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.

 As we know from Lord Acton: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  By greedily holding and paralyzing large amounts of wealth for so many centuries, the decay of the socio-economic fabric was almost complete; the people were ripe for a revolution.  When the officials of the Catholic Church started selling indulgences for cash, it would be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  The immoral behavior of the men in authority positions within the church was so egregious and obvious that it would soon be called out as a sham by Martin Luther.  If Martin Luther hadn’t posted that note to the door of the church, someone else probably would have because the time had come.  Calvin?  Same thing?

In 1718, roughly 200 years after the Protestant Reformation, the Protestants had separated church from state in many of the Northern parts of Europe and in the Scandinavian countries.  Montesquieu’s perspective on Christianity was this: it is good in the sense that it opposes the state.  If church and state are combined, resulting in a term coined by Weber as caesaropapism but most likely inspired from the work of Montesquieu, there is no chance for liberty.  Even a blind man could see the contrast between the affluent lifestyle of a Protestant society in the north versus that of a Catholic society around the Mediterranean Sea.  This excerpt demonstrates very well why Montesquieu believed it important to separate the power of the church and the power of the state and why our constitution does just that.

There is more to this story of corruption, however, than just churches and religions; the underlying driver is greed.  The church and the people’s religion operate irrespective but in mesh with society at large.  Patterns throughout history suggest human behaviors have played out this way in human societies since time eternal.  To use a computer programming analogy: the professed religion of a society is like the user interface part of the operating system that mines from a deeper database DNA layer.  The database is the true driver of the outcome the user sees regardless of the interface; which is why even though each religion is different and has a unique codex, the underlying human characteristics of the individuals are nearly the same such that the life-cycle of the society always seems to play out in a similar fashion.  I say this in the sense that most people are looking for and finding nuanced differences in societies and neglecting to notice fundamental similarities which far outweigh the nuances.  If we respect these deeper principles, and not get so hung up on the names of the religions, we would do well to be tolerant of all religions and do everything we can to drive a wedge between power and those who would abuse it regardless of the religious makeup of the society.

As power does by nature, it was shifting all around Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and Montesquieu was not only on the cusp of these major changes, he understood and analyzed these changes like no one before him.  From around 1650, there was a major power shift happening between Islam in the East and Christianity in the West.   The West was comparatively a dirty backwater when viewed against the economic, scientific, and military might of the Islamic countries to the East.  But, through the advances of science and secularism in the West, the power was shifting back to the Christian societies in Western Europe; predominantly in the Northern part of Europe where the Reformation was strongest and more advanced.

What was causing these shifts in power?  What paradigm changes were taking place in the minds of individuals and the collective of society?  Was it something to do with a new religion?

Not really.  One of the major reasons was because power was being separated from the few to the benefit of the many via the painful cost of revolution.  When power is separated, the society behaves with an egalitarian conscience; and collectively, the wealth of the society increases overall.  When each person is given the liberty to seek out their own fortune, industry and commerce flourish.  This is Montesquieu’s central thesis throughout all his work.  The founding fathers of the United States of America used Montesquieu’s central thesis as the underlying foundation of our US Constitution.   The tendency for power to reconsolidate amongst the few over time, however, is a natural phenomenon. This is the tricky part of staving off revolution in a republic, the decay rate of societal virtue is in direct proportion to the longevity of the republic.

If we continually keep the mantra of Lord Acton at the forefront of our minds, we know that: all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  With this in mind, we know that even as a new cycle of prosperity was emerging due to secularism and scientific advances, we would be foolish to think that the same thing won’t happen again as the power gained through these *new* mechanisms starts to mature.

It’s not religion at the heart of the decay of the Catholic society in this excerpt and it wasn’t secularism at the heart of the rise of Northern Europe.  It was more simply a product of power being separated; as power was separated, there was prosperity & liberty.  When the system in place matures, however, the power will again stratify and begin to concentrate at the top and corruption will again be birthed by it.  This pattern is much like the evolution of species in that it is hard to see when your nose is pressed up against it.  If you take a step back, take a larger timeline into account, and look at the long standing patterns, you see the cycle repeating as far back as there is written history.

The constitution of these United States of is a good one.  It allows all religions to be treated with tolerance and the freedom to choose whatever religion you want.  It is up to us to respect our constitution’s principle and do our best to separate power from those who would collapse our prosperity through ignorant or ignoble legislation irrespective of religion.

Currently, roughly 300 years after Montesquieu’s works have been published, and 235 years after the birth of our constitution which was based on Montesquieu’s work, we can see power feverishly trying to consolidate again.  Against the very principle concept of our constitution which separates executive, legislative, and judicial powers, a society of misers is forming that seeks to corrupt our legislation, our supreme court, and our executive administration .  Laws like Glass-Steagall, which fundamentally separated power in the banking industry, were neutered over 70 years and finally repealed even after they had been neutered.  All cases that reach our supreme court are specifically chosen based on partisan political lines and have all been decided by 5-4 votes directly along partisan lines over the last 10 years.  Corruption has penetrated our government because wealth has concentrated in the top 1% of our population just as history told us it would.  The wealthy misers of today are buying off our government officials and own our media companies.

Even a year after the Dodd-Frank bill took effect, the top 10 banks own 77% of our nation’s bank assets and are considered too big to fail thus hinging them to the backs of the taxpayers.  The oil industry made $123 billion in profit in 2007 while the peoples’ economy crumbled amidst massive layoffs and housing foreclosures.  $123 billion is a difficult number to comprehend; if you divide by 365, divide again by 24, divide again by 60, it equates to $234,000 of pure profit made every minute around the clock.  Think about these large profits and ask yourself why gasoline costs consumers more than it ever has and why oil companies are subsidized with our tax dollars.  And, because oil and bank misers have so much money, they can afford to placate the masses with propaganda.  In fact, many will parrot the propaganda as if it makes sense.  Scare tactics are used and buzz-words like “hurting job creators” are used but they just don’t jive with the facts.  The truth is, those people who parrot back this propaganda are in effect promoting and voting against their own best interest and they don’t even know it.  If we as Americans, can use the will of the people to broadcast this message (because we don’t have competing money), we can perhaps educate the people and affect the legislation we need to separate power from those who are abusing it; only then can we put the spirit of Montesquieu’s thesis back into our constitution and give our children a chance at prosperity.

We are free today substantially, but the day will come when our Republic will be an impossibility. It will be an impossibility because wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. A Republic cannot stand upon bayonets, and when the day comes, when the wealth of the nation will be in the hands of a few, then we must reply upon the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions.

James Madison – A founding father of the United States of America

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