This is the eighteenth 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 98:
I find, Ibben, that Providence is to be admired for the manner in which it shares out wealth: if it had been granted only to good people, it would not have been possible to differentiate clearly enough between it and virtue, and its worthlessness would not have been fully appreciated. But when you consider which people have accumulated the largest amounts of it, you come at last, through despising rich men, to despise riches.
Comments on the excerpt above:
I find this quote very insightful but must qualify it: the Baron lived in a castle surrounded by a moat which was surrounded by acres of lush garden. It’s a little easier to say this when you have nothing to worry about as far as financial concerns. This does not make the statement less profound in that wealth comes not solely from material riches; there is great wealth in a man’s virtue. How could a man come to this thought if he truly did not own it? Let’s face it, Montesquieu is one of the greatest sociological thinkers of all time. The society and the economy are so interwoven, they’re like a Siamese twins that cannot be separated from each other without both of them dying. Siamese twins is the best analogy I can think of for the complexities of society and economy living together as one being sharing the same organs. It’s important to never think of society or economy in separate terms or in terms of black and white. There are whole spectrums of color that overlap and connect to form one socio-economic science.
Let’s dig into this quote to see how Montesquieu can deliver so much information in so few words. Since the beginning of time man has struggled to understand the complex degrees of morality and materiality. Where does an increase in one encroach upon the other? If you want heat, you need a furnace. That’s not asking for more than you deserve because you cannot survive without heat, right? Are you asking too much if you want a furnace? Is that an immoral request made out of materiality? I don’t think so. This is reasonable. But, when does your desire for a material possession in your life approach prodigality or avarice? This is a question that is not so black and white. What is acceptable to the people in your sovereign, at your geo-coordinates, in your climate, in your season might not be acceptable elsewhere.
Here’s the point of the excerpt: the distribution of richness in virtue is irrespective to the caste of the citizen. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth or you’re born into the proletariat, your chances of being a greedy asshole are just the same. There are rich assholes and there are poor assholes. And vice versa, by being born poor in material wealth does not mean that you cannot be endowed with a richness of virtue which is what truly creates wealth for your society. In fact, wealth without virtue leads the society to poverty, and virtue irrespective of current wealth leads the society to future wealth.
Montesquieu is further singling out the most despicable kind of asshole: the guy who just wants more when he stopped needing more a long time ago. The guy that has so much in his material possession that he can’t possibly make use of all he has acquired, but he still wants more. And through his increased power on the sovereign, he influences the law to inflict increasing hurt on castes beneath him in order to propel his own personal gain further. When a guy has twelve houses, and can only live in one, he is paralyzing wealth that could be put to the good of society if it were employed. What means naught to the miser, could employ two, or three, or four families potentially. Whenever capital is paralyzed for whatever the reason, the two biggest reasons being greed and ignorance, it is to the bane of the economy and society. This is an example of why the society and the economy are so intertwined.
The opportunity cost of the miser paralyzing wealth out of greed creates a loss of wealth to the miser’s own surrounding society even though he feels richer through his short sighted prism of avarice. The miser is hurting his own society and his own wealth because of his greed. He would actually be more wealthy if he could increase his empathy for his fellow man and release into society that wealth which could help others more than himself. His return on investment is much higher when the people in the society are happier. But, his greed blinds him into wanting more. He turns a blind eye to the suffering of the people in his own country and isolates himself further by building fenced in communities, and attending only private institutions for his caste. He loses sight of his fellow man and perhaps will never understand that his empathy could raise the tide for all boats including his own when it comes to virtue. And that’s why virtue causes you to despise material wealth.
If the law of the sovereign cannot separate power from those who lack virtue, the law has failed the republic. This is a tricky thing to accomplish and requires ingenuity of the law and diligence from the people. The people in the society must educate themselves and read the legislation and demand to know who wrote it and demand it in human readable form. If a lobby holds sway over the legislation stronger than the will of the people, virtue has been dealt a death blow and the republic cannot last. If the society is indolent or ignorant to the point that the laws produced by the society do not seek to separate power from those who lack virtue, the society is on its way toward economic collapse just the same. In simpler terms: if greed wins, society loses, regardless of the ‘ism’ used to label the society.
Here are a couple of links to some spectacular photos of Montesquieu’s Château de la Brède: