This is the nineteenth 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 107:
They say it is impossible to tell the character of Western kings until they have been subjected to two great ordeals, their mistress and their confessor. It will not be long before we see both of them hard at work to seize control of the king’s mind; it will be a mighty struggle. For under a young prince, these two powers are always rivals, though they are reconciled and join forces under an old one. Under a young prince, the dervish has a hard time maintaining his position; the king’s strength is his weakness, while his adversary’s triumphs come from his strength and his weakness as well.
Comments on the excerpt above:
Louis XIV had ruled France with a firm belief in the divine right of kings. As I write this today, Libya has just ousted Muammar Gadaffi after 42 years of rule and he’s most likely hiding like a rat in Surt, or somewhere between Tripoli and Benghazi awaiting exile or death. Being 39, I have not seen any other leader of Libya in my life time. By contrast, Louis XIV, ruled France for over 70 years! His run as monarch is the longest ever recorded by a Western king. Montesquieu had lived his entire life while France was under the rule of Louis XIV and would have known France in no other way than under the absolute rule of Louis XIV.
Louis XV, heir to the throne, was 5 years old when Loius XIV died and was 7 years old when this letter was written; his health was of concern. Louis XV had no heir. If he was to die, the possibility of war breaking out was very real. This led to international intrigue and the Cellamare Conspiracy. This is when this letter was written and it was a tumultuous time to be living in France.
When a seven year old boy is the ruler of the sovereign, there is always jockeying for power amongst the noble class of adults. Humans covet power by nature and easily silence the voices of virtue and reason within themselves to obtain it. Montesquieu, being a polymath and student of history, had seen this a thousand times in his studies. It’s true that history is the best teacher when studying the human species; Montesquieu knew this and applied it with this passage.
I’m reminded of a couple things by this letter excerpt and the first is the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus wrote the book Essay on the Principle of Population (published 1798 – 1826), which is a book you can read for free at gutenberg.org. I hate to boil down a great thinkers’ thesis to a couple words or a catch phrase, but I happen to know a very wise friend who described Malthus’ thesis as this: people are going to fuck. The desire to procreate which leads to sexual intercourse is within the human species’ DNA and Malthus knew this. My friend boiling down Malthus’ thesis to this one crude sentence should not detract from the brilliance of the man’s writings. It is what it is and the truth is the truth; whether it would make you blush or snicker is irrelevant.
Another great writer that comes to mind regarding this excerpt is J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s literature on man’s weakness toward coveting power is classic. One of Tolkien’s characters in the book The Lord of the Rings was Wormtongue. Wormtongue, if you didn’t know, was basically the regent to a king that had been put under a spell by a wizard. The king would do whatever Wormtongue whispered into his ear. There are so many countless examples of this consultant & king relationship in history that can be considered a metaphor for both Montesquieu and Tolkien to draw from and paint their ever so elegant prose. Montesquieu has a way of putting this truth so succinctly as he anticipated it in France. He’s not the first one to think of this or the last to think that he’s thought of it, he was just so skilled at seeing it and summing it up for us.
A young heir would be preyed upon through his formative years by both women and men competing for their share of the power they coveted so much. Each would use every weapon in their arsenal to seize it. The men would kiss ass and appeal to the king’s reason for their share of power and use every other advantage they could muster to compete for it. And, the women would use the powerful influence of their sensuality and sexual allure to seduce the king’s attention in their direction just the same. Eventually, a young king will select one top man and one top woman into his most intimate consul. As Montesquieu says, a young king’s physical strength undermines the dervish’s position as his desire for the vagina makes the dervish more irrelevant. The woman benefits from the king’s strength and weakness simultaneously. I think Montesquieu was correct; the woman has the advantage in the battle for control of a young king’s mind.
And, although as Montesquieu points out, both the dervish and the mistress would reconcile forces under an older king, the powerful influence a woman holds over a man can always be considered the greatest regardless of a man’s age and should never be underestimated.
“In October 1838… I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population… it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.”
— Nora Barlow 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin. p128
I think I may fairly make two postulata.
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.
These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe, and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.
— Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population