Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Montesquieu’s Myth of Depopulation


In Montesquieu’s work Persian Letters, there is a discussion of the depopulation of the Modern world as compared to the Ancient world. This was at the time a common historical myth, but it is of interest in terms of what it tells us about how historical myths arise and become fashionable, even when their basis is paper thin or in fact non-existent.

Montesquieu was one of the first great writers and thinkers of that movement and period of European history called the Enlightenment. Montesquieu was born in France in a small town near the city of Bordeaux in 1689. He was a member of the nobility and published on writings on many subjects. He was also a traveller, who visited other countries including England. Montesquieu is best known for his great work The Spirit of Laws, (published 1748 C.E.) which set forth his vision of secular, law abiding and balanced government. To say that this book had an enormous impact is to understate its impact. It is virtually impossible to understand Enlightenment political and moral thought without reference to this book to say nothing of its impact on both American and French Revolutionaries. Montesquieu died after a short illness in 1755.

A book that serves has a sort of prelude to The Spirit of Laws, is the above mentioned Persian Letters that were originally published in 1721 C.E. This work is written in the form of an expository novel, (i.e., a novel written in the form of letters by various characters to each other), by two fictional Persian noblemen, Usbek and Rica, touring Europe to each other and various other characters. Despite its form it is not really a novel but an examination of European life, letters, society, mores and politics from the point of view of two fictional outsiders. The work is also a reflection of European attitudes towards the orient in the letters that describe the customs and practices of the “orient” as the fictional letter writers reflect on their own culture through reflecting on European culture.

Unfortunately while the insight on European culture etc is incisive and clever and brilliant at times, the insight into the “orient” is most of the time a collection of stereotypes and clichés of oriental despotism and harem sensuality and depravity that reflected both little real knowledge and virtually no capacity to see the point of view of the “other”.

The bottom line is that our two Persian Noblemen, Usbek and Rica are nothing more than thinly disguised Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers and not Persian, Muslim, Shia noblemen. Montesquieu is simply using “aliens” as a way of expressing his own ideas and giving himself a shield by which to deny that the ideas are really his own. After all Montesquieu could simply say if the ideas bother anyone, “What do you expect from two Saracen heathens?”

An indication of just how superficial was Montesquieu’s actual real knowledge of Persian culture and his efforts to get into the actual point of view of outsiders to European culture was superficial is the calendar that his Persians use. It is not the actual lunar calendar used by Muslims but simply the Gregorian calendar with Muslim names.1

Thus we can take it for granted that the opinions given by the two Persians are European opinions, put in the mouths of Persian characters and have little to do with the then opinions of actual Persians.

Thus we can take it for granted that letters 112-122,2 that lament the alleged depopulation of the world as compared to ancient times reflects a European intellectual fashion and historical myth at the time and does not reflect the interests of Persian or other Muslim thinkers of the time. This being the case both the idea and the arguments that follow in the letters are both purely European and purely reflections of Montesquieu’s own interests.

One of the characters, Rhedi, writes to Usbek and states that he is thinking about the following problem:

Why is it that the world is so thinly populated in comparison to former times? How is that nature has managed to lose the prodigious fertility that she had originally? Could she be already in old age, and failing from lack of strength?3

Of this is a straw question argument it was not demonstrated that the population of former times was in fact massively greater; it is here simply assumed. After raising this straw question to a mystery that probably never existed we get into some details.

Rhedi states that he as been in Italy for over a year and that the towns were empty and unpopulated and that ancient Rome had the population of a large kingdom. He claims that ancient Roman citizens had 10,000-20,000 slaves excluding their country estates and that the population of Rome was huge. Further Sicily once had a large population. He states that Greece had not one hundredth of the population it used to have and Spain is largely desolate and empty. Also France is depopulated in comparison to Gaul when Caesar conquered it. Further Turkey in Europe and Poland are under populated and America contains not 1/50th of the population it used to have. Asia Minor as only one or two great cities left when formally there were many and Persia it’s self as only a fraction of the population it had under Xerxes and Darius.4 As our writer says:

In a word, as I scan the earth, all I find is ruins; I seem to see it recovering from the ravages of plague and famine.5

About Africa our author says little because at the time little was known.6 But our author concludes:

After making as exact a calculation as is possible with this sort of subject, I have come to the conclusion that there is scarcely a tenth of the number of men on earth that there were in former times.7

The above description is a tissue of absurd assumptions and fantasies on Montesquieu’s part. That he was engaged pulling “facts" out of thin air is revealed when in various drafts of his Persian letters he replaced 1/50th with 1/10th and 1/100th with /50th and so forth.8

Not all of it is entirely fantasy by Montesquieu but the residue of fact underlying it all is just that a residue. For example the statement that Italian towns were empty is false in that we know that in 1700 C.E., there were more people in Italy than in 1600 C.E. Also on both dates the population of Italy was greater than under the Roman Empire. The residue of fact is that it is undoubtedly true that in 1700 C.E., the population of Rome was less than it was under the Roman Empire, although the absurd figures given at the time like 14 million for the city of Rome is nonsense and so is the figure of 1 million.9

After this we come to the reason why Montesquieu accepts these absurd figures. His reference to Roman citizens having huge numbers of slaves. Montesquieu accepts the absurd and frequently quite ridiculous figures given by ancient authorities, from Herodotus down who give figures, some times in the millions, for armies and other frequently absurd figures they simply pull out of thin air. Montesquieu accepts those figures and so of course concludes that ancient populations must have been much larger than modern ones.10

The statement for Sicily being depopulated. It does seem that Sicily at this time was economically stagnant but its population had not spectacularly declined.

Greece probably at this time had a population less than at its height in the 5th / 4th century B.C.E., however the idea it was just 2% that that figure is stuff and nonsense. Spain had experienced a significant decline in population during the 17th century but it was still much greater than in Roman times and further the decline was on the order of 10-20% not anything like 90-98%. Spain was also at the time Montesquieu wrote this in the process of recovery in terms of economy and population.11

As for France; the population was more than double what it was under Rome and further France had in the 17th and continuing throughout the 18th century significant indeed massive population growth.12

Poland was not experiencing a population decline or depopulation at the time and neither was Turkey in Europe.13

The Americas is the one area were significant, indeed spectacular population decline had in fact happened recently. Modern estimates are on the order of 80-95%, which is indeed truly spectacular. However it seems to have been mainly the result of disease, although, conquest, cultural shock and exploitation helped it along.14

As regards Persia, there can be little doubt that Persia c. 1700 C.E. had significantly more people than it did in 480 B.C.E.15

Since it appears that Europe in 1700 C.E., had significantly more people than when Rome was at its height;16 Montesquieu when in latter letters proposes answers to the question of why there is depopulation at least in Europe / Asia he answering a question that as not been posed by the facts.

Still the answers Montesquieu suggests are of interest.

In letter 113,17 Usbek, who in this letter is Montesquieu’s mouthpiece speculates that the human race was nearly whipped out by the Black death a few centuries earlier. This of course reflects the then common idea that the Black Death killed well over half the population of Europe, then it appears that the actual figure is more like 1/3rd. Montesquieu then speculates that the ravaging effects of syphilis may have had an effect in reducing the population. Interestingly Montesquieu speculates that the earth is more than 6000 years old here.

In letter 114,18 Montesquieu speculates that the Romans had a greater population than either modern day Christian and Muslim lands (this is false), because Christian lands limit or forbid divorce and Muslim lands practice polygamy. Montesquieu writes:

It seems to me that a Muslim is like an athlete doomed to compete without respite, who is weakened and overcome by is initial efforts, and languishes on the very field of victory, lying buried, so to speak, beneath his own triumphs.19

To Montesquieu the Muslim male with many wives, exhausted trying to satisfy them sexually, produces few and weak children. This says more about the sexual fantasies of Montesquieu and his milieu than anything else and can be dismissed as fantasy. Of course Montesquieu seemed to be unaware that the great majority Muslim men only had one wife and that the harems were women “always grow old there in a miserable state of virginity”20 were small in number and had only a few women over all in them.

In letter 115,21 Montesquieu suggests that the Romans by allowing their slaves to “marry” and in other ways encouraging the enterprise of their slaves encouraged them to breed. This of course presents far too rosy a picture of the actual situation of slaves in ancient Rome and again it is fallacious.22

In letter 116,23 Montesquieu states that among Christians the lack of divorce is stated to cause a lack of children due to people being unable to leave childless marriages so that the population suffered a decline. Montesquieu critiques the notion that marriage is something other than a contract. This is of course an obvious attack on the idea that marriage is a Sacrament. This is of course fallacious given that in Montesquieu’s day Europe was experiencing significant population growth.

In letter 117,24 Montesquieu claims that Christian countries because of the great number of Priests, Nuns and Monks, have taken people out of the marriage market and this diminished the population.

This career of chastity has annihilated more men than plagues or the most savage wars.25

Montesquieu is of course giving voice to the opinion, common among Enlightenment thinkers, that the various Church orders etc., were social and economic detriments and ought to be suppressed. Of course their actual effect on population was minimal.

Montesquieu then goes on to say that given that Protestant countries do not have this large number of chaste individuals that they are inevitably more populous and prosperous than Catholic countries. This is of course pure polemics with little to support it in reality.

Letter 118,26 talks about the slave trade and its disastrous effects on Africa. Montesquieu’s argument is that the effects of the slave trade have depopulated Africa. Montesquieu seems to think that Africans were transported to the New world mainly to work in the mines. This is not true. In Montesquieu’s time as later they were sent to the Americas to work on plantations. Further it is a debatable proposition that the slave trade had much effect on the population of Africa however much it was a human atrocity / tragedy.27

In letter 119,28 Montesquieu considers that ideas of ancestor worship, as in China, and hope for the future, as in Judaism, may be helpful in increasing reproduction. However the attitude that we are just travellers here, that life is unimportant, decreases effort and leads to population decrease.

We consider that we are travellers who should always be thinking of our other homeland; to us there seems to be something unjustifiable about doing useful, durable work, or making efforts to ensure security for our children, or planning for when our short and ephemeral life is over. We are calm about the present, unworried by the future, and do not take the trouble to keep our public buildings in good repair, or to clear waste ground, or to work tat land which is capable of being cultivated: we live in a state of general apathy. Leaving everything to be done by Providence.29

Although this comment is supposed to apply to the Muslim world only, and it also carries the old stereotype of the unchanging, fatalistic east, it is clear that it is meant to apply also to such attitudes in Christian Europe. Again it is not clear that this has much if any impact on population growth.

Montesquieu then critiques the common European practice of primogeniture, i.e., the practice of reserving the bulk I, if not the entire amount of a family’s inheritance to the eldest male child, and failing that eldest female child. Montesquieu contends that this discourages people from having children. Montesquieu seems to have it backwards. It seems to be the case that equal inheritance discourages people from having large families because in a situation of growing population this leads to property especially land becoming divided into smaller and smaller portions so families limit family size to prevent this. France in the 19th century was a classic example of this.30

In letter 120,31 Montesquieu contends that primitive hunter-gatherers have an aversion to work, and through the practice of abortions have low populations. Although Montesquieu admits that hunting etc., will support far fewer people he contends such people are frequently ravaged by famine. That is simply not true. As for Montesquieu’s statements about women having abortions to retain their looks that is a conceit of his own society like “savages” alleged aversion to work. Abortion before very recent times was highly dangerous and was generally a population control measure not to preserve looks.32

Letter 121,33 claims that colonization almost always never works and in many cases helps to depopulate a country. In the main Montesquieu as the example of the Spanish empire where because of plague and the effects of conquest the population was drastically reduced and even by 1700 had not recovered.
The Spaniards, giving up any hope of ensuring the loyalty of the conquered nations, chose to exterminate them, and to send out a loyal population from Spain; never has a wicked plan been more punctiliously carried out. A people as numerous as the whole population of Europe was seen to disappear from the earth at the arrival of these barbarians, whose4 only thought, in conquering the Indies, seems to have been to reveal to mankind the ultimate limits of cruelty.34
What Montesquieu is describing is the so-called Black Legend of the Spanish conquest of the New World. Rooted in the denunciations of the Conquest by Spanish writers like de Las Casas it was a propaganda tool used to attack Spanish imperial power in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. What is generally ignored in the legend was that the main cause of the depopulation was not Spanish cruelty or oppression but the unintended effects of epidemic diseases on the population. None of this means that Spanish conquest / rule was not accompanied by massive amounts of cruelty and oppression it just means that contrary to Montesquieu’s statement there was no deliberate intention to wipe out the natives an replace them with Spaniards. Montesquieu is simply engaging in agit-prop here.35

Over all Montesquieu’s point seems to be that colonies drain off population and are of no advantage to increasing the population. In fairness to Montesquieu, colonies especially when they were starting did tend to have high death rates, but subsequent history especially of the English colonies would reveal that Montesquieu was after all way wrong here. So Montesquieu’s advice that people stay home so the population can increase seems wrong, and it appears that in fact colonies have an over all impact of increasing commerce and development and increasing the populations of both the colony and mother country. The effects on the natives is often very negative however.36

Letter 122,37 describes that gentle methods of government combined with some degree of affluence encourage people to have children and that poverty creates a class of weak children who cannot survive. Basically Montesquieu argues that poor people do not have children because they cannot take care of them, whereas people with some affluence do have children.
Men are like plants, which never grow well unless they are properly cultivated; in nations stricken by poverty the species suffers, and sometimes even degenerates.38
Although Montesquieu makes some good points the fact of the matter is that why people have children is for a variety of reasons. In Europe until recently and still in much of the world people had little security in their old age except from relatives and especially their children. A poor old person with no children was in a very precarious position in 18th century Europe. Children were old age security. So not surprisingly even the poor would have children for economic reasons. People practiced family limitation at the time by a variety of methods because of economic constraints and tended to limit the number of children to those they needed for economic viability and their potential needs in old age. In the modern world having large families tends to be limited by economic security and by women being able to have input into decisions regarding their fertility. Montesquieu’s assumption that if people have affluence they will have more children seems to be at best a half truth.39

Montesquieu’s letters in regard to this problem provide a fascinating insight into the thoughts and ideas of the European Enlightenment, however it is still insight regarding a problem that never existed.

1. Montesquieu, Persian Letters, Penguin Books, London, 1973, pp. 301-302.

2. IBID, pp. 202-220.

3. IBID, Letter 112, p. 202.

4. IBID, pp. 202-203.

5. IBID, p. 203.

6. IBID.

7. IBID, pp. 203-204.

8. IBID, p. 326.

9. Finley, M. I., Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Penguin Books, London, 1980, pp. 29-31, Ferdinand, Lot, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, Harper Torch Books, New York, 1961, pp. 69-70.

10. IBID, Finley, and pp. 34, 45, 64-65, 79-80, Lot, and pp.63-75.

11. Elliott, J. H., Imperial Spain 1469-1716, Penguin Books, London, 1963, pp. 292-293, 364-370, McEvedy, Colin, and Jones, Richard, Atlas of World Population History, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp. 99-101, 110-114. McEvedy and Jones give Greece a population of 2.5 million in 200 B.C.E., 2 million in 200 C.E., and 1.5 million in 1700 C.E.

12. IBID, McEvedy, pp. 55-60. McEvedy give France a population of 6.5 million in 200 C.E., and 22 million in 1700 C.E., with a total population of 29 million in 1800 C.E.

13. IBID, pp. 92-97, 110-114. The total population of Turkey in Europe was c. 10 million in 1700 C.E., as against a total of c. 6 million in 200 C.E.

14. See for example Stannard, David E., American Holocaust, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 57-95, Cook, Noble David, and Lovell, W. George, Unravelling the Web of Disease, in Ed. Cook, Noble David, and Lovell, W. George, “Secret Judgements of God”, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1992, pp. 213-214, Denevan, William M., Native American Populations in 1492: Recent Research and a Revised Hemispheric Estimate, in Editor, Denevan, William, The Native Population of the Americas, Second Edition, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1992, pp. xvii-xxix.

15. McEvedy, pp. 152-155. The figures give Iran (Persia) a population of c. 4 million in 200 C.E., and a population of 5 million in 1700 C.E.

16. IBID, pp. 18-39. The figures give Europe a population of 36 million in 200 C.E., and 120 million in 1700 C.E.

17. Montesquieu, pp. 204-206.

18. IBID, pp. 206-208.

19. IBID, p. 207.

20. IBID, p. 207.

21, IBID, pp. 208-209.

22. Finley, pp. 93-122. See also Patterson, Orlando, Slavery and Social Death, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1982.

23. Montesquieu, pp. 209-211.

24, IBID, pp. 211-213.

25, IBID, pp. 211-212.

26. IBID, pp. 213-214

27. McEvedy, pp. 213-217. See also Thomas, Hugh, The Slave Trade, Papermac, London, 1997.

28. Montesquieu, pp. 214-215.

29. IBID, p. 215.

30. McEvedy, p. 56.

31. Montesquieu, pp. 215-216.

32. Harris, Marvin, Cannibals and Kings, Vintage Books, New York, 1997, pp. 11-25.

33. Montesquieu, pp. 216-219.

34. IBID, p. 218.

35. See de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Penguin Books, London, 1992, and the items listed in Footnote 14. I should point out that Spanish rule, sometimes, as in the island of Hispaniola was so brutal and destroyed the natives so effectively and completely that calling it deliberate or at least criminal negligence amounting to homicide is not far off. See Stannard, pp. 67-75, 200-206.

36. See Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, Harper and Row Pub., New York, 1984, pp. 392-401.

37, Montesquieu, pp. 219-220.

38. IBID, p. 220.

39. McEvedy, pp. 343-351.

Pierre Cloutier

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