Persian Letters

by Montesquieu

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In the Persian Letters what is the tale of the Troglodytes about and what is its significance?

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A brief summary of the Troglodyte story.

In The Persian Letters, the Tale Of The Troglodytes encompasses Letters XI-XIV (11-14).

According to Uzbek, the Troglodytes are a damnable tribe of people who lived in Arabia a long time ago. He tells Mirza that these people are such 'brutish' and 'malicious' beings that they 'lacked all notions of justice and equity.' Accordingly, each man lived according to his own dictates and his own pleasure. They were a people who had no toleration for any sort of government; all past rulers of any sort who dared to cross their will were summarily executed. They were also not beneath killing their own fellow Troglodytes for imagined and literal offenses.

As time continued, a plague threatened the tribe with extinction. In the throes of the epidemic, the Troglodytes had begged for a physician to cure them, but the physician, himself repulsed by their inhumanity, stubbornly refused to comply. Only two families of Troglodytes survived the plague to make a new beginning.

These two families cleaved to each other. Their generosity and goodwill towards each other was as exemplary as the savagery of their deceased countrymen was appalling. This new race of Troglodytes lived in impressive harmony, their happiness supported by religious inclinations as well as natural tendencies towards disinterested magnanimity for their fellow Troglodytes.

When their unparalleled prosperity gained them the envy of a neighboring nation, all the Troglodytes rose up to defend their homeland and their families. They fought mightily for every Troglodyte's safety and were able to repel the conquering invaders.

However, as time continued, these Troglodytes decided that they would have a king reign over them. When they announced their selection to the wisest among them, the worthy Troglodyte refused. He explained that they have always lived solely by their natural inclinations towards virtue. To live otherwise would have threatened their very existence and caused them to relapse into the 'wretched state' of their ancestors. He begs them to reconsider living by virtue alone instead of submitting to a king's rule. He further argues that it is by virtue alone that their greatness has been assured; the pious Troglodyte explains that, upon his death, he does not wish to carry the news to their ancestors that they have submitted to the dictates of a king.

Analysis of the story of the Troglodytes and its significance.

Here, Montesquieu seems to suggest that the Hobbesian vision of an omnipotent ruler is anathema to true justice and equity in any society. Thomas Hobbes, an influential Enlightenment-era philosopher, saw monarchy as a means to an end. He viewed the absolutist power of kings as a right, for the sole purpose of administering peace and harmony in any realm. Hobbes even argued for the Church to be brought under the authority of the monarch; he believed that the prospect of civil war stemming from any religious dispute would be better suppressed by a more consistent and centered source of authority in the person of a king.

Montesquieu presents the view that virtue is necessary for the continued advancement of any people. Additionally, a disinterested concern for the welfare of all is crucial to the stability of a civilized society. He does not, however, shy away from addressing the realities of war. In the story, it is ironically the success of the new race of Troglodytes which prompt an attack from a neighboring country. This attack on their sovereignty and way of life constrains all Troglodytes to rise up in defense of their country. In The Spirit of The Laws, Montesquieu argues that war leads to the need for laws and government.

However, he also believed that the authority of government needed to be tempered with checks to its power. This is exemplified in the story, when the aged Troglodyte refused the role of an absolute monarch over the new race of Troglodytes. Montesquieu's notion of the separation and balancing of powers was to eventually lend its virtues to the foundation of the United States Constitution. Today, our system of judicial, legislative, and executive powers exist as a check to stem any instance of governmental abuse of authority or usurpation of individual rights.

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