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.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 60 – Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna

This is the thirteenth 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 60:

Among the Christians as with the Muslims, the Jews display that invincibly stubborn religious conviction which verges on folly.  The Jewish religion is an aged tree-trunk which has covered the earth with the two branches that it has produced – Islam and Christianity; or rather, it is a mother who has given birth to two daughters, and they have inflicted a thousand wounds on her; for where religion is concerned, those most closely related are the greatest enemies.  But despite the bad treatment she has had from them, she still prides herself on having brought them forth.  Through them, she embraces the whole world; and similarly her venerable age embraces the whole of time.

…It is very desirable that the Muslims should take as sensible a view about the matter as the Christians; that we should make peace once and for all between Ali and Abu-Bekr, and leave it to God to decide between these holy prophets.  I should like them to be honoured by acts of veneration and respect, not by meaningless acts of favouritism, and I should like men to try to earn their approval whatever place God has assigned to them, on his right hand or beneath the steps of his throne.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Judaism, Christianity, and IslamMohammed Ali was the son-in-law of Mohammed and founded the Shiite form of Muslim belief adopted by the Persians; Abu-Bekr was Mohammed’s father-in-law and first successor, although the succession was disputed by Ali.  Abu-Bekr, together with Omar, the second successor, was followed by the Sunnites.   But, regardless of that, Montesquieu is just talking about religious tolerance here.  If you are a Christian or a Muslim, why would you ever be anti-Semitic?  Your religion descended from Judaism.  Why then would you not be able to find tolerance for those to whom you’re related?  Are we not all brothers?  If you are a Sunnite or Shiite, are you not both the brethren of the same prophet?

I will quote Martin Luther King again with the same quote I tend to invoke again and again:  “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

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.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 48 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice (excerpt B)

This is the tenth 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 48:

‘We have a maxim in France,’ he replied, ‘never to give high rank to officers who have spent their time patiently waiting in junior positions.  We consider that they will become narrow-minded by attention to detail, and that, because they are accustomed to little things, they will have become incapable of anything greater.  We believe that if at the age of thirty a man does not possess the qualities required of a general, he will never possess them; that the man who lacks the vision to imagine a battlefield several leagues in extent in its different aspects, and who lacks the presence of mind to use every advantage in victory and every resource in defeat, will never acquire these talents.  It is for this reason that we have positions of preeminence for the sublimely great men to whom Heaven has granted the heart, as well as the ability, of a hero, and subordinate posts for those whose talents are subordinate too.  Among them we include men who have grown old in unimportant wars; they will succeed, at best, only in what they have been doing all their lives; they should not be overburdened when they are beginning to weaken.

Anthony Van Dyck - Portrait of a Young GeneralThis is a great passage.  It should resonate with anyone who’s over 30 years of age.  With insights like this one, it stands to reason why France was a key player in the period of history called the enlightenment.  It is also easy to see what Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many of the founding fathers of this country admired about our French ally across the sea and Montesquieu in particular.  A brain like Montesquieu’s just doesn’t come along all that often. Montesquieu is the man that would later come up with the separation of power style of government the United States Constitution is patterned after and is why I call the Baron: The Father of Sociology.  It’s no wonder our founding fathers would pay attention to such sage consul like that of Montesquieu’s.

Another interesting thing about this passage is how it applies to business and the climbing of the corporate ladder.  Working in Detroit, we get a good glimpse of Japan and understand the Japanese people as our business ally and competitor in the auto industry.   The Japanese have an adage: business is war.  And in that regard, this quote can be held parallel to key corporate positions that require the greatest of strategists.  Again, if a man has not exhibited the skills or character necessary to run a company or lurks in a junior position past 30 years of age trying to capture an executive position later in life, he’s often looked over. It’s a brilliant coining of an axiom, you’ve seen it a hundred times.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 48 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice (excerpt A)

This is the ninth 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 48:

Those who enjoy learning are never idle.  Although I have not important business to do, I am nonetheless continually occupied.  I spend my life in inquiry.  In the evening, I write down what I have noticed, what I have seen or heard, during the day.  Everything interests me, everything surprises me: I am like a child, whose organs are still delicate, so that even the most trivial things make an impression on them.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Never let go of your childish intrigue

This quote is a little more light-hearted, it made me smile. I believe that Montesquieu envisioned himself as Usbek.  With that in mind, I thought this quote was really cool.  It gave me great pause.  I read it with a smile again and again and felt a connection to Montesquieu through this passage.

Ever since I can remember, I have felt the same way as Usbek.  I am in this passionate hurry to read and learn as much as I can before the sand runs out of the hour glass.  I’m compelled and driven to read of my favorite subjects.  I can’t read a book without my highlighter, pencil, and post-it flags.  I’m driven to write my thoughts down on the pages of my books as I read and contemplate things in my own way; to process them for myself and leave them for my children.

I should like that the excerpt above go on my tombstone and my kids understand that there can be nothing more satisfying in life than to spend it in inquiry making the best of what God has given to you.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 46 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the eighth 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 passage is Letter 46 in its entirety:

I observe that people here argue about religion interminably: but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.

Not only are they no better as Christians, they are not even better citizens, which is what affects me most: for, whatever  religion one may have, obedience to the laws, love of mankind, and respect for one’s parents are always the principal acts of religion.

For is it not the case that the chief concern of a religious man must be to please the Divinity who established the religion that he professes?  But the surest way to achieve this is certainly to observe the rules of society, and the duties of humanity.  For, whatever religion you may have, you must, immediately you suppose that there is a religion, suppose also that God loves mankind, since he founded a religion to make them happy; and if he loves mankind, you are certain to please him by loving them also; that is to say, in performing all the duties of charity and humanity towards them, and in not violating the laws under which they live.

In this way you are much more certain to please God than by carrying out some ceremony or other: for the ritual has no degree of goodness in itself; it is only good conditionally, on the supposition that God ordained it.  But this provides material for a great deal of discussion.  It is easy to be mistaken, for it is necessary to choose the ceremonies of one religion out of two thousand.

A man made this prayer to God everyday: ‘Lord, I cannot understand anything of the continual disputes about you: I should like to serve you according to your will, but everyone whom I consult wants me to serve you according to his.  When I want to pray to you, I do not know which language to speak to you in.  Nor do I know what posture I should adopt.  One man says I must pray standing up; another wants me to sit down; another insists that my body should be supported by my knees.  That is not all: there are some who claim that I must wash in cold water every morning; others affirm that you will regard me with abhorrence if I do not have a small piece of my flesh cut off.  The other day at caravanserai, I happened to eat a rabbit.  There were three men there who made me tremble:  all three maintained that I had gravely offended you; the first, because the animal was impure; the next, because it had been strangled; and the last because it was not a fish.  A Brahmin passing by, whom I appealed to as a judge, said: “They are wrong, since presumably you did not kill the animal yourself.”

“Yes I did,” I said.

“Ah! you have committed an abominable action, which God will never forgive,” he said in a severe voice; “how do you know that the soul of your father had not passed into that creature?”

‘All these things, Lord, put me in the most terrible quandary.  I cannot shake my head without being told that I risk offending you.  Yet I should like to please you and use the life that I received from you in order to do so.  I do not know if I’m mistaken, but I believe that the best way to manage it is to live as a good citizen in the society into which you caused me to be born, and be a good father to the family which you have given me.’

Comments on the excerpt above:

Church of ToleranceThis letter, in its entirety, is worthy of some reflection.  This letter represents some of those things that have not changed in mankind for millennia.  In today’s age, with the internet, you can learn about even more religions than the two thousand Montesquieu references.  One of the most interesting things about some religious folks is the ability to suspend logic for their particular faith while being logical and diligent in disposing of every other religion.  One example website out of literally thousands is the site bible.ca.  This site has information that disproves and discredits every religion you can think of except for the one professed by its webmaster.  While a man can hit the books for hours learning and understanding the history and faults of every religion under the sun, he can simultaneously eschew all logic when talking about the one he has chosen for himself; so much so that he is prepared to die or kill in the name of his conviction; but not just that! He’s also instigating the fight!

The most important thing for the constitution of the sovereign is to grant freedom of religion to all that fall under its umbrella.  The most important duty for a religious man is to grant tolerance to his fellow citizens regardless of the religion they have chosen.  We should look for common ground, as Montesquieu points out, between the fundamental tenets that all religions share.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 44 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the seventh 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 44:

Even the humblest workers argue over the merits of the trade they have chosen; everyone believes himself to be above someone else of a different calling, proportionately to the idea he has formed of the superiority of his own.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Humble Worker Pondering A Raise...

Okay, so after a couple of deep thoughts this one is a little closer to the surface. Have you ever noticed this behavior?  This is like a psyaxiom (link) that I have a post tag for.  People always believe themselves to be more important than the person they’re sitting next to.  Even at the most micro level you can see this.

Example:  there’s a guy who’s in his job that thinks he’s irreplaceable.  He thinks no one can do what he does because of how hard he works or how smart he is.  He or she always claims to do the work of two to three people.  Well, guess what?  you’re not that important.  If you can do it, someone else can do it.  That might wound the pride of a man, but it’s true.

After years of bitching, the guy finally leaves his job. He makes a call back to his co-workers fishing for the misery that’s overcome everybody now that he’s not there to do the work.  When he’s told that everything is fine, his tail tucks between his legs, he sulks & skulks, and doesn’t want to talk anymore.  Sorry guy, you’re only as special as the other 7 billion people living on this planet.  Get over yourself.

In this passage, I think Montesquieu is making this analogy to, for example, the baker versus the blacksmith.  But, it’s the same phenomenon across the board even after a couple centuries of the maturation of the division of labor.  I will be using this principle heavily in my economics blog Corn & Silver and my onebillparty.org site to demonstrate the imbalanced relationship between, for example, a hedge fund manager and a doctor.  I will apply this logic to demonstrate the value added to society by each.  Simply, if a hedge fund manager makes $2 billion per year for hedging as compared to a doctor that makes $150k per year for helping 600 patients per year, which is more valuable to society?  By this logic, a hedge fund manager is worth the same to society as 13,333 1/3 doctors !?!?  Does common sense tell you that?  Anyone can see that legislation in America has been tainted to serve 1 man’s whim for every 100,000 working Americans’ expense.  I will be beating this example into the ground with charts and graphs using Thomas Paine’s pamphlet writing style.  Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet Common Sense and played an integral part in the American Revolution.

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