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Jean Meslier (1664 – 1729), was a Roman Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism. Described by the author as his "testament" to his parishioners, the text denounces all religion, and argues the superiority of atheist morality.
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, that 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 Étrépigny, 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 40 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".
In his Testament, Meslier repudiated not only the God of conventional Christianity, but even the generic God of the natural religion of the deists. For Meslier, the existence of evil was incompatible with the idea of a good and wise God. Religions, to him, were fabrications fostered by ruling elites. Although the earliest Christians had been exemplary in sharing their goods, Christianity had long since degenerated into encouraging the acceptance of suffering and submission to tyranny (as practiced by the kings of France) and injustice was explained away as being the will of an all-wise Being. None of the arguments used by Meslier against the existence of God were original. In fact, he derived them from books written by orthodox theologians in the debate between the Jesuits, Cartesians, and Jansenists: their inability to agree on a proof for God's existence was taken by Meslier as a good reason not to presume that there was compelling grounds for belief in God.
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".
In his most famous quote, Meslier refers to a man who said:
“”He said he wished that all the great men in the world and all the nobility could be hanged, and strangled in the guts of priests.
Equally common is the version quoted by Diderot: "And [with] the guts of the last priest let's strangle the neck of the last king".
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." However, he described Meslier as writing "in the style of a carriage-horse". Various edited abstracts of the Testament were printed, condensing the multi-volume original manuscript and sometimes adding material not written by Meslier. Abstracts were popular because Meslier's Testament is very long, and it is not written in a style easily understood by the uneducated; it is also too relaxed to serve as propaganda, as the author was convinced that reason and common sense — certainly not violence — were the solutions to fraudulent religion. Voltaire published his own version in expurgated form as Extraits des sentiments de Jean Meslier (1762). Voltaire's edition changed the thrust of Meslier's arguments so that he appeared to be a deist — like Voltaire — rather than an atheist. The Testament of Meslier had never been published in English translation before 2009, when Prometheus Books re-issued it in English.
Praise from Michel Onfray
In his book "In Defense Of Atheism" contemporary atheist philosopher Michel Onfray describes Meslier as the first person to write in support of atheism:
For the first time (but how long with it take us to acknowledge this?) in the history of ideas, a philosopher had dedicated a whole book to the question of atheism. He professed it, demonstrated it, arguing and quoting, sharing his reading and his reflections, and seeking confirmation from his own observations of the everyday world. His title sets it out clearly: Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier; and so does his subtitle: Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World. The book appeared in 1729, after his death. Meslier had spent the greater part of his life working on it. The history of true atheism had begun.
Prior to announcing Meslier as the first atheist philosopher, Onfray considers and dismisses Cristovao Ferriera, a Portuguese and former Jesuit who renounced his faith under Japanese torture in 1614 and went on to write a book entitled The Deception Revealed. However, Onfray decides that Ferriera was not such a good candidate as Meslier, since Ferriera converted to Zen Buddhism.
Of course, this utterly ignores many ancient forms of atheism, such as those that existed in India. Onfray completely forgot, for example, Arab philosopher Al-Rawandi (827–911 CE), who apostatized from Islam and became a critic of religion. Moreover, there were atheists in Greece and Rome before Christianity, though this has largely been ignored or overlooked until recently.
- Le bon sens du curé J. Meslier, suivi de son testament published 1830 includes correspondence of Voltaire on Meslier's testament, a biography of Meslier by Voltaire, Le bon sens, by d'Holbach, and the Testament edited by Voltaire.
- Jean Meslier and "The Gentle Inclination of Nature" Michel Onfray translated by Marvin Mandell
- Maria Rosa Antognazza, Existence of God: European debate, pages 734-5, in Knud Haakonssen, (2006), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-century Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.
- Luca Fonnesu, The problem of theodicy, page 766, in Knud Haakonssen, (2006), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-century Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.
- John Hedley Brooke, (1991), Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, page 171. Cambridge University Press.
- Jean Meslier, Testament, ch. 2.
- Diderot, Dithrambe sur Féte des Rois
- Baron d'Holbach - Good Sense
- Baron d'Holbach - Good Sense: Transcription Notes "Holbach published Le Bon Sens anonymously in 1772. The book was mistakenly identified as the work of Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a Catholic priest who had renounced Christianity in a posthumously-published Testament. As late as the 20th century English translations of Le Bon Sens were still being published under Meslier's name, often bearing such titles as Common Sense and Superstition in All Ages. Editions ascribed to Meslier frequently include an abstract of his Testament together with Voltaire's correspondence regarding Meslier. The actual works of Meslier have never been published in English translation."
- Michel Onfray, In Defence Of Atheism, translation by Jeremy Leggatt, Arcade Publishing, 2007, p.29.
- Timothy Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in Pagan Antiquity, Vintage, 2016