Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXVII
Usbek to the Same
HITHERTO we have discussed only Mohammedan countries, seeking the cause why they are less populous than those which were subject to the government of the Romans; let us now inquire what has produced this effect among the Christians.  1
  Divorce, which was permitted in the Pagan religion, was forbidden by Christianity. This change, which appears at first of such slight importance, produced by degrees consequences so terrible, that one can hardly believe them.  2
  This deprived marriage not only of all its sweetness, but attacked its very aim; the desire to tighten the knot, only loosened it; and instead of uniting hearts, as was pretended, it separated them forever.  3
  Into an action where all should be so free, and in which the heart ought to have so large a share, were introduced constraint, necessity, fate itself. Disgust, caprice, incompatibility of temper were not considered at all; the intention was to fix the heart, that is to say, to fix the most changeable and inconstant thing in nature; people, weary of one another, and almost always badly matched, were joined in an unchanging and hopeless union, as tyrants used to unite living men with dead bodies.  4
  Nothing contributed more to a mutual attachment than the power of divorce: husband and wife were induced to endure patiently domestic troubles, knowing that they had the power to end them; and they often retained this power all their lives without using it, from the sole reflection that they were at liberty to do so.  5
  It is not thus with the Christians, as their present troubles make them despair of the future. They see only that the discomforts of marriage are lasting, or rather everlasting; hence arise disgust, discord, contempt, and so far a loss to posterity. Three years of marriage are hardly over when its aim is neglected; then follow thirty years of coldness; private separations take place, more enduring, and probably more baneful, than if they had been public; the couple lead divided lives, and all to the prejudice of future generations. A man is soon surfeited with one everlasting woman, and betakes himself to harlots, a commerce shameful and opposed to society, which without fulfilling the object of marriage, represents at the best only its sensual pleasures.  6
  If, of two persons thus united, one is not suited to nature’s purpose and the propagation of the species, either constitutionally or on account of age, that party buries the other along with it and renders it as useless as it is itself.  7
  It is not a matter of astonishment, then, to see among the Christians so many marriages producing such a small number of citizens. Divorce is abolished; badly assorted marriages cannot be amended; women do not pass as with the Romans through the hands of several husbands, who in turn made the best they could of them.  8
  I dare to say that, in a republic like Lacedæmonia, where the citizens were continually plagued by peculiar and subtle laws, and in which the state was the only family, if it had been decreed that husbands could change their wives every year, an innumerable people would have been born.  9
  It is very difficult to understand what reason led the Christians to abolish divorce. Marriage among all the nations of the world is a contract susceptible to all kinds of stipulations, and none should be banished from it, except such as would weaken its intention; but the Christians do not look at it in that light, and have taken much trouble to explain their point of view. They make out that marriage does not consist in sensual pleasure; on the contrary, as I have already told you, they seem to wish to exclude that as much as possible; with them it is a symbol, a type, and something mysterious which I do not understand.

  PARIS, the 19th of the moon of Chahban, 1718.

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