Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
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Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
 
Letter XVII
Usbek to the Same
 
I AM powerless, divine Mollah, to calm my impatience; I do not know how I am to wait for your sublime answer. I have doubts, which must be resolved; I feel that my reason has gone astray; restore it to the right path. Illumine my darkness, O source of light! Annihilate with the lightning of your divine pen the difficulties I am about to propose to you; enable me to commiserate myself, make me ashamed of the questions I ask you.  1
  Whence comes it that our lawgiver forbids the use of swine’s flesh, and of all those meats which he denominates unclean? Why are we forbidden to touch a corpse, and why for the purification of our souls is this endless washing of the body ordained? To me it seems that things in themselves are neither clean nor unclean: I can conceive of no inherent quality which makes them the one or the other. The filthiness of filth consists in its offending our sight or some other sense; but in itself it is no dirtier than gold or diamonds. The idea of uncleanness, resulting from contact with a dead body, proceeds from a natural repugnance with which it fills us. If the bodies of those who do not wash offended neither the smell nor the sight, how could we tell that they were unclean? Should not, therefore, the senses, divine Mollah, be the only judges of what is clean or unclean? Yet, since the same objects do no affect all men alike, that which is agreeable to one producing disgust in another, it follows that the witness of the senses is no sure guide in this matter, unless we are permitted to decide the point, each according to his fancy, and to separate for our own behoof things that are clean from those that are not.  2
  But would not this, reverend Mollah, confound the distinctions established by our holy Prophet, and overturn the foundations of that law which was written by angelic hands?

  ERZEROUM, the 20th of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1711.
  3
 
 
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