Persian Letter Series: Letter 59 – Rica to Usbek, at ***

This is the twelfth 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 59:

It seems to me, Usbek, that all our judgments are made with reference covertly to ourselves, I do not find it surprising that the negroes paint the devil sparkling white, and their gods black as coal, or that certain tribes have a Venus with her breasts hanging down to her thighs, or in brief that all the idolatrous peoples represent their gods with human faces, and endow them with all their own impulses.  It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the MoonAnthropocentrism has been promulgated by all the major religious codices; therefore it’s rampant, dutifully accepted, and honored.  That’s why when you read “It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.” you can’t help but see the brilliance in such a sentence.  You might be okay with thinking that man has dominion over this planet – your religious codex might say so.  But who wrote your codex?  Man did.   Of course you will say that God dictated to man what to write as if man was acting merely as secretary taking dictation; and you will say that that’s perfectly rational.  Yet if I told you that God has spoken to me and has told me to write this, you will be quick to tell me that I’m crazy.

So what of anthropocentrism?  I can’t think of a more bunk or disgusting display of human arrogance.  Be proud, that’s a wonderful thing and you deserve it.  But, do not tread on the shark, or the crocodile, or the birds, or the bees, or the plants that have been here for millions of years before you.  They were here before your codex was written and will most likely be here long after our race has become extinct.  Tread on them at least with deference and remember that they do not need you to survive but you most assuredly need them.  Humility and tolerance should be our goals if we’re to give true deference to God.

I just watched the movie Avatar again and was reminded how great it was.  I still can’t believe that The Hurt Locker won the academy award for best picture.  Avatar makes a powerful argument for deference toward nature and humility amongst men and I love the movie for that.  I think I would like James Cameron and think he made one hell of a movie there.  I should also say that this passage from Persian Letters is my absolute favorite.  I cannot think of a more brilliant sentence than: It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.  Once again, can you blame the founding fathers for patterning the U.S. Constitution off of the brilliance of Montesquieu’s writings?

Out of respect to the father of sociology, here is the same sentence in Montesquieu’s own words: On a dit fort bien que si les triangles faisoient un dieu, ils lui donneroient trois côtés.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 50 – Rica to ***

This is the eleventh 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 50:

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, and 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!

Comments on the excerpt above:

Caravaggio by Michelangelo 1594-1596This quote is funny and an affirmation that our species has not changed much in the thousands of years of recorded history.  How often have you heard people go on incessantly about themselves?  Are they honestly expecting that you should be as interested in them as they are in themselves?  Here’s one for you:  you’re only as cool as other people say you are.   As soon as you start talking about how cool you are, you’ve lost me. While we’ve all gloated before to a certain extant, I’m sure you can think of a person or persons that represent more egregious examples of this behavior.

A fallacy elders like to promote is that only the young of the current generation exemplify this behavior (i.e. the ‘facebook generation’ is more conceited than Gen X or the Baby Boomers and so on).  But, that’s the great thing about studying history: when you look back and see what has changed and what hasn’t, you are reminded that this behavior has been in the human DNA since recorded history began, likely well before that, and will likely be around for as long as we can imagine.

The painting above was painted between 1594 and 1596.  The excerpt from Persian Letters above, was written in 1713.  Tom Brokaw’s book is titled Greatest Generation, do you see the irony?  My dad just sent me a long drawn out chain mail that was about how great his generation was by contrasting their lives without cell phones and drinking from hoses and what not to the current generation, it keeps getting forwarded, do you see the irony?

Perhaps the greatest generation will be the one that keeps their mouths shut, keeps their heads up, keeps their noses to the grindstone, reads history with vigor, promotes tolerance and philanthropy, and eschews any praise for doing what they consider their civil duty.