Montesquieu - "The Persian Letters" - The Parable of the Troglodytes and Its Relation to Forming a Government

Topics: Virtue, Government, Altruism Pages: 5 (1756 words) Published: September 19, 2006
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...
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