The Critics’ Corner
What is the Testament of Jean Meslier?
Henry F. Tonn’s “The Last Testament of Jean Meslier” is very hard to classify. Not only is it not a poem, the content is not original: it is a distillation of a treatise written by a real parish priest in the Ardennes region of France in the early 18th century.
Meslier’s work is almost entirely derivative. All his arguments had already been discussed by theologians in attempts to reconcile history with dogma. And they had been represented from the point of view of humanistic rationalism by Pierre Bayle in his highly subversive Thoughts on the Comet (1682) and especially in his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697).
Pierre Bayle had gone into exile in Holland, and Meslier left his own tract to be published only posthumously, when he would be safely beyond the censure and reprisal of both Church and State.
Voltaire deplored Meslier’s leaden prose. Indeed, even America’s famously long-winded Puritan preachers would have quailed to imagine how sleep-inducing Meslier’s homilies or sermons must have been. Nor did Voltaire entirely share the cleric’s atheistic materialism, but he was delighted that Meslier provided an example of intellectual dissidence within the Church itself.
As long as we’re dealing with summaries, one of Bewildering Stories’ own Review Editors has thoughtfully provided a meta-summary somewhat in the style of the patriarch of Ferney:
There is no God, you silly sheep.|
So sorry I was a liar,
But I much preferred my sinecure
To a nasty death by fire.
Best wishes from your ex-curé,
Yours in good faith, Jean Meslier.
As a postscript: Could atheistic materialism be safely discussed in public only after the Revolution of 1789 ? After all, Voltaire lived long years in exile, and Rousseau’s revolutionary works were smuggled in from Holland sous la cape — under cloak of cloak, so to speak. But Rousseau was allowed to escape arrest, and Voltaire lived in international celebrity on the Swiss border.
And when the royal executioner brought works such as Rousseau’s Émile to the Place de Grève in Paris to be ceremonially ‘executed’, like as not the executioner would chop up a bag of old papers and then retire with a copy of the proscribed book... under his cloak. When things like that happen, you know the régime is well on its way to becoming ancien.
Meslier and the Enlightenment had been anticipated a century earlier. Cyrano de Bergerac concludes his Other World (also known as “Voyage to the Moon”) with an untoppable joke that had obviously been making the rounds among the libertins (free-thinkers).
The times, they were a-changin’.
Copyright © 2009 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories