A 13th-Century Persian poet’s lessons for today

Although Sa’di wrote in the Golestan that it was the first book he penned after breaking his vow of silence, the Bustan actually precedes it by a year. Alternatively known as the Sa’di Nameh (Book of Sa’di), it is a book of poetry divided into 10 chapters. The Golestan, on the other hand, is a book of prose punctuated at times by poetry, and consists of eight chapters dealing with similar topics. Both were written under the patronage of the Salghurid rulers of Shiraz (the poet’s nom de plume is a homage to the dynasty, whose name was Sa’d), and in many cases Sa’di discusses the proper conduct for kings and ministers; but, unlike the 11th-Century Ghabus Nameh (Book of Ghabus), they are not directed solely at rulers-to-be. “The Golestan and Bustanare meant as mirrors for everyone,” says Davis. “They are part of a long tradition of homily/advice/how-to-live/what-to-do literature in Persian.”

In the Bustan, Sa’di expounds on subjects like contentment, gratitude, benevolence, and humility, while the Golestan contains stories about the morals of dervishes, the trials of old age, and contentment, again, among other subjects and numerous general maxims. Recurring themes can be found in both. According to Sa’di, it’s better to suffer from want than to beg and become indebted to someone else. He also says that we should be careful what we wish for, because we might find ourselves worse off; that before people accuse another, they should first take a look at themselves; that silence is golden; that spiritual wealth is superior to material wealth; and that fate trumps one’s will. Some of Sa’di’s views are rooted in religion, and he isn’t always what one would today call politically correct; but for the most part, his advice is timeless and far from being restricted to its medieval Iranian context.

Benevolent wisdom

Amongst the first Persian poets to achieve renown in Europe, Sa’di had a marked influence on Enlightenment and Romantic writers in France and elsewhere, such as Voltaire, Diderot, Goethe, and Victor Hugo, who quoted some of the Golestan’s introductory passages regarding the garden story in the epigraph of Les Orientales. And, while Voltaire jokingly attributed the preface to the tale of his Zoroastrian hero Zadig to Sa’di, the poet’s presence in this major work was more than superficial. “The model king of Serendip, his vizier, the perfect society, are all modelled closely on Sa’di… The anticlericalism and criticism of human egotism, too, recall the Persian poet,” writes Dr Mozaffar Bekhrad in his book The Literary Fortunes of Sa’di in France. “In Sa’di, Voltaire found a true guide to philosophy,”, he remarks, to the extent that “his arch enemy, Élie Fréron, began to use ‘Sa’di’ as a sobriquet for Voltaire in critical attacks”.

In the US, Sa’di greatly inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his eponymous poem in praise of the poet (Saadi), Emerson called Sa’di “the cheerer of men’s hearts”, and commented on the universal appeal of his “benevolent wisdom”: “Through his Persian dialect,” wrote Emerson in his introduction to Francis Gladwin’s translation of the Golestan, “he speaks to all nations, and, like Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne, is perpetually modern”. It is perhaps for this reason that in the United Nations headquarters in New York there is a Persian carpet, embroidered with the famous verses from the Golestan concerning the unity of mankind, which Barack Obama quoted in his 2009 Iranian New Year message. “There was some awareness in that administration of Iranians’ love of poetry,” says author and political commentator Hooman Majd, “and the notion of speaking to the Iranian people in a respectful way was Obama’s. I imagine his speechwriters got the input from someone aware of the carpet”.

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