Montesquieu

Rica to Ibben in Smyrna


The pope is the chief of the Christians ; he is an old idol who is wor­ship­ped out of habit. He used to be fea­red even by prin­ces,1 for he depo­sed them as easily as our magni­fi­cent sove­rei­gns depose the kinds of Imeretia and Georgia,2 but no one fears him any lon­ger.3 He claims to be the heir of one of the ear­liest Christians, who is cal­led St. Peter : and it is cer­tainly a rich legacy, for he has immense trea­su­res, and a large coun­try under his domi­na­tion.

Bishops are men of the law who are subor­di­nate to him, and have under his autho­rity two very dif­fe­rent func­tions. When they are assem­bled,4 they like him make arti­cles of faith. When they are sepa­rate, they have hardly any func­tion than to dis­pense peo­ple from ful­filling the law. For you must know that the Christian reli­gion is laden with end­less very dif­fi­cult prac­ti­ces ; and as they have dee­med that it is less easy to accom­plish these duties than to have bishops who dis­pense you from them, the lat­ter option has been taken for public uti­lity. Thus if you do not want to observe Ramadan,5 if you do not want to sub­mit to the for­ma­li­ties of mar­riage,6 if you want to dis­solve your vows, if you want to marry against the exclu­sions of the law ; some­ti­mes even if you want to revoke your oath, you go to the bishop or to the pope, who at once sup­plies the neces­sary dis­pen­sa­tion.

The bishops do not make arti­cles of faith on their own ini­tia­tive ; there is a limit­less num­ber of doc­tors,7 most of them der­vi­shes, who raise a thou­sand new ques­tions among them­sel­ves about reli­gion ; they are allo­wed to dis­pute at length, and the war lasts until a deci­sion hap­pens to end it.

Indeed I can assure you that there was never a realm where there were as many civil wars as in that of Christ.

Those who one day advance some new pro­po­si­tion are promptly cal­led here­tics. Every heresy has its name, which for those enga­ged in it ser­ves as a ral­lying cry. But not just anyone can be a here­tic ; it suf­fi­ces to split the dif­fe­rence, and give a dis­tinc­tion8 to those who are making the accu­sa­tion of heresy ; and wha­te­ver the dis­tinc­tion, intel­li­gi­ble or not, it makes a black man white as snow,9 and he can call him­self ortho­dox.

What I am saying goes for France and Germany : for I have heard that in Spain and Italy there are cer­tain der­vi­shes who have a short fuse, and have a man bur­ned like straw.10 Happy is the man, when he falls into those fel­lows’ hands, who has always prayed to God with lit­tle woo­den beads in hand,11 who wore on his per­son two pie­ces of cloth atta­ched to two rib­bons,12 and who has some­ti­mes been to a pro­vince cal­led Galicia13 : other­wise a poor devil is in a real jam. Were he to swear like a pagan that he is ortho­dox, they might well not be in agree­ment on the qua­li­ties, and burn him as a here­tic. It would do him no good to offer his dis­tinc­tion : no dis­tinc­tion, he would be ashes before they had even thought of hea­ring him.

Other jud­ges assume that an accu­sed is inno­cent ; those always pre­sume him guilty. In case of doubt their rule is to decide on the side of rigor, appa­rently because they believe men are evil. But on the other hand they think so well of them that they never judge them capa­ble of lying, for they accept the tes­ti­mony of mor­tal ene­mies, of women of ill repute, and of those who exer­cise an infa­mous pro­fes­sion. In their sen­tence they have a few kind words for those who are wea­ring a sul­phur shirt,14 and tell them that they are most cha­gri­ned to see them so ill clad ; that they are gentle, and abhor blood,15 and are dis­conso­late for having condem­ned them. But as conso­la­tion they confis­cate eve­ry­thing these wret­ches own for their own bene­fit.16

Happy the land where live the chil­dren of the pro­phets ; these sorry spec­ta­cles are unk­nown there.17 The holy reli­gion that the angels brought to it is defen­ded by its very truth, which has no need of these vio­lent means to sus­tain itself.

Paris this 4th day of the moon of Chalval 1712

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had obtained the feudal dependency of most of the European princes. In 1302, the bull Unam sanctam formally spelled out the submission of temporal authority to spiritual authority.

Causasian realms, tributaries of the Turks and then the Persians, are described by Chardin (I, 251-252 ; II, 122 ss.).

In its 1682 assembly, the French clergy limited the pope’s power by declaring that it was limited to spiritual matters and that “kings and sovereigns are not subjected to any ecclesiastical power by order of God in temporal matters.”

Ecclesiastical councils.

The Muslim month of fasting.

By obtaining dispensation from the marriage bans.

I.e., theologians (the Sorbonne in particular).

The Dictionnaire de Trévoux (1704) defines distinction, in philosophy, as “A different manner of understanding things. […] Philosophical distinctions are often just quibbles and subterfuges” ; cf. the verb distingo : “An academic term, used to get out of an argument” (Furetière, 1694). The Casuists had mounted the notion of distinction into a system of “admirable subtleties” (Pascal P, p. 172).

An Old Testament image : “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).

The Inquisition. “This tribunal takes cognizance of heresy, Judaism, Muhammadanism, sodomy, and polygamy” (Collier 1701). Montesquieu, like the entire eighteenth century (see in particular the article “Inquisition” in the Encyclopédie) is influenced by the “black legend” of (see letter 75).

The rosary.

The scapular : they are worn on the chest in a sign of devotion to the Virgin.

Those who have made the pilgrimage to Saint Iago de Compostella.

The article “Inquisition” of the Encyclopédie (by Jaucourt) also mentions the “sulfured shirts of the holy office” (t. VIII, p. 776), also called san benitos ; Voltaire mentions them as well in Candide (ch. VI).

By delivering the condemned to the secular arm, the Inquisition pretended to remain true to the doctrine Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine (the Church abhors blood).

See L’Espion turc : “The first thing that the holy Inquisitors do is perform a careful and devout search of the prisoner’s possessions. If they find him rich, it takes no more than that to make him criminal ; and the good Fathers piously take care of disposing of what he has.” (Jean Paul Marana, L’Espion dans les cours des princes chrétiens, vol. II, letter LXXIII, p. 239-240.)

The Persians are the most tolerant of all the Muhammadans (author’s note). Chardin praises the Persians for “their toleration of religions they believe to be false, and which they hold to be abominable” (IV, 101-102) ; similarly, Muslims in general refuse violent methods for the conversion of infidels (VI, 313 ; cf. VI, 327).