The Persian Letters by Montesquieu

The Persian Letters by Montesquieu

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     The book The Persian Letters by Montesquieu is a fictional novel that was written by the author so he could comment on the society in which he was living. This novel has served as a good example of the ideas that were present during the early Enlightenment. There are many ideas and themes that Montesquieu discusses by using the point of view of two Persian travelers in Europe that correspond with letters to each other and others back in Persia. By using a foreigner's perspective, Montesquieu was able to present things in a way that gave a much more lasting effect then if he had used two Frenchman commenting on their own country. Through the many themes in the book, one that is prevalent is Montesquieu's attitude and ideas towards religion. The use of a Muslim Persian is quite effective in commenting on Christianity because the religions are alike in that they are both monotheistic, which can be good for drawing comparisons. Montesquieu believes that God is just and obedience to his laws is crucial. He does not see anything wrong with having different religions because all of them have precepts that are useful to society. All the different religions promote obedience to the law and require their followers to be good and just. He believes that even if there was no God these ideas can still help society function correctly. Montesquieu also criticizes numerous aspects of established religion and shows that he sees it as useless and so he responds to it with indifference. He feels God's precepts are of the greatest importance and that is exactly what has been lost from the established church. Montesquieu's beliefs were also similar to many of the other philosophes. They criticized the established church and 'certainly opposed the ritual forms of both Catholic and Protestant worship'; (O'Brien et al 631).

     One of Montesquieu's key arguments throughout the novel when dealing with religion is that God's precepts are more important then anything else. He says 'for, whatever religion one may have, obedience to the laws, love of mankind, and respect for one's parents are always the principal acts of religion'; and no matter what your religion is, you should acknowledge 'God loves mankind, since he founded a religion to make them happy; … and you are certain to please him by loving them also; that is to say performing all the duties of charity and humanity towards them, and in not violating the laws under which they live'; (101).

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Montesquieu believes God wants us to follow his laws and an established religion, such as Catholicism, is not necessary to do this. One easily can 'love thy neighbor' without a set of rituals that have 'no degree of goodness'; (101) in themselves. Montesquieu tells a story in Letter 46 about a man who very much wants to please God, but everyone tells him different ways to pray and follow Him. The man is terribly confused and in the end decides to do what he believes is the best way to please God, which is to be a good citizen in the society which He has chosen for him to be born and to be a good father to his family. The story is to serve as an example of the way Montesquieu believes people should follow God.

     Since all religions have basically the same God given precepts that are useful to society, Montesquieu does not see any reason for not having many different religions. To him the different religions can be seen as being created to fix the areas where the other churches have failed. Also, they can be looked at as different ways in getting the message of God to a variety of people across nations. 'It is not to say that it is not in the king's interest to allow more than one religion in that state. Even if every
religion in the world gathered together there it would not do him any harm, since every ingle one of them commands obedience and preaches respect for authority'; (165). In response to someone asking him of all the religious wars that have occurred in history Montesquieu says that these wars were not caused by the fact that many different religions existed, 'but by the spirit of intolerance, urging on the one which believed itself to be dominant'; (165). Many times the higher figures of the church want to dominate all the other religions because of their belief that they are the one true church.

     Montesquieu, like many of the other philosophes did not believe in organized religion. The idea of having a central group of figures have control over things like the government and education did not appeal to them. Monterquieu criticized the church for the power it had over the people. No one was allowed to speak against the church for 'those who [brought] out some new proposition [were] immediately declared heretics'; (81). Montesquieu felt as though the church did not enforce the most important idea, which was the precepts of God. Instead they were more concerned about rituals and domination over all. Also, Montesquieu, as well as the other philosophes, stressed the
importance of tolerance amongst the religions. Catholicism should not try to dominate the other religions instead they should live together harmoniously. 'Religious toleration was the area in which the Enlightenment had its greatest impact in Europe'; (O'Brien et al 633).

     During the Enlightenment many new ideas and philosophies came about. The Persian Letters is just one example of an enlightenment thinker's ideas. Montesquieu challenged and spoke about many topics in his novel, religion being one of them. Through the use of a letter format and of a foreigner's perspective looking at this different society we see many of Montesquieu's beliefs cleverly woven into an entertaining story.
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