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Montesquieu – “The Persian Letters”

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The “Persian Letters” (Letters XI – XIV) illustrate a classic question in philosophical thought: is man meant to live life by desire or virtue, and what happens if either case is taken to an extreme. Montesquieu illustrates this in letters written by Usbek to Mirza, and a story of a clan of Troglodytes who have created a city (so to speak) first ruled by their own desires as individuals (or their own selfish desires) and then through time, come to live by virtue, and later an attempt at the formation of a government – where the story ends.

The story can roughly be divided into three parts – as it spans four letters: 1) Letter XI illustrates the Troglodytes living by their desires, 2) Letters XII and XII focus on the Troglodytes living by virtues, and 3) Letter XIV demonstrates the Troglodytes difficulty in forming a government.

The story as a whole is a fable, with Montesquieu pointing out in the first part that men should not live by their desire. The Troglodytes are depicted as humans decedent from animals, and “were so wicked and so ferocious that there existed among them no principle of equity and justice.” They were once ruled by a king who sought to abandon them of their wicked ways, but they soon killed him off, denouncing all government, and living by selfish whims. They soon fall prey to what Hobbes and Locke describe as a state of nature, where basically only the strongest survived. And through their “cupidity” they soon all fall prey to each other in one way or another: wives are stolen, as well as land, and material possessions. Even ties to neighboring countries are cut off; when a mysterious illness plagues their lands a foreign doctor arrives and cures them, but is refused payment or retribution for his services, and when the illness strikes again the doctor declines their requests for help based on their previous behavior towards him. And Montesquieu concludes the fate of the Troglodytes that live in a world of desire, by describing them as “victims of their own injustice.”

The second part of the story elucidates Montesquieu’s second point, that men should live by virtue, but he does not let the reader know how, until the third part of the story. He describes two families who form a pact stating that they shall work for “common solicitude and common welfare” and that “the welfare of the individual is always to be found in the common good.” These families prospered, and restructured the entire community, as their children were raised by these same philosophies, through many generations, until all that was left in the civilization were their virtuous descendents. Montesquieu lists many virtues through this story: that men should treat their wives well, that children should respect and listen to their elders and follow in their stead (and learn the lessons and virtues passed down to them), to perform virtuous acts for others, and so on.

The main message that comes across Montesquieu describes on page 62, as he states “that justice to others is like charity to ourselves.” Which is basically an extension of the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”) and that if you perform “good” acts, good things will come to you, and the joy of giving is just as, if not more than, rewarding then receiving. When conflict arose with neighboring countries, what Montesquieu describes in the example he calls “the battle of Injustice and Virtue,” the virtuous Troglodytes protect their city by chasing their enemies out, by forcing them to see “the [pure] virtue of the Troglodytes.”

The third part of the story touches on the creation of civilization: what are people to do, when their population grows to an extent that organization is necessary for order? The Troglodytes decide “they should tender the crown to the man who was the most upright among them … venerated for his years and for a long record of virtue.”

The man that they choose however is unhappy. He does not want a formation of a government, believing that “they should be virtuous in spite of [them]selves.” This man, and Montesquieu, believe that by organizing and creating a monarchy, they would not be acting virtuous, but simply following the lead of another that would rule “less restrictive[ly] than your customs” and that by doing so they would “fall into the misfortune of [their] forefathers” (the wicked and selfish Troglodytes). In this monarchy, this form of government, he believed they would have “no need for virtue.”

Through the whole of the Letters, and the tale of the Troglodytes, Montesquieu is, in addition to philosophical questions, stumbling upon a question made clear by the theme of this week’s readings: Why Government?

Besides making clear, in the first part of the story, that selfish actions by all will only yield destruction, Montesquieu points out the need for organization. As the Troglodytes selfishly divided lands, without organization and thought, a large portion of the population died due to poor conditions on the highlands, and a year later, another portion died, as conditions were reversed. Crime was rampant. Without laws to govern them, they were only under the state of Nature so-to-speak, and only yielded to strength. This led to quarrelling and deaths among them. Without a system of trade, or laws to govern such a system, if someone was unable to completely sustain themselves on their own, they fell prey to unreasonable prices and practices. In addition, they had no international relations and even cut off ties with neighboring countries, and helpful foreigners.

Overall the first part of the story is shouting for a need for laws, the need for organization, and clearly states that living by desire alone and in a selfish and secluded existence among others, is not how men should live.

The second part of the story could be seen as the basis for the creation of laws. It is surprising to see that so much of the virtues that he describes, while they make perfect sense, lean so heavily on religion. While it is historical fact that many laws, especially in the creation of a civilization, do stem from religion; Montesquieu is writing these letters during the French Enlightenment (as pointed out in the Introduction to the letters), a time when so many of the religious ties to government were being investigated for their validity.

He makes it clear that religion is a virtue many times over, by describing the virtuous Troglodytes (in the second part of the story) as respecting God, and through their virtuous acts they are rewarded: “The earth, cultivated by these virtuous hands, seemed to produce of her own accord.”

It seems that virtues can be known, without relying on religion. Philosophies like the Golden Rule and the extensions of it (explained previously) are ideas that can be understood and practiced, without a relationship or belief in a god or gods. For someone who is agnostic, this might weaken Montesquieu’s argument. By including so many religious aspects, it adds a slight bias to the story. Montesquieu’s point of living a virtuous life could still be quite clear, without the religious undertones.

It is clear in the second part of the story, that the creation of laws should come from virtues, since that is a much better way to live than to live by desire, and in a sense, if we extract a moral from the first fable [or part of the whole story] that such laws should also punish or reprimand men’s acts based upon selfish desires.

The third part of the story touches upon two parts; the creation of government, and also – if we include the historical context of the time in which Montesquieu is writing these letters – what type of government. The first part is difficult to answer from the events that occur in the third part of the story. Montesquieu ends the tale with an old man’s disillusionment in his people, as he is being handed a crown he does not want. He believes that men should be able to live by virtue on their own.

But the first part of the story, not only calls for virtue, but also organization – as explained above. In order for things to be fair, they also must be organized, and “fair” is necessary for the “common good” as Montesquieu describes it.

It does not seem that Montesquieu is saying that there should not be a government, but rather, not a monarchy. Especially when taking into consideration that at the time Montesquieu is writing these letters, he is under a very selfish French monarchy. Indeed, the worry of the old man is not that they are organizing or forming government, but that by enacting a monarchy and a king, they are under the king’s rule, he shall proscribe the laws, decide what is just and unjust, and what virtues they should follow.

Montesquieu seems to be touching on ideas of communism, and a republic, and/or a democracy; some sort of political system and government, in which the people as a whole decide what is best for them, and do not rely on one person alone. This seems especially clear since these were sentiments felt by many writers and “rebels” so to speak of the enlightenment.

Overall, the letters are successful in pointing out that virtue is greater than selfish desire, that organization is necessary for the survival of a civilization, and that the rule of such organization and civilization should be under a government that is decided by the people, and not a monarchy.

The creation of Montesquieu’s virtues, that the virtuous Troglodytes act upon, is somewhat confusing. Because there are so many religious facets in the story (the virtuous Troglodytes are depicted as praying, having ceremonies, and mention the gods often) it is unclear whether these virtues are given by god. In the second part of the story, the two families that form a pact for “the common welfare.” When they decide upon the way that they should conduct their actions in life, and what virtues to live by, there is no mention of God, except that it “seem[ed]” that because they were virtuous, the earth “produced” much better for them, then the wicked Troglodytes; which hints at a connection or possible correlation to the gods. Their simple decision to base a pact “on the common welfare” seems sufficient enough. By working together, it is obvious that they would be able to cultivate the land, much more efficiently, and productively – since logically two men can work better than one man working alone.

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