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Caroline Warman

43. Montesquieu, Persian Letters1

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  • 1 Montesquieu, ‘Lettre 35’, in his Lettres persanes, Cologne: Pierre Marteau, 1721, pp. 92-94. This i (...)

1The outlook of Usbek, observer of customs in the Persian Letters, is enriched by his travels. In this letter to a friend in Venice, he offers critical comparisons of customs and dogmas – paying particular attention to religious intolerance.

Letter from Usbek to Rhedi, in Venice

2Here I see people who are constantly quarrelling about religion, but it seems to me that they are competing at the same time as to who shall be the least observant of its rules.

3Not only are they not better Christians, they are not even better citizens than others, and it is this that I am struck by most: for, whatever religion one follows, its primary commandments are always to abide by the law, to love mankind, and to respect one’s parents.

4Indeed, is not the primary aim of a religious man to please the deity who established the religion that he practices? And is not the surest method of achieving this aim to observe the rules of society and the duties of humanity? No matter what the religion of your country, supposing there is one, you must believe that God loves mankind, since he established religion in order to make us happy; that if he loves mankind, we are sure to please him by loving them also, that is to say, by fulfilling towards each other all the duties of charity and humanity and by not violating the laws under which we live.

5You are much more likely to please God by doing this than by conducting this or that rite: for rites do not have the slightest degree of goodness in themselves. They are only good in respect to God, assuming that he commanded them to be instituted in the first place. But this is the subject of great debate: one can easily be mistaken; for one must choose the rites of one religion from amongst those of two thousand others.

6A man once addressed this prayer to God every day: ‘Lord, I do not understand the endless disputes that take place regarding Thee. I would like to serve Thee according to Thy will, but every man I consult would have me serve Thee according to his will. When I want to pray to Thee I do not know in which language I should address Thee. Nor do I know what position to assume: one person says that I must pray to Thee standing; another wants me to be sitting; a further person requires me to kneel. That’s not all: there are some who claim that I must wash every morning with cold water; while others assert that Thou wilt regard me with horror if I do not have a small piece of my flesh cut away. The other day I was in a caravanserai, and it so happened that I ate a rabbit. Three men nearby made me tremble with fear: all three of them declared that I had grievously offended Thee, one said it was because this animal was unclean, another because it had been killed by suffocation, and the third because it wasn’t fish. A Brahman who was passing by and who I chose to arbitrate, said to me, ‘They are wrong: for it seems that you didn’t kill this animal yourself’. ‘But I did’, said I. ‘Ah, then you have committed an abominable crime, and may God never forgive you’, he said to me in a stern voice, ‘For how can you be sure that the soul of your father did not pass into this animal?’ All these things, Lord, cast me into an inconceivable confusion: I cannot move my head without facing the risk of offending Thee; but I would like to please Thee and moreover to use my life, which I owe to Thee, to that end. I do not know if I am mistaken, but I believe that the best way to succeed in doing so is to live as a good citizen in the society in which Thou has decreed I should be born and as a good father in the family that Thou hast given me’.
From Paris, the 8th day of the Moon of Chahban, 1713.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1721 edition:​books?id=9ThiAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA160


1 Montesquieu, ‘Lettre 35’, in his Lettres persanes, Cologne: Pierre Marteau, 1721, pp. 92-94. This is letter 35 in the first edition, but letter 46 in the revised edition, and in all modern editions.


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