Montesquieu

Usbek to Mirza in Isfahan


You know, Mirza, that some minis­ters of Shah Soliman had come up with the plan to oblige all the Armenians in Persia to leave the realm or become Muhammadans, in the thought that our empire would always be pol­lu­ted so long as it kept those infi­dels in its bosom.1

Persian gran­deur was fini­shed if on that occa­sion blind devo­tion had been lis­te­ned to.2

It is not clear how the plan fell through3 ; nei­ther those who made the pro­po­sal nor those who rejec­ted it ever knew its conse­quen­ces ; chance acted in lieu of rea­son and poli­tics and saved the empire from a peril grea­ter than what it would have ris­ked by the loss of three bat­tles and the cap­ture of two cities.

By pros­cri­bing the Armenians they came close to des­troying all the mer­chants and almost all the arti­sans of the realm in a sin­gle day.4 I am sure that the great Shah Abas5 would have rather had his two arms cut off than to sign such an order, and that by sen­ding his most indus­trious sub­jects to the Mogul and other kings of the Indies, he would have thought he was giving them half of his esta­tes.

The per­se­cu­tions that our zea­lous Muhammadans have made against the Ghebers for­ced them to go in dro­ves to the Indies, and depri­ved Persia of that hard-wor­king nation, so dili­gent at plo­wing, which alone by its labor was able to over­come the ste­ri­lity of our lands.

All that remai­ned was for devo­tion to deli­ver a second blow : to ruin enter­prise, by which the empire would fall unas­sis­ted, and with it, as a neces­sary conse­quence, that very reli­gion that they wan­ted to make so flou­ri­shing.

If we are to rea­son without pre­ju­dice, I do not know, Mirza, if it is not a good thing for there to be seve­ral reli­gions in a state.6

It is obser­ved that those who live in tole­ra­ted reli­gions gene­rally make them­sel­ves more use­ful to their home­land7 than those who livein the domi­nant reli­gion, because, honors being for­bid­den them, and able to stand apart only by their opu­lence and wealth, they are moti­va­ted to acquire them by their work, and to embrace society’s most one­rous func­tions.

Moreover, as all reli­gions contain pre­cepts use­ful to society, it is good for them to be zea­lously obser­ved. Now what is more capa­ble of ins­pi­ring that zeal than their mul­ti­pli­city ?

They are rivals who for­give each other nothing. Jealousy comes down to indi­vi­duals ; eve­ryone is on his guard, and fears doing things that would disho­nor his party and expose it to the scorn and unpar­do­na­ble cen­sure of the oppo­si­tion party.

Indeed it has always been obser­ved that a new sect intro­du­ced into a state was the surest way to cor­rect all the abu­ses of the old one.

There is no point in saying that it is not in the prince’s inte­rests to allow mul­ti­ple reli­gions in his state. Were all the sects in the world to come and gather there, it would do him no harm, for there is none that does not pres­cribe obe­dience and preach sub­mis­sion.

I concede that the his­to­ries are filled with wars of reli­gion ; but mark what I say : it is not the mul­ti­pli­city of reli­gions that has pro­du­ced these wars, it is the spi­rit of into­le­rance that ani­ma­ted the one that thought itself domi­nant.

It is this spi­rit of pro­se­ly­tism that the Jews got from the Egyptians, and which from them has spread, like an conta­gious and popu­lar disease, to the Muhammadans and the Christians.

It is in short that ver­ti­gi­nous spi­rit of which the advan­ces can only be regar­ded as a total eclipse of human rea­son.

For, finally, were there no inhu­ma­nity in aggrie­ving other peo­ples’ cons­cience8 ; were none of the ill effects which it foments by the thou­sands to result from it, you would have to be a fool to think up such a thing. He who tries to make me change reli­gion only does so, no doubt, because he would not change his even if one tried to force him to ; thus he finds it strange than I will not do some­thing he would not do him­self, per­haps not to rule the world.

Paris this 26th day of the moon of Gemmadi I, 1715

The evocation of the persecution of the Armeniens by Soliman, who reigned from 1666 to 1694, manifestly alludes to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 ; between 1679 and 1700, something like two hundred thousand Huguenots took refuge in England, the United Provinces, and other Protestant countries.

The episode is related by Tavernier (livre V, chap. VIII, vol. I, p. 640-641).

In contrast with the numberous apologists of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes like Bossuet, who congratulated France for having extirpated heresy “in a single day”, Montesquieu aligns himself with the likes of Robert Challe who emphasizes the economic loss to France (Mémoires, Geneva : Droz, 1996, p. 36-37).

Cf. letter 57, note 2, and letter 58.

Abas I, who reigned in Persia from 1587 to 1629 ; see letter 89 and My Thoughts, no. 1453.

Few people ventured to defend toleration in France in the years 1680-1720. The most noteworthy is Pierre Bayle, who had defended pluralism with similar arguments in his Critique générale de l’histoire du calvinisme du P[ère] Maimbourg and in the Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ : Contrains-les d’entrer.

Some, including Colbert, invoked the economic asset which Protestants represented for France ; but the Revocation must soon have appeared to them inevitable.

The notion of liberty of conscience is behind the whole toleration movement in the eighteenth century. Protestants had often interpreted the Edict of Nantes as guaranteeing this principle, but the crown had never conceded this ; it had to become established as a principle on its own, inseparable from the notion of natural right.