Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


You would never have ima­gi­ned that I had become more of a meta­phy­si­cian than I was ; yet that is the case, and you will be convin­ced of it after you have put up with this out­pou­ring of my phi­lo­so­phy.

The most sen­si­ble phi­lo­so­phers who have contem­pla­ted the nature of God have said that He was a supre­mely per­fect Being, but they have enor­mously abu­sed this idea ; they have made an enu­me­ra­tion of all the dif­fe­rent per­fec­tions which man is capa­ble of having and ima­gi­ning, and accu­mu­la­ted them onto the diety,1 not reflec­ting that often these attri­bu­tes are mutually exclu­sive, and can­not sub­sist in a sin­gle sub­ject without nega­ting each other.

Occidental poets say that a pain­ter wishing to make the por­trait of the god­dess of beauty assem­bled the most beau­ti­ful Greeks and took from each her most gra­ce­ful trait, and made from them a whole which he thought was a like­ness of the most beau­ti­ful of all the god­des­ses.2 If a man had hence conclu­ded that she was blond and bru­nette, that her eyes were black and blue, that she was docile and proud, he would have been held ridi­cu­lous.

Often God lacks a per­fec­tion that could give him a great imper­fec­tion, but he is never limi­ted except by him­self ; he is his own neces­sity. Thus, though God is all-power­ful, he can­not vio­late his pro­mi­ses nor deceive men. Often even the power­less­ness is not in him, but in rela­tive things, and that is the rea­son why he can­not change essen­ces.

Thus there is rea­son for being sur­pri­sed that some of our doc­tors, having dared to deny God’s infi­nite forek­now­ledge on the basis that it is incom­pa­ti­ble with his jus­tice.3

However auda­cious this thought, meta­phy­sics lends itself won­der­fully to it. According to its prin­ci­ples it is not pos­si­ble for God to fore­see things that depend on the deter­mi­na­tion of free cau­ses, because what has not occur­red does not exist, and conse­quently can­not be known : for nothing, which has no pro­per­ties, can­not be per­cei­ved ; God can­not read into an inten­tion that does not exist, and see some­thing in the soul that is not there ; for until it has deter­mi­ned some­thing, that act which deter­mi­nes it is not in it.

The soul is the maker of its deter­mi­na­tion ; but there are occa­sions where it is so inde­ter­mi­nate that it does not even know on which side to deter­mine itself. Often it even does so only to make use of its liberty, and so it is that God can­not see this deter­mi­na­tion in advance, nei­ther in the action of the soul nor in the action which objects exert upon it.4

How could God fore­see things that depend on the deter­mi­na­tion of free cau­ses ? He could see them only in two ways : by conjec­ture, which is contra­dic­tory to infi­nite forek­now­ledge ; or else he would see them as the neces­sary effects that would ine­vi­ta­bly fol­low from a cause which would simi­larly pro­duce them, which is even more contra­dic­tory. For the soul would be free by sup­po­si­tion, and in fact would be no more free than a billiard ball is free to change posi­tion when it is struck by ano­ther.

Do not believe, howe­ver, that I wish to limit on God’s know­ledge. As he cau­ses crea­tu­res to act as he wishes, he knows all he wants to know. But although he can see all, he does not always make use of this faculty ; most of the time he lea­ves to the crea­ture the faculty of acting or not acting, in order to leave to it also the faculty of meri­ting or not meri­ting. It is at that moment that he renoun­ces the right he has to act on it and to deter­mine it. But when he wants to know some­thing, he always does, because he has only to will for it to hap­pen as he sees it, and deter­mine crea­tu­res in accor­dance to his will. That is how he deri­ves what must hap­pen from the num­ber of things that are purely pos­si­ble, fixing by his decrees the future deter­mi­na­tions of minds, and depri­ving them of the power which he gave them to act or not to act.

If we can invoke a com­pa­ri­son in a mat­ter which is above com­pa­ri­sons : a monarch does not know what his ambas­sa­dor will do in some impor­tant busi­ness ; if he wishes to know, he has only to order him to conduct him­self in such and such man­ner, and he can assure that the thing will take place as he pro­jects it.

The Qur’an and the Jewish books rise up cons­tantly against the dogma of abso­lute forek­now­ledge5 ; there God always seems to have no know­ledge of the future deter­mi­na­tion of minds, and that seems to be the pri­mary truth that Moses has taught to man­kind.

God puts Adam in the earthly para­dise on condi­tion that he not eat of a cer­tain fruit, an absurd pre­cept in a being that knows the future deter­mi­na­tions of souls : for after all can such a being place condi­tions on his favors without making them pathe­tic ? It is as if a man who had known of the cap­ture of Baghdad had said to ano­ther : I will give you a thou­sand écus if Baghdad is not cap­tu­red ; would he not be making a very bad joke ?6

Paris this last day of the moon of Chahban 1714

Chardin reports (see for example VII, 61 and VII, 236) the significant role played in Islam by lists (1001 is a classic number) of the attributes of God.

A well-known anecdote, found for example in Bayle (DHC, article “Zeuxis”) ; he relates that, in order to paint the portrait of Helen, that painter chose five girls from Crotona and borrowed the most beautiful traits of each.

These are the Socinien theologians who hold that God “does not know whether peace will be made in a year or four years. And how could he since that depends on the whim and will of men, which God cannot have foreseen” (Pierre Jurieu, Tableau du socinianisme où l’on voit l’impureté et la fausseté des dogmes des sociniens, La Haye 1690, p. 34).

Jurieu relates that the Socinians “believe that wills act by themselves and determine themselves without even God knowing in what direction they will determine themselves” (op. cit., letter 2, p. 88 et 128).

In both cases, many passages affirm the contrary (the Biblical prophecies ; cf. Qur’an, 6:73) ; but Usbek probably means that things happen as if God did not know the future.

Edition D carries this additional paragraph : “My dear Rhedi, why so much philosophy ? God is so lofty that we do not even perceive his clouds. We know him well only in his precepts. He is vast, spiritual, and infinite. May his greatness bring us back to our weakness. To be ever humble is to worship him always.”