Persian Letter Series: Letter 95 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the sixteenth 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 95:

There are only two cases in which a war is just:  first, in order to resist the aggression of an enemy, and second, in order to help an ally who has been attacked.

…Conquest itself confers no rights.  If the population survives, conquest provides assurance that peace will be maintained and that amends will be made for the wrong that had been committed; and if the population is destroyed, or scattered, it is a monument to tyranny.

Men regard peace treaties with such veneration that they might almost be the voice of nature claiming its rights.  They are all in accordance with law if their provisions permit both nations to continue in existence; if not, the one which is threatened with extinction may try, since it is deprived of its natural defence by a treaty of peace, to defend itself in war.

For nature, which has established the different degrees of power and weakness among men, has also often made the weak equal to the powerful through the strength of their despair.

This, Rhedi, is what I call international law; this is the law of nations, or rather of reason.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Aristotle and his student, Plato.This is an example of a prelude to Of the Spirit of Laws.  The only laws written by men that can truly describe natural law are those written mathematically that can be proven mathematically.  Only a great advance in mathematics or physics can trickle itself down to advances in manmade common law or societal law.  Montesquieu, whose time followed the mathematical advances put forth by Newton, was able to make an advance in social science in Newton’s wake.  People like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein only come around every century or two. They allow us to contemplate their mathematical genius and subsequently make a true step forward in social science.  For in the 18th century, it was reason and common sense that was used to fight tyranny and give birth to the United States of America.  The suffering of the people of France under the tyranny of Louis XIV gave a common purpose to the people to band together and use reason to fight tyranny in that country as well.  It was these free thinkers in the age of reason that helped the religiously persecuted people escape to America in the hopes that they could have freedom of religion.   This is why France and the United States were such strong allies in the latter part of the 18th century.

While I don’t agree with Karl Marx’s communistic solution to capitalism, it is certainly hard to see anything but genius in his case by case examples of the conflicts between the bourgeois and the proletariat.  As Montesquieu said, nature has established the different degrees of power amongst men.  As Marx has said, those differences among men that allow power to concentrate in the hands of the few are eventually undone by the proletariat’s loss of hope.  When a man is stripped of his natural human rights by the tyranny of other men, he has nothing to lose.  When he has nothing to lose and he is in the majority of the population, he will look to his fellow citizens for support and they will band together.  Together, they will always overcome the injustice of the ignoble men in power; even though the process may take generations.  I don’t believe anyone could argue Marx’s take on the bourgeois versus the proletariat in this regard.  This is how countries fracture into civil war.  This is how multiple countries that are oppressed by one country band together to fight the ignoble.

A good example of what I’m talking about today is Syria.  Today is August 14, 2011.  Damascus, which was once the intellectual capital of the world, has been oppressed by the Assad family for so many years.  The people of Syria have zero hope that they can live free from the tyranny of the Assad family.  When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.  Why not give your life to fight for the cause of your freedom from tyranny?   This is nature at work, it’s happened again and again throughout the course of history; regardless of the ‘ism’ you may try to attach at the end of your description of the society.

We have had time to contemplate the mathematical leap forward that Einstein has given us.  What have we learned?  How have we moved forward?  Perhaps an advance will come one day to our kind that will give us the grace to relegate war to antiquity.  Simply, we need to understand when the natural separation of power amongst men has run amok and power has concentrated amongst too small a percentage of the population.  The key to this, I believe, is to follow the tenets of Montesquieu’s teachings and always look to separate power.  Man’s natural tendency is to covet power.  It is up to the law to separate power so that no one man or small group of men can have too much power.  Remember what Lord Acton taught us:  power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.   And, we all know, corruption in the highest halls of the sovereign leads to rebellion, revolt, and destruction of the republic.

. . . and further, it is part [of the nature of tyranny] to strive to see that all the affairs of the tyrant are secret, but that nothing is kept hidden of what any subject says or does, rather everywhere he will be spied upon . . . . Also it is part of these tyrannical measures to impoverish the nation so as to bolster the funds available for military defense, and so that the common citizens will be occupied with earning their livelihood and will have neither leisure nor opportunity to engage in conspiratorial acts . . . . Thus, the tyrant is inclined constantly to foment wars in order to preserve his own monopoly of power.

Aristotle, Politics bk v, xi (350 BCE)

Persian Letter Series: Letter 85 – Usbek to Mirza, at Isfahan

This is the fifteenth 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 85:

The persecutions that our Muslim zealots have inflicted on the Gabars have forced large numbers of them to emigrate to India, causing Persia to lose a nation which was dedicated to agriculture: they were the only people capable of doing the work necessary to overcome the sterility of our soil.

All that the zealots needed to do was to strike a second blow and wreck our industry, thus ensuring that the empire fell of its own accord, and with it, by an inevitable consequence, that same religion whose growth it was intended to grow so vigorously.

Assuming that we should reason without prejudice, Mirza, I think that it is just as well for there to be several religions within a state.

…I admit that the history books are full of religious wars; but it should be carefully noted that these wars were not produced by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance, urging on the one which believed itself to be dominant.

Comments on the excerpt above:

The Prophet Zoroaster from Ancient PersiaThis is perhaps one of Montesquieu’s most straightforward ways of saying that there should be freedom of religion and religious tolerance.  Freedom to choose your religion and practice it without fear of persecution is what the founding fathers really took from Montesquieu and something we should all be thankful for and never forget.  Thank God that Thomas Jefferson appreciated the contributions of the French to the enlightenment.

Another thing to note here, is where Adam Smith took a Montesquieu idea and ran with it.  It has often been said that the best fertilizer is hard work.  When Montesquieu points out that Muslim zealotry chased the Gabars out of Persia, he’s pointing out two things:  one, that hard work is the best fertilizer of the soil, and two, the fall of the Persian Empire was borne of religious intolerance.  This is a very important point:  without religious tolerance, any empire will fall.

Please contemplate the last sentence of this excerpt with care.  I think this is a point overlooked by most people in America today, but a point that was well understood by our founding fathers.  It’s not religions that cause the wars, it’s the spirit of intolerance that does.  Stop.  Think about that.  I will write it again:  it’s not religions that cause the wars, it’s the spirit of intolerance that does.  Throughout my life I have heard that religion has caused more wars than anything else and I accepted it.  It took reading this book to flip it around and really make me think.   It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or any other religion as long as you’re tolerant of your neighbor and everyone acts in accordance with the laws of the society.  Remember that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all lived together in harmony in Jerusalem for centuries before the savagery of the crusades.  It can happen again if we raise our children to be tolerant.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 61 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the fourteenth 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 61:

The other day I visited a famous church called Norte-Dame.  While I was admiring the magnificence of the building I happened to get into conversation with a clergyman who like me had been brought there by curiosity.  The conversation fell upon the tranquility of his calling. ‘Most people,’ he said ‘envy our pleasant life, and they are right.  However, it has its disagreeable side.  We are not so cut off from the outside world that we do not have to appear there on countless occasions, and we have a very difficult role to play.  Worldly people are extraordinary.  Whether we approve them or condemn them, they find both equally unacceptable.  If we try to reform them, they consider us absurd, and if we give them our approval they regard us as unworthy of our position.  Nothing is more humiliating than the thought of having shocked the unbelievers.  We are therefore obliged to adopt an equivocal approach, and impress the libertines not by the firmness of our attitude, but by leaving them uncertain of our reaction to what they say.  It requires great ingenuity.  This state of neutrality is difficult: people on the outside world take a chance on anything, and say whatever comes into their heads; according to how it is received, they follow it up or let it go, and succeed much better.’

Comments on the excerpt above:

Notre Dame Cathedral in ParisThis is why Montesquieu begins the enlightenment and has inspired so much thought.  Many people have given thought to what they think ‘libertins’ means in French and I will agree with C.J. Betts and tell you I think that libertines in English means free-thinkers.

So what is he saying?  He’s saying that the priest at Notre Dame is no dummy.  He understands that the complexities of religion get even more complex when confronted by the outside world.  He must accept them and rise above them; again, the serenity prayer.  He’s saying that Ricky Gervais or Richard Dawkins is just as much a religious zealot as the guy who webmasters an apologist website.

There are so many interesting world views out there from some smart and interesting people.  If you study Max Weber you’ll learn that the complex and significant moments of history can be explained as anarchy and chance and could change the course of history.  But then, paradoxically, he’ll tell you that the same thing would have happened to society even if different players were involved.  If you study Ernest Gellner, you’ll understand how capitalism has pierced the armor of most every society on the planet.  If you study Gellner, you’ll learn more about the ugly underbelly of communism than from anyone else.  Capitalism cracked the Soviet Union in 1989 and is even on the rise in China as the shadow of Chairman Mao is receding.  The only closed society left is that of Islam; and, with the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, who knows if that weight that oppresses those societies is beginning to fracture as well.  My point is that with so many staunch viewpoints out there, it only seems possible that an egalitarian society with all men being tolerant of other religions and acting with humility is the way toward peace, prosperity, and civility.  Since it was Montesquieu writing the passage above, you can endow the priest with Montesquieu’s own intelligence and see that this priest, in my opinion, has “figured it out”.  I really like learning from Weber, Gellner, and Tocqueville, but I think we just keep rehashing the same things and same arguments and if we really look at things deeply, Montesquieu has really given us pretty much everything we need to employ in order to have a more peaceful and sophisticated society.

Regarding Weber and societies that espouse Christian values, I often wonder: what if Constantine had never seen that meteor?  Or who really knows what Constantine saw that day, it could have been a meteor, it could have been a UFO, it doesn’t matter; whatever he saw before battle that day changed him.  That moment inspired him to change his religion, summon a meeting, and publish a book.  But, it doesn’t matter.  Even if you could convert the whole world to one religion without bloodshed it would last but the blink of an eye; religions always speciate.  Do you find irony in the fact that one of the best demonstrations of evolution is religion itself?

I think the point is not to have everyone try to believe the same thing as much as it is to have everyone be tolerant of everyone else regardless of their religion.  The laws of society should be taken from the fundamental tenets that every religion has at its root; and then the arguing begins again.  Humans are a complex breed; I think this is why I’m so drawn toward mathematics even though sociology fascinates me.  I think I will do my best to live like the priest from Notre-Dame in the excerpt above.