Montesquieu

Usbel to his bro­ther Santon,1 at the Casbin monas­tery2


I hum­ble myself before thee, holy fakir, and pros­tate myself : I regard your foot­prints as the apple of my eyes. Your holi­ness is so great that you seem to have the heart of our holy Prophet. Your aus­te­ri­ties sur­prise hea­ven itself ; the angels have loo­ked at you from the pin­na­cle of glory, and have said : How can he still be on earth, since his spi­rit is with us, and flies about the throne that is sup­por­ted by the clouds ?

And how would I not honor you, I who have lear­ned from our doc­tors that even infi­del der­vi­ches always have an essence of holi­ness that makes them res­pec­ta­ble to true belie­vers ; and that in every cor­ner of the earth God has cho­sen for him­self some souls purer than others which he has sepa­ra­ted from the ungo­dly world so that their mor­ti­fi­ca­tions and their fer­vent prayers might sus­pend his wrath that is about to fall on so many rebel peo­ples.

The Christians speak mar­vels of their ear­liest fakirs, thou­sands of whom took refuge in the awful was­te­lands of the Thebaid,3 and had as their chiefs Paul, Anthony and Pachomius. If what they say about them is true, their lives are as full of won­ders as those of our most holy Immaums. They some­ti­mes spent ten full years without seeing a sin­gle man, but they lived night and day with demons ; they were cea­se­lessly tor­men­ted by these evil spi­rits : they found them in bed, they found them at table, never an asy­lum against them. If all this is true, vene­ra­ble fakir, we would have to admit that no one had ever kept worse com­pany.

Sensible Christians regard all these sto­ries as a quite natu­ral alle­gory,4 which can serve to make us feel the unhap­pi­ness of the human condi­tion. In vain do we seek a tran­quil state in the desert, temp­ta­tions still fol­low us ; our pas­sions sym­bo­li­zed by the demons do not yet leave us. These mons­ters of the heart, these illu­sions of the mind, these vain phan­toms of error and fal­se­hood, still come to us to seduce us, and attack us even in fasts and cili­ces, in other words even in our strength.

For my part, vene­ra­ble fakir, I know that the Messenger of God has enchai­ned Satan and cast him into the abyss5 ; he has puri­fied the earth for­merly full of his domi­na­tion, and made it wor­thy of the abode of angels and pro­phets.

Paris this 9th day of the moon of Chahban 1715

Furetière defines Montesquieu’s term santon as a name given to (false) saints and prophets of the Muslim religion “who by their hypocrisy attract great veneration among the people”.

Persian city equidistant from Isfahan and Tauris. The Capuchin of letter 47 was seeking a settlement near Casbin.

Upper Egypt (the region around Thebes).

In the theology of the time, the term allegory did not have the modern sense, but designated an interpretation authorized by “the unanimous tradition of the Church Fathers,” according to the Council of Trent, and refers to a spiritual sense in which the Old Testament prefigures the New, as in what Pascal called figures.

According to the Talmud, Satan had been an archangel but was cast out of heaven ; cf. Luke 10:18 : “And [Jésus] said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” Likewise, in Islamic tradition, Iblis, too proud to submit to Adam, was cast out of heaven (Qur’an, 2:34).