Thursday, 2 February 2012

Jean Meslier, Priest and Atheist

My dear friends, seeing that I would not be permitted and the consequences would be too dangerous and distressing for me to tell you openly during my lifetime what I think about the government of men and about their religion and morals, I have decided, at least, to tell you after my death  …’

So (in the 2009 translation by Michael Shreve) begins Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, Parish Priest of Etrépigny and Balaives, three copies of which were apparently found in signed manuscripts in Meslier’s house after his death (he had planned to register the work with the clerks of his parishes beforehand, to be communicated to his parishioners).

                                                Parish Church of Etrépigny

The work circulated in manuscript throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, but was not printed in its original form until 1864. In the meantime, Voltaire had brought Meslier to the attention of a wider audience in his Extraits des Sentiments de Jean Meslier, a sanitized Meslier who was neither revolutionary nor atheist, but an anti-Catholic deist, much like Voltaire himself.

The real Meslier (1664-1729), while carrying out the duties of a Catholic priest until his death, categorically stated ‘there is no God’. He saw religion as a political tool for oppressing the masses and quotes with approval a man whose ‘wish was that all the rulers of the earth and all the nobles be hanged and strangled with the guts of priests’!

Meslier advocated a communitarian society in which all men and women in a given community ‘should live peacefully and in common together, having the same or similar food and being all equally well clothed, well housed’ and in which marriages could easily be dissolved and new partners taken. All that was needed for human happiness, in his rather simplistic view, was to throw off the yoke of the aristocracy and the Church.

No wonder, with all this fermenting inside him that Meslier, who became a priest, he says, to please his parents,  ‘was never without pain and extreme loathing for what I was doing’ and ‘hundreds and hundreds of times on the point of indiscreetly bursting out with indignation.’

This tension in him struck a chord in me, the product of a devoutly Catholic upbringing, who had many times in the past, before I learned to trust my own instincts, forced myself to believe things I felt could not possibly be true. I came to Meslier through a play by David Ball, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, and he simmered in my mind for four years before I felt ready to write, like Voltaire, my own version of the atheist priest. I still would not have done it without the warm encouragement of Donny O’Rourke, my mentor.

Anyone wanting to find out what Meslier thought should read what he himself wrote. What I was interested in – especially as a PEN member -  was how it might feel to rigidly suppress your true opinions and, still more, to be in a profession where you had to express the exact opposite of what you believed. The result is Fr Meslier’s Confession (published by Oversteps Books,
which will be launched at a reading by three Scottish PEN members – myself, Tessa Ransford and Morelle Smith – at Blackwells bookshop on 1st March.  It should be an intriguing mix of voices, not least Meslier’s own.

A C Clarke

1 comment:

Linda Cracknell said...

Fascinating. I'm very much looking forward to the book.