Monday Meslier: Voltaire’s Introduction

Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

It is said that truth is generally revealed by dying lips.

When men full of health and enjoying all the pleasures of life, exert themselves without ceasing, to excite minds and to take advantage of their fanaticism by wearing the mask of religion, it will not be without interest or importance to know what other men, invested with the same ministry, have taught under the impulse of a conscience quickened by the approach of the final hour. Their confessions are more valuable because they carry with them the spirit of contrition. It is then that the truth, which is no longer obscured by narrow passions and sordid interests, presents itself in all its brilliancy, and imposes upon him who has kept it hidden during his life, the duty, and even the necessity, of unveiling it fully at his death. It is then that human speech, losing in a measure its terrestrial nature, becomes persuasive and convincing. [From Voltaire’s Introduction to Meslier]


In the off chance you haven’t heard of Richard Carrier’s lawsuit against FtB, there is a fundraiser here. And that is what the courts are to do: determine the degree and impact of terrestrial facts, as well as the damages both real and imagined.

In Voltaire’s world, the truth would out, since in the here-and-now, there is no reason for the atheist not to lie. Clearly that is not the case, since atheists can disagree equally regarding matters of fact. Even Voltaire, who many believe appeared to have been an atheist, preferred not to confront that question in a way that would bring a decisive “yes/no” answer.

It’s painful for me, since I think Voltaire obviously understood the ridiculousness of religion, and his ruthlessly enquiring mind could scarcely overlooked its manifest flaws. Yet he never declared himself apostate, which would have left him a target for so much of France’s self-hatred, he was willing to “ecrasez l’lnfame” except for the biggest infamy that had its boot across his own throat.

In the United States we pay a certain amount of lip service to freedom of speech, yet we have a justice system that abets lawsuits intended to reduce people’s ability to express their opinion. Is it appropriate for me to say “so-and-so is a bit creepy, maybe don’t go out drinking with them if they’re ordering the mixed drinks?” Of course, the US justice system is slanted toward power and wealth rather than the service of truth; the old genius would never have allowed himself to be cornered where his wits could not leverage him out.

[I should be clear: I the “mixed drinks” refers to another embarrassing atheist, not Richard Carrier.]

In Voltaire’s youth, he was in a situation in which his ability to speak was compromised (by some higher nobility hired thugs with fists) and he attempted to resort to the sword, the court of last resort. That turned out also to be a bad move for him. But in the end, we all know the name “Voltaire” and his opponent is forgotten except to the connoisseur. FtB’s plaintiff’s complaint is, literally, that he is destined to be ignored. So be it.