Atheist & Communist Priest in the 18th Century
Pierre J. MAINIL
This second installment of the AFT Blog comes to us from our Belgian friend Pierre Mainil. His subject is a person of great historical importance and probably the most important theoretician of atheism. Jean Meslier was a mere village parson who, at his death in 1729, left behind a thick tome, his testament, in which he lays out in a clear and direct manner the ideas which he could not express during his lifetime: his utter rejection of all religions in general and of Christianity in particular, and his affirmation of philosophical materialism which he explained in a rigorous but accessible manner. Meslier deserves to be much better known by atheists and by the public in general.
Jean MESLIER was born in 1664 in the village of Mazerny, near Rethel in northeastern France, the only son in a family of 4 children. He became an ecclesiastic in order to please his parents who wanted him to enjoy a more comfortable, peaceful and honourable position in life than that of most people.
From 1689 to 1716, the life of Meslier, parson of Étrépigny, was apparently uneventful. In 1716, he had a disagreement with the village lord who then referred the matter to his archbishop. Being unable to express his feelings of revolt openly after that incident, Meslier decided to put them to paper.
After his death 12 years later, among the effects found in the priest’s residence were three copies of a manuscript of some 700 pages, a Testament comprised of three parts:
- A historical part in which Meslier reveals the outrageousness and contradictions of Holy Scripture.
- A part dealing with moral and social questions in which Meslier exposes the harmful nature of Christian morality which generates submission and resignation. He denounces social inequalities and private property, and lays the groundwork for a utopian communism based on a model of land sharing for the benefit of federated parishes.
- A philosophical part in which he expounds his monism and materialism, hence his atheism. For Meslier, being in general is simply matter. And thought is merely another mode of being and action of matter.
Excerpts from this Testament circulated thoughout networks of clandestine literature. It was only in 1864, bicentennial of Meslier’s birth, that the first complete edition of the Testament was published in Amsterdam by the Dutch freethinker and rationalist Rudolf CHARLES d’Ablaing van Giessenburg. In 14 years, 300 copies were sold. In 1878, the remaining unsold 250 were exported to France. It was thanks to this edition that Meslier began to be known in Germany and, at the beginning of the 20th century, translated and studied in eastern countries and in the USA.
A certain quotation from Meslier has become widely known, a statement which can hardly avoid offending polite conformists: “My ultimate and most cherished desire is that the last king be strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
Whenever I discuss the thoughts expressed in the Testament, the response is invariably the following criticism of Jean Meslier: Why did he not have the courage, during his lifetime, to proclaim his materialism, his atheism, his utopian communism and his hatred for the excesses of the powerful. It is as if we had forgotten that from 1184 to 1766, the open expression of any idea considered impious or injurious to the divinity was violently repressed. It was strictly forbidden to question the “revealed word” of the scriptures.
But are we not ourselves, even now in the 21st century, rather shy about using freedom of expression? How can we fail to understand the situation of our Brother in Humanity Jean Meslier! Should he have gone further, with not the risk but rather the certainty that he would be burnt at the stake if he dared to express openly the thoughts laid out in his Testament?
Meslier was first and foremost a rationalist who placed no limit on where the application of reason might lead. Yet he remained cautious, avoiding the trap of what is now known as scientism. He was aware that all observation is vulnerable to the subjectivity of the observer. His rationalism lead him to monist materialism. Beyond matter, there is nothing, he wrote.
With great discernment, Meslier put forward the view that matter is not static but rather dynamic. Everything is in movement, everything is transformed, everything progresses, he wrote. This was a revolutionary concept for his time.
Meslier lived in a peasant environment and remained in close contact with nature. He understood what a graft from one plant to another was, and what its results were. And his unbiased view of the world shows through when he writes about the feelings and emotions of animals. He speaks of flies, spiders and earthworms crushed underfoot and declares that this alone is sufficient to demonstrate that such animals cannot be the work of some supremely great being.
Meslier hammers home the simple phrase “There is no God.” And belief in divinity is not natural. We know that, in matters of religion, the vast majority of people adopt the beliefs of the milieu in which they were born and spend their younger years. Most children raised in a family where the parents’ religion is Catholic or Jewish or Muslim will be Catholic or Jewish or Muslim respectively.
For pages and pages, Meslier persistently demonstrates the irrationality of all religions, in particular Catholicism. To say that the creator-god is goodness itself, infinite goodness beyond human imagining, is incomprehensible for him. He asks if we can trust a god who condemns to hell, for all eternity, the creatures which he has created. And that leads him to address of problem of the torturous anxieties of sex. For Meslier, the alleged good works of divine providence merit only sarcasm. He repeatedly denounces the uselessness of the dogma of the afterlife.
Meslier is of a libertarian bent. But he is aware of the constraints which life in society necessarily imposes. But these constraints must be such as to assure the common good, not to satisfy special interests.
Living in rural parishes, he is most conscious of the situation of the peasantry in 18th century France. He analyzes the underlying reasons and concludes that the most useless and costly members of society are the nobility and those who live well without working. He also denounces the parasitic role of priests and the uselessness of a contemplative life. This leads him to propose the pure and simple abolition of any religious ministry.
Meslier reminds us repeatedly that humanism is within ourselves. But to attain it, he emphatically asks everyone to fight together for the abolition of private property and for the pooling in common of all resources. Communities would work together, under the leadership of the wisest and most competent, to maintain and improve the public good. And the rules for the distribution of goods and products would be: “To each according to his work. To each according to his needs.”
Meslier’s exhortations are a call to action. But then, after waxing poetic, a growing realization of the impracticality of such a utopian communism brings him down to earth and he becomes pessimistic. Meslier laid bare in his Testament all his despair at seeing the world as it is, and he analyzed the causes and proposed solutions. But he is left with no illusions about what others may do with his ideas. He ends his opus with the following expression of disenchantment:
Soon I will be no longer!
Afterwards, others may think or judge or say what they will, it will be nothing to me. Men may arrange their affairs and govern themselves as they wish, they may be wise or foolish. They may say about me or do with me whatever they wish after my death. It is of no concern to me. Already I hardly care what happens in the world.
The dead whom I will soon join care about nothing and concern themselves with nothing. Thus I end this with nothing, as I am already hardly more than nothing myself, and soon I will be nothing.
To learn more about Meslier
- Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, Jean Meslier, translated by Michael Shreve, Prometheus, 2009.
- “No Heaven, No Possessions” Priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729) Theoretician of Atheism Serving the People, Serge DERUETTE, talk presented at the convention Atheists Without Borders, Montréal 2010.
- Lire Jean Meslier, Curé et athée révolutionnaire, Introduction au mesliérisme et extraits de son oeuvre, Serge DERUETTE, Éditions Aden, 2008. (in French)