Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter LXIX
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
YOU would never have dreamed that I could become a greater metaphysician than I was. Such is the case, however; and you will be convinced of it, when you have waded through this flood of my philosophy.  1
  The most sensible of those philosophers, who have considered the nature of God, have declared that He is a being supremely perfect; but they have sadly abused this idea. They have tabulated all the various perfections which man is capable of possessing and of imagining, and with these they have clad the idea of God, not thinking that these attributes are often contradictory, and, being mutually destructive, cannot subsist in the same individual.  2
  The western poets tell how a painter, 1 wishing to make a likeness of the goddess of beauty, gathered together the most beautiful Greek women, and, having taken from each that grace in which she most excelled, combined their selective charms into a picture of the loveliest of the goddesses. If, on that account, a man should think that she was both fair and dark, that her eyes were black and blue, and that she was, at one and the same time, sweet tempered and haughty, he would pass for a fool.  3
  God often falls short of a perfection which would make Him very imperfect: but He is never limited except by Himself; He is His own law. Thus, although God is all-powerful, He can neither break His promises, nor deceive men. Often too, His importance is not subjective, but objective; and that is the reason why He cannot change the nature of things.  4
  So, also, it is not so very wonderful that some of our learned men should have denied the infinite foreknowledge of God, upon the principle that it is incompatible with His justice.  5
  However bold this idea may be, it is countenanced remarkably by metaphysics. According to metaphysical principles, it is impossible that God should foresee such things as depend upon the determination of free causes; because that which has not happened does not exist, and consequently, cannot be known; for nothing, having no properties, cannot be perceived: God cannot read a will which does not exist, nor discern in the mind what it does not contain, for, until the mind is made up, the thing determined on is not in it.  6
  The mind is the author of its determination; but there are occasions when it is so irresolute, that it does not even know for which side to determine. Often indeed it makes a selection only to use its liberty; in such a manner that God cannot foresee its choice, neither in its own action, nor in the operation of objects upon it.  7
  How could God foresee things which depend upon the determination of free causes? He could only see them in two ways: by conjecture, which is incompatible with His infinite foreknowledge; or He could see them as necessary effects proceeding infallibly from a cause which produces them as infallibly—a method even more at variance with divine foreknowledge, for it supposes that the mind is free, with a freedom, however, no greater than that of a billiard ball, which is at liberty to move when it is struck by another.  8
  Do not think, however, that I wish to limit God’s knowledge. Since He directs the actions of His creatures according to His pleasure, He knows all that He wishes to know. But although He can see everything, He does not always make use of that power: He generally leaves man the power to do a thing or to leave it alone, in order that he may be able to choose between right and wrong; and this is why God renounces the absolute authority which He has over the mind. But, when He desires to know anything, He always knows it, because He has only to will that a thing shall happen as He sees it, and to make His creatures conform to His will. It is thus that He selects what shall happen from the number of the mere possibilities, fixing by His decrees the future determinations of men’s minds, and depriving them of the power which He gave them to do or not to do.  9
  Let me employ a comparison in a matter which transcends all comparisons:—A monarch, ignorant of what his ambassador will do in an important affair, if he wishes to know, has only to command him to conduct the negotiation in such or such an manner, and he will be certain that the thing will happen as he planned it.  10
  The Koran and the Hebrew books are constant witnesses against the dogma of absolute foreknowledge: God appears throughout these writings as ignorant of the future determinations of men’s minds: and it seems that this was the first truth that Moses taught mankind.  11
  God placed Adam in the terrestrial paradise, on condition that he should not eat of a certain fruit: an absurd command to be given by a being acquainted with the future determinations of men’s minds; for, in short, could such a being make His favor depend on such conditions, without rendering it ridiculous? It is as if a man who was aware of the capture of Bagdad should say to another, “I will give you a hundred tomans if Bagdad is not taken.” 2 Would that not be a very sorry jest?  12
  My dear Rhedi, why all this philosophy? God is so far above us that we cannot perceive even His clouds. We have no knowledge of Him except in His commandments. He is a spirit, immense and infinite. May his greatness make us conscious of our own weakness. To humble ourselves continually, is to adore Him continually.

  PARIS, the last day of the moon of Chahban, 1714.
Note 1. Zeuxis, when he painted Helen for the Agrigentines. [back]
Note 2. This paragraph appeared first in the edition of 1754. [back]

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