Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


I must confess to you that I have not obser­ved among the Christians that inti­mate per­sua­sion of their reli­gion that is found among Muslims ; it is a long way among them from pro­fes­sion to belief, from belief to convic­tion, and from convic­tion to prac­tice. Religion is less a sub­ject of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion than a sub­ject of dis­pu­tes that belongs to eve­ryone : men of the court, men of war, even women rise up against church­men, and ask them to prove to them what they are deter­mi­ned not to believe. It is not that they have made up their minds through rea­son, and taken the trou­ble to exa­mine the truth or fal­se­ness of this reli­gion they reject ; they are rebels who have felt the yoke and sha­ken it off before they kno­wing it. So it is that they are not more firm in their unbe­lief than in their faith ; they live in an ebb and flow that car­ries them cons­tantly from the one to the other. One of them said to me one day : I believe in the immor­ta­lity of the soul six months of the year. My opi­nions depend abso­lu­tely on the cons­ti­tu­tion of my body ; accor­ding to whe­ther I have more of less ani­mal spi­rits, whe­ther my sto­mach digests well or poorly, whe­ther the air I brea­the is subtle or crude, the meats I eat are light or solid, I am a Spinozist, a Catholic, impious or devout.1 When the doc­tor is at my bed­side, the confes­sor has the advan­tage with me. I am quite able to keep reli­gion from bothe­ring me when I am in health, but I allow it to console me when I am sick. When I have nothing more to hope for on one hand, reli­gion pops up and wins me over with its pro­mi­ses ; I am willing to sur­ren­der to it, and die on the side of hope.

The prin­ces of Europe have long since freed all the sla­ves of their sta­tes, because, they say, Christianity makes all men equal. It is true that this act of reli­gion was most use­ful to them, because they demo­ted the lords the­reby, from whose power they res­cued the lowest class. Then they made conquests in coun­tries where they saw it was to their advan­tage to have sla­ves : they allo­wed their pur­chase and sale, for­get­ting that reli­gious prin­ci­ple that moved them so. What am I to say ? Truth at one time, error at ano­ther.2 Why do we not do as the Christians ? How sim­ple we are to refuse swet­tle­ments and easy conquests in happy cli­mes3 because their water is not pure enough to wash our­sel­ves accor­ding to the prin­ci­ples of the holy Qur’an.

I give thanks to all­mighty God who sent Ali, his great Prophet, that I pro­fess a reli­gion that puts itself above all human inte­rests, and is pure as the hea­ven from which it des­cen­ded.

Paris this 13th day of the moon of Saphar 1715

Montesquieu lightly caricatures here the theory which he elsewhere holds dear of the influence of physical conditions on the moral being : cf. letter 31.

An adaptation of Pascal : “Truth this side of the Pyrenees, error beyond” (Pascal, P, no. 94).

The Muhammadans have no interest in taking Venice, because they would not find water there for their purifications [author’s note].