A Translation of Jean Meslier’s “Lettres aux cures”
Much of the current historical debate surrounding the Enlightenment centres on distinctions between the Radical and Moderate expressions of this intellectual movement. These debates attempt to judge the degree to which atheism and substance monism define, guide, or influence radical politics. Some intellectual historians support the idea that radical philosophy leads to radical politics; that point, however, is much debated. Jean Meslier’s (1664–1729) 1729 Testament would tend to support such a connection between radical philosophy and radical politics. However, two letters that he left at the end of his life addressing his brethren in the priesthood offer a somewhat different perspective. In these letters, never before translated into English, we find different themes: instead of substance monism leading to atheism and driving radical, anti-monarchical, and anti-clerical politics, Meslier’s empathy for his parishioners and his desire for truth lead him to suggest modest changes to existing social structures that involve the clergy’s active support of the poor. Such a tone would seem to allow for a vision of enlightenment as an activity, as James Schmidt has suggested, promoting truth and justice, rather than one emphasizing irreconcilable philosophical positions.