Jean Meslier

On this date in 1664, Jean Meslier was born in Mazerny in the Ardennes, France. Meslier became the village priest in Etrépigny, also in the Ardennes, where he served for 40 years. Meslier is noted for leaving, on his deathbed, a several-hundred page manuscript, titled Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier: Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World, denouncing Christianity, the Church, and all religion, calling it the "opium of the people." He was an early exponent of communist values and advocate of radical equality. Though the manuscript was suppressed by the Church, it was circulated illicitly.

Meslier is the originator of the quote, often attributed to Denis Diderot, that the world will be free when "the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." French philosopher Michel Onfray says of Meslier in his Atheist Manifesto (2005), "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. . . . The history of true atheism had begun." (Translated by Jeremy Leggat, 2007.)

Voltaire published an "Extract" of Meslier's magnum opus in 1761, selectively edited to make it seem as if Meslier were, like Voltaire, a deist, rather than the atheist he proclaimed himself to be. The Memoire was not published in its entirety until 1864, and there is still no complete English translation in 2011. Despite its incompleteness, Meslier's work was influential in the French Enlightenment, widely read by nineteenth-century American freethinkers, and admired by Karl Marx. D. 1729.

"How I suffered when I had to preach to you those pious lies that I detest in my heart. What remorse your credulity caused me! A thousand times I was on the point of breaking out publicly and opening your eyes, but a fear stronger than myself held me back, and forced me to keep silence until my death."

—Jean Meslier, Memoire, via The New Humanist

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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