Montesquieu

Rica to ***


All reli­gions are hard put when it comes to giving an idea of the plea­su­res that are in store for those who have lived right. The evil are easily frigh­te­ned by a long list of punish­ments they are threa­te­ned with ; but for vir­tuous peo­ple no one knows what to pro­mise them. It seems it is the nature of plea­su­res to be of short dura­tion ; the ima­gi­na­tion finds it dif­fi­cult to repre­sent others.

I have seen des­crip­tions of para­dise that could make eve­ryone of good sense relin­quish it. Some have these happy sha­des playing the flute uncea­sin­gly ; others condemn them to the tor­ture of wal­king around fore­ver1 ; still others, who have them drea­ming up yon­der of mis­tres­ses here below, have not belie­ved that a hun­dred mil­lion years was a long enough time to end their attrac­tion for such amo­rous anxie­ties.

I remem­ber in this regard a story I heard told by a man who had been in the land of the Mogul ; it shows that Indian priests are not less ste­rile than others in the notions they have of the plea­su­res of para­dise.

A woman who had just lost her hus­band came cere­mo­niously to the gover­nor of the city to ask per­mis­sion to burn her­self ; but as they try their best in coun­tries under Muhammadan rule to abo­lish that cruel cus­tom, he abso­lu­tely refu­sed.

When she saw that her prayers were power­less, she threw her­self into a furious fit. You see, she said, how res­tric­ted we are : a poor woman will not even be allo­wed to burn her­self when she wants to ! Have you ever seen the like ? My mother, my aunt, and my sis­ters have bur­ned them­sel­ves ; and when I go to ask per­mis­sion of this cur­sed gover­nor, he gets angry, and starts to yell like a mad­man.

By chance there was a young bonze pre­sent. Infidel, the gover­nor said to him, was it you to put this mad­ness into this woman’s mind ? No, he said, I have never spo­ken to her ; but if she takes my advice, she will consum­mate her sacri­fice : she will com­mit an act agreea­ble to the god Brama, and she will be well rewar­ded for it, for she will be reu­ni­ted with her hus­band in the next world, and begin with him a second mar­riage.2 What is that ? said the woman, sur­pri­sed ; I will be reu­ni­ted with my hus­band ? Oh, I am not bur­ning myself. He was jea­lous, morose, and besi­des so old that if the god Brama has not trans­for­med him in some way, he surely has no need of me. Burn myself for him ?… not even the tips of my fin­gers to with­draw him from the depths of hell. Two old bon­zes who indu­ced me, and who knew what life with him was like for me, were care­ful not to tell me eve­ry­thing. But if that is the only pre­sent the god Brama has for me, I relin­quish that bea­ti­tude : Mr Governor, I am beco­ming a Muhammadan. And as for you, she said, loo­king at the bonze, you may, if you wish, go tell my hus­band that I am doing very well indeed.

Paris this 2nd day of the moon of Chalval 1718

In Greco-Roman antiquity, that is the fate of shades, who drearily roam the Elysian Fields.

This anecdote sets up the story that will be related in letter 135.