Chap. X           The Play of the Mind


Another abbé returns to our story, and this time we must give him his due. We have seen Charles Irénée Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre, shocking the diplomats at Utrecht (1712) with Mémoire pour rendre la paix perpetuelle (Memoir to make perpetual Peace), which was to fascinate both Rousseau and Kant. And we have seen him proposing to the Club de l'Entresol a medley of ideas so advanced that Cardinal Fleury felt inspired to close the club and save the state (1731). What were these ideas?

Like so many rebels, his mind was sharpened by Jesuit education. It did not take him long to shed the popular faith; and though he continued to profess Catholicism, he did it some sly damage by his Discourse against Mohammedanism, in which his arguments, like Voltaire's in Mahomet, could readily be applied to orthodox Christianity. His Physical Explanation of "the pretended miracles told by Protestants, schismatics, and Mohammedans" was obviously intended to question Catholic miracles as well.


V. Montesquieu: 1689 – 1755

1. Persian Letters

Montesquieu presented the letters as written by Rica and Usbek, two Persians traveling in France.

The religious heresies in the Persian Letters were more startling than the political. Rica observes that Blacks conceive God as black and the Devil as white; he suggests (like Xenophanes) that if triangles confabulated a theology, God would have three sides and sharp points. Usbek marvels at the power of another magician, called pope, who persuades people to believe that bread is not bread, and wine is not wine, "and a thousand things of a like nature." He laughs at the conflict between Jesuits and Jansenists. He is horrified by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, where "dervishes [Dominican monks] cause men to be burned as they would burn straw." He smiles at rosaries and scapulars. He wonders how long the Catholic countries can survive in competition with Protestant peoples, for he thinks that the prohibition of divorce, and the celibacy of nuns and monks, will retard the growth of population in France, Italy and Spain (cf. twentieth-century Ireland); at this rate, Usbek calculates, Catholicism in Europe cannot last five hundred years more. Moreover, these idle and supposedly continent monks "hold in their hands almost all the wealth of the state. They are a miserly crew, always getting and never giving; they are continually hoarding their income to acquire capital. All this wealth falls as it were into a palsy; it is not circulated; it is not employed in trade, industry, or manufactures." Usbek is troubled by the thought that Europe's benighted infidels, who worship Christ instead of Allah and Mohammed, seem all destined to hell, but he has some hope that ultimately they will accept Islam and be saved.

Usbek, in a transparent parable, considers the Revocation (1685) of Henry IV's tolerant Edict of Nantes:

You know, Mirza, that some ministers of Shah Suleiman [Louis XIV] formed the design of obliging all the Armenians of Persia [the Huguenots] to quit the kingdom or become Mohammedans [Catholics], in the belief that our empire will continue polluted as long as it retains within its bosom these infidels. . . . The persecution of the Ghebers by our zealous Mohammedans has obliged them to fly in crowds into the Indies, and has deprived Persia of that people which labored so heartily. . . . Only one thing remained for bigotry to do, and that was to destroy industry, with the result that the Empire [France in 1713 ] fell of itself, carrying along with it that very religion which they wished to advance.

If unbiased discussion were possible, I am not sure, Mirza, that it would not be a good thing for a state to have several religions. . . . History is full of religious wars; but . . . it is not the multiplicity of religions which has produced wars; it is the intolerant spirit animating that one which believed itself in the ascendant.

The ideas of the Persian Letters seem trite to us now, but when they were expressed they were for the author a matter of life and death, at least of imprisonment or banishment; they are trite now because the fight for freedom to express ideas was won. Because the Lettres persanes opened a way, Voltaire was able, thirteen years later, to issue his Lettres sur les Anglais, putting an English torch to French debris; these two books announced the Enlightenment. Montesquieu and his liberty survived his book because he was a noble and the Regent was tolerant. Even so he did not dare acknowledge his authorship, for there were some disapproving voices amid the general acclaim.


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