The Monday Meslier


What is the Monday Meslier?

Every so often, on mondays, I’m going to select and examine a chunk of the 1729 Testament of Jean Meslier (wikipedia).

I first stumbled on Meslier when I was looking on Project Gutenberg for any works by Voltaire, and the search engine returned a pointer to Meslier’s Testament because it had been published with a forward by Voltaire. I still get

Jean Meslier Portrait

goose-bumps at the idea of being an author, and having a forward for one’s book written by Voltaire. That, as they say, is “big time.” It’s also a bit dangerous – Voltaire had his own ideas and his own agenda and, while he was a rationalist par excellence and one of the sparks of the enlightenment, he was not an atheist. Meslier was.

Meslier’s historical significance is interesting. His Testament was one of the first explicitly atheistic tracts of its sort, and he resorted to the clever dodge of posting it posthumously. “HAHA! You can’t kill me because I’m already dead!”

The Testament is huge and detailed and amounts to an impassioned hammering on every point of religion that you can hammer on in 600+ pages of manuscript. Upon his death, he left instructions that the manuscript be published, whereupon it was embraced by Diderot and Voltaire, who published their own versions and extracts from it. Voltaire, being Voltaire, had to get in a little damning with faint praise, describing Meslier’s writing as “in the style of a carriage-horse.” It is true, we cannot all be Voltaire, and Voltaire made sure everyone had no doubt regarding that.

Meslier’s Testament also inspired the Baron D’Holbach, who wrote his own atheistic tract “Common Sense”  and arguably inspired Richard Dawkins’ “God Delusion” centuries later. His point-by-point religion-bashing ought to be familiar to skeptics and atheists to this day. A “carriage-horse” indeed, he hauled the goods and delivered them.

This was “free thought” indeed. I can imagine the pain Meslier felt during his 40+ years as an abbe representing a religion he had come to despise. Accounts of his life say that he was humble and kind and frugal; I picture him drafting and re-drafting his Testament as he encountered the various stupidities of the faith he no longer held. He can’t have been a happy fellow.

So, welcome to the Monday Meslier. There are many passages of the Testament that I particularly enjoy and I think you will, too. One of the expressions you may have heard,

Meslier “…wished that all the great men in the world and all the nobility could be hanged, and strangled with the guts of the priests.”

Diderot lifted that one, so did D’Holbach, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and many, many others. My 1st edition of Paul Wolff’s 1970 “In Defense of Anarchism” has, written in the cover, “May the last lawyer be hanged in the guts of the last cop.” I fantasize that may have been penned by the author – it’s possible.

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    I guess I never realized that Voltaire was a bit of a dick.

    Nonetheless I’ll add this Meslier book to my birthday wishes. :D I look forward to the series.

  2. says

    Shiv@#1:
    He was unique! Part of his fame was for trolling authority; they didn’t like him much but loved him anyway. If you think the French are arch and snarky, they are just a shadow of him, trying to maintain his weapons-grade level of snark.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    <3 Jean Meslier. I found about him and read some of him during my personal exercise to demonstrate that "atheism" predated "agnosticism", and that "atheism" according to self-identified atheist writers has never meant "belief that there are no gods".

  4. polishsalami says

    I first discovered Meslier when I was looking for stuff on 17th & 18th century atheists, this being inspired by my discovery of Matthias Knutzen (who has become a personal hero of mine). Meslier was briefly my Twitter avatar, though I don’t think my ramblings did him justice.

  5. says

    @polishsalami#5:
    That’s cool!

    Discovering Meslier is pretty amazing. You start reading, “hey, this is big…” and then “hey, this is really aggressive!” He doesn’t pull any punches. I don’t think he was a very happy man, and I’m absolutely sure that the clergy who read his testament were pretty unhappy, too.

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