Far Past Mecca: Religion in the Persian Letters

Writing, like oration, is a deliberate act. Those who speak or debate for a living hone their skills so well that they are capable of arguing either side of a case with equal passion and persuasion. Any reasonably skilled writer is capable of doing the same, particularly since he or she is not limited by the exigencies of the moment and can edit or redact at will. It is therefore impossible to say, with certainty, exactly what a writer believes, thinks, or feels based solely on the product on his pen. This is particularly true in an absolutist or totalitarian environment, wherein authors can be imprisoned or even executed for overtly criticizing the wrong person. Yet throughout Les Lettres Persanes Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu creates satirical caricatures of religion and of religious people. The notion of religious tolerance and freedom, even filtered as it is through the words of imaginary narrators, was risky enough to make de Montesquieu publish the 1721 book under a pseudonym (1). This essay will show the strategies used by de Montesquieu to portray religion in a very critical way: beneficial chiefly in the abstract, but hypocritical, self-important, and even predatory in practice. The text is not kind to anybody, but it mocks religious individuals more gently by presenting them as well-intentioned hypocrites. The most trenchant irony is reserved for the First Estate, the members of which are presented as not just self-interested but actively predatory. Religious freedom is never explicitly endorsed in Les Lettres Persanes, but the sentiments expressed by the fictional characters therein appear to support it at times.

Born in 1689 (2), de Montesquieu came of age during the reign of Louis XIV, who between 1643 and 1715 (3) presided over an absolutist empire in which aristocratic families (known as the Second Estate) were part of a very privileged class to whom education was readily available. Yet even the social liberties permitted to the noble class did not quite permit an author to criticize members of the First Estate. In Les Lettres, Montesquieu frequently makes a point through a narrator who, while overtly proclaiming something, is unreliable enough to convince the reader that the author intends the opposite.

This author never explicitly says that religion is bad, or that there’s no such thing as a God. At times, the characters speculate as to what God must be like, but it’s always a positive and perfect image. But, when it comes to human beings, Montesquieu presents them as misguided, corrupt, self-absorbed, and hypocritical.

“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 interest, and which is as pure as the sky from which it came.” (4) These words are attributed to Usbek, an owner of multiple slaves and concubines, who has just finished criticizing what he characterizes as Christian hypocrisy of freeing slaves in one’s own country for religious reasons, only to enslave people in other nations. The more overtly a de Montesquieu character praises or condemns something, the more ironic the praise or censure becomes. Usbek himself appears to regard Islam as a “pure” religion, and Islamic lands as being somehow peaceful and superior despite the extremely corrupt goings-on in the court of Sultan Ahmed III (who reigned at the time in which the fictional Usbek would have been traveling in Europe). Ironically, Ahmed III was known for being a modernizing influence in the Ottoman Empire, and was a devoted Francophile. (5)

When the character Usbek presents “his” thoughts in general terms, stating his opinion of the human condition, he does not confine his observations to religion. He describes humanity as self-interested overall: “Men act unjustly, because it is in their interest to do so, and because they prefer their own satisfaction to that of others. They act always to secure some advantage to themselves: no one is a villain gratis; there is always a determining motive, and that motive is always an interested one.” (6) But in the early part of the book, Usbek identifies self-interest as a uniquely Christian and European trait, and contrasts it with his idealized vision of his own nation.

Through the eyes of the Persian visitors, European traits are exaggerated for the sake of irony. Usbek remarks on the European habit of religious discussion, which he interprets as a lack of faith: “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.” (7) Yet the fact this debate occurred in France is evidence that the violent suppression of the Protestant religious viewpoint during the Huguenot rebellion of the 1620’s (8) is no longer a credible threat, so that ordinary people feel free to discuss or dispute religion, within limits.

Usbek meets and describes “certain people who are never done discussing religion, but who seem at the same time to contend as to who shall observe it least.” (9) He goes on to describe his notion of the best way to serve God, which is to follow the rules of the religion and the nation. Yet Usbek himself, though he purports to be devout, has not yet bothered with the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. In Letter 15, his servant the First Eunuch expresses a desire that he do that, so as to cleanse himself. (10)

When it comes to the clergy, de Montesquieu takes the gloves off. Although he points out the hypocrisy in lay people and allows Usbek to point at it repeatedly, the criticism of clerical hypocrisy is far more vicious. “These dervishes take three oaths: of obedience, of poverty, and of chastity. They say that the first is the best observed of the three, as to the second, it is not observed at all; you can form your own opinion with regard to the third.” (11) This next passage describes the corruption the cheekier Rica sees in the Church: “Thus, if any one wishes to escape the fast of Rhamazan or is unwilling to submit to the formalities of marriage, or wishes to break his vows, or to marry within the prescribed degrees, or even to forswear himself, all he has to do is to apply or a bishop, or to the Pope, who will at once grant a dispensation.” (12) Rica describes his first impression of the concepts of holy trinity and transubstantiation, two important articles of faith for Catholics of the time:

(T)here is another magician more powerful still, who is master of the king’s mind, as absolutely as the king is master of the minds of his subjects. This magician is called the Pope. Sometimes he makes the king believe that three are no more than one; that the bread which he eats is not bread; the wine which he drinks not wine; and a thousand things of a like nature. (13)

One passage in a letter from Rica depicts Church representatives, bureaucrats, and judges as not just hypocritical but dangerously predatory:

Other judges assume the innocence of the accused; these always deem them guilty. In dubious cases, their rule is to lean to the side of severity, apparently because they think mankind desperately wicked. And yet, when it suits them, they have such a high opinion of mankind, that they think them incapable of lying; for they accept as witnesses, mortal enemies, loose women, and people whose trade is infamous. In sentencing culprits, they pay them a little compliment. Having dressed them in brimstone shirts, they assure them that they are much grieved to see them in such sorry attire; that they are tender-hearted, abhorring bloodshed, and are quite overcome at having to condemn them. Then these heart-broken judges console themselves by confiscating to their own use all the goods of their miserable victims. (14)

On the subject of religious tolerance, de Montesquieu allows his characters to speak plainly and explicitly. Although at no point is religious freedom recommended overall, Usbek has this to say about the Jews he has observes in Europe:

They have never been freer from molestation in Europe than they are now. Christians are beginning to lose the spirit of intolerance which animated them: experience has shown the error of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and of the persecution of those Christians in France whose belief differed a little from that of the king. They have realized that zeal for the advancement of religion is different from a due attachment to it; and that in order to love it and fulfil its behests, it is not necessary to hate and persecute those who are opposed to it. It is much to be desired that our Mussulmans regarded this matter as rationally… (15)

Montesquieu ultimately presents religious sentiment as a positive force, and he never goes so far as to criticize God or assert any form of atheism. But the human beings in the book are all imperfect, even the narrators. Most of the religious individuals in the book come across as self-absorbed, well-intentioned hypocrites. The Second Estate is depicted as corrupt and predatory. Although the text supports the abstract notion of religion, it criticizes the way people follow it. To the extent the text can be assumed to reflect de Montesquieu’s actual thoughts, one might label him a freethinker who approves of religion, but has no faith in humanity.

End Notes

1) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 501-502

2) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 423

3) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 464, 466

4) Letter 75, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

5) Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. Copyright 1992, reprinted 2009 Barnes and Noble. Hardcover. Pages 30-42.

6) Letter 84, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

7) Letter 75, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

8) Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback. Pages 412

9) Letter 46, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

10) Letter 15, the First Eunuch to Jaron, at Erzeroum

11) Letter 57, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

12) Letter 29, Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna

13) Letter 24, Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna

14) Letter 75, Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

15) Letter 60, Usbek to Ibben, at Smyrna


Dutton, Paul Edward et al. Many Europes, vol. II. Copyright 2014 by McGraw Hill, NY. Paperback.

Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. Copyright 1992, reprinted 2009 Barnes and Noble. Hardcover.

de Secondat, Charles. (Montesquieu) Les Lettres Persanes. Public Domain. Retrieved from http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Lettres_persanes

de Secondat, Charles. (Montesquieu) The Persian Letters. Public Domain. John Davidson, translator. Retrieved from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Persian_Letters.

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