Persian Letter Series: Letter 61 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the fourteenth 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 61:

The other day I visited a famous church called Norte-Dame.  While I was admiring the magnificence of the building I happened to get into conversation with a clergyman who like me had been brought there by curiosity.  The conversation fell upon the tranquility of his calling. ‘Most people,’ he said ‘envy our pleasant life, and they are right.  However, it has its disagreeable side.  We are not so cut off from the outside world that we do not have to appear there on countless occasions, and we have a very difficult role to play.  Worldly people are extraordinary.  Whether we approve them or condemn them, they find both equally unacceptable.  If we try to reform them, they consider us absurd, and if we give them our approval they regard us as unworthy of our position.  Nothing is more humiliating than the thought of having shocked the unbelievers.  We are therefore obliged to adopt an equivocal approach, and impress the libertines not by the firmness of our attitude, but by leaving them uncertain of our reaction to what they say.  It requires great ingenuity.  This state of neutrality is difficult: people on the outside world take a chance on anything, and say whatever comes into their heads; according to how it is received, they follow it up or let it go, and succeed much better.’

Comments on the excerpt above:

Notre Dame Cathedral in ParisThis is why Montesquieu begins the enlightenment and has inspired so much thought.  Many people have given thought to what they think ‘libertins’ means in French and I will agree with C.J. Betts and tell you I think that libertines in English means free-thinkers.

So what is he saying?  He’s saying that the priest at Notre Dame is no dummy.  He understands that the complexities of religion get even more complex when confronted by the outside world.  He must accept them and rise above them; again, the serenity prayer.  He’s saying that Ricky Gervais or Richard Dawkins is just as much a religious zealot as the guy who webmasters an apologist website.

There are so many interesting world views out there from some smart and interesting people.  If you study Max Weber you’ll learn that the complex and significant moments of history can be explained as anarchy and chance and could change the course of history.  But then, paradoxically, he’ll tell you that the same thing would have happened to society even if different players were involved.  If you study Ernest Gellner, you’ll understand how capitalism has pierced the armor of most every society on the planet.  If you study Gellner, you’ll learn more about the ugly underbelly of communism than from anyone else.  Capitalism cracked the Soviet Union in 1989 and is even on the rise in China as the shadow of Chairman Mao is receding.  The only closed society left is that of Islam; and, with the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, who knows if that weight that oppresses those societies is beginning to fracture as well.  My point is that with so many staunch viewpoints out there, it only seems possible that an egalitarian society with all men being tolerant of other religions and acting with humility is the way toward peace, prosperity, and civility.  Since it was Montesquieu writing the passage above, you can endow the priest with Montesquieu’s own intelligence and see that this priest, in my opinion, has “figured it out”.  I really like learning from Weber, Gellner, and Tocqueville, but I think we just keep rehashing the same things and same arguments and if we really look at things deeply, Montesquieu has really given us pretty much everything we need to employ in order to have a more peaceful and sophisticated society.

Regarding Weber and societies that espouse Christian values, I often wonder: what if Constantine had never seen that meteor?  Or who really knows what Constantine saw that day, it could have been a meteor, it could have been a UFO, it doesn’t matter; whatever he saw before battle that day changed him.  That moment inspired him to change his religion, summon a meeting, and publish a book.  But, it doesn’t matter.  Even if you could convert the whole world to one religion without bloodshed it would last but the blink of an eye; religions always speciate.  Do you find irony in the fact that one of the best demonstrations of evolution is religion itself?

I think the point is not to have everyone try to believe the same thing as much as it is to have everyone be tolerant of everyone else regardless of their religion.  The laws of society should be taken from the fundamental tenets that every religion has at its root; and then the arguing begins again.  Humans are a complex breed; I think this is why I’m so drawn toward mathematics even though sociology fascinates me.  I think I will do my best to live like the priest from Notre-Dame in the excerpt above.

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