Jean Meslier  

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History of atheism

Jean Meslier (15 January 1664 – 1729) was a French Catholic priest known for originating the dictum "may the last king be strangled in the bowels of the last priest." This dictum was recorded in a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism, written by Meslier and discovered upon his death. The book was described by its author as his "testament" to his parishioners, the text denounces all religion.

Voltaire's Extrait

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 often mentions Meslier (referring to him as "a good priest") in his correspondence, in which he tells his daughter to "read and read again" Meslier's only work, and says that "every honest man should have Meslier's Testament in his pocket." However, he also described Meslier as writing "in the style of a carriage-horse".

Voltaire published his own expurgated version as Extraits des sentiments de Jean Meslier (first edition, 1762). Voltaire's edition changed the thrust of Meslier's arguments (or drew on other Extraits which did this) so that he appeared to be a deist—like Voltaire—rather than an atheist.

The following passage is found at the end of Voltaire's Extrait, and has been cited in support of the view that Meslier was not really an atheist. However, the passage does not appear in either the 1864 complete edition of the Testament, published in Amsterdam by Rudolf Charles, or in the complete works of Meslier published 1970–1972.

I will finish by begging God, so outraged by that sect, to deign to recall us to natural religion, of which Christianity is the declared enemy. To that simple religion that God placed in the hearts of all men, which teaches us that we only do unto others what we want to have done unto us. Then the universe will be composed of good citizens, of just fathers, of submissive children, of tender friends. God gave us this religion in giving us reason. May fanaticism no longer pervert it! I die more filled with these wishes than with hopes. This is the exact summary of the in-folio testament of Jean Meslier. We can judge how weighty is the testimony of a dying priest who asks God's forgiveness.

Another book, Good Sense (Le Bon Sens), published anonymously in 1772, was long attributed to Meslier, but was in fact written by Baron d'Holbach.

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 complete Testament of Meslier was published in English translation (by Michael Shreve) for the first time in 2009.

Meslier's significance

In his book In Defense of Atheism the contemporary atheist philosopher Michel Onfray describes Meslier as the first person to write an entire text in support of atheism:

"For the first time (but how long will 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 Cristóvão Ferreira, a Portuguese and former Jesuit who renounced his faith under Japanese torture in 1633 and went on to write a book titled The Deception Revealed. However, Onfray decides that Ferreira was not such a good candidate as Meslier, since Ferreira converted to Zen Buddhism.

According to Colin Brewer (2007), who co-produced a play about Meslier's life,

Historians argue about who was the first overt, post-Classical atheist but Meslier was arguably the first to put his name to an incontrovertibly atheist document. That this important event is largely unrecognised (Meslier was absent from both Richard Dawkins’ and Jonathan Miller's recent TV series on atheism) is due partly to Voltaire who published, in 1761, a grossly distorted "Extract" that portrayed Meslier as a fellow-deist and entirely suppressed Meslier's anti-monarchist, proto-communist opinions.

See also

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