Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Usbek to Hassim, Dervish of the Mountain of Jaron
OH, wise dervish! whose inquisitive mind excels in learning, give ear to what I am about to tell you.  1
  There are philosophers here, who, it is true, have not attained to the perfection of oriental wisdom: they have not been carried up to the throne of light: neither have they heard the unutterable words, nor felt the awful approach of divine frenzy; but left to themselves, and deprived of these sacred miracles, they follow silently the footprints of human reason.  2
  You would not believe how far this guide has led them. They have cleared up chaos, and have explained, by a simple mechanism, the order of divine architecture. The creator of nature gave motion to matter: nothing more was required to produce the prodigious variety of effects in the universe.  3
  Ordinary lawgivers offer us laws to regulate society—laws, subject to change like the minds of those who make them, and of the people who obey them: those talk only of general, immutable, and eternal laws, which, without exception, are obeyed with order, regularity, and absolute exactness in the immensity of space.  4
  And what think you, most holy man, these laws may be? You imagine, perhaps, that entering into the counsels of the Eternal, you are about to be astonished by sublime mysteries: you give up in advance all idea of understanding, and propose only to admire.  5
  But you will soon change your opinion: they do not dazzle us by a pretended profundity: their simplicity has made them long misunderstood; and it is only after much reflection, that people have seen how fruitful they are, and how far they reach.  6
  The first is, that every body tends to describe a straight line, unless it meets with some obstacle which diverts its course; and the second, which is but a consequence of the first, is, that everybody which moves round a centre, tends to fly from it; because the further off it is, the nearer the course it describes approaches a straight line.  7
  Here, sublime dervish, you have the key of nature: here are the fruitful principles, from which consequences are drawn which pass beyond our ken.  8
  The knowledge of five or six truths has filled their philosophy with wonders, and has enabled them to perform almost as many prodigies and marvels as those which are told of our holy prophets.  9
  For, in short, I am persuaded that we have no doctor who would not have been sorely troubled, if he had been told to weigh in a balance all the air which surrounds the earth, or to measure all the water which falls each year upon its surface; and who would not have thought many times before telling how many leagues sound travels in an hour; what time a ray of light occupies in journeying from the sun to us; how many fathoms it is from here to Saturn; or according to what curve a ship should be cut to make it the best sailer possible.  10
  Perhaps if some holy man had adorned the works of these philosophers with lofty and sublime expressions; if he had introduced bold figures and mysterious allegories, he might have made a great work, which would have ranked next to the Koran.  11
  However, if I must tell you what I think, I never cared greatly for the figurative style. In our Koran there are a great number of trifles which always appear to me as such, although they receive distinction from the strength and liveliness of the style. At first these inspired books seemed to be only divine ideas stated in the language of mankind: on the contrary, however, one often finds in the Koran the language of God and the ideas of men; as if by some astonishing caprice, God had dictated the words, and man had supplied the thought.  12
  You will say, perhaps, that I speak too freely that which is held most sacred among us; regard it as the outcome of the independence which distinguishes this country. No; thanks to Heaven, my mind has not corrupted my heart, and while I live Hali shall be my prophet.

  PARIS, the 15th of the moon of Chahban, 1716.
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