Persian Letter Series: Letter 29 – Rica to Ibben, at Smryna

This is the fifth post in a series of posts examining excerpts of Charles Montesquieu’s book Persian Letters.  Each post in this series examines a selected excerpt for study and discussion.  The following are excerpts from Letter 29:

The Pope is the chief of the Christians; he is an ancient idol, worshipped now from habit.  Once he was formidable even to princes, for he would depose them as easily as our magnificent sultans depose the kings of Iremetia or Georgia.  But nobody fears him any longer.  He claims to be the successor of one of the earliest Christians, called Saint Peter, and it is certainly a rich succession, for his treasure is immense and he has a great country under his control.

…Those who bring out some new proposition are immediately declared heretics.  Each heresy has its name, which those who are committed to it serves as a password.  But nobody is a heretic against his will: all he has to do is split the difference of opinion into two halves, and provide a distinction for those who accuse him of heresy, and whatever that distinction may be, intelligible or not, it makes a man as white as snow, and he can have himself declared orthodox.

What I say applies to France and Germany; for I have heard that in Spain and Portugal there are certain dervishes who cannot see a joke, and who burn a man as they would straw.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Gallancinism and the French ChurchAn attitude of independence toward Rome was traditional in the French church.  It was called Gallicanism and had been encouraged by Louis XIV.  This passage gives some sort of affirmation of the invisible line mentioned in the previous post in this series.  If you were north of the of this invisible line, i.e. Northern France, England, or Germany, you could get away with mocking the Catholic Church or the Pope a little better than you could to the south of it.  As he says, mocking the church south of the line could get you burned at the stake (this is no joke, you could be killed).  The inquisitors could take you in the middle of the night to Spain or Italy and tie you to a post and burn you to death for something as trivial as a disparaging remark about the Catholic church.  Could there be a more shocking example of man’s propensity toward authoritarianism?  Blaspheming God while pretending to be one of God’s most esteemed servants; all while serving death as a sentence in God’s name ?!?!?  Never forget!

This post is also a good example of the subtle outward hypocrisy of authoritarianism and the greed of man at odds:  the highest authority in the country of France, Louis XIV, who has everything under the sun as his demesne of the crown, still encourages his disdain upward on the totem toward the Pope out of regular old jealousy for his slightly higher authority position.  When will men learn humility?  This is a classic case of how money cannot buy you happiness.  To contemplate your death served as a whim at the hands of such an ignoble king or any other man is scary thing indeed.

The Pope being an ancient idol is an interesting statement too, but not as much as when he says he’s the successor of Saint Peter.   The Pontifex Maximus (i.e. the Pope) had been around long before there were scriptures mentioning Jesus Christ.  The Pope was the high priest of Jupiter long before the New Testament was published in any language.  That shouldn’t matter to you though, because as long as we’re tolerant of all religions, the point should be moot.  In fact, Julius Caesar was once the Pontifex Maximus as I posted about here.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 24 – Rica to Ibben, At Smyrna

This is the fourth post in a series of posts examining excerpts of 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 24:

Moreover, this king is a great magician.  He exerts authority even over the minds of his subjects; he makes them think what he wants.  If there are only a million crowns in the exchequer, and he needs two million, all he has to do is persuade them that one crown is worth two, and they believe it.  If he is involved in a difficult war without any money, all he has to do is get it in their heads that a piece of paper will do for money, and they are immediately convinced of it.  He even succeeds in making them believe that he can cure them of all sorts of diseases by touching them, such is the force and power that he has over their minds.

You must not be amazed at what I tell you about this prince: there is another magician, stronger than he, who controls his mind as completely as he controls other people’s.  This magician is called the Pope.  He will make the king believe that three are only one, or else that the bread one eats is not bread, or the wine one drinks not wine, and a thousand other things of the same kind.

Comments on the excerpt above:

In the first paragraph above, Montesquieu is talking about the introduction of paper money.  There was much manipulation of the currency when paper was introduced and this was what Montesquieu was referring to (a lot has changed right?).  If you have interest in understanding the history of money or how it works, check out my economics site titled Corn & Silver where I review Adam Smith’s work in detail.  I find irony here in Montesquieu’s view as compared to Smith’s because paper is no different than gold in this sense:  both only have value that is assigned by man.  Montesquieu even mentions as much later in the book which would make this statement seem somewhat inconsistent.  I cannot recall if I highlighted that passage later in the book, but I probably did because I’m fascinated by ways in which people manipulate money to harm their fellow man under the guise of acting with magnanimity.

The final remark in the first paragraph is about Scrofula (king’s-evil) that could be supposedly cured by being touched by the king.  Try to imagine someone like Ricky Gervais having the freedom and autonomy he has today doing stand-up comedy in the early 1700’s.

The second paragraph in the above excerpt is perhaps one of Montesquieu’s most audacious pokes at the expense of orthodoxy.  The beliefs inculcated by the Pope, that he is poking fun at, are the doctrines of the Trinity and Transubstantiation.  This was the time of the Reformation and there was an invisible line (in my mind anyway) that divided Northern Europe and Southern Europe between traditional Germanic Law in the North and traditional Roman Law in the South*.  As the two strands of Christianity at this time, Protestantism and Catholicism, separated along this invisible line, the pokes made at each other could spark some righteous violence.

I believe Montesquieu’s disdain for religious rituals was trumped big time by his belief that regardless of religion we must find tolerance for others who have different religions than our own.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 19 – Usbek To His Friend Rustan, At Isfahan

This is the third post in a series of posts examining excerpts of 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 19:

We spent only eight days at Tokat; after thirty-five days’ travel we arrived at Smyrna.  Between Tokat and Smyrna there is not a single town worth mentioning.  I was amazed to see the weakness of the Ottoman Empire.  It is a diseased body, preserved not by gentle and moderate treatment, but by violent remedies which ceaselessly fatigue and undermine it.

…These barbarians have paid so little attention to technical knowledge that they have even neglected the art of war.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Adam Smith wrote “The art of war is the most complex and noble of all the arts”.  Like Smith, Montesquieu had studied the history of the Greeks and the Romans extensively.   When you look back through Greek times or Roman times or any period of human history you see war and peace come and go like the ebb and flow of the tide.  I think what Smith meant about the art of war being the most complex art was that in order have a chance at peace, you would have to master the art of war; such a diabolical art form for certain.

There are those that are in want of peace that neglect the art of war in hopes that war will go away if they hope hard enough.  People who hope for peace while neglecting the art of war are either extirpated or become subjugated to new authority; which again emphasizes the complex nature of war.  While advances in technology have certainly changed how wars are fought today, here’s a truth proposed by history:  if your Campus Martius is weak or falls into disrepair, your sovereign will soon be crushed.

History has taught us that want of peace or want of war do not change the inevitability that there will always be times of peace and times of war; this is human nature from a realistic and observable point of view.  Smith told us that fatigue of war leads to peace, and the indolence of peace leads to war; most likely through the speciation of religion and people’s intolerance of religions other than their own.  You can count on these things with history as your guide.  It was Plato who said “only the dead have seen the end of war”.  Who are we to argue with Plato?

As Montesquieu is pointing out here, the Ottoman Empire’s indolence and sloth led them to neglect the art of war.  This was about the period of time when the Ottoman Empire was falling into stagnation and reform.  Like all Empires, the hallmark of impending decline is, ironically, the height of success.  Factions of the Ottoman Empire were constantly infighting [i.e. speciating] and trying to establish administrative initiatives they could not afford.  This downward momentum was too much to bear at the turn of the 18th century and the Ottoman Empire was in its dénouement.  The Ottoman Empire was in essence over at this point.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy

-John Adams

Persian Letter Series: Letter 8 – Usbek To His Friend Rustan, At Isfahan

This is the second post in a series of posts examining excerpts of 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 8:

I appeared at court in my earliest youth.  I can truthfully say that my heart did not become corrupt.  I even undertook a great project: I dared to behave virtuously there.  As soon as I had recognized vice for what it was, I kept away from it; but approached it again in order to expose it.  I took truth to the steps of the throne.  I spoke a language hitherto unknown there:  I put flattery out of countenance and, at the same time, astonished both the flatterers and their idol.

But when I saw that my sincerity had made enemies, that I had aroused the ministers’ jealousy, without gaining my sovereign’s favour, that, in a corrupt court, I could only preserve myself by my own feeble virtue, I resolved to leave.

Comments on excerpt above:

This passage jumped off the page to me.  Like so many other nuggets from this book, it gave me great pause.  The most interesting thing about studying history is realizing the things that always change and the things that never will.  This is one of those things that will never change.  It could even be classified as a ‘psyaxiom’ like I’ve started writing posts about under a tag by the same name.   What he’s saying here is that people of a corrupt nature don’t want the truth.  Not only do they not want the truth, they’re threatened by it; especially when the truth you’re pointing out forces those corrupt people to see the corruption within themselves.

People who are subconsciously unjust always seem to be able to rationalize their behaviour at the conscious level.  If you have the self-actualization and honor to blow the whistle and call the foul on yourself, you most assuredly have the ability to point it out in others.  When or if you do this, you force those people to acknowledge their own ignoble behaviour.  Instead of recognizing unjust behavior as such, those who are ignoble would seek to shoot you down and marginalize you:  “how dare you ignore my falsely spun image and see through to the truth” they will always seem to say with their angered expression.  To encroach upon those in power for the want of justice would more likely get you killed or beat down than it would awaken those to see things more justly.  It is difficult to be raised and raise your children to seek truth amid society’s desire to see a fabrication as a more valuable ideal.  But, seeking the truth has its rewards as well.  The path that leads to truth may get rocky, but that’s the path you must go.

When I think about the Baron’s words here, I’m reminded of the serenity prayer:  God grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Persian Letters

The Persian Letters(1720), written by Charles Montesquieu, was a precursor to some of his greater contributions to the 18th century enlightenment and society.  He’s better known as a political theorist famous for the separation of powers in a republic; most notably the separation between executive, legislative, and judicial powers.   His book Of the Spirit of Laws (1748) was his masterpiece and was more influential than any other book on the founding fathers who wrote the constitution of the United States of America.  The Persian Letters is a good start-off book for anyone interested in reading Montesquieu as it is a much more laid back and easy read than his other works.  The book makes observations of politics, fashion, and religion in 18th century Europe; often times with a healthy dose of satire.  Freedom of religion is another concept Montesquieu influenced us with and is perhaps just as important as any other freedom a person can have. This book demonstrates very well Montesquieu’s disdain for religious intolerance and religious persecution.  Many of my favorite quotes from the book that will be shared in this post series have to do with Montequieu’s view and insight on religion.

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Charlie Sheen – Violent Torpedo of Truth Review

You just spent $120 on a ticket to something to which you had no idea what to expect.  A guy, an actor, whom you’ve seen all your life is coming off what’s close to a melt down and announces he has a tour coming to your city.  So you say whatever and you buy a ticket.  You have no idea what to expect.

Your tickets are sweet, second row behind the old orchestra pit.  As you’re walking up the aisle toward the stage you’re saying to yourself “holy shit we’re right up front”, but up front to what?  You have no idea what to expect.  But, you’re in high spirits and you’re with your friends and you’re enjoying the music.  The sound system is impressive and they haven’t even jacked it up yet, it’s just grooving.

Then there’s an indication that the show is starting and out comes the first act.  A comedian, if you can call him that, named Kirk Fox is the first guy to take the stage and warm up the crowd.  He totally bombed.  He was trying to tell an airport story about how the LAX airport staff had lost his shoe and it wasn’t working.  The crowd, full of trolls, started in on the guy and he folded hard-core.  He never really could get the airport story off the ground [bad pun].  I give him credit, he had no where to go and he stuck it out.  But, he didn’t have any good material.  I was rooting for him and wanted him to have something funny, but he just didn’t.  The crowd wasn’t nice.   They beat the guy up pretty good.  In fact, Charlie was right there back stage and you could see him from where we were sitting and he was watching his buddy bomb.  He came out to help the guy out and the crowd went sick.  This was the first sighting of Charlie.  He was still in a jogging suit.  He said to the crowd to give the guy a break.   But, the crowd wasn’t interested in the guy, they just wanted Charlie.   Charlie said he’d be right back in a little bit and the comedian started in again on his bit.  But, he still sucked.  So the crowd got harsher and harsher.  It was an ominous foreshadowing as it turns out.   It would get ugly before it was over.

So, the comedian ends badly and now we’re to an interlude.  Probably about twenty minutes later, the music fired up and the theater went dark again.  A video started and this was probably the best part of the show.   There were clips from all kinds of famous movies:  Jaws, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Animal House among others.  There were a lot of war, death, and hardcore type clips that went into this video mash-up.  All while these clips were showing, the music was bumping hard.  The bass was so powerful that it was just shaking you.   The bass was so powerful that you were numbed into submission as you watched the clips.  This was for sure the best part of the show.

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Lars and the Real Girl

The caption on the cover of this movie sums it up best:  “A whimsical, funny, moving film”.  That’s exactly what it is.  My wife, bless her heart, is always bringing home movies, books, and music that would slip by me.  That’s one of the greatest things about being married to a teacher.  She’s exposed to all those kids each year and knows what they’re reading, what they’re watching, and what they’re listening to.  I’m not certain that all the kids are watching this movie, but she heard about it nonetheless.  It’s a funny thing about this movie too, if you weren’t paying attention to it, you probably never would have noticed it.  It was touching enough that I’m compelled to throw in my two cents on it.

Whenever you’re about to watch a movie you know nothing about, you embark on a risk of wasting a couple precious hours of your life.  When you’re a busy parent, that’s a big risk to take.  When that risk pays off, it feels just a little bit better than normal.  It’s like when you’re kid and you reach into that bowl full of lollipops with your eyes closed with the mindset that you’re going to take whatever you get no matter what; and lo and behold you pull out a good one.  If you like the same kind of candy I do, you’re going to like Lars and the Real Girl.

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Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus

He steered Rome from a time of civil war and anarchy to a period of civility and prosperity.  He took the title: Princeps, or first amongst equals (i.e. The Benevolent Dictator.)  It’s hard in the end to judge what he did.  These were such different times that they cannot be judged from 2010.  Women were given away by men like commodities.  People were executed.  Children were executed.  It’s so hard to process what it must have been like in 44 BC.   Despite his participation in the debauchery and the executions and the battles where blood was spilled by many, there was an overwhelming reverence for Augustus which is what the title Augustus means: the revered one.  Some people, in fact, believe that the Pax Romana brought to the people of Rome is the basis for the Anno Domini and is an allegory to Augustus.   Perhaps this is because of his brilliant image campaign.  Perhaps public opinion would have been different for Augustus if the common folks knew of what he did behind closed doors.  Lord Acton once gave us a famous quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Augustus achieved absolute power.

Timeline Part 4 – Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus 63 BC – AD 14

He considered nothing more incumbent on him then to avenge his uncle’s death and maintain the validity of his enactments. – Suetonius

When Julius Caesar was killed there was a vacuum in the heart of the Empire.  There was much uncertainty and there was unrest in the streets.  Immediately, political jockeying was underway to see who would or could take over the Republic.  Most held their ambitions close to the vest as no one could be trusted and confidence in the wrong soul would be met swiftly with murder.

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Tequila

This post about tequila will start out talking about absinthe.  Why?  Because it’s purported that Vincent Van Gogh’s drink of choice, absinthe, has hallucinogenic properties.  The hallucinogenic properties in absinthe have their origins in a drug called thujone which is most concentrated in grand wormwood (genus Artemisia Absinthium) and what gave the old world absinthes their green color.  The funny thing about Absinthe today, however, is that it really doesn’t have any thujone in it, but rather green food coloring.  When people describe their trippy experiences with absinthe, they’re most likely having a placebo effect and getting drunk from some high proof alcohol.  I think (and it could be my imagination too) that the blue agave from which tequila is derived actually gives you more of an hallucinogenic twist than just drinking regular alcohol.  It’s non-scientific, but many years of personal research have led me to believe that there is something different going on after a couple tequilas have been consumed.  So, why don’t we get started and talk about tequila and its history.

Similar to brandy, as we turn the pages of history backward, we find that we must again give thanks to the Spaniards.  In the 16th century conquest of Mexico for the Spanish Crown, distilling technology crossed the ocean and wound up in Mexico City.  The Mexicans were already on to something for centuries drinking the fermented juice of the Mezcal plant in the form of a beverage called pulque.   For hundreds of years, however, only the highest authority figures in Aztec and Mayan culture were able to celebrate in this pleasure of drinking pulque.  When Spaniards arrived, they were able to change the Indian process into a distillation process and put into production North America’s first commercially produced distilled beverage and bring this blessing to the people.

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Gaius Julius Caesar 100 BC – 44 BC

A lot of people in America today don’t realize the powerful influence Rome has had on their everyday lives.  So many fundamental things such as our architecture, our laws, our policies, our religions, our constitution, and our democracy all have ties back to ancient Rome.  When you consider Julius Caesar you might not think about his power and legacy as a military general and politician.  But each year when your calendar reads July, have you ever wondered where the month got its name?  That’s right – July is named after Julius Caesar.  He’s still a part of your everyday life.  Rome put a spell and a stamp on this world many years ago and its influence is still relevant today.  Recognize that Rome hasn’t gone away and is still the origin of so many things you are accustomed to today.  In this author’s opinion, the most pivotal and influential man in all of Roman history has to be Gaius Julius Caesar.  This post is number 3 in a timeline series of posts that are all tagged Timeline.

Timeline Part 3 – Gaius Julius Caesar  100 BC – 44 BC

As a 15 year old, Caesar accompanied his father to the forum to get his first real taste of Roman politics.  Rome’s fast acquisition of territory around Caesar’s time was partly why it was so treacherous toward the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire.  Carthage had just fallen, Hispania was falling, and Gaul was coming into the control of the Romans as well; so much wealth was being acquired at an incredible rate.  The governance of the Republic was enduring significant growing pains.  To seek high office in politics in this time period was a dangerous thing.  I can’t think of a prominent politician that died of natural causes during this time period.  If you were elected into high office, it was likely you would die of murder, in battle, or of suicide.

Caesar’s dad died when he was a teenager and in the Greek tradition, he needed a male protector to help him ascend into adulthood.  Enter Gaius Marius, a wealthy and powerful man that was Caesar’s uncle by marriage with political and military connections.  Marius was a champion to the poor and underprivileged; particularly the plebs like our good friend Tiberius Gracchus.  He had a significant influence on Caesar as a young man.  Marius helped Caesar to grow into a very confident young adult.  Caesar was already dressing differently and making a point to set himself apart from his contemporaries.  In fact, he was already very vain as a teenager.

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