Persian Letter Series: Letter 46 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the eighth 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 passage is Letter 46 in its entirety:

I observe that people here argue about religion interminably: but it appears that they are competing at the same time to see who can be the least devout.

Not only are they no better as Christians, they are not even better citizens, which is what affects me most: for, whatever  religion one may have, obedience to the laws, love of mankind, and respect for one’s parents are always the principal acts of religion.

For is it not the case that the chief concern of a religious man must be to please the Divinity who established the religion that he professes?  But the surest way to achieve this is certainly to observe the rules of society, and the duties of humanity.  For, whatever religion you may have, you must, immediately you suppose that there is a religion, suppose also that God loves mankind, since he founded a religion to make them happy; and if he loves mankind, you are certain to please him by loving them also; that is to say, in performing all the duties of charity and humanity towards them, and in not violating the laws under which they live.

In this way you are much more certain to please God than by carrying out some ceremony or other: for the ritual has no degree of goodness in itself; it is only good conditionally, on the supposition that God ordained it.  But this provides material for a great deal of discussion.  It is easy to be mistaken, for it is necessary to choose the ceremonies of one religion out of two thousand.

A man made this prayer to God everyday: ‘Lord, I cannot understand anything of the continual disputes about you: I should like to serve you according to your will, but everyone whom I consult wants me to serve you according to his.  When I want to pray to you, I do not know which language to speak to you in.  Nor do I know what posture I should adopt.  One man says I must pray standing up; another wants me to sit down; another insists that my body should be supported by my knees.  That is not all: there are some who claim that I must wash in cold water every morning; others affirm that you will regard me with abhorrence if I do not have a small piece of my flesh cut off.  The other day at caravanserai, I happened to eat a rabbit.  There were three men there who made me tremble:  all three maintained that I had gravely offended you; the first, because the animal was impure; the next, because it had been strangled; and the last because it was not a fish.  A Brahmin passing by, whom I appealed to as a judge, said: “They are wrong, since presumably you did not kill the animal yourself.”

“Yes I did,” I said.

“Ah! you have committed an abominable action, which God will never forgive,” he said in a severe voice; “how do you know that the soul of your father had not passed into that creature?”

‘All these things, Lord, put me in the most terrible quandary.  I cannot shake my head without being told that I risk offending you.  Yet I should like to please you and use the life that I received from you in order to do so.  I do not know if I’m mistaken, but I believe that the best way to manage it is to live as a good citizen in the society into which you caused me to be born, and be a good father to the family which you have given me.’

Comments on the excerpt above:

Church of ToleranceThis letter, in its entirety, is worthy of some reflection.  This letter represents some of those things that have not changed in mankind for millennia.  In today’s age, with the internet, you can learn about even more religions than the two thousand Montesquieu references.  One of the most interesting things about some religious folks is the ability to suspend logic for their particular faith while being logical and diligent in disposing of every other religion.  One example website out of literally thousands is the site bible.ca.  This site has information that disproves and discredits every religion you can think of except for the one professed by its webmaster.  While a man can hit the books for hours learning and understanding the history and faults of every religion under the sun, he can simultaneously eschew all logic when talking about the one he has chosen for himself; so much so that he is prepared to die or kill in the name of his conviction; but not just that! He’s also instigating the fight!

The most important thing for the constitution of the sovereign is to grant freedom of religion to all that fall under its umbrella.  The most important duty for a religious man is to grant tolerance to his fellow citizens regardless of the religion they have chosen.  We should look for common ground, as Montesquieu points out, between the fundamental tenets that all religions share.

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