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

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