This is the fifteenth post in a series of posts examining excerpts from Charles Montesquieu’s book Persian Letters. Each post in this series examines a selected excerpt for study and discussion. The following is an excerpt from Letter 85:
The persecutions that our Muslim zealots have inflicted on the Gabars have forced large numbers of them to emigrate to India, causing Persia to lose a nation which was dedicated to agriculture: they were the only people capable of doing the work necessary to overcome the sterility of our soil.
All that the zealots needed to do was to strike a second blow and wreck our industry, thus ensuring that the empire fell of its own accord, and with it, by an inevitable consequence, that same religion whose growth it was intended to grow so vigorously.
Assuming that we should reason without prejudice, Mirza, I think that it is just as well for there to be several religions within a state.
…I admit that the history books are full of religious wars; but it should be carefully noted that these wars were not produced by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance, urging on the one which believed itself to be dominant.
Comments on the excerpt above:
This is perhaps one of Montesquieu’s most straightforward ways of saying that there should be freedom of religion and religious tolerance. Freedom to choose your religion and practice it without fear of persecution is what the founding fathers really took from Montesquieu and something we should all be thankful for and never forget. Thank God that Thomas Jefferson appreciated the contributions of the French to the enlightenment.
Another thing to note here, is where Adam Smith took a Montesquieu idea and ran with it. It has often been said that the best fertilizer is hard work. When Montesquieu points out that Muslim zealotry chased the Gabars out of Persia, he’s pointing out two things: one, that hard work is the best fertilizer of the soil, and two, the fall of the Persian Empire was borne of religious intolerance. This is a very important point: without religious tolerance, any empire will fall.
Please contemplate the last sentence of this excerpt with care. I think this is a point overlooked by most people in America today, but a point that was well understood by our founding fathers. It’s not religions that cause the wars, it’s the spirit of intolerance that does. Stop. Think about that. I will write it again: it’s not religions that cause the wars, it’s the spirit of intolerance that does. Throughout my life I have heard that religion has caused more wars than anything else and I accepted it. It took reading this book to flip it around and really make me think. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or any other religion as long as you’re tolerant of your neighbor and everyone acts in accordance with the laws of the society. Remember that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all lived together in harmony in Jerusalem for centuries before the savagery of the crusades. It can happen again if we raise our children to be tolerant.