Negligent, ambitious, and perverse princes are the real causes of public adversities, of useless and unjust wars continually
depopulating the earth, of greedy and despotic governments, destroying the benefactions of nature for men. The rapacity of the courts discourages agriculture, blots out industry, causes famine, contagion, misery; Heaven is neither cruel nor favorable to the wishes of the people; it is their haughty chiefs, who always have a heart of brass.
It is a notion destructive to wholesome politics and to the morals of princes, to persuade them that God alone is to be feared by them, when they injure their subjects or when they neglect to render them happy. Sovereigns! It is not the Gods, but your people whom you offend when you do evil. It is to these people, and by retroaction, to yourselves, that you do harm when you govern unjustly.
Nothing is more common in history than to see religious tyrants; nothing more rare than to find equitable, vigilant, enlightened princes. A monarch can be pious, very strict in fulfilling servilely the duties of his religion, very submissive to his priests, liberal in their behalf, and at the same time destitute of all the virtues and talents necessary for governing. Religion for the princes is but an instrument intended to keep the people more firmly under the yoke. According to the beautiful principles of religious morality, a tyrant who, during a long reign, will have done nothing but oppress his subjects, rob them of the fruits of their labor, sacrifice them without pity to his insatiable ambition; a conqueror who will have usurped the provinces of others, who will have slaughtered whole nations, who will have been all his life a real scourge of the human race, imagines that his conscience can be tranquillized, if, in order to expiate so many crimes, he will have wept at the feet of a priest, who will have the cowardly complaisance to console and reassure a brigand, whom the most frightful despair would punish too little for the evil which he has done upon earth.
Commentary: Normally I find Meslier to be a bit of a pessimist. Here, I find him to be a bit of an optimist. He seems to think that the powerful aren’t aware that religion is nonsense and that they await no punishment, no afterlife. After all, if they believed in divine justice, they’d be just and honest rulers to begin with – they wouldn’t need the nonexistent compulsion of an unpleasant afterlife.