Persian Letter Series: Letter 117 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the twenty first 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 117:

Protestant countries ought to be, and are in reality, more populous than Catholic ones.  It follows, first, that revenue from taxes is higher, because it increases proportionately to the number of taxpayers; second that the land is better cultivated; third, that business is in a more flourishing state, because there are more people with their fortunes to make, and because, although their needs are greater, there are also more resources.  When the number of people is only enough for the cultivation of the land, trade inevitably collapses, and when there are only enough for the maintenance of trade, agriculture is inevitably ruined; which means that both decay together, since a man cannot engage in one except at the expense of another.

As for the Catholic countries, not only has agriculture been abandoned, but industriousness itself is harmful: it consists only in learning five or six words of a dead language.  As soon as a man has equipped himself in this way, he no longer needs to trouble about his career; in a monastery, he can have a quiet life which he would have sweated and labored to achieve in the outside world.

This is not all.  The dervishes have almost all the wealth of the nation in their hands.  They form a society of miser, constantly acquiring and never giving  back; they accumulate income all the time so as to build up capital.  All this wealth becomes paralyzed; it no longer circulates, and there is no more commercial, cultural or industrial activity.

There is not a single Protestant ruler who does not raise more taxes from his people than the pope from his subjects; yet the latter are poor, while the former live in opulence.  With them, commerce brings everything to life, while with the others monasticism carries death with it everywhere.

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Montesquieu uses Catholicism and Protestantism to draw contrast between two starkly different socio-economic groups existing in 1718; roughly 200 years after the Reformation had begun.  At first glance, it might seem the author is implying religion itself is the sole reason for these socio-economic differences.  This is not, however, entirely true.  Montesquieu was the first to use structuralism, comparative models, and ideal types in his sociological analysis.  This means that he’s always making comparisons between things by taking *all things* into account.  A true sociologist, anthropologist, or economist will never look at things in black in white, he’ll try to, holistically, see *all things* in their full color and take into account the entire complexity of the situation.  Also, Montesquieu was a Catholic and he married a Protestant, so please don’t incorrectly assume he’s picking on Catholicism; he’s just making honest and objective observations of the world around him.

The reason one society has a flourishing economy and one society is failing has religion only as one component of a bigger equation.  The Catholic Church is not necessarily at fault for the socio-economic decay across their demesne, but the socio-economic dynamic across the Catholic demesne around the Mediterranean countries (Southern France, Spain, and Italy) does offer a well defined example of what happens when the society’s wealth is trapped by a few misers in power.  The bishops and deacons of the church had acquired such a disproportionate amount of wealth and power over the last fifteen centuries they had become corrupt.  The corruption of their actions was harder and harder to conceal.

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Persian Letter Series: Letter 115 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the twentieth 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 115:

It was not the same with the Romans.  The republic used its slave population to incalculable advantage.  Each slave was given an allowance, which he had on the conditions imposed by his master:  he used it to work with, taking up whatever his own abilities suggested.  One would go in for banking, another for shipping, one became a retailer, another applied himself to a technical trade, or farmed out lands and improved them; but there was no one who failed to do everything he could to make a profit from his allowance, which both made him comfortable while he remained a slave, and assured him of freedom in the future: this made for a hard-working population and stimulated industrial and technical skills.

These slaves, who had become rich by hard work and application, were made freemen and became citizens.  The republic constantly renewed itself, allowing new families in as the old ones were destroyed.

In the following letters I shall perhaps take the opportunity to prove to you that the more men there are in a state, the more trade flourishes; the two things are interdependent and provide mutual stimulus.

If this is so, how great an increase there was bound to be in this huge number of slaves, always working hard!  Industriousness and affluence produced them, and they in turn produced affluence and industriousness.

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British East India Company FlagSlavery comes in many forms and invokes an array of thoughts amongst different people.  If you asked 100 people in America about their thoughts on slavery, you’d probably get 100 different accounts of what it means to them.  Many people in America might tell you about the British East India Company or the Dutch West India Company that were responsible for most of the slaves brought to North America, Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and South America because that’s what Americans relate to with regard to our geographic location and our short 235 year history as a nation.

Slavery, however, has been around since before recorded history began, is alive today, and probably will continue to exist into the future as we can see it.  Worldwide, there are more slaves today in 2011 than there have ever been in recorded history.  By percentage of people, slavery has diminished, but by sheer numbers, there are more slaves in the world today.  This post is not written to argue which slaves from what time period had it worse, its purpose is to talk about the economics of slavery and the morality of man.   In the passage above, Montesquieu is setting up for an entire discourse on the ills of slavery and this passage sets up his argument that men should be free from slavery for a healthier economy by way of a healthy society.

This particular Montesquieu excerpt brings to mind a movie called The Matrix which was written by Larry and Andy Wachowski.  Authors like the Wachowski brothers and Philip K. Dick are extraordinary presenters on the dynamics of human societies.  They are right brain artist/creative types and even though many people would not think of them as economists, their interpretations of socio-economic dynamics are absolutely fascinating regarding the interconnectivity between society and economy and the whole spectrum of variables between the two that affect one another.  The reason the machines in the movie created the Matrix was to give the people a purpose and a fabricated sense of freedom to choose their own destiny, which in turn kept the entire population working and prospering.  Whether you’d say these slaves had it bad off is a moral judgement that is moot to the machines, because to them, their system worked.  The working class of people, if happy and free, turned their labor into more prosperity for the society which is exactly what the machines wanted.  The people were only slaves depending on your frame of reference; in their own minds they were free.  Win win?

In The Matrix, there’s a scene where the protagonist is told that unbeknownst to him (at the 2:37 mark in the clip above) he’d been born into indentured servitude.   He had thought he was a free man through his entire life, but in reality he was nothing of the sort.  Not to go into too much detail about the movie here, but the point is that even though the protagonist was living what he thought was a normal life, he was slave.  He felt free: he had a name, he had a job, he earned money, and he lived his life to the best of his ability.  The society he lived in was functioning but there was a general malaise on the society and his psyche and he just couldn’t articulate what it was.

In this excerpt from letter #115, the slave wage Montesquieu’s referring to was called: peculium.  In Roman law, peculium was the master’s property, but used by the slave for his own enterprises; which were sometimes on a large scale.  So even though the slave operated in the society with capitalistic intentions, he was not even close to being part of the ruling class; and in fact never could be.  This interesting paradox can be confounding to tea-partiers, anti-capitalists, and conspiracy theorists alike; because, it is pretty easy to draw a parallel between the Roman slave class and the American middle class in that you’re free to make your own decisions on how to use your peculium as long as you bust your ass servicing your debt and the nation’s debt.  And, by the time you’re done paying off your debts, you’ll be free too.  But, you’re also a lot older and the most vibrant years of your life have passed you by.  It’s confounding to some when they come to realize they’ve been born into a caste that doesn’t have it as easy as another.  And, the only way to advance their caste is through the value creation that labor and ingenuity, the mother and father of wealth, can produce.

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Persian Letter Series: Letter 107 – Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna

This is the nineteenth 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 107:

They say it is impossible to tell the character of Western kings until they have been subjected to two great ordeals, their mistress and their confessor.  It will not be long before we see both of them hard at work to seize control of the king’s mind; it will be a mighty struggle.  For under a young prince, these two powers are always rivals, though they are reconciled and join forces under an old one.  Under a young prince, the dervish has a hard time maintaining his position; the king’s strength is his weakness, while his adversary’s triumphs come from his strength and his weakness as well.

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The Two Towers - Wormtongue and KingTheoden

Louis XIV had ruled France with a firm belief in the divine right of kings.  As I write this today, Libya has just ousted Muammar Gadaffi after 42 years of rule and he’s most likely hiding like a rat in Surt, or somewhere between Tripoli and Benghazi awaiting exile or death.  Being 39, I have not seen any other leader of Libya in my life time.  By contrast, Louis XIV, ruled France for over 70 years!  His run as monarch is the longest ever recorded by a Western king.  Montesquieu had lived his entire life while France was under the rule of Louis XIV and would have known France in no other way than under the absolute rule of Louis XIV.

Louis XV, heir to the throne, was 5 years old when Loius XIV died and was 7 years old when this letter was written; his health was of concern.  Louis XV had no heir.  If he was to die, the possibility of war breaking out was very real.  This led to international intrigue and the Cellamare Conspiracy.  This is when this letter was written and it was a tumultuous time to be living in France.

When a seven year old boy is the ruler of the sovereign, there is always jockeying for power amongst the noble class of adults.  Humans covet power by nature and easily silence the voices of virtue and reason within themselves to obtain it.  Montesquieu, being a polymath and student of history, had seen this a thousand times in his studies.  It’s true that history is the best teacher when studying the human species; Montesquieu knew this and applied it with this passage.

I’m reminded of a couple things by this letter excerpt and the first is the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus.  Malthus wrote the book Essay on the Principle of Population (published 1798 – 1826), which is a book you can read for free at  I hate to boil down a great thinkers’ thesis to a couple words or a catch phrase, but I happen to know a very wise friend who described Malthus’ thesis as this:  people are going to fuck.   The desire to procreate which leads to sexual intercourse is within the human species’ DNA and Malthus knew this.  My friend boiling down Malthus’ thesis to this one crude sentence should not detract from the brilliance of the man’s writings.  It is what it is and the truth is the truth; whether it would make you blush or snicker is irrelevant.

Another great writer that comes to mind regarding this excerpt is J.R.R. Tolkien.  Tolkien’s literature on man’s weakness toward coveting power is classic.  One of Tolkien’s characters in the book The Lord of the Rings was Wormtongue.  Wormtongue, if you didn’t know, was basically the regent to a king that had been put under a spell by a wizard.  The king would do whatever Wormtongue whispered into his ear.  There are so many countless examples of this consultant & king relationship in history that can be considered a metaphor for both Montesquieu and Tolkien to draw from and paint their ever so elegant prose.  Montesquieu has a way of putting this truth so succinctly as he anticipated it in France.  He’s not the first one to think of this or the last to think that he’s thought of it, he was just so skilled at seeing it and summing it up for us.

A young heir would be preyed upon through his formative years by both women and men competing for their share of the power they coveted so much.  Each would use every weapon in their arsenal to seize it.  The men would kiss ass and appeal to the king’s reason for their share of power and use every other advantage they could muster to compete for it.  And, the women would use the powerful influence of their sensuality and sexual allure to seduce the king’s attention in their direction just the same.  Eventually, a young king will select one top man and one top woman into his most intimate consul.  As Montesquieu says, a young king’s physical strength undermines the dervish’s position as his desire for the vagina makes the dervish more irrelevant.  The woman benefits from the king’s strength and weakness simultaneously.  I think Montesquieu was correct; the woman has the advantage in the battle for control of a young king’s mind.

And, although as Montesquieu points out, both the dervish and the mistress would reconcile forces under an older king, the powerful influence a woman holds over a man can always be considered the greatest regardless of a man’s age and should never be underestimated.

“In October 1838… I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population… it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.”

— Nora Barlow 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin. p128

I think I may fairly make two postulata.

First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.

Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe, and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.

— Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population

Persian Letter Series: Letter 98 – Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna

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.

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Montesquieu's Château de la BrèdeI 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:

World’s best photo’s of Montesquieu’s estate

Great aerial shot of Montesquieu’s chateau

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.

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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)

Persian Letter Series: Letter 85 – Usbek to Mirza, at Isfahan

This is the fifteenth 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 85:

The persecutions that our Muslim zealots have inflicted on the Gabars have forced large numbers of them to emigrate to India, causing Persia to lose a nation which was dedicated to agriculture: they were the only people capable of doing the work necessary to overcome the sterility of our soil.

All that the zealots needed to do was to strike a second blow and wreck our industry, thus ensuring that the empire fell of its own accord, and with it, by an inevitable consequence, that same religion whose growth it was intended to grow so vigorously.

Assuming that we should reason without prejudice, Mirza, I think that it is just as well for there to be several religions within a state.

…I admit that the history books are full of religious wars; but it should be carefully noted that these wars were not produced by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance, urging on the one which believed itself to be dominant.

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The Prophet Zoroaster from Ancient PersiaThis is perhaps one of Montesquieu’s most straightforward ways of saying that there should be freedom of religion and religious tolerance.  Freedom to choose your religion and practice it without fear of persecution is what the founding fathers really took from Montesquieu and something we should all be thankful for and never forget.  Thank God that Thomas Jefferson appreciated the contributions of the French to the enlightenment.

Another thing to note here, is where Adam Smith took a Montesquieu idea and ran with it.  It has often been said that the best fertilizer is hard work.  When Montesquieu points out that Muslim zealotry chased the Gabars out of Persia, he’s pointing out two things:  one, that hard work is the best fertilizer of the soil, and two, the fall of the Persian Empire was borne of religious intolerance.  This is a very important point:  without religious tolerance, any empire will fall.

Please contemplate the last sentence of this excerpt with care.  I think this is a point overlooked by most people in America today, but a point that was well understood by our founding fathers.  It’s not religions that cause the wars, it’s the spirit of intolerance that does.  Stop.  Think about that.  I will write it again:  it’s not religions that cause the wars, it’s the spirit of intolerance that does.  Throughout my life I have heard that religion has caused more wars than anything else and I accepted it.  It took reading this book to flip it around and really make me think.   It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or any other religion as long as you’re tolerant of your neighbor and everyone acts in accordance with the laws of the society.  Remember that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all lived together in harmony in Jerusalem for centuries before the savagery of the crusades.  It can happen again if we raise our children to be tolerant.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 61 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the fourteenth 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 61:

The other day I visited a famous church called Norte-Dame.  While I was admiring the magnificence of the building I happened to get into conversation with a clergyman who like me had been brought there by curiosity.  The conversation fell upon the tranquility of his calling. ‘Most people,’ he said ‘envy our pleasant life, and they are right.  However, it has its disagreeable side.  We are not so cut off from the outside world that we do not have to appear there on countless occasions, and we have a very difficult role to play.  Worldly people are extraordinary.  Whether we approve them or condemn them, they find both equally unacceptable.  If we try to reform them, they consider us absurd, and if we give them our approval they regard us as unworthy of our position.  Nothing is more humiliating than the thought of having shocked the unbelievers.  We are therefore obliged to adopt an equivocal approach, and impress the libertines not by the firmness of our attitude, but by leaving them uncertain of our reaction to what they say.  It requires great ingenuity.  This state of neutrality is difficult: people on the outside world take a chance on anything, and say whatever comes into their heads; according to how it is received, they follow it up or let it go, and succeed much better.’

Comments on the excerpt above:

Notre Dame Cathedral in ParisThis is why Montesquieu begins the enlightenment and has inspired so much thought.  Many people have given thought to what they think ‘libertins’ means in French and I will agree with C.J. Betts and tell you I think that libertines in English means free-thinkers.

So what is he saying?  He’s saying that the priest at Notre Dame is no dummy.  He understands that the complexities of religion get even more complex when confronted by the outside world.  He must accept them and rise above them; again, the serenity prayer.  He’s saying that Ricky Gervais or Richard Dawkins is just as much a religious zealot as the guy who webmasters an apologist website.

There are so many interesting world views out there from some smart and interesting people.  If you study Max Weber you’ll learn that the complex and significant moments of history can be explained as anarchy and chance and could change the course of history.  But then, paradoxically, he’ll tell you that the same thing would have happened to society even if different players were involved.  If you study Ernest Gellner, you’ll understand how capitalism has pierced the armor of most every society on the planet.  If you study Gellner, you’ll learn more about the ugly underbelly of communism than from anyone else.  Capitalism cracked the Soviet Union in 1989 and is even on the rise in China as the shadow of Chairman Mao is receding.  The only closed society left is that of Islam; and, with the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, who knows if that weight that oppresses those societies is beginning to fracture as well.  My point is that with so many staunch viewpoints out there, it only seems possible that an egalitarian society with all men being tolerant of other religions and acting with humility is the way toward peace, prosperity, and civility.  Since it was Montesquieu writing the passage above, you can endow the priest with Montesquieu’s own intelligence and see that this priest, in my opinion, has “figured it out”.  I really like learning from Weber, Gellner, and Tocqueville, but I think we just keep rehashing the same things and same arguments and if we really look at things deeply, Montesquieu has really given us pretty much everything we need to employ in order to have a more peaceful and sophisticated society.

Regarding Weber and societies that espouse Christian values, I often wonder: what if Constantine had never seen that meteor?  Or who really knows what Constantine saw that day, it could have been a meteor, it could have been a UFO, it doesn’t matter; whatever he saw before battle that day changed him.  That moment inspired him to change his religion, summon a meeting, and publish a book.  But, it doesn’t matter.  Even if you could convert the whole world to one religion without bloodshed it would last but the blink of an eye; religions always speciate.  Do you find irony in the fact that one of the best demonstrations of evolution is religion itself?

I think the point is not to have everyone try to believe the same thing as much as it is to have everyone be tolerant of everyone else regardless of their religion.  The laws of society should be taken from the fundamental tenets that every religion has at its root; and then the arguing begins again.  Humans are a complex breed; I think this is why I’m so drawn toward mathematics even though sociology fascinates me.  I think I will do my best to live like the priest from Notre-Dame in the excerpt above.

Persian Letter Series: Letter 50 – Rica to ***

This is the eleventh 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 50:

Everywhere I see people who talk continually about themselves.  Their conversation is a mirror which always shows their own conceited faces.  They will talk to you about the tiniest events in their lives, which they expect to be magnified in your eyes by the interest that they themselves take in them.  They have done everything, seen everything, said everything, and thought of everything.  They are a universal pattern, the subject of unending comparisons, an inexhaustible fount of examples.  Oh, how empty is praise when it reflects back to its origin!

Comments on the excerpt above:

Caravaggio by Michelangelo 1594-1596This quote is funny and an affirmation that our species has not changed much in the thousands of years of recorded history.  How often have you heard people go on incessantly about themselves?  Are they honestly expecting that you should be as interested in them as they are in themselves?  Here’s one for you:  you’re only as cool as other people say you are.   As soon as you start talking about how cool you are, you’ve lost me. While we’ve all gloated before to a certain extant, I’m sure you can think of a person or persons that represent more egregious examples of this behavior.

A fallacy elders like to promote is that only the young of the current generation exemplify this behavior (i.e. the ‘facebook generation’ is more conceited than Gen X or the Baby Boomers and so on).  But, that’s the great thing about studying history: when you look back and see what has changed and what hasn’t, you are reminded that this behavior has been in the human DNA since recorded history began, likely well before that, and will likely be around for as long as we can imagine.

The painting above was painted between 1594 and 1596.  The excerpt from Persian Letters above, was written in 1713.  Tom Brokaw’s book is titled Greatest Generation, do you see the irony?  My dad just sent me a long drawn out chain mail that was about how great his generation was by contrasting their lives without cell phones and drinking from hoses and what not to the current generation, it keeps getting forwarded, do you see the irony?

Perhaps the greatest generation will be the one that keeps their mouths shut, keeps their heads up, keeps their noses to the grindstone, reads history with vigor, promotes tolerance and philanthropy, and eschews any praise for doing what they consider their civil duty.

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

This is the tenth 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:

‘We have a maxim in France,’ he replied, ‘never to give high rank to officers who have spent their time patiently waiting in junior positions.  We consider that they will become narrow-minded by attention to detail, and that, because they are accustomed to little things, they will have become incapable of anything greater.  We believe that if at the age of thirty a man does not possess the qualities required of a general, he will never possess them; that the man who lacks the vision to imagine a battlefield several leagues in extent in its different aspects, and who lacks the presence of mind to use every advantage in victory and every resource in defeat, will never acquire these talents.  It is for this reason that we have positions of preeminence for the sublimely great men to whom Heaven has granted the heart, as well as the ability, of a hero, and subordinate posts for those whose talents are subordinate too.  Among them we include men who have grown old in unimportant wars; they will succeed, at best, only in what they have been doing all their lives; they should not be overburdened when they are beginning to weaken.

Anthony Van Dyck - Portrait of a Young GeneralThis is a great passage.  It should resonate with anyone who’s over 30 years of age.  With insights like this one, it stands to reason why France was a key player in the period of history called the enlightenment.  It is also easy to see what Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many of the founding fathers of this country admired about our French ally across the sea and Montesquieu in particular.  A brain like Montesquieu’s just doesn’t come along all that often. Montesquieu is the man that would later come up with the separation of power style of government the United States Constitution is patterned after and is why I call the Baron: The Father of Sociology.  It’s no wonder our founding fathers would pay attention to such sage consul like that of Montesquieu’s.

Another interesting thing about this passage is how it applies to business and the climbing of the corporate ladder.  Working in Detroit, we get a good glimpse of Japan and understand the Japanese people as our business ally and competitor in the auto industry.   The Japanese have an adage: business is war.  And in that regard, this quote can be held parallel to key corporate positions that require the greatest of strategists.  Again, if a man has not exhibited the skills or character necessary to run a company or lurks in a junior position past 30 years of age trying to capture an executive position later in life, he’s often looked over. It’s a brilliant coining of an axiom, you’ve seen it a hundred times.

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.