Persian Letter Series: Letter 95 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the sixteenth 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 95:

There are only two cases in which a war is just:  first, in order to resist the aggression of an enemy, and second, in order to help an ally who has been attacked.

…Conquest itself confers no rights.  If the population survives, conquest provides assurance that peace will be maintained and that amends will be made for the wrong that had been committed; and if the population is destroyed, or scattered, it is a monument to tyranny.

Men regard peace treaties with such veneration that they might almost be the voice of nature claiming its rights.  They are all in accordance with law if their provisions permit both nations to continue in existence; if not, the one which is threatened with extinction may try, since it is deprived of its natural defence by a treaty of peace, to defend itself in war.

For nature, which has established the different degrees of power and weakness among men, has also often made the weak equal to the powerful through the strength of their despair.

This, Rhedi, is what I call international law; this is the law of nations, or rather of reason.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Aristotle and his student, Plato.This is an example of a prelude to Of the Spirit of Laws.  The only laws written by men that can truly describe natural law are those written mathematically that can be proven mathematically.  Only a great advance in mathematics or physics can trickle itself down to advances in manmade common law or societal law.  Montesquieu, whose time followed the mathematical advances put forth by Newton, was able to make an advance in social science in Newton’s wake.  People like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein only come around every century or two. They allow us to contemplate their mathematical genius and subsequently make a true step forward in social science.  For in the 18th century, it was reason and common sense that was used to fight tyranny and give birth to the United States of America.  The suffering of the people of France under the tyranny of Louis XIV gave a common purpose to the people to band together and use reason to fight tyranny in that country as well.  It was these free thinkers in the age of reason that helped the religiously persecuted people escape to America in the hopes that they could have freedom of religion.   This is why France and the United States were such strong allies in the latter part of the 18th century.

While I don’t agree with Karl Marx’s communistic solution to capitalism, it is certainly hard to see anything but genius in his case by case examples of the conflicts between the bourgeois and the proletariat.  As Montesquieu said, nature has established the different degrees of power amongst men.  As Marx has said, those differences among men that allow power to concentrate in the hands of the few are eventually undone by the proletariat’s loss of hope.  When a man is stripped of his natural human rights by the tyranny of other men, he has nothing to lose.  When he has nothing to lose and he is in the majority of the population, he will look to his fellow citizens for support and they will band together.  Together, they will always overcome the injustice of the ignoble men in power; even though the process may take generations.  I don’t believe anyone could argue Marx’s take on the bourgeois versus the proletariat in this regard.  This is how countries fracture into civil war.  This is how multiple countries that are oppressed by one country band together to fight the ignoble.

A good example of what I’m talking about today is Syria.  Today is August 14, 2011.  Damascus, which was once the intellectual capital of the world, has been oppressed by the Assad family for so many years.  The people of Syria have zero hope that they can live free from the tyranny of the Assad family.  When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.  Why not give your life to fight for the cause of your freedom from tyranny?   This is nature at work, it’s happened again and again throughout the course of history; regardless of the ‘ism’ you may try to attach at the end of your description of the society.

We have had time to contemplate the mathematical leap forward that Einstein has given us.  What have we learned?  How have we moved forward?  Perhaps an advance will come one day to our kind that will give us the grace to relegate war to antiquity.  Simply, we need to understand when the natural separation of power amongst men has run amok and power has concentrated amongst too small a percentage of the population.  The key to this, I believe, is to follow the tenets of Montesquieu’s teachings and always look to separate power.  Man’s natural tendency is to covet power.  It is up to the law to separate power so that no one man or small group of men can have too much power.  Remember what Lord Acton taught us:  power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.   And, we all know, corruption in the highest halls of the sovereign leads to rebellion, revolt, and destruction of the republic.

. . . and further, it is part [of the nature of tyranny] to strive to see that all the affairs of the tyrant are secret, but that nothing is kept hidden of what any subject says or does, rather everywhere he will be spied upon . . . . Also it is part of these tyrannical measures to impoverish the nation so as to bolster the funds available for military defense, and so that the common citizens will be occupied with earning their livelihood and will have neither leisure nor opportunity to engage in conspiratorial acts . . . . Thus, the tyrant is inclined constantly to foment wars in order to preserve his own monopoly of power.

Aristotle, Politics bk v, xi (350 BCE)

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