Persian Letter Series: Letter 35 – Usbek to Jemshid, his cousin, a dervish at the illustrious monastery of Tabriz

This is the sixth 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 35:

Whatever you do, truth will always emerge, shining through the darkness which surrounds it.  A day will come when the Eternal will see only the true believers on the earth; time, which consumes all things, will destroy error itself; all men will see with amazement that they are under the same flag; everything, even the Law, will be accomplished: the sacred books will be removed from the earth, and carried away to the celestial archives.

Comments on the excerpt above:

This passage speaks louder knowing that Montesquieu had studied the Koran.  Yes, the man that was most influential upon the writers of the U.S. Constitution was more knowledgeable about the Koran than 99% of all non-Muslim Americans in 2011.   Don’t you find that interesting?

His point here is that regardless of your religion, there is a truth or natural law that we are all bound to. Trying to suppress the truth is foolish.

All of the founding fathers of the United States of America sought the truth and wanted liberty to pursue it.  They learned from Montesquieu that the separation of powers amongst men and man’s freedom to choose his religion and be tolerant of others was necessary to write the constitution of a great republic.  Adhering to a well thought out constitution was our best chance to give our children the opportunity to learn the truth by way of liberty.  A constitution that could evolve at the same speed as man was what they wrote.  But, republics of any constitution face a dangerous enemy: greed.  Monopoly of power is an ugly byproduct of the disease called greed.   Like a living organism, as the monopoly of power gathers momentum in smalls circles of men, it tries to cast a shadow on truth.  And man’s greed might be strong enough to kill even a great republic, but the truth can never be held down for long.

Mann tracht, Gott lought

Man plans, God laughs (translation)

          -Yiddish proverb

Persian Letter Series: Letter 29 – Rica to Ibben, at Smryna

This is the fifth post in a series of posts examining excerpts of Charles Montesquieu’s book Persian Letters.  Each post in this series examines a selected excerpt for study and discussion.  The following are excerpts from Letter 29:

The Pope is the chief of the Christians; he is an ancient idol, worshipped now from habit.  Once he was formidable even to princes, for he would depose them as easily as our magnificent sultans depose the kings of Iremetia or Georgia.  But nobody fears him any longer.  He claims to be the successor of one of the earliest Christians, called Saint Peter, and it is certainly a rich succession, for his treasure is immense and he has a great country under his control.

…Those who bring out some new proposition are immediately declared heretics.  Each heresy has its name, which those who are committed to it serves as a password.  But nobody is a heretic against his will: all he has to do is split the difference of opinion into two halves, and provide a distinction for those who accuse him of heresy, and whatever that distinction may be, intelligible or not, it makes a man as white as snow, and he can have himself declared orthodox.

What I say applies to France and Germany; for I have heard that in Spain and Portugal there are certain dervishes who cannot see a joke, and who burn a man as they would straw.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Gallancinism and the French ChurchAn attitude of independence toward Rome was traditional in the French church.  It was called Gallicanism and had been encouraged by Louis XIV.  This passage gives some sort of affirmation of the invisible line mentioned in the previous post in this series.  If you were north of the of this invisible line, i.e. Northern France, England, or Germany, you could get away with mocking the Catholic Church or the Pope a little better than you could to the south of it.  As he says, mocking the church south of the line could get you burned at the stake (this is no joke, you could be killed).  The inquisitors could take you in the middle of the night to Spain or Italy and tie you to a post and burn you to death for something as trivial as a disparaging remark about the Catholic church.  Could there be a more shocking example of man’s propensity toward authoritarianism?  Blaspheming God while pretending to be one of God’s most esteemed servants; all while serving death as a sentence in God’s name ?!?!?  Never forget!

This post is also a good example of the subtle outward hypocrisy of authoritarianism and the greed of man at odds:  the highest authority in the country of France, Louis XIV, who has everything under the sun as his demesne of the crown, still encourages his disdain upward on the totem toward the Pope out of regular old jealousy for his slightly higher authority position.  When will men learn humility?  This is a classic case of how money cannot buy you happiness.  To contemplate your death served as a whim at the hands of such an ignoble king or any other man is scary thing indeed.

The Pope being an ancient idol is an interesting statement too, but not as much as when he says he’s the successor of Saint Peter.   The Pontifex Maximus (i.e. the Pope) had been around long before there were scriptures mentioning Jesus Christ.  The Pope was the high priest of Jupiter long before the New Testament was published in any language.  That shouldn’t matter to you though, because as long as we’re tolerant of all religions, the point should be moot.  In fact, Julius Caesar was once the Pontifex Maximus as I posted about here.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 24 – Rica to Ibben, At Smyrna

This is the fourth post in a series of posts examining excerpts of 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 24:

Moreover, this king is a great magician.  He exerts authority even over the minds of his subjects; he makes them think what he wants.  If there are only a million crowns in the exchequer, and he needs two million, all he has to do is persuade them that one crown is worth two, and they believe it.  If he is involved in a difficult war without any money, all he has to do is get it in their heads that a piece of paper will do for money, and they are immediately convinced of it.  He even succeeds in making them believe that he can cure them of all sorts of diseases by touching them, such is the force and power that he has over their minds.

You must not be amazed at what I tell you about this prince: there is another magician, stronger than he, who controls his mind as completely as he controls other people’s.  This magician is called the Pope.  He will make the king believe that three are only one, or else that the bread one eats is not bread, or the wine one drinks not wine, and a thousand other things of the same kind.

Comments on the excerpt above:

In the first paragraph above, Montesquieu is talking about the introduction of paper money.  There was much manipulation of the currency when paper was introduced and this was what Montesquieu was referring to (a lot has changed right?).  If you have interest in understanding the history of money or how it works, check out my economics site titled Corn & Silver where I review Adam Smith’s work in detail.  I find irony here in Montesquieu’s view as compared to Smith’s because paper is no different than gold in this sense:  both only have value that is assigned by man.  Montesquieu even mentions as much later in the book which would make this statement seem somewhat inconsistent.  I cannot recall if I highlighted that passage later in the book, but I probably did because I’m fascinated by ways in which people manipulate money to harm their fellow man under the guise of acting with magnanimity.

The final remark in the first paragraph is about Scrofula (king’s-evil) that could be supposedly cured by being touched by the king.  Try to imagine someone like Ricky Gervais having the freedom and autonomy he has today doing stand-up comedy in the early 1700’s.

The second paragraph in the above excerpt is perhaps one of Montesquieu’s most audacious pokes at the expense of orthodoxy.  The beliefs inculcated by the Pope, that he is poking fun at, are the doctrines of the Trinity and Transubstantiation.  This was the time of the Reformation and there was an invisible line (in my mind anyway) that divided Northern Europe and Southern Europe between traditional Germanic Law in the North and traditional Roman Law in the South*.  As the two strands of Christianity at this time, Protestantism and Catholicism, separated along this invisible line, the pokes made at each other could spark some righteous violence.

I believe Montesquieu’s disdain for religious rituals was trumped big time by his belief that regardless of religion we must find tolerance for others who have different religions than our own.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 19 – Usbek To His Friend Rustan, At Isfahan

This is the third post in a series of posts examining excerpts of 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 19:

We spent only eight days at Tokat; after thirty-five days’ travel we arrived at Smyrna.  Between Tokat and Smyrna there is not a single town worth mentioning.  I was amazed to see the weakness of the Ottoman Empire.  It is a diseased body, preserved not by gentle and moderate treatment, but by violent remedies which ceaselessly fatigue and undermine it.

…These barbarians have paid so little attention to technical knowledge that they have even neglected the art of war.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Adam Smith wrote “The art of war is the most complex and noble of all the arts”.  Like Smith, Montesquieu had studied the history of the Greeks and the Romans extensively.   When you look back through Greek times or Roman times or any period of human history you see war and peace come and go like the ebb and flow of the tide.  I think what Smith meant about the art of war being the most complex art was that in order have a chance at peace, you would have to master the art of war; such a diabolical art form for certain.

There are those that are in want of peace that neglect the art of war in hopes that war will go away if they hope hard enough.  People who hope for peace while neglecting the art of war are either extirpated or become subjugated to new authority; which again emphasizes the complex nature of war.  While advances in technology have certainly changed how wars are fought today, here’s a truth proposed by history:  if your Campus Martius is weak or falls into disrepair, your sovereign will soon be crushed.

History has taught us that want of peace or want of war do not change the inevitability that there will always be times of peace and times of war; this is human nature from a realistic and observable point of view.  Smith told us that fatigue of war leads to peace, and the indolence of peace leads to war; most likely through the speciation of religion and people’s intolerance of religions other than their own.  You can count on these things with history as your guide.  It was Plato who said “only the dead have seen the end of war”.  Who are we to argue with Plato?

As Montesquieu is pointing out here, the Ottoman Empire’s indolence and sloth led them to neglect the art of war.  This was about the period of time when the Ottoman Empire was falling into stagnation and reform.  Like all Empires, the hallmark of impending decline is, ironically, the height of success.  Factions of the Ottoman Empire were constantly infighting [i.e. speciating] and trying to establish administrative initiatives they could not afford.  This downward momentum was too much to bear at the turn of the 18th century and the Ottoman Empire was in its dénouement.  The Ottoman Empire was in essence over at this point.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy

-John Adams