Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


If there is a God, my dear Rhedi, he must neces­sa­rily be just ; for if he were not, he would be the worst and most imper­fect of all beings.

Justice is a rela­tion­ship of agree­ment that really exists bet­ween two things ; this rela­tion­ship is always the same, wha­te­ver being consi­ders it, whe­ther it be God, whe­ther it be an angel, or whe­ther indeed it be a man.

It is true that men do not always see these rela­tion­ships ; often, even when they see them, they depart from them, and their own inte­rest is always what they see best. Justice rai­ses its voice, but has trou­ble making itself heard in the tumult of the pas­sions.

Men can com­mit injus­ti­ces because they have an inte­rest in com­mit­ting them and would rather satisfy them­sel­ves than others. It is always by a reflec­tion on them­sel­ves that they act ; no one is gra­tui­tously bad : there must be a rea­son that deter­mi­nes him, and this rea­son is always a rea­son of inte­rest.1

But it is not pos­si­ble for God ever to do any­thing unjust : once we sup­pose that he sees jus­tice, he must neces­sa­rily fol­low it ; for as he has need of nothing, and suf­fi­ces to him­self, he would be the most evil of all beings, since he would have no inte­rest in being evil.

Thus, if there were no God, we still ought to love jus­tice, that is, try our best to be like that being of which we have such an excel­lent notion, and who, if he exis­ted, would neces­sa­rily be just. Free as we would be from the yoke of reli­gion, we ought not to be free of that of equity.

This, Rhedi, is what has made me think that jus­tice is eter­nal, and not depen­dent on human conven­tions ; and were it depen­dent on them, that would be a ter­ri­ble truth that one would have to conceal from one­self.

We are sur­roun­ded by men stron­ger than our­sel­ves ; they can harm us in a thou­sand dif­fe­rent ways ; three-quar­ters of the time, they can do so with impu­nity. What relief for us to know that there is an inner prin­ci­ple in the heart of all those men that fights in our favor and shel­ters us from their under­ta­kings !

Otherwise we would have to be in conti­nual alarm ; we would pass before men as before lions, and would never be assu­red for a moment of our lives, our pos­ses­sions, nor our honor.

All these thoughts pro­voke me against those doc­tors who repre­sent God as a being who makes a tyran­ni­cal exer­cise of his power,2 who make him act in a man­ner in which we our­sel­ves would not want to act, for fear of offen­ding him ; who accuse him of all the imper­fec­tions he puni­shes in us, and in their contra­dic­tory opi­nions repre­sent him some­ti­mes as an bad being, and some­ti­mes as a being who hates evil, and puni­shes it.

When a man exa­mi­nes him­self, what satis­fac­tion for him to find that his heart is just ! This plea­sure, severe as it is, should delight him : he sees his being as far above those whose heart is not, as he sees him­self above tigers and bears. Yes, Rhedi, if I were sure of always fol­lo­wing invio­la­bly this equity which I have before my eyes, I would deem myself the first among men.

Paris this 1st day of the moon of Gemmadi I, 1715

As was shown in letters 11-14, for Montesquieu there must be a convergence of individual interest and collective interest if society is to function properly.

An allusion to numerous examples of divine injustice in the Old Testament : see e.g. Job 27:2 ; cf. letter 67 and Bayle, DHC, article “Pauliciens”.