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Caroline Warman

39. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws1

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  • 1 Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, Paris: P. Didot, 1803, Book 25, ch. 13.

1Montesquieu relays here the supposed speech of a Jewish man on learning that an eighteen-year-old Jewish girl was due to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Lisbon. Montesquieu claims that he found the speech in a book by someone else: needless to say, he wrote it himself.

2You complain, said the author to the Inquisitors, that the Emperor of Japan condemns all the Christians in his lands to death over a slow fire, but what he would say to you is that ‘We treat you, who do not hold the same beliefs as we do, as you yourselves treat those who do not hold the same beliefs as you. The only thing you can really complain about is your own weakness, in that it prevents you from exterminating us and allows us to exterminate you’.

3But the truth is that you are much more cruel than that emperor. You put us to death, we who do not hold the same beliefs as you, for the reason that we don’t hold every single belief you do. The religion we follow is the same one you know was once beloved of God: we believe that God still loves it. And you believe that he doesn’t. Because you believe this, you put to death by sword and fire anyone who mistakenly but excusably does believe that God still loves what he once loved.

4But if you are cruel with respect to us, you are much worse to our children: you burn them just because they follow the visions inspired in them by those whom natural law and the laws of all people everywhere have taught them to respect like gods.

5You deprive yourself of the advantage given you by the way in which the Muslim religion was established. When they boast of the numbers of their faithful, you tell them that they won them by force, and that they spread their religion by the sword: why therefore do you found yours on fire and flame?

6When you seek to bring us over to your side, we raise some doubts about the source that you glory in descending from. You reply that your religion is new but that it is divine, and you prove it by citing the persecution inflicted on you by the pagans and by the blood of your martyrs. But now it is you who are taking on the role of the Diocletians, and you are making us take on yours.

7We urge you, not in the name of the almighty God whom we both serve but in the name of Christ whom you tell us took on human form in order to provide an example to follow, we urge you to behave to us as he himself would have done had he still been on earth. You want us to be Christians, but you won’t be Christian yourselves.

8But if you don’t want to be Christian, please at least be human: treat us as you would if you had only had the faint glimmers of justice that nature kindles in us, as if you had no religion to guide you, and no revelation to illuminate your understanding.

9If heaven loves you enough to show you the truth, then it has shown you great grace: but is it right for the children who have received an inheritance from their father to hate those who have inherited nothing?

10If you have been given the truth, do not prevent us from seeing it by the way in which you are showing it to us. What characterises truth is the way it triumphs over hearts and minds, and not this impotence you display when you try and force us to acknowledge it through torture.

11If you are reasonable, you should not put us to death, because we are not trying to deceive you. If your Christ is the son of God, we hope that he will compensate us for not having wanted to profane his mysteries; and we believe that the God whom we both serve will not punish us for having been killed because of our religion, one which he once gave us, and which we believe he still gives us.

12You live in a century when natural understanding is more vigorous than it has ever been, when philosophy has enlightened minds, when the morality of your Gospel has become better known, when the respective rights humans have over each other and when the power which one conscience can have over another one have been more solidly grounded. If therefore you are incapable of abandoning your old prejudices, which, if you’re not careful, will develop into your passions, you will have to accept that you are incorrigible, incapable of any enlightenment or instruction, and that the nation which gives authority to men such as you is indeed an unhappy one.

13Would you like us to tell you what we think in all simplicity? You consider us more as your enemies than as the enemies of your religion, given that if you loved your religion, you would not let it become corrupted by such basic ignorance.

14And we have to warn you about something: if later ages ever dare say that during this century the Europeans were civilised, it will be you that people point to to prove that they were cruel and barbarous, and your reputation will be such that the whole century will be tarnished because of you, all your contemporaries hated.

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1 Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, Paris: P. Didot, 1803, Book 25, ch. 13.


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