Thursday, October 05, 2006

Jean Meslier - Wikipedia

Church of Étrépigny.
Church of Étrépigny.

Jean Meslier (1664 - 1733), was a Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism. Entitled "Common Sense" and described by the author as his "testament" to his parishoners, the text denounces all religion, and argues the superiority of atheist morality. The book was published posthumously under the title "Superstition in All Ages" with a preface, in the second edition, by Voltaire. Despite its original and published titles, the work is most commonly referred to as "Meslier's Testament".

Life and works

Jean Meslier was born January 15, 1664, in Mazerny in the Ardennes. He began learning Latin from a neighborhood priest in 1678 and eventually joined the seminary; he later claimed, in the Author's Preface to his Testament, this was done to please his parents. At the end of his studies, he took Holy Orders and, on January 7, 1689, became priest at Etrépigny, in Champagne. One public disagreement with a local nobleman aside, Meslier was to all appearances generally unremarkable, and he performed his office without complaint or problem for forty years.

When Meslier died, there were found in his house three copies of a 633-page octavo manuscript in which the village curate denounces religion as "but a castle in the air", and theology as "but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system". A materialist, Meslier denies the existence of the soul; he also dismisses the notion of free will.

In Chapter V, the priest writes, "If God is incomprehensible to man, it would seem rational never to think of Him at all"; Meslier does think of him, however, for several hundred pages more, in which he calls God "a chimera" and argues that the supposition of God is not prerequisite to morality. In fact, he concludes that "[w]hether there exists a God or not [...] men's moral duties will always be the same so long as they possess their own nature".

Voltaire often mentions Meslier in his correspondence, calling the atheist "a good priest", telling his daughter to "read and read again" Meslier's only work, and saying that "every honest man should have Meslier's Testament in his pocket." Although very few copies of Superstition in All Ages were printed, several Abstracts were circulated that were both less expensive to produce and to own, and easier for the uneducated to understand (Voltaire said of two of the Abstracts that they were "in the style of a carriage-horse").


The well-known quote:

«Je voudrais, et ce sera le dernier et le plus ardent de mes souhaits, je voudrais que le dernier des rois fût étranglé avec les boyaux du dernier prêtre.»

"I would like, and this would be the last and most ardent of my wishes, I would like the last of the kings to be strangled by the guts of the last priest"

is often attributed to Meslier; it does not appear in his Testament, however, and is completely atypical of his style. Diderot, who wrote in his poem Les Éleuthéromanes that men who lack ropes to hang their kings should weave some from priest's entrails, is a more likely source, unless the quote comes from one of the many Abstracts of the Testament that were circulated during the Revolution, often with drastic revisions to suit the political temperament of the times. Abstracts where popular because Meslier's Testament is, after all, very long, and would have been expense to print and bind in its entirety, and it is not written in a style easily understood by the uneducated; it is also rather too relaxed to serve as propaganda, convinced, as the author was, that reason and common sense - certainly not violence - were the solutions to fraudulent religion.

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