Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter LVII
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
AN immense number of courtesans are maintained by the libertines of Paris, and a great crowd of dervishes by its bigots. These dervishes take three oaths: of obedience, of poverty, and of chastity. They say that the first is the best observed of the three; as to the second, it is not observed at all; you can form your own opinion with regard to the third.  1
  But whatever the wealth of these dervishes may be, they always profess poverty, just as our glorious Sultan would never dream of renouncing his magnificence and sublimity; and they are right, for their reputation as paupers prevents them from being poor.  2
  The physicians and some of these dervishes, called confessors, are always either highly esteemed, or treated with contumely: yet it is said that heirs, on the whole, prefer physicians to confessors.  3
  The other day, I visited a convent of dervishes. One of them, whose white hair made him venerable, received me very courteously. He showed me over the whole house, and then we went into the garden, and had some talk. “Father,” said I, “what is your employment in the community?” “Sir,” replied he, evidently well pleased with my question, “I am a casuist.” “A casuist,” exclaimed I. “During my stay in France I have not heard of this profession till now.” “What! You do not know what a casuist is? Very well, listen; I will give you an explanation which will leave nothing to be desired. There are two descriptions of sin: that called mortal, which excludes the sinner forever from Paradise; and venial sin, which certainly offends God, but does not excite Him to that pitch of wrath which can be satisfied only by depriving the sinner of felicity. Now, all our art consists in carefully distinguishing these two descriptions of sin; for, with the exception of some libertines, all Christians wish to go to heaven; but there is hardly one among them who would not prefer to get there at as cheap a rate as possible. When they thoroughly understand which sins are mortal, they try not to commit them; and their business is done. There are some who do not aspire to such a high degree of perfection; and, having no ambition, they do not care for the first places: accordingly they would enter Paradise as easily as possible; provided they get there, they are satisfied: that is their aim, neither more nor less. There are people who would take heaven by storm rather than not obtain it, and who would say to God, ‘Lord, I have fulfilled the conditions exactly; you cannot refuse to keep your word: as I have done no more than you have required, I expect no more from you than you have promised.’  4
  “Therefore, sir, we casuists are a necessity. This is not all, however; you shall learn something further. The deed does not constitute the crime, but the knowledge of him who commits it: he who does what is wrong, so long as he can believe that it is not so, has a safe conscience; and, as there are an immense number of ambiguous actions, a casuist can endue them with a degree of goodness which they have not, simply by pronouncing them good; and, provided he can convince people of their harmlessness, such sins lose their deadliness entirely.  5
  “This is the secret of the craft in which I have grown old; I have shown you its nicety: all things, even such as may seem most refractory, are susceptible of the required twist.”  6
  “Father,” said I, “this is admirable; but how do you reconcile yourself with heaven? If the Sophy had at his court a man who dealt with him as you deal with God, who played fast and loose with his commandments, and taught his subjects when they ought to obey them, and when they might break them, he would have him impaled at once. I salute you, master dervish,” and I left him without waiting for his reply.

  PARIS, the 23d of the moon of Maharram, 1714.

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