Persian Letters/Letter 29
Rica to Ibben, at Smyrna
The Pope is the head of the Christians: an old idol, kept venerable by custom. Formerly he was feared even by princes; for he deposed them as easily as our glorious sultans depose the kings of Irimetta and Georgia. He is, however, no longer dreaded. He declares himself to be the successor of one of the first Christians, called Saint Peter: and it is certainly a rich succession; for he possesses immense treasures, and a large territory owns his sway.
The bishops are the administrators under his rule, and they exercise, as his subordinates, two very different functions. In their corporate capacity they have, like him, the right to make articles of faith. Individually, their sole duty is to dispense with the observance of these articles. For you must know that the Christian religion is burdened with an immense number of very tedious duties: and, as it is universally considered less easy to fulfil these than to have bishops who can dispense with their fulfillment, the latter method has been chosen for the benefit of the public. Thus, if any one wishes to escape the fast of Rhamazan1, or is unwilling to submit to the formalities of marriage, or wishes to break his vows, or to marry within the prescribed degrees, or even to forswear himself, all he has to do is to apply or a bishop, or to the Pope, who will at once grant a dispensation.
The bishops do not make articles of faith for their own government. There are a very great number of learned men, for the most part dervishes2, who raise new questions in religion among themselves: they are left to discuss them for a long time, and the dispute lasts until a decision terminates it.
I can also assure you that there never was a realm in which so many civil wars have broken out, as in the kingdom of Christ.
Those who first propound some new doctrine, are immediately called heretics. Each heresy receives a name which is the rallying cry of those who support it. But no one need be a heretic against his will: he only requires to split the difference, and allege some scholastic subtlety to those who accuse him of heresy; and, whether it be intelligible or not, that renders him as pure as the snow, and he may insist upon his being called orthodox.
What I have told you holds good only in France and Germany: for I have heard it affirmed that in Spain and Portugal there are certain dervishes who do not understand raillery, and who cause men to be burned as they would burn straw. Happy the man, who, when he falls into the hands of these people, has been accustomed to finger little balls of wood3 while saying his prayers, who has carried on his person two pieces of cloth attached to two ribbons4, and who has paid a visit to a province called Galicia5. Without that, a poor devil is in a wretched plight. Although he should swear like a Pagan that he is orthodox, they may very likely decline to admit his plea, and burn him for a heretic. Much good his scholastic subtlety will do him! They will none of it; he will be burned to ashes before they would dream of even giving him a hearing.
Other judges assume the innocence of the accused; these always deem them guilty. In dubious cases, their rule is to lean to the side of severity, apparently because they think mankind desperately wicked. And yet, when it suits them, they have such a high opinion of mankind, that they think them incapable of lying; for they accept as witnesses, mortal enemies, loose women, and people whose trade is infamous. In sentencing culprits, they pay them a little compliment. Having dressed them in brimstone shirts, they assure them that they are much grieved to see them in such sorry attire; that they are tender-hearted, abhorring bloodshed, and are quite overcome at having to condemn them. Then these heart-broken judges console themselves by confiscating to their own use all the goods of their miserable victims.
Oh, happy land, inhabited by the children of the prophets! There such woeful sights as these are unknown6. There, the holy religion which angels brought protects itself by innate truth; it can maintain itself without recourse to violent means like these.
Paris, the 4th of the moon of Chalval, 1712.