Persian Letter Series: Letter 48 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice (excerpt A)

This is the ninth 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 48:

Those who enjoy learning are never idle.  Although I have not important business to do, I am nonetheless continually occupied.  I spend my life in inquiry.  In the evening, I write down what I have noticed, what I have seen or heard, during the day.  Everything interests me, everything surprises me: I am like a child, whose organs are still delicate, so that even the most trivial things make an impression on them.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Never let go of your childish intrigue

This quote is a little more light-hearted, it made me smile. I believe that Montesquieu envisioned himself as Usbek.  With that in mind, I thought this quote was really cool.  It gave me great pause.  I read it with a smile again and again and felt a connection to Montesquieu through this passage.

Ever since I can remember, I have felt the same way as Usbek.  I am in this passionate hurry to read and learn as much as I can before the sand runs out of the hour glass.  I’m compelled and driven to read of my favorite subjects.  I can’t read a book without my highlighter, pencil, and post-it flags.  I’m driven to write my thoughts down on the pages of my books as I read and contemplate things in my own way; to process them for myself and leave them for my children.

I should like that the excerpt above go on my tombstone and my kids understand that there can be nothing more satisfying in life than to spend it in inquiry making the best of what God has given to you.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 46 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the eighth 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 passage is Letter 46 in its entirety:

I observe that people here argue about religion interminably: but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.

Not only are they no better as Christians, they are not even better citizens, which is what affects me most: for, whatever  religion one may have, obedience to the laws, love of mankind, and respect for one’s parents are always the principal acts of religion.

For is it not the case that the chief concern of a religious man must be to please the Divinity who established the religion that he professes?  But the surest way to achieve this is certainly to observe the rules of society, and the duties of humanity.  For, whatever religion you may have, you must, immediately you suppose that there is a religion, suppose also that God loves mankind, since he founded a religion to make them happy; and if he loves mankind, you are certain to please him by loving them also; that is to say, in performing all the duties of charity and humanity towards them, and in not violating the laws under which they live.

In this way you are much more certain to please God than by carrying out some ceremony or other: for the ritual has no degree of goodness in itself; it is only good conditionally, on the supposition that God ordained it.  But this provides material for a great deal of discussion.  It is easy to be mistaken, for it is necessary to choose the ceremonies of one religion out of two thousand.

A man made this prayer to God everyday: ‘Lord, I cannot understand anything of the continual disputes about you: I should like to serve you according to your will, but everyone whom I consult wants me to serve you according to his.  When I want to pray to you, I do not know which language to speak to you in.  Nor do I know what posture I should adopt.  One man says I must pray standing up; another wants me to sit down; another insists that my body should be supported by my knees.  That is not all: there are some who claim that I must wash in cold water every morning; others affirm that you will regard me with abhorrence if I do not have a small piece of my flesh cut off.  The other day at caravanserai, I happened to eat a rabbit.  There were three men there who made me tremble:  all three maintained that I had gravely offended you; the first, because the animal was impure; the next, because it had been strangled; and the last because it was not a fish.  A Brahmin passing by, whom I appealed to as a judge, said: “They are wrong, since presumably you did not kill the animal yourself.”

“Yes I did,” I said.

“Ah! you have committed an abominable action, which God will never forgive,” he said in a severe voice; “how do you know that the soul of your father had not passed into that creature?”

‘All these things, Lord, put me in the most terrible quandary.  I cannot shake my head without being told that I risk offending you.  Yet I should like to please you and use the life that I received from you in order to do so.  I do not know if I’m mistaken, but I believe that the best way to manage it is to live as a good citizen in the society into which you caused me to be born, and be a good father to the family which you have given me.’

Comments on the excerpt above:

Church of ToleranceThis letter, in its entirety, is worthy of some reflection.  This letter represents some of those things that have not changed in mankind for millennia.  In today’s age, with the internet, you can learn about even more religions than the two thousand Montesquieu references.  One of the most interesting things about some religious folks is the ability to suspend logic for their particular faith while being logical and diligent in disposing of every other religion.  One example website out of literally thousands is the site bible.ca.  This site has information that disproves and discredits every religion you can think of except for the one professed by its webmaster.  While a man can hit the books for hours learning and understanding the history and faults of every religion under the sun, he can simultaneously eschew all logic when talking about the one he has chosen for himself; so much so that he is prepared to die or kill in the name of his conviction; but not just that! He’s also instigating the fight!

The most important thing for the constitution of the sovereign is to grant freedom of religion to all that fall under its umbrella.  The most important duty for a religious man is to grant tolerance to his fellow citizens regardless of the religion they have chosen.  We should look for common ground, as Montesquieu points out, between the fundamental tenets that all religions share.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 44 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the seventh 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 44:

Even the humblest workers argue over the merits of the trade they have chosen; everyone believes himself to be above someone else of a different calling, proportionately to the idea he has formed of the superiority of his own.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Humble Worker Pondering A Raise...

Okay, so after a couple of deep thoughts this one is a little closer to the surface. Have you ever noticed this behavior?  This is like a psyaxiom (link) that I have a post tag for.  People always believe themselves to be more important than the person they’re sitting next to.  Even at the most micro level you can see this.

Example:  there’s a guy who’s in his job that thinks he’s irreplaceable.  He thinks no one can do what he does because of how hard he works or how smart he is.  He or she always claims to do the work of two to three people.  Well, guess what?  you’re not that important.  If you can do it, someone else can do it.  That might wound the pride of a man, but it’s true.

After years of bitching, the guy finally leaves his job. He makes a call back to his co-workers fishing for the misery that’s overcome everybody now that he’s not there to do the work.  When he’s told that everything is fine, his tail tucks between his legs, he sulks & skulks, and doesn’t want to talk anymore.  Sorry guy, you’re only as special as the other 7 billion people living on this planet.  Get over yourself.

In this passage, I think Montesquieu is making this analogy to, for example, the baker versus the blacksmith.  But, it’s the same phenomenon across the board even after a couple centuries of the maturation of the division of labor.  I will be using this principle heavily in my economics blog Corn & Silver and my onebillparty.org site to demonstrate the imbalanced relationship between, for example, a hedge fund manager and a doctor.  I will apply this logic to demonstrate the value added to society by each.  Simply, if a hedge fund manager makes $2 billion per year for hedging as compared to a doctor that makes $150k per year for helping 600 patients per year, which is more valuable to society?  By this logic, a hedge fund manager is worth the same to society as 13,333 1/3 doctors !?!?  Does common sense tell you that?  Anyone can see that legislation in America has been tainted to serve 1 man’s whim for every 100,000 working Americans’ expense.  I will be beating this example into the ground with charts and graphs using Thomas Paine’s pamphlet writing style.  Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet Common Sense and played an integral part in the American Revolution.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 35 – Usbek to Jemshid, his cousin, a dervish at the illustrious monastery of Tabriz

This is the sixth 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 35:

Whatever you do, truth will always emerge, shining through the darkness which surrounds it.  A day will come when the Eternal will see only the true believers on the earth; time, which consumes all things, will destroy error itself; all men will see with amazement that they are under the same flag; everything, even the Law, will be accomplished: the sacred books will be removed from the earth, and carried away to the celestial archives.

Comments on the excerpt above:

This passage speaks louder knowing that Montesquieu had studied the Koran.  Yes, the man that was most influential upon the writers of the U.S. Constitution was more knowledgeable about the Koran than 99% of all non-Muslim Americans in 2011.   Don’t you find that interesting?

His point here is that regardless of your religion, there is a truth or natural law that we are all bound to. Trying to suppress the truth is foolish.

All of the founding fathers of the United States of America sought the truth and wanted liberty to pursue it.  They learned from Montesquieu that the separation of powers amongst men and man’s freedom to choose his religion and be tolerant of others was necessary to write the constitution of a great republic.  Adhering to a well thought out constitution was our best chance to give our children the opportunity to learn the truth by way of liberty.  A constitution that could evolve at the same speed as man was what they wrote.  But, republics of any constitution face a dangerous enemy: greed.  Monopoly of power is an ugly byproduct of the disease called greed.   Like a living organism, as the monopoly of power gathers momentum in smalls circles of men, it tries to cast a shadow on truth.  And man’s greed might be strong enough to kill even a great republic, but the truth can never be held down for long.

Mann tracht, Gott lought

Man plans, God laughs (translation)

          -Yiddish proverb

Persian Letter Series: Letter 29 – Rica to Ibben, at Smryna

This is the fifth 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 are excerpts from Letter 29:

The Pope is the chief of the Christians; he is an ancient idol, worshipped now from habit.  Once he was formidable even to princes, for he would depose them as easily as our magnificent sultans depose the kings of Iremetia or Georgia.  But nobody fears him any longer.  He claims to be the successor of one of the earliest Christians, called Saint Peter, and it is certainly a rich succession, for his treasure is immense and he has a great country under his control.

…Those who bring out some new proposition are immediately declared heretics.  Each heresy has its name, which those who are committed to it serves as a password.  But nobody is a heretic against his will: all he has to do is split the difference of opinion into two halves, and provide a distinction for those who accuse him of heresy, and whatever that distinction may be, intelligible or not, it makes a man as white as snow, and he can have himself declared orthodox.

What I say applies to France and Germany; for I have heard that in Spain and Portugal there are certain dervishes who cannot see a joke, and who burn a man as they would straw.

Comments on the excerpt above:

Gallancinism and the French ChurchAn attitude of independence toward Rome was traditional in the French church.  It was called Gallicanism and had been encouraged by Louis XIV.  This passage gives some sort of affirmation of the invisible line mentioned in the previous post in this series.  If you were north of the of this invisible line, i.e. Northern France, England, or Germany, you could get away with mocking the Catholic Church or the Pope a little better than you could to the south of it.  As he says, mocking the church south of the line could get you burned at the stake (this is no joke, you could be killed).  The inquisitors could take you in the middle of the night to Spain or Italy and tie you to a post and burn you to death for something as trivial as a disparaging remark about the Catholic church.  Could there be a more shocking example of man’s propensity toward authoritarianism?  Blaspheming God while pretending to be one of God’s most esteemed servants; all while serving death as a sentence in God’s name ?!?!?  Never forget!

This post is also a good example of the subtle outward hypocrisy of authoritarianism and the greed of man at odds:  the highest authority in the country of France, Louis XIV, who has everything under the sun as his demesne of the crown, still encourages his disdain upward on the totem toward the Pope out of regular old jealousy for his slightly higher authority position.  When will men learn humility?  This is a classic case of how money cannot buy you happiness.  To contemplate your death served as a whim at the hands of such an ignoble king or any other man is scary thing indeed.

The Pope being an ancient idol is an interesting statement too, but not as much as when he says he’s the successor of Saint Peter.   The Pontifex Maximus (i.e. the Pope) had been around long before there were scriptures mentioning Jesus Christ.  The Pope was the high priest of Jupiter long before the New Testament was published in any language.  That shouldn’t matter to you though, because as long as we’re tolerant of all religions, the point should be moot.  In fact, Julius Caesar was once the Pontifex Maximus as I posted about here.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 24 – Rica to Ibben, At Smyrna

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.

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

Persian Letter Series: Letter 8 – Usbek To His Friend Rustan, At Isfahan

This is the second 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 8:

I appeared at court in my earliest youth.  I can truthfully say that my heart did not become corrupt.  I even undertook a great project: I dared to behave virtuously there.  As soon as I had recognized vice for what it was, I kept away from it; but approached it again in order to expose it.  I took truth to the steps of the throne.  I spoke a language hitherto unknown there:  I put flattery out of countenance and, at the same time, astonished both the flatterers and their idol.

But when I saw that my sincerity had made enemies, that I had aroused the ministers’ jealousy, without gaining my sovereign’s favour, that, in a corrupt court, I could only preserve myself by my own feeble virtue, I resolved to leave.

Comments on excerpt above:

This passage jumped off the page to me.  Like so many other nuggets from this book, it gave me great pause.  The most interesting thing about studying history is realizing the things that always change and the things that never will.  This is one of those things that will never change.  It could even be classified as a ‘psyaxiom’ like I’ve started writing posts about under a tag by the same name.   What he’s saying here is that people of a corrupt nature don’t want the truth.  Not only do they not want the truth, they’re threatened by it; especially when the truth you’re pointing out forces those corrupt people to see the corruption within themselves.

People who are subconsciously unjust always seem to be able to rationalize their behaviour at the conscious level.  If you have the self-actualization and honor to blow the whistle and call the foul on yourself, you most assuredly have the ability to point it out in others.  When or if you do this, you force those people to acknowledge their own ignoble behaviour.  Instead of recognizing unjust behavior as such, those who are ignoble would seek to shoot you down and marginalize you:  “how dare you ignore my falsely spun image and see through to the truth” they will always seem to say with their angered expression.  To encroach upon those in power for the want of justice would more likely get you killed or beat down than it would awaken those to see things more justly.  It is difficult to be raised and raise your children to seek truth amid society’s desire to see a fabrication as a more valuable ideal.  But, seeking the truth has its rewards as well.  The path that leads to truth may get rocky, but that’s the path you must go.

When I think about the Baron’s words here, I’m reminded of the serenity prayer:  God grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Persian Letters

The Persian Letters(1720), written by Charles Montesquieu, was a precursor to some of his greater contributions to the 18th century enlightenment and society.  He’s better known as a political theorist famous for the separation of powers in a republic; most notably the separation between executive, legislative, and judicial powers.   His book Of the Spirit of Laws (1748) was his masterpiece and was more influential than any other book on the founding fathers who wrote the constitution of the United States of America.  The Persian Letters is a good start-off book for anyone interested in reading Montesquieu as it is a much more laid back and easy read than his other works.  The book makes observations of politics, fashion, and religion in 18th century Europe; often times with a healthy dose of satire.  Freedom of religion is another concept Montesquieu influenced us with and is perhaps just as important as any other freedom a person can have. This book demonstrates very well Montesquieu’s disdain for religious intolerance and religious persecution.  Many of my favorite quotes from the book that will be shared in this post series have to do with Montequieu’s view and insight on religion.

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Learning to Read – Early Writing

Getting  home from work the other day, my wife showed me something that made me proud…  My son had written down a complete sentence.  The kindergarten teacher was dictating the words and the students were writing down what they heard.  This fired me up to write a couple words myself and here I am to do just that.  This made me think that I should start my second series piece and it’s going to be titled:

Learning To Read

Reading is most important thing anyone could ever learn to do and it makes a good ‘series’ feature for this blog.  There were a couple of posts already in this vein and it just seems like a worthy topic of some additional journal entries and fits a series chronology well.

The idea behind this series is to follow the learning progress of my kids, now 5 and 3, and keep a journal on their development as they learn to read.  It wasn’t but a handful of months ago my wife and I were meeting my son’s kindergarten teacher with about 50 other parents.  The teacher was telling us about all the wonderful things we could expect to see through the kindergarten year.  There would be leaps and bounds made in our kids’ writing and that we shouldn’t expect to see perfectly formed words but rather phonetic interpretations of them.   For example: KR might spell car.  That would be perfectly normal and would demonstrate good progress.

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