Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


Libertines main­tain an infi­nite num­ber of trol­lops here, and the pious an innu­me­ra­ble num­ber of der­vi­shes. These der­vi­shes take three vows : obe­dience, poverty, and chas­tity. They say that the first is the best obser­ved of all ; as for the second, I can tell you that it is not ; I will let you be judge of the third.

But howe­ver rich these der­vi­shes are, they never relin­quish the qua­lity of poor ; our glo­rious sul­tan would soo­ner renounce his magni­fi­cent and sublime tit­les. They are right, for this label pre­vents them from being poor.

Physicians and some of these der­vi­shes they call confes­sors are always too highly thought of or too loo­ked down on, yet they say that heirs find phy­si­cians more to their liking than confes­sors.1

The other day I was in a convent of these der­vi­shes. One of them, vene­ra­ble for his white hair, wel­co­med me most civilly, and after sho­wing me around the whole house, he took me into the gar­den, were we began to talk. Father, I said to him, what is your func­tion in the com­mu­nity ? Monsieur, he replied, see­ming very plea­sed with my ques­tion, I am a casuist.2 Casuist ? I repea­ted. In all the time I have been in France, I have never heard of this func­tion. What ? You don’t know what a casuist is ! Well, lis­ten : I am going to give you a notion of it that will leave you nothing to desire. There are two sorts of sins : mor­tal sins, which abso­lu­tely exclude a per­son from para­dise ; and venial sins, which do, in truth, offend God, but do not anger him to the point of depri­ving us of bea­ti­tude.3 Now our whole art consists in pro­perly dis­tin­gui­shing these two sorts of sins : for with excep­tion of a few liber­ti­nes,4 all Christians want to enter para­dise ; but there is hardly anyone who doesn’t want to enter there as chea­ply as it can be done. When you are well acquain­ted with mor­tal sins, you try to com­mit any of those, and your make your deal. There are men who do not aspire to such great per­fec­tion, and as they have no ambi­tion, they do not worry about the prin­ci­pal ranks ; so they just barely get into para­dise : as long as they get in, that is all they ask5 ; their goal is to do no more nor less than neces­sary. Those are peo­ple who rather steal hea­ven than obtain it, and who say to God : Lord, I have strictly ful­filled the condi­tions ; you can­not help but keep your pro­mi­ses ; as I have done no more than you requi­red, I dis­pense you from gran­ting me more than you pro­mi­sed.

We are the­re­fore neces­sary men, mon­sieur. Yet that is not all : you are going to see more. The crime is not in the act, but in the know­ledge of the per­son who com­mits it, He who does some­thing wrong while he can believe that it is not wrong, est secure in his cons­cience ; and as there are an infi­nite num­ber of equi­vo­cal acts, a casuist can give them a degree of good­ness that they do not have by qua­li­fying them as such ; and pro­vi­ded he can per­suade that there is no venom in them, he remo­ves it enti­rely.

I am tel­ling you here the secret of a pro­fes­sion in which I have grown old ; I am sho­wing you its refi­ne­ments : there is a turn to give to eve­ry­thing, even to things that seem the sus­cep­ti­ble of it.6 Father, I said, all well and good ; but how do you come to terms with hea­ven ? If the great sophi had a man like you in his court, who did with res­pect to him what you do against your God, who made dis­tinc­tions among his orders, and taught his sub­jects in which case they must exe­cute them, and in what other case they can vio­late them, he would have him empa­led on the spot. Thereupon I excu­sed myself to my der­vish, and left him without awai­ting his reply.

Paris this 23rd day of the moon of Maharram 1714

This witticism targets both physicians, who are busy dispatching their patients into the afterlife (an echo of Molière, Lesage and others), and priests who take advantage of their function to divert the earthly goods of the dying from their heirs.

“A doctor who writes, or whom one consults, on matters of conscience, his function being to deal with matters of conscience and resolve them” (Trévoux 1704).

“The sovereign good, eternal felicity” (Furetière 1690).

The word “applies principally to religion, to those who have not enough veneration for its mysteries, or obedience for its decisions” (Trévoux 1704). But as the first sentence of the letter shows, it also denoted disorderly or immoral conduct.

“What does it matter how we enter Paradise, so long as we get there”, says the casuist in the ninth of Pascal’s Letters provincials (Pascal L, p. 156). As in Pascal’s Provinciales (Camusat promptly made the comparison, p. 15), Usbek lets his Jesuit interlocutor create his own satire.

Cf. Bayle’s commentary : “He who said that the books of the casuists are the art of quibbling with God was correct : these lawyers at the bar of conscience find more distinctions and subtleties than lawyers at the civil bar” (DHC, art. « Loyola », remarque S).