Persian Letter Series: Letter 117 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the twenty first 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 117:

Protestant countries ought to be, and are in reality, more populous than Catholic ones.  It follows, first, that revenue from taxes is higher, because it increases proportionately to the number of taxpayers; second that the land is better cultivated; third, that business is in a more flourishing state, because there are more people with their fortunes to make, and because, although their needs are greater, there are also more resources.  When the number of people is only enough for the cultivation of the land, trade inevitably collapses, and when there are only enough for the maintenance of trade, agriculture is inevitably ruined; which means that both decay together, since a man cannot engage in one except at the expense of another.

As for the Catholic countries, not only has agriculture been abandoned, but industriousness itself is harmful: it consists only in learning five or six words of a dead language.  As soon as a man has equipped himself in this way, he no longer needs to trouble about his career; in a monastery, he can have a quiet life which he would have sweated and labored to achieve in the outside world.

This is not all.  The dervishes have almost all the wealth of the nation in their hands.  They form a society of miser, constantly acquiring and never giving  back; they accumulate income all the time so as to build up capital.  All this wealth becomes paralyzed; it no longer circulates, and there is no more commercial, cultural or industrial activity.

There is not a single Protestant ruler who does not raise more taxes from his people than the pope from his subjects; yet the latter are poor, while the former live in opulence.  With them, commerce brings everything to life, while with the others monasticism carries death with it everywhere.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Montesquieu uses Catholicism and Protestantism to draw contrast between two starkly different socio-economic groups existing in 1718; roughly 200 years after the Reformation had begun.  At first glance, it might seem the author is implying religion itself is the sole reason for these socio-economic differences.  This is not, however, entirely true.  Montesquieu was the first to use structuralism, comparative models, and ideal types in his sociological analysis.  This means that he’s always making comparisons between things by taking *all things* into account.  A true sociologist, anthropologist, or economist will never look at things in black in white, he’ll try to, holistically, see *all things* in their full color and take into account the entire complexity of the situation.  Also, Montesquieu was a Catholic and he married a Protestant, so please don’t incorrectly assume he’s picking on Catholicism; he’s just making honest and objective observations of the world around him.

The reason one society has a flourishing economy and one society is failing has religion only as one component of a bigger equation.  The Catholic Church is not necessarily at fault for the socio-economic decay across their demesne, but the socio-economic dynamic across the Catholic demesne around the Mediterranean countries (Southern France, Spain, and Italy) does offer a well defined example of what happens when the society’s wealth is trapped by a few misers in power.  The bishops and deacons of the church had acquired such a disproportionate amount of wealth and power over the last fifteen centuries they had become corrupt.  The corruption of their actions was harder and harder to conceal.

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