Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter LXXV
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
I MUST confess that I have not noticed in the Christians that lively faith in their religion which prevails among Mussulmans. With them there is a vast difference between profession and belief, between belief and conviction, between conviction and practice. Religion is not so much a matter of holiness as it is the subject of a debate, in which everybody has a right to join. Courtiers, warriors, women even, array themselves against the ecclesiastics, and insist upon their proving what they have made up their minds not to believe. Not that, willing to be guided by reason, they have taken the trouble to examine the falseness of that religion which they reject: they are rebels who have felt the yoke, and have shaken it off before knowing what it is. Nor are they any securer in their incredulity than in their faith: their life is a constant ebb and flow between belief and unbelief. 1 One of them said to me once, “I believe in the immortality of the soul for six months at a time; my opinions depend entirely upon my bodily condition: I am a Spinozist, a Socinian, a Catholic, ungodly or devout, according to the state of my animal spirits, the quality of my digestion, the rarity or heaviness of the air I breathe, the lightness or solidity of the food I eat. When the doctor is at my bedside, the confessor has me at a disadvantage. I know very well how to prevent religion from annoying me when I am in good health; but I allow myself to be consoled by it when I am ill: when I have nothing more to hope for here below, religion offers itself, and gains me by its promises; I am glad to give myself up to it, and to die with hope on my side.”  1
  A long time ago the Christian princes enfranchised all the slaves in their dominions; because, said they, Christianity makes all men equal. It is true that this religious action was of great service to them, for by its means they diminished the power which the great lords exercised over the lower classes. Afterward, having made conquests in countries where they found it to their advantage to keep slaves, 2 they permitted them to be bought and sold, forgetting that religious principle which had moved them so strongly. What can one say? Truth at one time, error at another. Why should we not do like the Christians? We were very simple minded to reject settlement and easy conquests in pleasant climates, 3 because we could not find water pure enough to wash us according to the principles of our holy Koran. I give thanks to Almighty God, who sent His great prophet Hali, whence it is that I profess a religion which requires to be preferred before all human interests, and which is as pure as the sky from which it came.

  PARIS, the 13th of the moon of Saphar, 1715.
Note 1.
  All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt:
We called the chessboard white,—we call it black.
Note 2. The French colonies. [back]
Note 3. The Mohammedans had no wish to take Venice because they could not obtain water there suitable for their purifications.—(M.) [back]

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