Meslier, Jean (1664–1729)
Jean Meslier, perhaps the least restrained freethinker of the French Enlightenment, is also one of the most notorious examples of apostasy. As curé of the village of Etrépigny in Champagne from 1689 to his death, Meslier lived in complete obscurity, attending to his pastoral duties. But under the innocuous exterior of the humble Catholic priest, there seethed a violent hatred and passionate disavowal of the religion that it was his ironic profession to serve. Having resolved sometime in the 1720s to compose his only work, the Testament, with the aim of keeping it secret until his death, he felt free to vent fully the anti-Christian, atheistic, revolutionary—indeed, anarchistic—sentiments that he had been obliged to suppress beneath a lifelong mask of prudent duplicity. The available biographical facts are unfortunately too meager to clarify this extraordinary personality. It is known, however, that on one occasion Meslier's abhorrence of injustice and persecution brought him into bitter conflict with the local nobility and, indirectly, almost into rebellion against the archbishop of Rheims, who, siding (as might be expected) with feudal privilege in the dispute, had castigated the morally outraged but powerless curate.
Editions of the Testament
The three autograph originals of the Testament addressed by its author to posterity were succeeded, in eighteenth-century France, by a profusion of manuscript copies that circulated briskly in the philosophical underworld of forbidden literature. The prolixity and other stylistic shortcomings of the work resulted, however, in its being edited in the form of various abridgments that proved more suitable for dissemination. The most important of these summaries was, without question, the Extrait des sentiments de Jean Meslier, prepared by Voltaire and published in 1762. This first printed version of the apostate priest's opinions was often reprinted, especially under the rubric of Baron d'Holbach's Le bon sens du curé Meslier —a combination of one of his own atheistic tracts and of the Extrait —which saw many editions well into the nineteenth century. The integral text of the Testament was not published until 1864.
Meslier's entire critique follows from the assumption that religion is basically a political means whereby those in power consolidate their control over the vastly greater number of weak and poor members of society. All religious dogmas, beliefs, and rituals, supposedly devised by the ruling class as instruments of government, are considered to be nothing but errors and superstitions serving to dupe and paralyze the victims of tyranny, holding them in ignorant fear and keeping them from any effective action to alleviate their misery by overthrowing their oppressors.
Meslier thought primarily in terms of economic exploitation, asserting that the opulence and power of the few are, thanks to the protection of civil and religious laws, acquired and maintained at the expense of the near destitution of the people. There is little doubt that, in adopting this general view, he was motivated by deep feelings of sympathy for the sufferings of the poor, with whom he came into daily contact. His condemnation of Christianity therefore had at its root the eminently Christian virtue of pity for the downtrodden and helpless, joined, however, to a fiercely un-Christian zeal to right secular wrongs.
Although Meslier condemned all religions, he attacked Christianity in particular. The bulk of the Testament is devoted to fastidious refutations of the many different types of argument by which the "truth" of Christian revelation was presumed demonstrable. Meslier examines and rejects, in turn, the validity of faith, the historicity of miracles, the authenticity of Scripture, the authority of tradition, the accuracy of biblical prophecies, the testimony of martyrdom, the morality of eternal rewards and punishments, and the meaningfulness of such dogmas as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and transubstantiation. The Testament is, indeed, a compendium of the historical, exegetical, textual, and logical objections concerning the essentials of the Christian creed discussed in the critical and apologetic literature from the time of Pierre Bayle through the early decades of the eighteenth century. Meslier was conversant with this literature, and although there is relatively little in his criticism that is entirely new with him, the forcefulness, breadth, and intransigence of his "case against Christianity," together with its politicoeconomic basis, give his work a unique character.
Moreover, Meslier did not stop at exposing the fallacies of Christian belief and the social abuses of institutional religion but boldly pursued his train of thought to the affirmation of a materialistic system in which all phenomena can be traced to a physical basis and are subject to the laws of mechanics. He advocated atheism as the only outlook consistent with the interests of the majority of humankind in its struggle against the lust for domination of the unscrupulous few. Among the sources of the Testament, special importance should be given to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's skeptical treatment of time-honored social practices, to the philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza, and to the Epicurean-Cartesian vision of a mechanistic, naturalistic universe in which the supernatural—particularly the doctrines of divine creation and spiritual immortality—no longer found any place.
The impact of Meslier's ideas still has to be studied carefully. During the eighteenth century it was merely his negation of Christianity that proved appealing, and his socioeconomic protest, with its overtones of popular revolution, went largely unheeded. Contrary to the philosophes' estimate of Meslier as compatible with middle-class bon sens, some Marxists have been able to see in him an audacious spokesman for the economically repressed class of peasants and urban workers and the advocate of socialistic and egalitarian reform of society. But even if this was the true spirit of Meslier's thought, it did not play its intended role, for his influence was largely assimilated into the mainstream of Enlightenment ideology, with its predominantly bourgeois, liberal, and deistic polemic directed at Christianity. Seen in retrospect, the principal weakness of Meslier's anti-Christian summa is his oversimplification of the extreme psychological and cultural complexity of the religious phenomenon and its social applications. Moreover, his ardent wish forever to abolish injustice and wretchedness from the world by the expedient (in his own words) of "hanging and strangling with the bowels of the priests all the nobles and rulers of the earth" was no less utopian than fanatical. Nevertheless, Meslier's indignant and savage denunciation of religion was meaningful at the historical moment that inspired and shaped it, when the Roman Catholic Church of France, owing to its official status and immense riches, actually had a vested interest in the perpetuation of political and economic institutions related to the feudal oppression and exploitation of the people.
See also Bayle, Pierre; Cartesianism; Clandestine Philosophical Literature in France; Enlightenment; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Religion and Politics; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.
Marchal, Jean. L'étrange figure du curé Meslier. Charleville, France, 1957.
Petitfils, E. Un socialiste-révolutionnaire au commencement du XVIIIe siècle, Jean Meslier. Paris, 1908.
Porchnev, B. F. Jean Meslier, et les sources populaires de ses idées. Moscow, 1955.
Spink, J. S. French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire. London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1960.
Le testament de Jean Meslier. 3 vols, edited by Rudolf Charles. Amsterdam, 1864.
Wade, I. O. The Clandestine Organization and Diffusion of Philosophical Ideas in France from 1700 to 1750. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1938.
Aram Vartanian (1967)