Review by Melissa Grimm, 2009
Superstition in All Ages; Common Sense. By Jean Meslier. With an Introduction and Preface by Voltaire and translation by Anna Koop. Project Gutenberg, 2006.
Voltaire offers an Introduction to Jean Meslier’s Common Sense followed by an Abstract at the end of the priest’s manuscript. According to Voltaire’s Introduction Jean Meslier was born in the village of Mazerny in 1678. Meslier attended seminary, where he focused on Descartes. After leaving seminary he became the vicar of a small parish named Bue in Champagne, France and was appointed the curator of Etripegny. Voltaire writes that Meslier was known for “the austerity of his habits,” that he would give the remainder of his salary to the poor annually and that his only confidants were two fellow curators—MM. Voiri and Delavaux. Meslier died in 1733, leaving behind three copies of a manuscript entitled My Testament. The manuscript was Meslier’s testament against religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular. Given that he had spent his life in the ministry of the Church, Meslier attached an explanatory note to the manuscript as his defense against this apparent contradiction (11). Meslier, addressing his parishioners, writes: “The sympathy which I manifested for your troubles saves me from the least of suspicion.” He continues, “I carefully avoided exhorting you to bigotry, and I spoke to you as rarely as possible of our unfortunate dogmas,” and he adds, “What a disdain I had for my ministry, and particularly for that superstitious Mass, and those ridiculous administrations of sacraments, especially if I was compelled to perform them with the solemnity which awakened all your piety and all your good faith” (12). Voltaire does note that while, ostensibly, Meslier did not publish this manuscript while alive out of fear of being sentenced to death, Thomas Woolston, a doctor of Cambridge, had publicly sold a treatise against religious beliefs in London without facing legal consequence (12).
Voltaire’s Abstract of Meslier’s manuscript offers summaries of the priest’s proofs against the existence of a Deity as well as his proofs against the Divinely inspired nature of Biblical texts and the infallibility of Church doctrine. Within Meslier’s system of proofs, that which is actual must be rational, and that which is rational must be supported by empirical evidence. One of Voltaire’s summaries examines Meslier’s analyses of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is argued that the doctrine requires that there be three distinct personages, each equally and completely God, yet each with distinct functionalities. God came first, God begat Christ, and through the work of both God and Christ the Holy Spirit came to exist. Yet, all three are held to be coeternal. Governed by the law of causality and principle of non-contradiction, Meslier finds this doctrine to be both “absurd” and “repugnant,” in that it contradicts both rules (138). Granting this contradiction, it is only through faith then that a Christian can come to reconcile his/herself with the mystery of the doctrine of the trinity. And such faith and belief in mysteries, Meslier argues, requires that an individual relinquish his/her claim to reason (common sense) (139).
An excerpt from Jean Meslier’s preface bears citing, as I believe it both captures the priest’s general attitude towards religion and the religious, as expressed throughout Common Sense, and demonstrates his use of rhetoric. The excerpt follows:
In a word, whoever will consult common sense upon religious opinions, and will carry into this examination the attention given to objects of ordinary interest, will easily perceive that these opinions have no solid foundation; that all religion is but a castle in the air; that Theology is but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system; that it is but a long tissue of chimeras and contradictions; that it presents to all the different nations of the earth only romances devoid of probability, of which the hero himself is made up of qualities impossible to reconcile, his name having the power to excite in all hearts respect and fear, is found to be but a vague word, which men continually utter, being able to attach to it only ideas or qualities as are belied by the facts, or which evidently contradict each other. The notion of this imaginary being, or rather the word by which we designate him, would be no consequence did it not cause ravages without number upon the earth. Born into the opinion that his phantom is for them a very interesting reality, men, instead of wisely concluding from its incomprehensibility that they are exempt from thinking of it, on the contrary, conclude that they can not occupy themselves enough about it, that they must meditate upon it without ceasing, reason without end, and never lose sight of it. (13-14)
Meslier is not a relativist. There is a verifiable and assertable truth, but it is not Truth as determined by or contingent upon the existence of a sentient deity. The actual manuscript reads in a somewhat more disjointed manner. There are 206 chapters; some are 1-2 paragraphs in length while others equal roughly a page in length. Themes running throughout are, as can be ascertained from the excerpt above; 1) a complete rejection of god(s), which then leads to the 2) complete rejection of all religions, and therefore a 3) complete rejection of all experiences that cannot be accounted for empirically, and the consequent 4) establishment of a system which accounts for human existence based solely on a reality governed by Reason—common sense.
Chapters 115 (CXV)-119 (CXIX) provide a cursory view of Meslier’s system of thought. In chapter 115, The Proof That Religion Is Not Necessary, Is That It Is Unintelligible, Meslier argues that if to follow the correct religion correctly was the highest imperative and only means in attaining salvation, as ordained by a good God, then logically the complete lack of consensus in this area would not exist (64).
In chapter 116, All Religions Are Ridiculed By Those Of Opposite Though Equally Insane Belief, Meslier draws his reader’s attention to the fact that though each religious faith makes equally improbable theological claims, adherents of each faith are blind to their own preposterous claims while fully aware of the logical “absurdities” the other faiths (64-65).
In chapter 117, Opinion Of A Celebrated Theologian, Meslier cites a famous theologian (though the theologian remains un-named) who made light of the fact that within Christian religious discourse it is accepted that an immaterial Being created the material world, with which it shares no commonalities. And further, this immaterial Being is unchanging and yet it is the source of all change in the material world (65).
In chapter 118, The Deist’s God Is No Less Contradictory, No Less Fanciful, Than the Theologian’s God, Meslier doesn’t quite seem to move away from a Christian understanding of God in his attack on the deist’s god. His argument remains interesting however. If God is just, and has permitted free will, then to punish persons for practicing this free will would be unjust, and therefore a logical contradiction (65-66).
In chapter 119, We Do Not Prove At All The Existence Of A God By Saying That In All Ages Every Nation Has Acknowledged Some Kind Of Divinity, Meslier offers examples of facts that had been held by general consensus, which were then proven wrong through scientific discoveries (empirical evidence)—such as the “flatness” of the earth. He argues therefore, that though a majority of the human population may believe in the existence of a Deity/deities, this majority consensus cannot be used as a proof for the existence of such a being/beings (66).
Throughout his manuscript Jean Meslier’s disenchantment with religion(s) seems to return over and over again to the failure of religion(s) to produce promised ends. He argues that there is no evidence that religious persons are any more moral or ethical because of their belief systems and that in fact religion appears to be the leading cause of both personal and societal evils. In chapter 15 (XV) Meslier asserts that all religion was created by legislators as a means to better maintain control over their subjects (20). Though it is important to note, that in chapter 10 (X) Meslier remarks that the origin of all religion arises from the fear of the unknown (19).
In conclusion, a reader will find that in Common Sense challenges brought against the existence of a Deity/deities and of religion in general are exhaustive. Meslier’s arguments are well thought through and contain no equivocations, which causes the reader to—if not expressly agree with all that the priest has to say—approach his work with great respect.