Published on-line in the ‘Articles’ section at www.butterfliesandwheels.org
How to be a successful atheist priest: the forgotten life of Jean Meslier, unsung Enlightenment figure.
Dr Colin Brewer
Despite the fact that Voltaire thought him ‘the most singular [of] the meteors fatal to the Christian religion’, Jean Meslier has been almost completely forgotten for most of the last two hundred years, even in France where he was born in 1664. Yet his name should be familiar to anyone who is interested in the history of religion and of post-Classical European atheism, especially if they have a sense of humour. Meslier’s achievement, unique for its period, was to put his name to a lacerating, lengthy, copiously-referenced and unambiguously atheist document at a time when to do so was to invite almost certain and messy execution. He may not have known that even in our own comparatively tolerant islands, we were hanging people for atheism as late as 1697 but he certainly knew that only a few decades before he was born, the witty and articulate philosopher Vanini had been sent to the pyre after first having his tongue torn out as a little amuse ghoul. Just being the wrong sort of Christian – or even the wrong sort of Catholic – could get you into serious trouble in the France of Louis XIV.
Given this lethally discouraging atmosphere, what should an articulate and passionate man do if, despite a conventional religious upbringing – indeed, despite training for the priesthood and being confirmed as a Catholic priest – you come to the conclusion that there is no god; that this life is the only one we have; that the bible is a farrago of superstitious, contradictory and often sadistic nonsense; and – for good measure – that religion and monarchy between them conspire to enrich the elites at the expense of the mass of the people and to keep them oppressed? You certainly don’t go around telling people (unless, as with poor Thomas Aikenhead in the Edinburgh of 1697, you are young and careless and perhaps too fond of a drink or even a bit manic). You can’t interest a publisher – probably not even in Holland and definitely not in France. In any case, you are the priest of the tiny village of Etrépigny, comprising a mere 37 hearths near the north-eastern border of France, across which the armies of Europe have been slogging it out for much of your priestly life. You were born in the area, in another tiny village, and apart from your studies at the seminary down the road at Reims, you have probably never left it.
You can put your thoughts down on paper, of course. That lets off a bit of steam but absolutely nobody else can be allowed to read them. It helps that as a priest, you have no wife or inquisitive teenage children who might come across them and talk, and that your housekeeper is probably illiterate; but it’s still risky and anyway, what’s the point? Worse, if you become ill, one of your clerical neighbours might read it while helping you out and then have you dragged from your sick-bed to face some very hard-faced men with voices like French versions of Dr Ian Paisley. You could recant but that’s not good for your self-esteem or your reputation and it still might not save you from the flames or the scaffold. It’s too late and too difficult to choose another profession and you don’t want to go back to the family farm and weaving-shed. In any case, you quite like your parishioners and you like helping them, which is just as well, since the welfare state hasn’t been invented yet. They certainly like you, especially after your proto-leftie ideas led you to criticise that yahoo of a local squire in one of your sermons. Then you did it again! You were lucky to get away with a month’s ‘re-education’ back in Reims.
Yet Jean Meslier did write it all down – several hundred pages of mordant, ruthless and often quite amusing demolition of the bible; of anger at the contrast between the poverty of his flock and the affluence of ‘les grands’ – the nobility, the senior clergy, the landowners like squire de Toully; and most particularly, of the way in which religions in general and theistic beliefs in particular keep people in fear and superstition so that they regard the assorted disasters of both war and peace as either God’s will or a just punishment for their sins, original and otherwise. For good measure, these views were integrated into a materialist philosophy which, like his political views and his biblical criticism, was way ahead of his time. His arguments were supported by copious references. Presumably he did much of it by candle-light while the parish slept. It must have taken him months or years and he made three copies. All were found by his death-bed, together with a couple of letters to his completely unsuspecting fellow-priests in the neighbouring parishes. There are suggestions that he hastened his death by refusing food and drink, perhaps to minimise the risk that someone would discover and read his heresies before he was actually dead. It is really rather surprising that any of it survived but all three copies of his Memoire (or Testament, as it is also known) are in the Bibliotheque Nationale. It is not quite so surprising that he was buried in an unmarked grave, or that the archbishop of Reims may have sent his goons to exhume the body but changed his mind in case it drew even more attention to this troublesome priest, who seems to have been the first person actually to put his name to an unquestionably atheist document since Roman times.
We know that soon after Meslier died, the manuscripts got into the hands of a senior judicial officer and we might have expected that he would quickly burn them, or at least make sure that they weren’t seen by the wrong sort of people. In the event, they soon entered the world of illicit samizdat copies and were selling briskly at what were, for the time, very high prices. Before long, one of these – or perhaps an abridged version – arrived at the Voltaire household. He thought it was dynamite and encouraged all his friends to read it but even for Voltaire, it was too hot to publish. When he did eventually take the risk, in 1761, the Meslier who emerged in Voltaire’s Abrégé was a milk-and-water deist version of the unambiguous and uncompromising atheist of the Mémoire. No sign, either, of the sharing-and-caring, agrarian socialist that made Meslier so popular with Soviet propagandists 200 years after his death. Voltaire even made Meslier’s denunciation of his church and his religion seem like a death-bed conversion, when he had, apparently, been harbouring and refining these dangerous heresies for most of his adult life.
That helped to ensure that the real Jean Meslier remained largely unread and unknown but further historical falsification occurred, ironically in the form of a work by Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach. This cheerful, immensely learned and well-heeled aristocrat was nicknamed (presumably by historians) ‘the maître d’hôtel of the Enlightenment’ for his regular dinner-parties attended by the Encyclopédistes and all the other movers and shakers – French and foreign - who wanted to join in the satisfying business of crushing l’infame. D’Holbach was just as much an atheist and materialist as Meslier but also just as concerned to avoid a 5am knock on his door by the Bourbon thought-police. In 1772, he published his own attack on religion, superstition and theism, Common Sense [le bon sens] or superstition in all ages, but as with all his polemical works, he published it anonymously. After he died, with perfect timing, in 1789, just before le déluge, it was republished as Le bon sens du curé Meslier. To this day, people think they are reading the words of an obscure country vicar when they are actually reading the more elegant phrases of a leisured aristo with no socialist aspirations at all. The anonymous writer of a recent ‘Faith Column’ in the New Statesman wrote. ‘I sympathise with Denis Diderot, who wrote in the eighteenth century that "man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" but it wasn’t Diderot at all. It was Meslier, though he didn’t claim to have originated the phrase, and it’s typical of the fire and passion of his writing, as well as of his earthy and robust vocabulary.
It was partly the way in which Meslier has been both forgotten and misrepresented that made me keen to persuade someone to write a play or a film-script about him, though the main reason was that I thought his sole but truly magnum opus was a text for our own times as well as for his. The Enlightenment upset a lot of people in all classes in the 18th century and their successors are still both numerous and influential, as B&W records every day. I’m used to writing scientific medical papers and I’ve done quite a bit of medical journalism but I’ve not written fiction since I left school and never even tried my hand at its dramatic forms. After several years of trying to interest any of my friends and acquaintances with theatrical experience or ambitions, I finally hooked Julian Bird, an old friend and former fellow-trainee in psychiatry. Julian’s mother was a famous actress and he trod the boards a bit as a student. In his retirement, he has started treading them again with some success. Still, even Julian didn’t feel competent to write a play, as opposed to acting in it, so we simply advertised for someone who could. This is easier than it sounds and before long, we were cooperating with David Walter Hall, a philosophy graduate fresh out of Cambridge and writer-producer of a sell-out success at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe. A cheerfully uncomplicated atheist himself and product of an atypically godless upbringing in Northern Ireland, he turned our thoughts into a text (entitled simply ‘Meslier’) that got good reviews at the 2006 Fringe. (Dressed in a rather fetching red cassock and black biretta, I myself walked the streets of the Athens of the North to sell tickets.) A correspondent from one of the religious newspapers said that he liked it but it needed more atheism. We all agreed and the latest version, twice as long and now called The Last Priest (see above) is playing until July 1st at the King’s Head theatre in Islington, one of London’s more Bohemian suburbs. Naturally, David has added the necessary sex and a soupçon of violence to the basic story and there are a few obvious fantasy scenes but our instructions were to avoid further distortions of the basic Meslier story. I particularly wanted none of the kind of Shafferian conceits that made Amadeus good theatre but disgraceful history. Even so, Benedict Nightingale, theatre critic of The Times has rated it one of the top five theatrical experiences in Britain (or at least, in England). Nobody expects to make money out of these things but if you come and see it, you will at least limit our losses as well as perhaps enjoying a little Enlightenment yourselves.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING.
David Berman. Deism, immortality and the art of theological lying. In: Leo Lemay (Ed.) Deism, masonry and the enlightenment: essays honouring Alfred Owen Aldridge. Delaware, AUP, 1987.
1697 The Blasphemy Act – 9 and 10 William III, ch 32 – made it an offence to ‘deny any of the persons in the holy Trinity to be God…or deny the Christian religion to be true, or the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority’.
p.74 ‘The first published work of British atheism, issued in 1782’. Matthew Turner, An answer to Dr Priestly’s letters to a philosophical unbeliever.
p.77 ‘It is our desire for immortality, as Schopenhauer was later to argue, that prompts us to postulate a god able to superintend the other world. Conversely, once mortalism is accepted, then God is no longer required: for it is immortality (will-to-eternal-life), not theism, that is the primary desideratum’.
David Berman Atheism from Hobbes to Russell. London. Routledge 1990.
p.43 Hammon’s prefatory letter to the first English atheist book – Answer to Dr Priestley’s Letter to a philosophical unbeliever. 1782. BL 8704.eee.13 (3) – says that although many doubt that atheists exist, ‘I do declare upon my honour that I am one. Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the Kingdom of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-one, a man publicly declared himself to be an atheist’ (p.xvii)
p.113 Dr Matthew Turner was almost certainly real author of Answer to Dr Priestley’. A Liverpool physician, he was ‘among his friends a professed atheist’.
Andrew Morehouse. Voltaire and Jean Meslier. Yale Romantic Studies, ix New Haven 1936
11 quoting JM Robertson 1906 A short history of freethought. 'The entire group of fighting freethinkers of the age [ie enlightenment] was in some sense inspired by theold priest's legacy'.
46 Paraphrasing Meslier. 'All religions, the Mohammedan, Indian and Pagan, condemn evil and reward virtue. All have had defenders who have suffered persecution and death. All have had prophetsand oracles and have performed miracles.'
21 'in the secret silence of his study [Meslier] brooded upon and conceived in audacious outlines a communistic society from which all religious superstition, all social, economic and political injustice would be banished - an idea of society so revolutionary that it could onlybe given to the world after his death'...'Given the time, the place and the circumstances, Meslier was an extraordinary person'.
42 'The violent Jacobist,[sic] dogmatic atheist, and utopian communist find no place in Voltaire's extrait.’
122-3 'Repeatedly does Voltaire point out the dangers that society will encounter if the hope and the fear of reward and punishment are taken away. Meslier addressed his testament to people who could not read. And even if they could read, why should they be deprived of the necessary fears which alone could prevent them from committing secret crimes?’.
143 'Voltaire from the beginning to the end was a cause-finalier and as such was “considered an imbecile by all the atheists”.’ (Voltaire's own words about himself.)
Chas. Labrosse further notes that although the archbishop of Reims sent someone to exhume Meslier’s body, he was stopped along the way in order to quell Meslier’s notoriety in death.
 Labrosse article, III 400