Philosophers, in all ages, have taken the part that seemed destined for the ministers of religion.
The hatred of the latter for philosophy was never more than professional jealousy. All men accustomed to think, instead of seeking to injure each other, should unite their efforts in combating errors, in seeking truth, and especially in dispelling the prejudices from which the sovereigns and subjects suffer alike, and whose upholders themselves finish, sooner or later, by becoming the victims.
In the hands of an enlightened government the priests would become the most useful of citizens. Could men with rich stipends from the State, and relieved of the care of providing for their own subsistence, do anything better than to instruct themselves in order to be able to instruct others? Would not their minds be better satisfied in discovering truth than in wandering in the labyrinths of darkness? Would it be any more difficult to unravel the principles of man’s morals, than the imaginary principles of Divine and theological morals? Would ordinary men have as much trouble in understanding the simple notions of their duties, as in charging their memories with mysteries, unintelligible words, and obscure definitions which are impossible for them to understand? How much time and trouble is lost in trying to teach men things which are of no use to them. What resources for the public benefit, for encouraging the progress of the sciences and the advancement of knowledge, for the education of youth, are presented to well-meaning sovereigns through so many monasteries, which, in a great number of countries devour the people’s substance without an equivalent.
But superstition, jealous of its exclusive empire, seems to have formed but useless beings. What advantage could not be drawn from a multitude of cenobites of both sexes whom we see in so many countries, and who are so well paid to do nothing. Instead of occupying them with sterile contemplations, with mechanical prayers, with monotonous practices; instead of burdening them with fasts and austerities, let there be excited among them a salutary emulation that would inspire them to seek the means of serving usefully the world, which their fatal vows oblige them to renounce. Instead of filling the youthful minds of their pupils with fables, dogmas, and puerilities, why not invite or oblige the priests to teach them true things, and so make of them citizens useful to their country? The way in which men are brought up makes them useful but to the clergy, who blind them, and to the tyrants, who plunder them.
I think Meslier’s mistake is that, being a man of the cloth, and taking his viewpoint from within the corrupt system of religion, he imagines that philosophy is uncorruptable. I hope he took that delusion to his death; he seems like he needed cheering up.
But superstition, jealous of its exclusive empire, seems to have formed but useless beings. Clearly Meslier didn’t know enough philosophers.