Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Jean Meslier's Mon Testament, Cont'd.
Following is the final installment of Herve Gourmelon's translation of Chapter Two of Jean Meslier's Mon Testament.HGourmelon (translating from Jean Meslier)
Thoughts and Feelings of the Author About the Religions of the World, Part IIBut for those who govern or take part in the domination of the others, and for priests, who rule over consciences, or who benefit from big revenues, those peoples are just like goldmines, or a Golden Fleece; they are like horns of plenty, who provide them with all kinds of goods at their will; and this is what gives all these gentlemen the means to entertain themselves and have all kinds of good time, while the poor peoples, abused by the errors and superstitions of religion, groan sadly, poorly and peacefully under the yoke of the oppression of the greats, while they patiently suffer their pains, while they vainly pray for Gods and saints that won't listen to them, while they lose their time in vain devotions, while they devoutly accomplish the penitence and mortification that they were enjoined to do after the vain and superstitious confession of their sins, and finally, while those poor peoples work like dogs day and night to earn punily their living, but also to cater lavishly for the pleasures and bliss of those who make their lives so miserable.
Well ! My dear friends, if you knew of the vanity and the foolishness of the nonsense that you are being entertained with under the pretext of religion, and if you knew how unfairly and how shamefully the tyrants that dominate you take advantage of the authority that they have encroached upon you, you would certainly feel nothing but contempt for everything that you are told to respect and worship, and you would feel nothing but hatred and indignation towards all those who deceive you, who govern you so badly, and who mistreat you so shamefully. This reminds me of a wish that was made formerly by a man, who had neither knowledge nor learning. However, that man had apparently enough wisdom and insight to judge sanely all the detestable deceptions and all the detestable ceremonies that I am blaming here. He was brilliant in the way he expressed his thoughts, and he could understand deeply enough the ins and outs of the mystery of iniquity that I have just discussed, since he could see clearly who was involved and who was responsible for that state of affairs. For all those reasons, he wished that all the great of this world and all the nobles be hanged and strangled with the guts of the priests.(1) That expression certainly sounds rude and gross, but one has to admit that it is frank and guileless. It is short, yet expressive, since it expresses in fairly few words all that those people deserve. As far as I am concerned, my dear friends, if I had a wish to utter on the subject and I would certainly make it if only it could come true I would wish that I had the arms and the strength of a Hercules to rid the world of all vice and iniquity, and to have the pleasure of braining all those monsters of nonsense and iniquity, that make all the peoples of the earth groan so miserably. Do not think, my dear friends, that I am prompted here by any particular desire of revenge, nor any particular interest or animosity. No, my dear friends, no passion is giving me those feelings, or urging me to talk and write thus. I am only motivated by my personal zeal for justice and truth that are so shamefully down-trodden, on the one hand, and by my hatred of vice and iniquity which, as far as I can see, rule everywhere, on the other hand. One can but hate and despise those people who are responsible for so many detestable evils, and who deceive their neighbours so universally. Why, would one not be right to ban and chase away from a town and a province some unashamed, deceitful charlatans who, while pretending to charitably give away salutary remedies and efficient medication, would actually sell at a high price harmful drugs and pernicious ointments? Certainly, one would be right to ban them and chase them as infamous deceivers. In the same way, would one not be right to blame openly and severely punish all those crooks and thieves who spend their time robbing, killing and slaughtering inhumanly those who have the ill luck to fall into their hands? Yes, beyond any doubt, it would serve them right to be severely punished, and one would be right to hate and dislike them; and it would even be a crime to bear that they remain unpunished for their robberies. All the more reason, my dear friends, are we entitled to blame, to hate and to dislike, as I do now, all those ministers of nonsense and iniquity who dominate you so tyrannically, using their power either on your consciences, or on your bodies and your assets. The ministers of religion, who dominate your consciences, are the greatest deceivers of the peoples, whereas the princes and the other great of this world, who dominate your bodies and your assets, are the biggest thieves and murderers on earth. All those who have come, said Jesus-Christ, are robbers and thieves. Omnes quotquot venerunt, fures sunt et latrones.(2)
You may say, my dear friends, that I am partly talking against myself, since I myself am of the same character and profession as those whom I hereby call the greatest deceivers of peoples. I am indeed talking against my own profession, but not against my own inclination or feelings. For, since I have never been inclined to frivolous beliefs or superstition, and since I never was foolish enough to adhere to any of the mysterious follies of religion, I never was inclined to practice them either, let alone to speak highly about them, or to approve them in any way. On the contrary, I would always have willingly displayed all the contempt that I have for them, had I been allowed to speak my mind and feelings freely about them. And thus, although I was easily driven to enter priesthood when I was young, to please my parents who were delighted to see me there, because they considered priesthood as a milder, more quiet and more honorable way of life than for the average man I can however say truly that never the sight of a worldly benefit ever inclined me to like the practice of a profession so full of errors and imposture. I never came to like the taste of most of those fellows and fine gentlemen who enjoy so much taking and receiving greedily the lavish remunerations they are given for the vain functions of their ministry. I still have a stronger aversion for the bantering, farcical humour of those other gentlemen, who can think of nothing but entertaining themselves with all the income and benefits they own, who make fun between themselves of the mysteries, the principles and the ceremonies of their religion, and who laugh at the simplicity of those who believe them, and who provide them so piously and so abundantly with goods that help them entertain themselves and live at their ease. I could cite that pope(3) who laughed at his own dignity, and that other(4) who said, while joking with his friends, "Well, did we not get rich with that Christ story!". I do not blame them for the good laughs they have about the vanity of the mysteries and mummeries of their religion, since they deserve nothing more indeed than mockery and contempt; so simple and ignorant are those who do not see the vanity of it. I however blame that strong, burning, insatiable cupidity which they have in profiting by public errors, and that contemptible pleasure that they take in mocking the simplicity of those who are ignorant and whom they entertain in error. If their so-called character and the good income that they own enable them to live in so much comfort at the expense of the public, at least they should be sensitive to the misfortunes of that very public! At least they should not make the yoke of those poor people heavier through multiplying sometimes with a feigned zeal the amount of nonsense and superstitions! At least, they should not mock the simplicity of those who, for the good sake of piety, do them so much good and exhaust themselves for them. For it is enormous ingratitude and detestable perfidiousness to behave that way with your benefactors. The peoples are indeed the benefactors of the ministers of religion, since the latter take all their benefits and make a comfortable living out of the former's work and sweat.
I do not think, my dear friends, that I ever happened to make you wonder if I was subject to the feelings that I hereby blame. On the contrary, you will certainly have noticed several times that I presented totally opposite feelings and that I was very sensitive to your pains. You will also have noticed that I was not particularly attached to that pious lucre of the functions of my ministry, having quite often accomplished them without seeking after their payments, as I could have done; I never hatched substantial benefits, neither was I a mess seeker nor an offertory collector. I would always have taken more pleasure in giving than receiving, had I had the means to follow my own inclination; and I would always have had more consideration for the poor than for the rich, thus following that maxim of Christ, who said that it is better to give than to receive, beatius est magis dare quam accipere,(5) and following that other from Lord Montaigne, who advised his son to always look for he who holds out his hand, rather than to he who turns his back. I would have gladly done as good as Job did in the times of his prosperity. "I was, he said, the father of the poor, I was the eye of the blind, I was the foot of the limp"; oculus fui coeco et pes claudo, pater eram pauperum...(6) I would as gladly have taken the prey away from the hands of the malicious as he did, and I would certainly have broken their teeth and their jaws as well : conterebam malas iniqui, et de dentibus illius auferebam praedam.(7) Only the great hearts, said the wise Mentor to Telemachus,(8) seek after the glory they can find in being good. And concerning the false and fabulous mysteries of your religion, and all those pious, but vain and superstitious, duties and practices that your religion lays down on you, you also know very well, or at least you might have noticed, that I am not attached to bigotry, and that I never made a case for advising you to practise it. I was nevertheless compelled to teach you your religion and to tell you about it at least sometimes, to carry out that false duty that I had committed myself to do as the vicar of your parish, and then I had the displeasure of finding myself annoyingly obliged to act and speak totally against my own feelings, to entertain you with foolish nonsense and vain superstition that I hated, condemned and disliked in my heart. I however protest that I never did it without great pain and extreme repugnance; this is also why I hated that much the vain functions of my ministry, particularly all those idolatrous and superstitious celebrations of masses, and those vain and ridiculous administerings of sacraments, that I had to carry out. I cursed them thousands and thousands of times in my heart, when I was obliged to do them, and particularly when I had to carry them out with a bit more attention and a bit more solemnity than usual. For, as I saw that you would then go to your Churches with a little more devotion, to attend some vain solemnities, or to hear a bit more devoutly, what you are made to believe to be the word of God himself, it seemed to me that I was even more contemptibly deceiving your good faith, and thereby that I deserved all the more blame and reproach. This increased my aversion for all those sorts of vain, formal functions that, hundreds of times, I found myself on the verge of publicly and indiscreetly bursting out in indignation, for I could hardly hide my resentment or restrain my indignation on those occasions. I however managed to curb it, and I will try to restrain it till my death, since I do not want to lay myself open to the indignation of priests, nor to the cruelty of tyrants, who would not seem to find harsh enough tortures to punish that alleged rashness on my behalf. I am really glad, my friends, to die as peacefully as I have lived. Besides, given the fact that I never gave you any reason to wish me any harm, or to be delighted if any of this happens to me, I do not think that you would be glad to see me persecuted or tyrannized for that matter; that is the reason why I decided to remain silent.
But since that reason forces me into silence, at least I shall try to talk to you after my death. In this view, I have begun writing this, to open your eyes, as I said, on all that nonsense and all those superstitions with which you were brought up and fed, not to say nursed. For long enough, the poor peoples have been miserably deceived by all kinds of idolatries and superstitions; for long enough, the rich and the great of the earth have been plundering and oppressing the poor peoples. It is time to disillusion those peoples about everything, and to let them know the entire truth. And if, in order to sweeten the gross and fierce nature of the average man, one needed in the past to divert him with vain and superstitious religious practices, in order to keep a tight rein on him, it is even more necessary now to open his eyes on all those vanities, since the remedy that was once used turned out, as the time went by, to be worse than the original illness. This would have to be done on all the sensible people, all those wise persons who are trained to think seriously, and work hard on such an important matter, opening the eyes of the peoples on the errors, where they are; making the excessive authority of the great of the earth hatable and despicable everywhere; inciting the peoples all around to throw off the unbearable yoke of the tyrants, and generally convincing the people of the truth of the next two statements: firstly, to improve in their crafts, which are useful to society and which they must dedicate their efforts to in the main, they must follow nothing but the lights of human reason; secondly, to establish good laws, they must follow only the rules of human cautiousness and wisdom, that is, the rules of honesty, justice and natural equity, without really caring about what impostors might say, or what fanatic idolaters might do; which generally would do for all men countless times as much good, satisfaction and peace of mind, as all those false maxims, and all the vain practices of their superstitious religions.
But since nobody takes it upon himself to give those enlightenments to the peoples, or rather since nobody dares to try and do so, or even, since the books and writings of those who have already tried to do so are not publicly published in the world; since nobody can see them; since they are suppressed on purpose; since they are hidden away from the peoples so that nobody can see them, and so that they do not discover, by those means, the abuses, the nonsense and the impostures of which they are the victims; since they are only shown books written by a multitude of pious ignoramuses or hypocritical seducers, who, under the pretext of piety, only strive on repeating or multiplying the abuses, errors and superstitions; since, as I said, those who, by their knowledge and their wisdom, would be the fittest to carry such a praiseworthy task that is, opening the eyes of the people for the good of all peoples, only apply themselves, in the writings that they give to the public, to favour, maintain and increase the number of the errors, and to aggravate the yoke of superstitions, instead of striving on abolishing them and making them despicable; since they only commit themselves to flatter the great and cravenly offer them countless contemptible praises, instead of harshly blaming them for their vices, and generously telling them the truth; since the only reason for such a vile and cowardly attitude is either contemptible complaisance, or cowardly motives of a particular interest, in order to curry favour with the greats, for them and their family or associates to be in favour with them; I will try, for all my weakness and my lack of spirit, I will hereby try, my dear friends, to ingenuously show you the truth, and to make you see the vanity and fallacy of all the allegedly so great, so sane, so divine and so adorable mysteries which your priests, your preachers and your doctors compel you to believe, under pain of eternal damnation, as they say. I will try, as I said, to show you the vanity and fallacy of it. As for the priests, preachers, doctors and all those who are responsible for such lies, such nonsense and such impostures, let them be scandalized and shocked as much as they like after my death; let them call me an impious person, an apostate, a blasphemer and an atheist if they like; let them shower me with insults and curse me as much as they like, I will not feel embarrassed about it, since this will not worry me a bit. In the same way, let them do whatever they want with my body; let them chop it into pieces, roast it or fricassee it, even eat it, if they want, with whatever sauce they like, it will cause me no grief at all. I will be out of their reach then; I shall no longer fear anything. I can only foresee that my friends and my family may, on that occasion, feel sorrowful and annoyed to see or hear everything that might be done or said indignantly about me after my death. I would gladly spare them that displeasure; but that consideration, strong though it may be, will not hold me back: the zeal of truth and justice, the zeal of the public good, and the hatred and indignation that arise in me, from seeing the errors and impostures of religion, as well as the pride and the injustice of the great, so imperiously and tyrannically dominate the earth, will override the former consideration, for all its strength.
Besides, I do not think, my dear friends, that this undertaking will make me so odious, or make so many enemies for me as one might think. I could even take credit for having, at least amongst honest and wise people, as many approvers as bad censors, if those writings, unformed and imperfect as they are (being done hastily and written in precipitation), move about farther than your hands, or if they happen to become public, and if one examines carefully the reasons and feelings on which they are based; and I can say right now that several of those who, by their character or by their profession of judges or lawyers, or otherwise, would have to publicly condemn me for the sake of human respect would actually approve me in their hearts.
(1) Erganes, King of Ethiopia, had all the Jupiter priests of one of his towns killed, because they had spread their nonsense and superstitions all around the town (Pierre Bayle's Historical Dictionary ). The King of Babylon did the same with the priests of Bel (cf. Daniel, 14:21) [Return to text]
(2) John, 10:8 [KJV: All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.] [Return to text]
(3) Julius III [Return to text]
(4) Bonifacius VIII [Return to text]
(5) Acts, 20:35 [KJV: I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.] [Return to text]
(6) Job, 29:15,16 [KJV: 29:15: I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. 29:16: I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out.] [Return to text]
(7) Ibidem, Ibid. 17 [KJV: And I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.] [Return to text]
(8) Telem. Tome: 2, page 81 [Return to text]
I am doing a report in English at my High School on morality as a result of religion, or vice versa. I would appreciate any feedback you may have on this topic. Thank you.GRiggs
In a sense, all the exchanges on this site, particularly these three chapters concluding with this second half of Meslier's non-theist statement on social ethics, already deal with this fundamental question at some length. Summed up crudely, it resolves itself into a chicken-and-egg question. Did humanity's social urge for ethical comity and civic morality resolve itself into a presumption of deity and the metaphysical realm, or did an awareness of the metaphysical become transformed into an urgent sense of the Good?
Stretching these questions even further, does the urge for morality come entirely from reason, with nothing of the Divine at all involved?
It's possible that, to judge that adequately, a proper effort must be made to take stock of the true degree of probity, altruism, and thoughtfulness in humanity's first entirely autonomous non-theistic moral code, as Meslier developed it here in this concluding portion of his "morals" chapter, duly translated on this page.
Others wishing to explore further the question of possible codependence of morality and religion are referred to a thought-provoking essay on ethics and religion by Jonathan Berg. It is anthologized in a book of essays on ethics edited by Peter Singer: A Companion to Ethics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), Paperback, Published 1993. Towards the end of Berg's essay, starting around page 529, the author deals directly with the question of the "causality" of ethics and religion's possible role in that.Aggie
This text reminds me of my feelings about current day television (and non-television) phoneys that are sucking money and glory from an ignorant (or curious) herd of listeners and followers: --the Jim Baker's and Swaggart's, and Oral Roberts' of the world. This is my first exposure to the news group and the computer. How wonderful it is to live in a country where we have the freedom to examine, criticize and circulate the information on the religious hucksters of old and current times. Thanks kindly.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"