This is the tenth post in a series of posts examining excerpts from Charles Montesquieu’s book Persian Letters. Each post in this series examines a selected excerpt for study and discussion. The following is an excerpt from Letter 48:
‘We have a maxim in France,’ he replied, ‘never to give high rank to officers who have spent their time patiently waiting in junior positions. We consider that they will become narrow-minded by attention to detail, and that, because they are accustomed to little things, they will have become incapable of anything greater. We believe that if at the age of thirty a man does not possess the qualities required of a general, he will never possess them; that the man who lacks the vision to imagine a battlefield several leagues in extent in its different aspects, and who lacks the presence of mind to use every advantage in victory and every resource in defeat, will never acquire these talents. It is for this reason that we have positions of preeminence for the sublimely great men to whom Heaven has granted the heart, as well as the ability, of a hero, and subordinate posts for those whose talents are subordinate too. Among them we include men who have grown old in unimportant wars; they will succeed, at best, only in what they have been doing all their lives; they should not be overburdened when they are beginning to weaken.
This is a great passage. It should resonate with anyone who’s over 30 years of age. With insights like this one, it stands to reason why France was a key player in the period of history called the enlightenment. It is also easy to see what Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many of the founding fathers of this country admired about our French ally across the sea and Montesquieu in particular. A brain like Montesquieu’s just doesn’t come along all that often. Montesquieu is the man that would later come up with the separation of power style of government the United States Constitution is patterned after and is why I call the Baron: The Father of Sociology. It’s no wonder our founding fathers would pay attention to such sage consul like that of Montesquieu’s.
Another interesting thing about this passage is how it applies to business and the climbing of the corporate ladder. Working in Detroit, we get a good glimpse of Japan and understand the Japanese people as our business ally and competitor in the auto industry. The Japanese have an adage: business is war. And in that regard, this quote can be held parallel to key corporate positions that require the greatest of strategists. Again, if a man has not exhibited the skills or character necessary to run a company or lurks in a junior position past 30 years of age trying to capture an executive position later in life, he’s often looked over. It’s a brilliant coining of an axiom, you’ve seen it a hundred times.