This is the fifth post in a series of posts examining excerpts of Charles Montesquieu’s book Persian Letters. Each post in this series examines a selected excerpt for study and discussion. The following are excerpts from Letter 29:
The Pope is the chief of the Christians; he is an ancient idol, worshipped now from habit. Once he was formidable even to princes, for he would depose them as easily as our magnificent sultans depose the kings of Iremetia or Georgia. But nobody fears him any longer. He claims to be the successor of one of the earliest Christians, called Saint Peter, and it is certainly a rich succession, for his treasure is immense and he has a great country under his control.
…Those who bring out some new proposition are immediately declared heretics. Each heresy has its name, which those who are committed to it serves as a password. But nobody is a heretic against his will: all he has to do is split the difference of opinion into two halves, and provide a distinction for those who accuse him of heresy, and whatever that distinction may be, intelligible or not, it makes a man as white as snow, and he can have himself declared orthodox.
What I say applies to France and Germany; for I have heard that in Spain and Portugal there are certain dervishes who cannot see a joke, and who burn a man as they would straw.
Comments on the excerpt above:
An attitude of independence toward Rome was traditional in the French church. It was called Gallicanism and had been encouraged by Louis XIV. This passage gives some sort of affirmation of the invisible line mentioned in the previous post in this series. If you were north of the of this invisible line, i.e. Northern France, England, or Germany, you could get away with mocking the Catholic Church or the Pope a little better than you could to the south of it. As he says, mocking the church south of the line could get you burned at the stake (this is no joke, you could be killed). The inquisitors could take you in the middle of the night to Spain or Italy and tie you to a post and burn you to death for something as trivial as a disparaging remark about the Catholic church. Could there be a more shocking example of man’s propensity toward authoritarianism? Blaspheming God while pretending to be one of God’s most esteemed servants; all while serving death as a sentence in God’s name ?!?!? Never forget!
This post is also a good example of the subtle outward hypocrisy of authoritarianism and the greed of man at odds: the highest authority in the country of France, Louis XIV, who has everything under the sun as his demesne of the crown, still encourages his disdain upward on the totem toward the Pope out of regular old jealousy for his slightly higher authority position. When will men learn humility? This is a classic case of how money cannot buy you happiness. To contemplate your death served as a whim at the hands of such an ignoble king or any other man is scary thing indeed.
The Pope being an ancient idol is an interesting statement too, but not as much as when he says he’s the successor of Saint Peter. The Pontifex Maximus (i.e. the Pope) had been around long before there were scriptures mentioning Jesus Christ. The Pope was the high priest of Jupiter long before the New Testament was published in any language. That shouldn’t matter to you though, because as long as we’re tolerant of all religions, the point should be moot. In fact, Julius Caesar was once the Pontifex Maximus as I posted about here.