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23. Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, 172138

In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu introduces the Persian travellers Usbek and Rica, who, as they discover France, write letters to their friends back home. It is an opportunity for the philosopher to criticise, with an affected air of naiveté, the customs and opinions of France at the time.

Letter 85, from Usbek to Mirza, in Spain [?].

Were I to be forced to speak my mind openly, Mirza, what I would say is that I actually wonder whether it may not in fact be a good thing for there to be a variety of religions within a state.

It is evident that those whose religions are tolerated by the state generally make themselves more useful to their country than those who practise the dominant religion. This is because, precluded from attaining honours and unable to distinguish themselves other than by opulence and wealth, they try to acquire honours by hard work and by taking on the most difficult jobs society can offer.

Moreover, since all religions contain useful principles for society, it is a good thing for them to be zealously obeyed. And what is more likely to inspire this zeal than having more than one?

They are rivals who forgive each other nothing. Jealousy permeates through to individuals: everyone stands guard, and fears doing anything which would dishonour their faction or expose it to the contempt or unbearable condemnation of the opposing faction.

Thus has it ever been remarked that introducing a new sect to the state was the surest way of correcting the abuses of the former. It is all very well saying that it is not in the interests of a prince to allow multiple religions in his state. Even if all the sects in the world were to congregate in his country, it would not do him any harm because there is not a single one that does not ordain obedience and preach submission.

I accept that history is filled with wars of religion. But we must be very careful on this point: for it is not the multiplicity of religions which has produced these wars, but the spirit of intolerance that animated the religion which believed itself to be dominant; it is this spirit of proselytism that is to blame – the Jews picked it up from the Egyptians it passed from them like an epidemic disease to the Muslims and Christians; finally it is this unbalanced way of thinking, whose progress can only be seen as a total eclipse of human reason.

For, ultimately, even if there were no inhumanity in attacking the conscience of others, even if it did not result in the manifold evil effects which are caused by it, merely contemplating it would be an act of madness. He who would have me change my religion does this without hesitation, because he would not change his own, even in the face of violence, yet he finds it strange that I will not do something that he would not do himself, even for the empire of the world.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1721 edition:

38 Montesquieu, ‘Lettre 85’, in his Lettres persanes, Cologne: Pierre Marteau, 1721, pp. 96-99.