Persian Letters

Far Past Mecca: Religion in the Persian Letters College

Writing, like oration, is a deliberate act. Those who speak or debate for a living hone their skills so well that they are capable of arguing either side of a case with equal passion and persuasion. Any reasonably skilled writer is capable of doing the same, particularly since he or she is not limited by the exigencies of the moment and can edit or redact at will. It is therefore impossible to say, with certainty, exactly what a writer believes, thinks, or feels based solely on the product on his pen. This is particularly true in an absolutist or totalitarian environment, wherein authors can be imprisoned or even executed for overtly criticizing the wrong person. Yet throughout Les Lettres Persanes Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu creates satirical caricatures of religion and of religious people. The notion of religious tolerance and freedom, even filtered as it is through the words of imaginary narrators, was risky enough to make de Montesquieu publish the 1721 book under a pseudonym (1). This essay will show the strategies used by de Montesquieu to portray religion in a very critical way: beneficial chiefly in the abstract, but hypocritical, self-important, and even predatory in practice. The text is not kind to...

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