Persian Letters/Letter 61
Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice
I went the other day into a famous church called Notre Dame. While I was admiring this magnificent building I had an opportunity of conversing with an ecclesiastic, led there, like myself, by curiosity. The conversation turned upon the peaceful life enjoyed by those of his profession. “Most people,” said he, “envy the happiness of our condition, and they are right. However, it has its disadvantages: although we are in a measure separated from the world, yet a thousand things require our presence in it; and in this way we have a very difficult part to fill.
“Worldly people are truly astonishing: they can endure neither our praise nor our blame: if we desire to admonish them, they think us ridiculous; if to commend them, they regard us as undignified. Nothing can be more humiliating than the thought that one has offended even the wicked. We are therefore compelled to adopt an ambiguous method, and to influence libertines, not by a direct appeal, but by the uncertainty in which our manner of receiving their remarks leaves them. This requires abundance of talent, it is so difficult to maintain a neutral attitude: men of the world who risk everything, who give themselves up to all their fancies, dropping them or pursuing them, according to their felicity, succeed much better.
“This is not all. We cannot preserve in the world that happy peaceful state which is so loudly praised. As soon as we appear there, we are forced into argument: for example, we have to undertake to prove to a man who does not believe in God, the efficacy of prayer; or the necessity of fasting, to another who all his life has denied the immortality of the soul: the task is heavy, and the laughter is not on our side. Besides this, a desire to convert others to our own opinions, which belongs, as it were, to our profession, torments us endlessly; and is as ridiculous as if Europeans, anxious to improve human nature, were to try to change the Ethiopian’s skin. We disturb the state, and torment ourselves to enforce points of religion which are not fundamental: we are like that conqueror of China, who drove his subjects to a general revolt, by insisting that they should cut their hair or their nails.
“The zeal which we have to secure the fulfilment of the duties of our holy religion on the part of those over whom we are placed, is often dangerous, and cannot be accompanied by too much prudence. An emperor, called Theodosius, put to the sword all the inhabitants of a certain town, even to the women and children. Immediately afterwards, as he was about to enter a church, a bishop, Ambrose by name, shut the doors against him as a sacrilegious murderer: in doing so he performed an heroic action. This emperor, having shortly done the penance which such a crime required, and being admitted into the church, the same bishop made him come from among the priests with whom he had seated himself: that was the action of a fanatic. Thus you see how true it is, that one should not be over-zealous. Of what importance was it to religion or to the state, whether this prince had, or had not, a place among the priests?”
Paris, the 1st of the first moon of Rebiab, 1714.