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.

Comments on the excerpt above:

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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Lars and the Real Girl

The caption on the cover of this movie sums it up best:  “A whimsical, funny, moving film”.  That’s exactly what it is.  My wife, bless her heart, is always bringing home movies, books, and music that would slip by me.  That’s one of the greatest things about being married to a teacher.  She’s exposed to all those kids each year and knows what they’re reading, what they’re watching, and what they’re listening to.  I’m not certain that all the kids are watching this movie, but she heard about it nonetheless.  It’s a funny thing about this movie too, if you weren’t paying attention to it, you probably never would have noticed it.  It was touching enough that I’m compelled to throw in my two cents on it.

Whenever you’re about to watch a movie you know nothing about, you embark on a risk of wasting a couple precious hours of your life.  When you’re a busy parent, that’s a big risk to take.  When that risk pays off, it feels just a little bit better than normal.  It’s like when you’re kid and you reach into that bowl full of lollipops with your eyes closed with the mindset that you’re going to take whatever you get no matter what; and lo and behold you pull out a good one.  If you like the same kind of candy I do, you’re going to like Lars and the Real Girl.

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The Switch

I love movies.   I love to watch:  new movies, classics, kids movies, all kinds of movies.  One of my favorite things, however, is when I have a ho hum attitude about a movie going in and then I really like it.  This is the case with The Switch starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman.  To top it off, critics had said they disliked this movie or it wasn’t worth the money or whatever it is they said.  I hadn’t really read a critical review, but I’d heard snippets on the radio and overheard rumblings from people checking out reviews in magazines and whatnot.  Well, I’ve never really trusted critics and this is one more example why.  Critics can sometimes factor in and can sometimes be right, but for the most part, they suck.  Critics have also put Jennifer Aniston into the Tom Cruise Zone.  Critical acclaim has never come Tom Cruise’s way yet I seem to enjoy a boat load of his films:  Top Gun, Cocktail, Risky Business, A Few Good Men, Collateral, and the list goes on.  I find that Jennifer Aniston is treated in similar regard in the sense that no matter what she does, the critics say it stinks or find some other trivial point to harp on.  On the other hand, for this critic, there are plenty of Jennifer Aniston movies that are worth watching and enjoyable.

My wife and I missed celebrating our anniversary this June because we’re both so busy with the kids and home improvement projects and a million other things.  So when my mother-in-law said she could watch the kids and we could go out, we thought of our standard 4 hour adventure of dinner and a movie.  The question was what movie to see as we felt like there wasn’t anything out there we were dying to see.  I voted for the The Switch and she agreed.  I didn’t know much of anything about it except that it starred Jennifer Aniston, was about artificial insemination, and critics said it wasn’t very good.  When we walked into the atrium and saw the marquee, I was very pleased to see that the movie also starred Jason Bateman because I have been liking him more and more over the past couple of years and he’s been putting out great stuff.

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The Blind Side

It’s been hard for us to put a movie into the DVD player lately for fear of it sucking.   My wife has been busy grading school papers after we’ve put the kids to bed.  My work is non-stop.  We do our best to make time for the kids to get outside, et cetera.  When The Blind Sidecame from Netflix, I was squeamish.  It was that same monotonous feeling I’ve been having about how I can’t afford to waste time on movies that suck.  My watch/return ratio (i.e. the number of movies I watch to the number of movies that don’t suck) is somewhere around 5 to 1 and that is with a lot of upfront diligence on reading reviews, talking to friends, and listening to opinions on the radio.  And, I’ve only written a handful of movie reviews and I usually only write about the ones that really strike me; this is one of those movies.

Was the movie trite?  No.  Was it predictable? Yes.   The word tritekept occurring to me again and again throughout this movie.   I enjoyed the movie right from the beginning and I knew exactly how the story was going to go.  I had an inkling of what the movie was about with regard to Michael Oher’s story and the fact this movie was based on that true story.  Yet, even if it wasn’t, you would have been able to guess exactly what was going to happen.   This story was a just a real life example of a 100 year old tried and true Hollywood formula.  But, and this is a big but, it didn’t matter.  The story was brilliant.   I suppose this is why the word trite kept popping in my head.  How can a story so realistic (forget about the Hollywood dramatizations – the story in general) be trite?  How can human compassion for others in need be trite?  How can this story be considered trite?  It can’t.  It isn’t.  And, it’s dismissive to think so.

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Extract

This is a movie that you probably missed if you weren’t looking for it.  I wanted to see it in the theatre and was waiting and watching for it and I still couldn’t find it.  The film’s creator, Mike Judge, is also the creator of Beavis and Butt-Head and the movie Office Space.  Ever since Beavis and Butt-Head, I have been a huge Mike Judge fan.  Office Space sealed the deal and therefore, I couldn’t wait for Extract.

My wife was ho-hum about the movie but I managed to get it moved to the top of our Netflix cue when I realized that it was already on video (I still have no idea how it sneaked by us to video because I was honestly seeking it out to watch it at the theatre).  So having her being ho-hum and the movie completely falling off the radar, I had suspicion that it might suck.  Being that Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig, and Mila Kunis are in this movie and that Mike Judge wrote and directed it, I just knew it couldn’t suck, but I was a little nervous.  As you will see in this review, it did not suck.

My initial draw to see the movie was Mike Judge.  But lately, I’ve been really digging Mila Kunis.  She is a total babe and it made me want to see the movie even more.  She ironically graced the cover of my Esquire magazine this month and there is a nice little layout with a couple good pics that you should check out.  So, enough with the prelude and on with the review.

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500 Days of Summer

This is a movie about boy meets girl.  The writing is very clever, fresh, and unique.  Like other movies that go forward and backward in time this movie starts near the end and then quickly takes you back to the beginning.   From there, it bounces forward and backward in time.  The way they did this was kind because they gave you a counter to let you know exactly what day of the 500 days it was.  The counter would spin forward and back so you would know exactly where you were along the timeline.  The color of the trees in the background setting of the counter would also change colors and let you know the mood of our protagonist.   To explain that further might give too much away.

I didn’t think I was going to like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but he did a good job.  He was believable and in the end I liked him and his performance.  The real intrigue to get me to watch the movie would be Zooey Deschanel.  I think I like her a lot and need to go off on tangent about her for the next couple paragraphs.  She is amazingly cute and talented.  I titled a post called “Yes Man” and it was not about the movie “Yes Man” but rather about that ‘type’ of person in the workplace.  I did, however, grab a picture of Zooey Deschanel and Jim Carrey for the blog post just to have an image to enhance the post.  Because I have added the wordpress.com blogstats plugin to this blog site, I’m able to see all my stats (e.g. hits per day/week/month, what posts were viewed, and what search criteria were used to drive traffic to the site, etc…)  It’s an amazing plugin and the only thing you need to install it is wordpress.com blog site and API key.  So, without digressing too much further I’ll get to my  point: the word’s “Zooey Deschanel” drive more traffic to my site than any other search words.  This is where I really learned a couple of things about SEO:  1) search engine optimization really has a lot more to do with keywords like Zooey Deschanel and Miley Cyrus, than anything else.   2) there is a lot of buzz surrounding Zooey Deschanel.  It surprises me that more people hit this site searching on Zooey Deschanel than Miley Cyrus.

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