Jean Meslier

Testament

Jean Meslier (1664 – 1729) was a French 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.

He began learning Latin from a neighborhood priest in 1678 and eventually joined the seminary; he later claimed this was done to please his parents. At the end of his studies, he took Holy Orders and became priest 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. He lived like a pauper, and every penny left over was donated to the poor.

When Meslier died, there were found in his house three copies of a 633-page manuscript in which the village curate (a person invested with the care of souls of a parish) denounces organized 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. He denied that any spiritual value could be gained from suffering, and he used the deist’s argument from design against god, by showing the evils that he had permitted in this world.

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 practised by the kings of France: 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 were compelling grounds for belief in God.

Meslier’s philosophy is that of an atheist. He denied the existence of the soul and dismissed 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: ‘…wished that all the great men in the world and all the nobility could be hanged, and strangled with the guts of the priests.’ Meslier admits that the statement may seem crude and shocking, but comments that this is what the priests and nobility deserve, not for reasons of revenge or hatred, but for love of justice and truth.

Meslier also vehemently attacked social injustice and sketched out a kind of rural Utopian communism. All the people in a region would belong to a commune in which wealth would be held in common, and everybody would work. Founded on love and brotherhood, the communes would ally to help each other and preserve peace.

Various edited abstracts (known as ‘extraits’) of the Testament were printed and circulated, condensing the multi-volume original manuscript and sometimes adding material that was not written by Meslier. Abstracts were popular because of the length and convoluted style of the original. Voltaire published his own expurgated version as ‘Extraits des sentiments de Jean Meslier’ (1762).

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