This is part of a series
Jul 31, 2015
Freethought and Freedom: Jean Meslier
Smith explains some of the libertarian ideas of Jean Meslier, the notorious atheist-priest.
In June 1729 Jean Meslier died. Meslier was an obscure and (by all accounts) kindly French priest who would not be remembered today if not for a manuscript he left behind for his parishioners. Titled Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier, but more commonly known as The Testament of Jean Meslier, this lengthy book of 97 chapters and over 550 pages in the recent English translation by Michael Shreve (Prometheus Books, 2009), is an outright and highly polemical defense of atheism. Although the complete French manuscript was not published until 1864, with a more accurate critical edition following in 2007 and Shreve’s translation in 2009 (the first complete English translation ever), Meslier’s Testament exerted a profound influence on French freethinkers during the eighteenth century, especially Denis Diderot and Baron d’Holbach. Meslier reportedly made three copies of his manuscript; and in subsequent decades, as other copies were made and circulated, the Testament became a highly prized item in the French underground, or clandestine, book market. After Voltaire obtained a copy, he praised Meslier as a “good priest” and recommended that his book be a constant companion of educated readers. But when Voltaire published his highly abridged extract from the Testament, he added material that made Meslier seem a deist (like Voltaire himself) rather than the atheist he really was.
I first became familiar with Meslier’s Testament—or thought I did—while in high school during the 1960s, when I obtained a copy of a book titled Superstition in All Ages, published by the American freethought publisher Peter Eckler. Although this book represents itself as a condensed, translated version of Meslier’s Testament, it is nothing of the sort. It is in fact a translation of a book, Good Sense, by the German atheist Baron d’Holbach, and may be called a condensed version of d’Holbach’s much more extensive two-volume work, The System of Nature (1770, originally published under the pseudonym “Mirabeau.”) I have never been able to determine with certitude how far back this conflation of texts goes, but it may have started in the eighteenth century.
The French philosopher and historian of atheism Michel Onfray said of Meslier’s Testament:
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.
Although I think it is an exaggeration to say that the “history of true atheism” began with Meslier—even a quick perusal of the richly documented study by Alan Charles Kors, Atheism in France, 1650-1729 (Princeton, 1990) should dispel that notion—the historical significance of the Testament cannot be denied. But its significance goes far beyond its unremitting attacks on Christianity (including the Bible) and supernaturalistic religions generally. The Testament is also important for its strident libertarianism. Although I would not go so far as Onfray does in dubbing Meslier an “anarchist” (various remarks by Meslier seem to conflict with this characterization), his hatred of governmental oppression, expressed in clear, forceful, and unequivocal language, was highly unusual in his day.
Since the Testament is unknown to the vast majority of modern libertarians, I may devote several essays to explaining its ideas. This essay will focus on Meslier’s libertarianism. (Exactly what kind of libertarian was Meslier? I shall consider that issue in a later essay.) I provide generous quotations from the Testament in the hope that they will motivate fellow libertarians to read the book for themselves.
An especially interesting feature of Meslier’s thinking about government is his reliance upon the libertarian classic Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, by Étienne de La Boétie (1530-63). Like La Boétie, Meslier insisted that rulers could not maintain their power without the tacit cooperation of the people they ruled. If that cooperation were denied, political power and oppression would dissolve of their own accord. The following passage from the Testament is typical. In considering the issue of why so many of the common people of France were desperately poor, Meslier wrote:
It is because you and all your fellow men are loaded with all the burdens of the state. You are loaded not only with the burdens of your kings and princes who are your tyrants, but also the burdens of the nobility and clergy, all the monasticism and the courts, all the lackeys and grooms of the rulers and all the servants of others, all the soldiers, the cellar-rat tax collectors, police of salt and tobacco, and, finally, all the lazy and useless people in the world.
For, it is only from the fruit of your hard work that all these people live. By your work you supply everything necessary for their subsistence and not only what is necessary, but also what they can use for their entertainment and pleasures. What would happen, for example, to the greatest princes and potentates of the earth if the people did not support them? It is only from the people (whom they care so little about) that they get all their grandeur, riches, and power. In a word, they would be nothing but weak, little men like you if you did not support their grandeur. They would not have more riches than you if you did not give them yours. And they would not have more power or authority than you if you did not want to submit to their laws and will.
Another noteworthy aspect of the Testament is found in Meslier’s argument for legalizing divorce. (He also thought priests and monks should be allowed to marry.) Meslier wrote:
Likewise, if all men, and particularly our Christ cultists, did not hold marriages indissoluble as they do, and if, on the contrary, they always left their unions and conjugal relationships free among themselves, without forcing each other, i.e., either the men or the women, to remain inseparably together all their lives against their inclinations, we would certainly not see as many bad marriages and households as there are, and there would not be as much discord and dissension as there is between husbands and wives.
Taxes topped Meslier’s list of oppressive government measures. He especially detested tax-collectors—“cellar-rats,” he called them—who increased “the harshness of such a hateful and detestable yoke.” Innocent, hardworking Frenchmen were “mistreated every day by a thousand hard and severe money collectors, who are normally proud and arrogant men and from whom all people have to suffer all the put-downs, thefts, fraud, misappropriations, and all kinds of other injustices and mistreatments. For here is no officer, tax collector, or clerk so petty, no archer officer of salt and tobacco so vile who, on the pretext of being hired by the king and on the pretext of collecting and hoarding money, does not believe that he has to make them proud and that he has the right to scoff at, mistreat, trample, and tyrannize the poor.”
The vast extent of French taxes and commercial regulations also incurred Meslier’s wrath.
On the one hand these kings levy huge taxes on all kinds of merchandise in order to profit from everything that is bought and sold; they put them on wine and meat; on eau de vie, alcohol, and beer; on wool, linen, and lace; on salt and pepper; on paper, tobacco, and all kinds of commodities. They make them pay for rights of entry and exit; for rights of registration; for marriages, baptisms, and burials, whenever it seems good to them; they make them pay for liquidations, for relief of communities, for the woods and forests and for the rivers….If they see someone doing business on the lands of their dominion and freely coming and going to buy and sell or only to transport merchandise from one place to another, he must have, as is said in the Apocalypse [the Book of Revelation], the mark of the beast, i.e., the mark of the tax-collector rats and the permission of the king. He must have credentials, clearance, passes, passports, receipts, and guarantees and other similar letters of permission that are truly what we can call the mark of the beast, i.e., the mark of the permission of the tyrant. Without this if you are unlucky enough to run into and be seized by the guards or officers of the said royal beast, you run the risk of being ruined and lost because you will be immediately arrested: they will seize, they will confiscate the merchandise, the horses and wagons. In addition to this the merchants or drivers are sentenced to large fines, prison, the galleys, and sometimes even to shameful death, so severely is it forbidden to do business or to come and go with merchandise without having, as I said the mark of the beast. And power was given to him…that no one could buy or sell except for him who had the mark or name of the beast, or the number of his name (Rev. 13.17).
Although there were numerous French critics of Louis XIV in early eighteenth-century France, Meslier’s attack was unsurpassed in its vehemence. (Meslier, born in 1664, lived 51 years under the reign of Louis, whose rule spanned over 72 years.) The supposedly great Sun King was in the front rank of those rapacious monarchs who “on a whim” sought to extend the boundaries of their empires by waging war on their neighbors, using whatever “vain pretexts” they could invent. These wars of conquest were always undertaken “at the expense of the lives and goods of the poor,” who not only served as cannon fodder for the French army but who were also forced to pay for the engine of their own destruction. Moreover, when armies invade enemy territory, they “ravage and completely desolate the provinces, burning and bleeding everything.” Meslier wrote of Louis XIV:
No one has spilled so much blood, killed so many men, caused so many tears of widows and orphans, ravaged and desolated so many cities and provinces as this last, late king Louis XIV, called “the Great” truly not for the great and commendable actions he did, seeing that he did nothing really worthy of his name, but really for the great injustices, the great thefts, the great usurpations, the great desolations, the great rape and carnage of men that he has caused everywhere on land and sea alike.
From a libertarian perspective, one of the most valuable discussions by Meslier appears in Chapter 58 of his Testament, which discusses “the flatterers of kings and princes.” (The modern historian Harry Elmer Barnes, referring to the broader context of rulers in general, expressed the same idea when he criticized those court intellectuals and historians who do whatever is needed to justify the policies and actions of their own governments.) Court flatterers, according to Meslier, typically recommend that the sovereign not provide more freedom for his subjects, who will only abuse it. The common people are not wise enough to run their own lives, so the sovereign truly acts for the good of the people by telling them what to do. The people “need to be kept lowly for their own interest.”
Court intellectuals do not wish to jeopardize their own positions of power and attendant special privileges, and they hope to catch even more financial crumbs as they fall from the sovereign’s hands, so they concoct “excessive, empty praise on their behalf.” Thus we see “thousands and thousands of cowardly and villainous flatterers who, in order to get ahead and get more, force themselves to indulge in everything, hiding the flaws and vices of the kings and even turning the vices into virtues or the little talent and virtue they may have [into] a rare and exceptional and even heroic virtue; and they wonderfully exaggerate the little good they happen to do sometimes for some individuals.” Magistrates and judges, who are tasked with the job of maintaining impartial justice, “pursue and punish severely the petty criminals; they hang petty thieves and murderers, but they dare to do and say nothing about the great and powerful thieves, the great and powerful murderers and arsonists who devastate the entire earth, who burn and bleed and kill thousands upon thousands of men.” (This is reminiscent of a famous story told about Diogenes, a leading proponent of the Cynic school of moral philosophy in ancient Greece. Upon observing the arrest of a man who had stolen a bottle, Diogenes quipped: “Lo, the big thieves taking the little one to jail.”)
Meslier charged the French clergy with being among the most eager members of the flattering class. Members of the clergy, according to their own religious doctrines, should be “the most zealous defenders of truth and justice and…should be the strongest and most faithful protectors of the people against the unjust vexations and attacks of the princes and kings of the earth,” but this is not how they actually behaved. Instead, clerics (especially those in higher offices) were often the ones who flattered rulers the most, “and who most cowardly and shamefully betray the duties of their ministry.”
Meslier continued with a passage that could have been written by the likes of Thomas Paine, Lysander Spooner, or Murray Rothbard with regard to governments in general.
[K]ings and princes are really like ravaging wolves and roaring lions who search for prey; they are always ready to burden or overburden the people with taxes, always ready to set up new ones and increase the old ones and always ready to ignite the fires of war, and, consequently, always ready to spill blood and take away men’s lives.