Persian Letter Series: Letter 59 – Rica to Usbek, at ***
From Paris, the 14th of the moon of Saphar, 1714

By , August 10, 2011 6:52 pm

This is the twelfth 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 59:

It seems to me, Usbek, that all our judgments are made with reference covertly to ourselves, I do not find it surprising that the negroes paint the devil sparkling white, and their gods black as coal, or that certain tribes have a Venus with her breasts hanging down to her thighs, or in brief that all the idolatrous peoples represent their gods with human faces, and endow them with all their own impulses.  It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the MoonAnthropocentrism has been promulgated by all the major religious codices; therefore it’s rampant, dutifully accepted, and honored.  That’s why when you read “It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.” you can’t help but see the brilliance in such a sentence.  You might be okay with thinking that man has dominion over this planet – your religious codex might say so.  But who wrote your codex?  Man did.   Of course you will say that God dictated to man what to write as if man was acting merely as secretary taking dictation; and you will say that that’s perfectly rational.  Yet if I told you that God has spoken to me and has told me to write this, you will be quick to tell me that I’m crazy.

So what of anthropocentrism?  I can’t think of a more bunk or disgusting display of human arrogance.  Be proud, that’s a wonderful thing and you deserve it.  But, do not tread on the shark, or the crocodile, or the birds, or the bees, or the plants that have been here for millions of years before you.  They were here before your codex was written and will most likely be here long after our race has become extinct.  Tread on them at least with deference and remember that they do not need you to survive but you most assuredly need them.  Humility and tolerance should be our goals if we’re to give true deference to God.

I just watched the movie Avatar again and was reminded how great it was.  I still can’t believe that The Hurt Locker won the academy award for best picture.  Avatar makes a powerful argument for deference toward nature and humility amongst men and I love the movie for that.  I think I would like James Cameron and think he made one hell of a movie there.  I should also say that this passage from Persian Letters is my absolute favorite.  I cannot think of a more brilliant sentence than: It has been well said that if triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.  Once again, can you blame the founding fathers for patterning the U.S. Constitution off of the brilliance of Montesquieu’s writings?

Out of respect to the father of sociology, here is the same sentence in Montesquieu’s own words: On a dit fort bien que si les triangles faisoient un dieu, ils lui donneroient trois côtés.

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