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.