Persian Letter Series: Letter 115 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the twentieth 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 115:

It was not the same with the Romans.  The republic used its slave population to incalculable advantage.  Each slave was given an allowance, which he had on the conditions imposed by his master:  he used it to work with, taking up whatever his own abilities suggested.  One would go in for banking, another for shipping, one became a retailer, another applied himself to a technical trade, or farmed out lands and improved them; but there was no one who failed to do everything he could to make a profit from his allowance, which both made him comfortable while he remained a slave, and assured him of freedom in the future: this made for a hard-working population and stimulated industrial and technical skills.

These slaves, who had become rich by hard work and application, were made freemen and became citizens.  The republic constantly renewed itself, allowing new families in as the old ones were destroyed.

In the following letters I shall perhaps take the opportunity to prove to you that the more men there are in a state, the more trade flourishes; the two things are interdependent and provide mutual stimulus.

If this is so, how great an increase there was bound to be in this huge number of slaves, always working hard!  Industriousness and affluence produced them, and they in turn produced affluence and industriousness.

Comments on the excerpt above:

British East India Company FlagSlavery comes in many forms and invokes an array of thoughts amongst different people.  If you asked 100 people in America about their thoughts on slavery, you’d probably get 100 different accounts of what it means to them.  Many people in America might tell you about the British East India Company or the Dutch West India Company that were responsible for most of the slaves brought to North America, Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and South America because that’s what Americans relate to with regard to our geographic location and our short 235 year history as a nation.

Slavery, however, has been around since before recorded history began, is alive today, and probably will continue to exist into the future as we can see it.  Worldwide, there are more slaves today in 2011 than there have ever been in recorded history.  By percentage of people, slavery has diminished, but by sheer numbers, there are more slaves in the world today.  This post is not written to argue which slaves from what time period had it worse, its purpose is to talk about the economics of slavery and the morality of man.   In the passage above, Montesquieu is setting up for an entire discourse on the ills of slavery and this passage sets up his argument that men should be free from slavery for a healthier economy by way of a healthy society.

This particular Montesquieu excerpt brings to mind a movie called The Matrix which was written by Larry and Andy Wachowski.  Authors like the Wachowski brothers and Philip K. Dick are extraordinary presenters on the dynamics of human societies.  They are right brain artist/creative types and even though many people would not think of them as economists, their interpretations of socio-economic dynamics are absolutely fascinating regarding the interconnectivity between society and economy and the whole spectrum of variables between the two that affect one another.  The reason the machines in the movie created the Matrix was to give the people a purpose and a fabricated sense of freedom to choose their own destiny, which in turn kept the entire population working and prospering.  Whether you’d say these slaves had it bad off is a moral judgement that is moot to the machines, because to them, their system worked.  The working class of people, if happy and free, turned their labor into more prosperity for the society which is exactly what the machines wanted.  The people were only slaves depending on your frame of reference; in their own minds they were free.  Win win?

In The Matrix, there’s a scene where the protagonist is told that unbeknownst to him (at the 2:37 mark in the clip above) he’d been born into indentured servitude.   He had thought he was a free man through his entire life, but in reality he was nothing of the sort.  Not to go into too much detail about the movie here, but the point is that even though the protagonist was living what he thought was a normal life, he was slave.  He felt free: he had a name, he had a job, he earned money, and he lived his life to the best of his ability.  The society he lived in was functioning but there was a general malaise on the society and his psyche and he just couldn’t articulate what it was.

In this excerpt from letter #115, the slave wage Montesquieu’s referring to was called: peculium.  In Roman law, peculium was the master’s property, but used by the slave for his own enterprises; which were sometimes on a large scale.  So even though the slave operated in the society with capitalistic intentions, he was not even close to being part of the ruling class; and in fact never could be.  This interesting paradox can be confounding to tea-partiers, anti-capitalists, and conspiracy theorists alike; because, it is pretty easy to draw a parallel between the Roman slave class and the American middle class in that you’re free to make your own decisions on how to use your peculium as long as you bust your ass servicing your debt and the nation’s debt.  And, by the time you’re done paying off your debts, you’ll be free too.  But, you’re also a lot older and the most vibrant years of your life have passed you by.  It’s confounding to some when they come to realize they’ve been born into a caste that doesn’t have it as easy as another.  And, the only way to advance their caste is through the value creation that labor and ingenuity, the mother and father of wealth, can produce.

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