Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #2


Continuation of the previous part…

…In the first Letters, touched by nostalgia for the home the Persian travelers Uzbek and Rica left, Montesquieu introduces readers to Persian culture, sparkling further letters with references to other Persian (Zoroastrian), Hindu, and, of course, Greek and Roman customs. He uses cultural comparisons of those cultures and the cultures of the contemporary Europe as starting points to reflex on social and political themes.

In Letters we can already find ideas, though expressed yet in a brief form, which will be laid in foundation of The Spirit of the Laws. In Letter 78 Montesquieu presents the idea that the most effective government is the one that achieves its goals by the less invasive means, as well as the type of government suited for a particular society the most depends on its cultural background:

It seams to me that the most perfect government is that which fulfills its purpose at the lowest cost, and therefore, that government which controls men in the manner most appropriate to their proclivities and desires is the most perfect.

If, under a tolerant government, the people are as obedient as they are under a harsh government, then the former is preferable, since it conforms better to reason, whereas harshness is alien to it…

The imagination adapts itself automatically to the customs of the country one inhabits; a week in prison or a small fine weigh as heavily on the mind of a European raised in a moderate society, as the loss of an arm intimidates an Oriental. People associate a certain level of fear with a certain level of punishment, and everyone feels it in his own way; despair at the idea of disgrace will oppress a Frenchman sentenced to a penalty that would not deprive a Turk of a quarter of an hour’s sleep.

In the story of the Troglodytes (Letters 11-14) Montesquieu enters the discussion with Thomas Hobbes, about his idea of “natural rights” (to be an asocial being). Montesquieu’s Troglodytes is an hypothetic Arabian tribe, a direct descendant of the hairy, ugly, indistinctly speaking prehistoric men, described by ancient Greek and Roman historians, who were called Τρωγλοδύται (Troglodutai) – literally cavemen. Whom Danish biologis Carl Linnaeus, the founder of the first scientific classification system of species, classified as a separate species of Homo – Homo troglodytes.

There lived in Arabia a people known as the Troglodytes, few in number, they were the descendants of those ancient Troglodytes who, if we can believe historians, resembled animals rather than men. These men were not so ugly, nor had they fur, like bears; but they were so cruel, so savage, that they did not whistle when they spoke… but they were wholly devoid of principles of equity or justice.

The appeal to theme of the prehistoric men is not a surprise for the one who wants to question Thomas Hobbes’ thinking on social organization, because that is the point where Hobbes starts his argument. What is fascinating is the very mentioning of the whistling by Troglodytes during their speech, the peculiarity identified by the ancient Roman historian of the first century AD Pomponius Mela. That whistling, along with the close relationship with the earliest humans and the absence of principles of justice are strikingly similar to the African pygmy tribes of !Kung, mentioned in earlier chapters, with their clicking languages, asocial behavior and the oldest genotype.

In opposition to the Hobbesian (or our contemporary Libertarian) believes of the sufficiency of the Social Compact of any kind to hold society together, Montesquieu argues that such ego-centric societies won’t survive social or natural evolutionary bottle necks, and deprived of the compassion and moral virtues, will destroy themselves.

The only two families surviving due to their virtue and their descendants, who got burdened by it, and who decided to elect a king, became a blueprint for the discussion of the two types of government in The Spirit of the Laws: the republic of virtue and the limited monarchy, with the characteristic and paradoxical conclusions that the weight of the virtual republic demands is tremendously heavy and requires “modification of soul” and works not for everyone, but “mediocre” people, while in the limited monarchy the liberty feels much more at home:

“…Troglodytes; your virtue is becoming burdensome; in your present situation, without a leader, you have to be virtuous in spite of yourselves, for otherwise you could not survive… but you find this yoke too heavy to bear, you prefer to be subject to a prince and to obey his laws, which would be less strict than your own customs; you know that then you will be able to satisfy your ambition, amass riches, and live a life of ease and self-indulgent pleasure; and that, as long as you avoid serious crime, you will have no need of virtue…”

One more of the key ideas of The Spirit of the Laws, visible in the story of Troglodytes, is that the solely positive role of religion in social life is the softening of morals:

Troglodytes became aware of the gods… and the softening influence of the religion tempered those customs which still retained a certain harshness from earlier primitive times.

They instituted festivals in honor of the gods: young girls, wearing flowery garlands, and young men celebrated with dances and pastoral music; feasts would follow, where joy and moderation ruled side by side; it was at these gatherings that voice of innocent nature let itself be heart, where the young men learned to offer and to accept a heart, where the modest virgin would be surprised into a blushing admission, which the fathers’ approval would quickly ratify, while the tender-hearted mothers took pleasure in the prospect of a sweet and faithful union.

They went to the temple to beg favors of the gods, not riches or an onerous abundance, for such desires were unworthy of the happy Troglodytes, and it was only on behalf of their compatriots that they asked for these; no, they approached the foot of altars solely to beg that their fathers enjoy good health, that their brothers marry loving wives, and that their children be loving and obedient; the young girls came to the temple to offer the tender sacrifice of their heart, and asked no other blessing than they might make a Troglodyte happy.

The example of religious celebrations of the imaginary Arabian tribe of Troglodytes looks strikingly similar to the Jurjev or Kupala Day of the Slavic tribes or similar celebrations of the spring equinox and summer solstice of the other European pagan cultures.

However, religion does not only positively affects the social life by softening the morals. The zealous, intolerant religions break the social peace and have to be eradicated by the prudent lawgiver, Montesquieu argues in The Spirit of the Laws. In the Letter 59, an example of such zeal is reserved for a Christian bishop:

An emperor called Theodosius put to the sword all the inhabitants of a town, even the women and young children, and then presented himself at the entrance to a church; a bishop, Ambrose by name, ordered the doors to be shut in his face, as if before a murderer and sacrilegious man; in this, he committed a heroic deed. The emperor, having completed the penance that such a crime demanded, and being then admitted into the church, went and took his place among the priests; the same bishop made him move away, and in this he acted like a fanatic and a madman: so true is it that we must beware of our zeal. What did it matter to religion, or to the state, whether the emperor did, or did not, stand among the priests?

Continuing the debate with the Hobbesian and Lockean understanding of the “natural rights” in Letters 67 and 81, Montesquieu repeats after Cicero that a man posses an innate moral imperative; and not just a man, but by the nature of Universe God has the same imperative, too:

Men can commit injustices, because it is in their interest to do so, and they would rather satisfy themselves than others. It is always through thinking of themselves that they act unjustly; no one is gratuitously bad, there must be a reason which determines the act, and that reason is invariably one of self-interest.

But it is impossible for God ever to act unjustly; once we assume that he is aware of justice, it is necessary that he should act according to it, for since he needs nothing, and is sufficient unto himself, he would be the most evil of all beings were he evil without the motivation of self-interest.

So, even if there were no God, we should always love justice, that is, try hard to resemble that being of whom we hold so perfect an idea, and who, if he existed, would necessarily be just. Although we would be free of the bonds of religion, we ought not to be free of the bonds of justice.

Such, Rhedi, are my reasons for thinking that justice is eternal, and independent of human conventions; if it were to depend upon them, that would be a terrible truth which we would have to conceal from ourselves…

Otherwise, we would live in a state of perpetual fear; we would walk among men as among lions, and we would never know a moment’s security about our life, our possessions, or our honor.

Montesquieu comments in Letter 101 on the famous concept of John Locke that people have the right to rebel against the oppressive government. This idea has been enthusiastically taken on the shield by the Founding Fathers to justify their rebellion against the British Crown, as we read in the Declaration of Independence: “…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government…”

Despite the noble sounding rhetoric of the Lockean thinking, Montesquieu sees in these ideas only an expression of the right of the strong:

According to the English, the crime of high treason is simply the offense the weaker party commits against the more powerful, in disobeying him, regardless of the nature of the disobedience. So the people of England, finding that they were stronger than one of their kings, declared this king guilty of high treason for having made war against his subjects. They are, therefore, entirely correct when they say that the precept in their Qur’an, exhorting them to submit to those in power, is not really difficult to obey, since it is impossible for them not to obey it, in that it is not to the most virtuous that they are obliged to submit, but to the most powerful.

This assessment has been fully confirmed by the very Founders only nine years after adoption of the Declaration. The Orwellian newspeak of the Constitution Preamble – “insure domestic Tranquility” – means nothing less than renunciation of the rights of people to rebel against the Federal government.

In Letter 87 Montesquieu comes back again to the theme of comparing two types of government: virtuous republic and limited monarchy. There he chooses the strife for glory, the readiness for self-renouncement as a measure of liberty in society. He finds a commonality between republic and monarchy in that the both are friendly to, and protect man’s strife for glory, and, hence, the man’s liberty. The nature of the desire for glory is the same in all regimes – an extension of the self-preservation instinct by the imaginations of educated and creative persons. That is the desire that forced  student of Socrates, depicted in the Plato’s Republic, to reject the first Socrates’ model of the ideal city for artisans of crafts. For ambitious people with “erotic” desires that would be boring, dismal place to live. They want grander applications for their hungry for the greatness spirit:

The desire for glory is no different from that instinct for preservation that is common to all creatures. It is as if we enhance our being if we can gain a place in the memory of others; it is a new life that we acquire, which becomes as precious to us as the one we received from Heaven.

However, just as not all men are equally attached to life, they are not equally responsive to glory. That noble passion is certainly always imprinted in their heart, but imagination and education modify it in a thousand ways.

This difference, which exists between one man and another, is even more apparent between one nation and another.

One can posit that maxim that, in every state, the desire for glory increases in proportion to the liberty of the subjects… it is never the companion of servitude.

…In many regards, one is much freer in France than in Persia; consequently, here men love glory much more. That delightful illusion induces a Frenchman to find pleasure and joy in doing things which your sultan can only obtain from subjects by constantly confronting them with punishments and rewards…

But the sanctuary of honor, fame and virtue seems to be in republics, and in countries where there is a deep sense of patriotism. In Rome, in Athens, in Sparta, honor was the sole reward for the most signal services. A garland of oak or laurel leaves, a statue, or a eulogy were an immense recompense for a battle won or a city taken.

There, a man who had performed an outstanding feat, considered himself sufficiently rewarded by the action itself.

However, we later read in The Spirit of the Laws, the form and the reason for the pursuit for glory differ in republics and monarchies: in the former a man finds pleasure in the very act of helping his fatherland, and in the later – the reason is not important, but the shear impressiveness of the act. Yet, without a guidance of wisdom and morals, both luck an end in themselves and lead to militarism and empire-building.

In the Letter 97 Montesquieu touches the theme which will be unwound into couple books of The Spirit of the Laws – the laws of Franks, their origin from the spirit and the culture of the nation, the harmful effects of the borrowing Roman and Canon laws, the way the Gaul was conquered by Franks, and consequences of that for the legality of the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV or Fronde:

Who can believe that the most ancient and powerful kingdom in Europe has been governed, for more than the last ten centuries, by laws which were not created for it? If French had been conquered this would not be hard to understand. But they are the conquerors.

They abandoned the ancient laws made by their first kings in national general assemblies; and the odd thing is that the Roman laws they adopted in their stead were, in part, made and written by emperors who were the contemporaries of their own legislators.

In order that the acquisition might be complete, and that all their good sense might come from elsewhere, they adopted all the Papal Bulls, and have based a new part of their law on them: a new kind of servitude.

In the Letter 99, Montesquieu again returns to the paradoxical idea that the limited monarchies of the Europe saved, carried through the ages, and amplified liberties of Classical republics, though there always exists a danger for the limited monarchy to degenerate into despotism, with the grave consequences for monarchs themselves:

Most European governments are monarchical, or rather bear that label; for I do not know whether such governments have ever actually existed: at any rate, it is impossible that they should last long: such states are unstable, and invariably degenerate into despotism or republicanism. Power can never be shared equally between the people and the prince; the balance is too difficult to maintain, power necessarily always diminishing on the one side while increasing on the other; as a rule, however, the advantage is to the prince, who heads the armies…

Nothing brings princes so close to the condition of their subjects as does this immense power they hold over them, for nothing makes them more vulnerable to the reversals and caprices of destiny…

European nobleman are in different situation [relative to Persian ones]: for them disgrace deprives them of nothing but goodwill and favour; they retire from court, and expect only to enjoy a peaceful life and the advantages of their birth. As they are rarely put to death except for the crime of high treason, they are wary of committing this, when they weigh what they have to lose against how little they would gain; consequently, one sees here few rebellious, and few princes who die a violent death.

In Letters 102 and 103 Montesquieu‘s personages Rhedi and Usbek debates the role of arts, pursuit of sensual and material pleasures in promoting progress and civilization. Rhedi sees in those only signs of decadence, while Usebk (and Montesquieu after him) considers the passion to acquire wealth as the engine of modernization and promotion of the liberty:

A woman has decided that she must appear at a gathering wearing a particular style of finery: consequently, from that moment, fifty artisans can no longer sleep, nor have time to eat or drink; she commands, and is obeyed, more promptly than our monarch would be, because self-interest is the greatest monarch on earth.

This passion for work, this passion to acquire wealth, affects people of every condition, from the artisan to the nobleman; nobody wants to be poorer than the man he’s just seen, whose situation is by a mere hair’s breadth inferior to his own.

Later in The Spirit of the Laws, in the last books devoted to the problem of introduction of liberty and democracy into despotic regimes of Asia, Montesquieu sees the solution of the unwinding and opening such regimes in literally subverting the rigid morals of the despotic cultures by introducing Western goods of luxury, tokens of vanity and fashion. The idea is not to attack the aboriginal culture directly, which spirit inevitably creates laws of despotism, but make locals lukewarm toward to and make them forget about their original culture while they are busy acquiring the prestigious products of the West.

The precious locomotives of such change are the women. Victoria Secret garments, even worn under burkas, are much more powerful tools of democratization than the missiles and bombs falling on the heads of their husbands from al-Qaeda.

It is interesting that effectively the ideas of Montesquieu’s “progressor’s manual” were applied to Japan in nineteenth century and now to China, in the order Montesquieu predicted these countries will be brought into the orbit of Western civilization, while the Middle East remains the hardest task by his assessment.

In series of Letters (108-118) Montesquieu discusses influence of the religion, customs, governing practices, climate and terrain on the human population. This thinking he will extend in The Spirit of the Laws on the whole theme of the human history and explanation of the outcomes of the clashes of civilizations. Here, in Letters, Montesquieu starts the discussion with the weirdly sounding, for a contemporary reader, premise:

How has it come about that the world is so sparsely populated, compared with former ages? How has it come about that Nature has lost that miraculous fecundity of earlier times? Might she already have reached old age? Could she be loosing her vitality? … There are men who claim that the city of Rome alone once contained more inhabitants than the greatest kingdom in Europe does today…

In the time of Montesquieu views of the Dutch scholar Isaak Vossius (Isaac Voss) about the decline of European populations since the Classical times were popular, until David Hume put then into questioning in 1751 in his work Of the Populousness of the Ancient Nations.

The idea of the depopulation of the Europe, which lasted until the Age of Enlightenment or even our times, might, indeed, be regarded as absurd if we talk about absolute numbers. However, if we turn our sight to the relative numbers, the numbers of the Roman Empire population comparing to the world population, the question above may become looking not so ridiculous.

Conservative estimations based on the Augustus census give the figure of 55-65 million people living under the Roman rule in the whole Empire, with about 35 million in its European part. Comparing that with the estimation of the world population at those times in about 200-300 million people, we get at least the same ratio between the today’s “Golden Billion” of the Western civilization and population of the rest of the world, or the ratio of the European and world population at times of Montesquieu (100 to 600-700 million). Recent, more liberal estimations give the Roman Empire population a figure of 80-120 million, which translates into a staggering ratio of the almost half of the world population living under the rule and culture of Roman civilization.

Among the factors promoting or inhibiting the population growth Montesquieu see the religion:

The religion of the Romans forbade polygamy, and in this enjoyed a huge advantage over the Islamic religion; divorce was permitted, which gave it another, no less significant advantage over Christianity.

If China fosters such an amazingly large population, it is due simply to a certain way of thinking; for, since children look upon their parents as gods, respect them as such in this life, and honor them after their death with sacrifices in which, they believe, their souls, annihilated in the T’ien, are reborn into a new life, everybody is induced to increase a family…

As well as the customs of the culture:

The Romans did not have fewer slaves than we do, they actually had more, but they made better use of them.

Far from forcibly preventing their slaves from multiplying, on the contrary, they actually encouraged them in every way they could; they united them as much as possible in a kind of marriage; by this means filling their houses with domestic servants of both sexes and all ages, and the state with a vast population.

…the Republic employed its slave population to infinite advantage. Every slave had his peculium [a “bank account”, formally belonging to slave’s master, because slaves were not permitted to have property by the law, but technically owned by the slave]…; with this he worked, applying himself to whatever occupation he felt suited his skills…

Those slaves who, thanks to their own conscientiousness and hard work, grew rich, bought their freedom and become citizens. The Republic renewed itself constantly, welcoming new families into its bosom as the old families brought their own annihilation.

Obviously the climate and terrain:

When a country is inhabited, that is evidence of some particular defect in the nature of its climate; when we remove people from a benign climate and transport them to such a country, we are doing the exact opposite of what we intended.

The Romans knew this from experience; they sent all criminals to Sardinia…

The great Shah Abas, intending to deprive the Turks of their ability to maintain large armies on the frontier, transported almost all the Armenians out of their country, and sent more than twenty thousand families into the province of Gilan, where practically all of them very soon perished.

However, the most important is the cultural and political habits of the people, what Montesquieu continues to stress over his later works again and again:

Tolerance in government encourages, to an astonishing degree, the propagation of species. All republics offer constant proof of this, above all Switzerland and Holland; judged by the nature of their terrain these two countries are the worst in Europe yet they have the largest populations…

The human species multiples in countries where abundance supplies the needs of the children, without in any way infringing upon the resources of the fathers.

The very equality of the citizens, which generally produces equality in their fortunes, brings to each part of the body politic abundance and vitality, disseminating these everywhere.

It is fascinating how Montesquieu identifies the emergence of republicanism in Greece as an accident in the Letter 125:

The first governments in the world were monarchies; it was only by chance, and by the passage of time, that republics were born.

Paradoxically, there were Persians who triggered that “accidental” republicanism in Greeks. From the ancient times Greeks recognized they have common roots of ancestry with Persians. The latter were believed descended from the legendary hero Perseus – the similarity of the hero’s name and the name of Iranian peoples is not an accident. That was also a noble kinship. Diodorus Siculus mentions that when Zeus was looking for the mother-to-be of his future son Heracles, the prospective High King of people, Zeus was looking for the female descendant of Perseus.

Unlike the commonly distributed opinion that Greeks despised and hated Persians, they really heavily borrowed from the Achaemenid culture in times of their close encounters (not always peaceful, or rather not peaceful at all) in V century BC, argues Margaret Christina Miller, professor of archeology at University of Sydney. This borrowing coincided with the steep rise of the wealth of Greece, and even common folks were able to afford Persian luxury goods. To distinguish themselves from the commoners, Grecian aristocracy came up with the ideas of spiritedness, self-renounce and self-restriction of the early Grecian republicanism.

Despite that “accidental” invention of the republicanism by Greeks, Montesquieu reiterates again and again that the republicanism is the unique invention of the European civilization and stems from its specific cultural background that adores the liberty, but the Asiatic culture is perfectly suited for the despotism:

When I first arrived in Europe one of the subjects that most exercised my curiosity was the history and origin of republics. As you know, most Asians have not the faintest concept of this type of government, and their imagination has not even enabled them to grasp that any form other than despotism can exist upon the earth…

It seams as if liberty is made for the spirit of the peoples of Europe, and servitude for that of the peoples of Asia. In vain did the Romans offer the Cappadocians this precious treasure: the cowardly nation refused it, and welcomed servitude with the same alacrity that other peoples show in welcoming freedom…

Meanwhile, countless unknown peoples emerged from the north, and spread like raging rivers across the Roman provinces; finding it is as easy to make conquests as to practice their piracy, they divided up those lands and turned them into kingdoms. These were free peoples, and so strictly did they limit the authority of their kings that that the latter were in fact no more than leaders or generals. These kingdoms, therefore, although created by force, never felt the yoke of the conqueror… Some of these peoples, such as the Vandals in Africa and the Goths in Spain, would even depose their king the moment he no longer suited them; and in other cases the authority of the monarch would be limited in a thousand different ways: his power would be shared among a large number of lords, whose agreement was required before a war could be undertaken; war booty was divided between leaders and soldiers; no taxes to benefit the king were permitted, and all laws were passed in national assemblies. Such were the fundamental principles of all those states which were created from the ruins of the Roman Empire.

To be continued…

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