Persian Letters: Troglodyte and Harem Correlation
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For society to be fully functional it requires of system of organization. If you look at every powerful nation of the world, past and present, you notice there was an organized structure within the society. That is one of the points that Montesquieu emphasizes in his novel, Persian Letters. Through the story of the Troglodytes, letters about the harem, and other random letters concerning government he discusses the possible outcomes to societies without any organization.
In Letter 11, Usbek tells the story of the troglodytes as he takes the reader through their history. As he goes through, he makes it a point to discuss how their society is affected by each new event. The story started with them having a king who was unable to control them but they killed him in order to “reform their natural wickedness.” They decided “each one would look after his own interests exclusively, without considering those of others” (p.54). This barbarian state would soon lead to their collapse for they were unable to fully provide for themselves on their own. The alliances that were broken, the lies, deceit, and stealing were not punished because the bigger man always won, literally. Having no responsibility to anyone or anything left many behind, killing much of the race.
There was a time when the Troglodytes were very sick and a doctor came to help them, but they refused to pay for his services because they were not forced to by anyone. When disease struck again the Doctor refused to come back and help, leaving many more to die. After the series of events that had occurred, the entire race of Troglodytes was deceased but two, these two “understood what justice was; they loved virtue” (p.58). They resurrected the race and gave it structure to make it beneficial to all people.
Montesquieu uses the Troglodytes to show that civilization needs to have structure and a way to determine laws, punishments, and other factors of the society’s way of life. The story doesn’t give us any information about their past before they killed the king, but everything there after was a disaster. The two Troglodytes that survived set up a very controlled society where everyone helped each other and they later decided that they should have a king to lead them, a figure-head for their group. The point of having guidance is also brought up when two of the Troglodytes fought over a woman and they sought advice from a wise man. The wise man refused to help because he had no obligation to either of the men. Montesquieu is showing us that the general population needs a person in command to make decisions and enforce them.
Usbek’s harem in the novel is used as an example of societal order being necessary. In the case of the harem, Usbek is just like the king of the Troglodytes, once he is no longer around, things become unorganized. Such as in the Troglodyte story, we don’t know the harem before they are without Usbek, we only see the outcome. The wives were at first full of misery and confusion, then as time passed they became chaotic. They turned on each other, just like the Troglodytes. The Chief Black Eunuch wrote to Usbek in Letter 64, “Your wives are at war with one another…Each of your wives considers herself superior to the other.” The first Eunuch is an equivalent to the Doctor in the Troglodyte story. He was very helpful in the beginning by helping tame the harem and making sure they stay happy.
As the acts of the wives became more disruptive and deceitful, the First Eunuch dies. Such as the doctor, he was no longer available to keep things in order. After he is gone, death occurs. Solim, the man in charge of the harem, hopes to see Usbek’s “stupor at all the blood I am about to shed here” (p. 280). The death of all the wives who were not faithful or obedient and the suicide of Roxana is a symbol for the death of the Troglodytes. In both stories, only the innocent and virtuous remain, creating a better society. And to finalize the stories, both have the return of their king. The return of the kings is Montesquieu’s way of showing the reader that a leader is necessary for societal order to remain intact. Using the harem as an actual metaphor to the Troglodyte story gives the reader a subtle example of what a civilization without a leader can become.
Montesquieu is trying to prove to the reader that a civilization of people who look out only for themselves and have no structure will destroy itself. All people within a society must do things that will benefit the common good. They must be willing to help to each other so that the strengths of each individual can benefit everyone. Most importantly, they must be willing to work together. If they work as individuals, many times they may end up working against each other, such as the wives did when they began spying on each other. Working as individuals also harms others because the society can’t benefit from everyone’s strengths, such as the Troglodytes and their fertile land. Structure is also important in the sense that laws and punishments will be created and carried out. In the Troglodyte story, the lack of laws and control resulted in unpunished murder, adultery, and theft. Within the harem, with Usbek being gone, no one had complete control or the ability to punish the wives. Montsquieu’s message is obvious; structure and leadership make a society work.
The opinions and ideas that Montesquieu states in Persian Letters shows that he was a very progressive individual. His ideas on religion, culture, government, and people are questioning how things were when he wrote this novel. He comments on wives in Letter 38, in the letter Rica writes, “Our authority over women is tyrannical…among most civilized nations wives have always had authority over their husbands…wives should honor their husbands; husbands should honor them also” (p.93). This is an idea that is hardly considered now, back when Montesquieu was alive, that idea would have been unheard of. He offered new ideas to a time period where big change was just around the corner. His progressiveness could possibly be a small part of that change.
Montesquieu’s idea of what a civilization consists of is reiterated throughout the novel numerous times. Order and guidance are required for a group of people to be efficient and prosperous. This is an ideal that has been shared by many nations and has proven itself over time.