Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


The other day I went into a famous church they call Notre Dame. While I was admi­ring that superb edi­fice, I had the oppor­tu­nity to talk with a church­man who like me had been drawn there by curio­sity. The conver­sa­tion came around to the tran­quillity of his pro­fes­sion. Most peo­ple, he said to me, envy our for­tu­nate sta­tion, and they are right ; yet it has its draw­backs. We are not so sepa­ra­ted from the world that we are not cal­led into it in a thou­sand situa­tions ; there we have a very dif­fi­cult role to uphold.

Worldly peo­ple are sur­pri­sing : they can bear nei­ther our appro­val nor our cen­su­res ; if we try to cor­rect them, they find us ridi­cu­lous ; if we approve them, they regard us as men beneath our cal­ling. There is nothing so humi­lia­ting as to think one has scan­da­li­zed even the impious. We are the­re­fore obli­ged to conduct our­sel­ves equi­vo­cally and fool the liber­ti­nes, not by a deci­sive stance, but by making the uncer­tainty we place them in about the man­ner in which we receive their words. You have to be very cle­ver for that : this state of neu­tra­lity is dif­fi­cult. Worldly peo­ple, who risk any­thing, who let fly with all any­thing they want to say, and press or aban­don them accor­ding to the results, suc­ceed much bet­ter.

That is not all : this happy, tran­quil estate that is so vaun­ted is not one we pre­serve in the world. The minute we appear, we are made to dis­pute : we are told, for exam­ple, to under­take to prove the uti­lity of prayer to a man who does not believe in God ; the neces­sity of fas­ting to ano­ther who his whole life has denied the immor­ta­lity of the soul. The enter­prise is labo­rious, and we do not have the laughs on our side. There is more : a cer­tain need to attract others to our posi­tions cons­tantly tor­ments us, and is, so to speak, atta­ched to our pro­fes­sion. That is as ridi­cu­lous as if Europeans were to try, for the bene­fit of the human race, to whi­ten the face of Africans. We trou­ble the state, we even tor­ment our­sel­ves trying to prove points of reli­gion that are not fun­da­men­tal, and we are like that conque­ror of China who pushed his sub­jects to a gene­ral revolt by trying to oblige them to trim their hair or their nails.1

Even the zeal we have for get­ting those under our aegis to ful­fill the duties of our holy reli­gion is often dan­ge­rous, and can­not be accom­pa­nied by too much pru­dence. An empe­ror named Theodosius had all the inha­bi­tants of a city, even the women and lit­tle chil­dren, run through with the sword ; then when he then sho­wed up to enter a church, a bishop named Ambrose had the doors clo­sed to him for mur­der and sacri­lege, and in that he com­mit­ted an heroic act.2 After the empe­ror sub­se­quently, after doing the penance which such a crime requi­red and being admit­ted into the church, went and took his place among the priests, the same bishop sent him away,3 and in that he com­mit­ted the act of a fana­tic or a fool, so true it is that one must mis­trust one’s zeal. What did it mat­ter to reli­gion or to the state that the prince did or did not have a place among the priests ?

Paris this 1st day of the moon of Rebiab I, 1714

Xunchi or Choun-Tchi, who founded the Manchurian Tartar dynasty of the Taï-Tsing in 1643 (see letter 79), ordered the Chinese in revolt to cut their hair (but not their nails) and dress like Tartars.

Following a revolt, the emperor had seven thousand killed in Thessalonica in 390, and then was refused entrance to a church by St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan, who imposed a penance that lasted eight months (Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, book V, ch. 18-19).

Although Theodosius had received absolution, his error was, after the offering, to have remained within the enclosure of the altar, which was reserved to priests ; St. Ambrose made him leave, and the emperor obeyed. Theodoret praises both for the nobility of their behavior.