everything, thought of everything. They are a universal pattern, the subject of unending comparisons, an inexhaustible fount of examples. Oh, how empty is praise when it reflects back to its origin!

Some days ago a man of this character wore us down for two hours with himself, his merits and his talents; but as there is no such thing as perpetual motion in the world, he stopped talking. The conversation was therefore ours again, and we took it.

A man with a rather gloomy expression began by complaining of the boredom that prevails in conversation. "Really! will we never have anything but those fools whose conversation is a self-portrait, and who relate everything to themselves?"

"You are right," the prattler abruptly resumed, "they should do as I do. I never boast, I am well off, of good family, I am not mean, my friends say that I am not without intelligence; but I never mention all this: if I have any good qualities, the one I esteem most highly is my modesty."

I wondered at the fatuity of this man, and as he loudly continued I murmured: "Happy is he who has enough vanity never to speak well of himself, who fears his listeners, and does not put his merits at risk from other people's pride!"

 

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