Montesquieu

Usbek to Rhedi in Venice


I see here peo­ple who debate end­lessly over reli­gion, but they seem to vie at the same time to see who will observe it least.

Not only are they not bet­ter Christians, but even bet­ter citi­zens, and that is what concerns me : for in wha­te­ver reli­gion one lives, the obser­vance of the laws, the love of man­kind, and piety towards one’s parents, are always the pre­mier acts of reli­gion.1

Indeed ought not the pre­mier object of a reli­gious man be to be plea­sing to the deity that esta­bli­shed the reli­gion he pro­fes­ses ? But the surest means of achie­ving that is doubt­less to observe the rules of society and the duties of huma­nity ; for in wha­te­ver reli­gion one lives, once one is sup­po­sed, one must needs sup­pose also that God loves men, since he esta­bli­shes a reli­gion for their hap­pi­ness ; that if he loves men, one is sure to be plea­sing to him by loving them also, in other words, by exer­ci­sing towards all of them the duties of cha­rity and huma­nity, and by not vio­la­ting the laws under which they live.

One is far more cer­tain to please God in that way than by obser­ving such and such a cere­mony ; for cere­mo­nies have no level of good­ness in them­sel­ves : they are only good in rela­tion to some­thing, and in the sup­po­si­tion that, God has com­man­ded them. But that is the mat­ter of a great dis­cus­sion. It is easy to be wrong, for one must choose those of one reli­gion among those of two thou­sand.2

There was a man who made this prayer to God every day : Lord, I unders­tand nothing in the dis­pu­tes that are cons­tantly being car­ried on concer­ning you. I would like to serve you accor­ding to your will, but every man I consult wants me to serve you accor­ding to his. When I want to make my prayer to you, I do not know in what ton­gue I must speak to you, nor do I know what pos­ture I should assume : one man tells me I should pray to you stan­ding, ano­ther would have me sea­ted, ano­ther requi­res that my body weight be on my knees.3 That is not all : there are some who pre­tend that I must wash myself every mor­ning in cold water ; others main­tain that you will look on me in hor­ror if I do not have a lit­tle piece of my flesh cut off.4 The other day I chan­ced to eat a rab­bit in a cara­van­sary5 ; three men who were in the vici­nity made me quake : all three main­tai­ned that I had grie­vously offen­ded you, the first6 because that ani­mal was impure7 ; the second,8 because it was suf­fo­ca­ted9 ; the third, finally,10 because it was not a fish.11 A brah­man who was pas­sing by, and whom I cal­led on to judge, said to me : They are mis­ta­ken, for surely you did not kill this ani­mal your­self. Oh yes, I said. Ah, you have com­mit­ted an abo­mi­na­ble act, which God will never for­give you, he said to me with a stern voice ; how do you know your father’s soul had not pas­sed into that crea­ture ? All these things, Lord, plunge me into unthin­ka­ble confu­sion ; I can­not move my head without being threa­te­ned with offen­ding you ; yet I would like to please you, and so use the life which I owe to you. I do not know if I am wrong, but I believe that the best way of achie­ving that is to live as a good citi­zen in the society where you cau­sed me to be born, and as a good father in the family that you have given me.

Paris this 8th day of the moon of Chahban 1713

Letter 10, and the letters on the Troglodytes (11-14) seem to accord little place to the role of God.

A shrewd pluralization of the problem of truth in religion : Usbek replaces the conventional bipolarity (Catholics versus Protestants or Christians versus Muslims) with a myriad of possible truths, all of which might be opposed to natural religion.

The Jew, the Quaker perhaps, and the Christian or Muslim : Chardin remarks that Persians sit on their rugs “on their heels, which is done by getting on one’s knees with the heels pressed together” (VII, 261).

The foreskin. Circumcision was a practice common to Christians and Muslims.

A term for stations where caravans could lodge during desert crossings.

A Jew [author’s note].

The hare is among the animals declared impure and forbidden in Leviticus (11:6).

A Turk [author’s note].

Qur’an 5:3.

An Arménien [author’s note].

Tavernier had noted that during the five festivals of the year meat was forbidden among the Armenians, but not fish. This was not a general interdiction, as the Armenians were Christian.