March 08, 2006


Meslier Jean Meslier (left) was a 17th century French priest who was also an atheist and a revolutionary, whose monumental diatribe against theism, superstition, and corrupt state power,Michel_onfray_best_2  "Mon Testament," I have long admired.  Also much admired by 19th century American freethinkers and intellectuals, Meslier is virtually forgotten here today. Michel Onfray (right) is my favorite among the younger French philosophers, and a brilliant and prolific author whose work I have lappreciated for years . In the current issue of the excellent review New Politics (Number 40), there is a superb essay by Onfray (in English) on Meslier, the first synthesis of Meslier's work by a world-class intellectual to appear since Voltaire's. I have written for New Politics an introduction to both Onfray's important essay and to Meslier -- and here it is:

New_politics_cover_1 Introductory Note to Onfray, BY Doug Ireland

MICHEL ONFRAY, the brightest star among the younger French philosophers, is a brilliant prodigy, a gifted and prolific author who, at the age of only 46, has already written 30 books.

I first encountered Onfray on the page when I read his 1989 book, Le Onfray_ventre_des_p Ventre Des Philosophes: Critique de la Raison Dietetique (The Philosphers' Stomach), and was completely captivated by his wit, his talented pen, and the prodigious cultural knowledge he displayed. Would Diogenes, Onfray asked, have been an adversary of civilization and its uses absent his obsessive taste for raw octopus? Would the Rousseau of the Social Contract have been such an advocate of frugality if his daily menu had included something more than dairy products? Had not Sartre, whose nightmares were peopled with crabs, suffered his whole life long in his theoretical architecture from his aversion to shellfish? Onfray hooked me with his inventive, amusing, and thought-provoking meditations -- and since then, every time Onfray publishes a new book, I pounce! Reading Onfray is a tonic.

The son of a manual agricultural laborer and a cleaning woman, Onfray was a professor of philosophy for two decades, until he resigned from the national education system in 2002 to establish a tuition-free Université Populaire (People's University) at Caen, at which Onfray and a handful of dedicated colleagues teach philosophy and other weighty subjects to working-class and ghetto youth who are not supposed to be interested in such intellectual refinements. Onfray has never forgotten his underclass origins, and his dedication to helping the young of the left-out classes is admirable and inspiring. The Université Populaire, which is open to all who cannot access the state university system, and on principle does not accept any money from the State -- Onfray uses the profits from his books to help finance it -- has had enormous success. Based on Onfray's book La Communauté Philosophique: Manifeste pour l'Université Populaire (2004), the original UP now has imitators in Picardie, Arras, Lyon, Narbonne, and at Mans in Belgium, with five more in preparation.

A radically libertarian socialist, a self-described "Nietzschian of the left," Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent -- while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions. All this presupposes, in Onfray's philosophy, a militant atheism and the demasking of all false gods.

Onfray is a well- known figure in France -- not just through his many books, which avoid academic cant and are rendered in an elegant but accessible, sparkling prose that is admired even by critics who abhor his ideas -- but as a frequent guest on French TV's numerous literary and intellectual chat shows. The national public radio network France Culture annually broadcasts his course of lectures to the Universite Populaire on philosophical themes. But Onfray has deliberately rejected the incestuous and corrupt Parisian mediatic-politico-academic microcosm and its seductive but ephemeral blandishments, and insists on living in the small Normandy town of Argentan where he was born, just 57 km. from Caen. Free from the distractions of urban mundanities, Onfray devotes his time exclusively to his intellectual work, which helps explain his astonishing output at such a relatively young age.

In his books, Onfray asks (and answers) the most unexpected questions: in one of my favorites, Le Désir d'etre un volcan: Journal Hédoniste, he poses such conundrums as, What do prostitutes have to say to philosophers? What would a philosophy of panache look like? How does one sculpt energy? Can an erection be ancillary to knowledge? Onfray's wide-ranging works have explored the philosophical resonances and components of (and challenges to) science, painting, gastronomy, sexOnfray_tome_2  and sensuality, bioethics, wine, as well as literature and writing. His most ambitious project is his projected six-volume Counter-history of Philosophy, of which two tomes have already been published -- Tome 1, Les sagesses antiques; and Tome 2, Le christianisme hedoniste (Paris: Editions Grasset) -- with two more ready to appear later this year.

Onfray's latest book, Traité d'Athéologie (Paris, Editions Grasset), became the number one best-selling nonfiction book in France for months when it was published in the Spring of 2005 (the word "atheologie" Onfray borrowed from Georges Bataille). This book has just repeated its popular French success in Italy, where it was published in September 2005 and quickly soared to number one on Italy's bestseller lists. An acerbic, stylish, and erudite polemic against received religions in general and Christianity in particular, Onfray's latest book is a powerful antidote to the tsunami of religious fanaticism that is engulfing the Western world as well as the Islamic countries, and which is rapidly turning the United States into a theocracy. On the occasion of the publication of his Traité, Onfray debated on French national TV a panel of Catholic theologians that included the new Cardinal of Paris, Monseigneur Vingt-Trois (and swatted them all down like flies).

ONFRAY'S INFLUENCE is growing, especially among younger readers, all over Europe (where many of his most important works have been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Greek and Portuguese), as well as in South America (particularly Brazil), and is even beginning to make its way in China, Japan, and (South) Korea. But I've long considered it a scandal that not a single one of Onfray's 30 books has as yet appeared in English. Happily, that incomprehensible slight to a superb writer and world-class intellectual will be remedied next year, with the publication, on both sides of the Atlantic, of an English translation of the Traité d'athéologie (it will be published here in the States by Arcade, the fine imprint run by the prize-winning translator Richard Seaver and his wife, Jeannette.) Hopefully this will be but the first of many of Onfray's delicious and substantive writings to appear in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Until then, if you can read French and would like to learn more about Onfray, his many books, and his Université Populaire, visit Onfray's website by clicking here. You'll be glad you did.

JEAN MESLIER: The essay that follows is from one of the forthcoming tomes of Michel Onfray's projected six-volume Counter-history of Philosophy. Onfray's essay is the first major synthesis in modern times by a world-class intellectual of the work and life of the 17th century atheist priest Jean Meslier, who spent his entire adult life as a country priest in a small village in the Champagne region of France. Meslier's three-volume Mon Testament, published only after Meslier's death, was the first coherent attempt at an unambiguoulsy atheist philosophy -- as well as a revolutionary socialist and utopian communist call for the leveling of all inequalities, commencing as a categorical imperative with the exposure of religion's lies as the "opium of the people" long before Karl Marx. Meslier went to great lengths to insure his extraordinary manuscript's survival, so it wouldn't be suppressed by the authorities of church and State when he was gone. Having willed all his worldly goods to his poorest parishioners, before his death Meslier resorted to what we would now call samizdat, carefully Meslier_manuscript copying -- with a quill pen, by candlelight -- four complete versions of his 2000-page manuscript, which he deposed in safe hands (right, a page from Meslier's original samizdat manuscript.). It circulated under the table until Voltaire -- who had read it three decades earlier and plagiarized from it -- chose the moment of his own greatest battle with the Catholic Church to publish a bowdlerized version of Meslier.

Meslier was influential and admired in the French Enlightenment -- Diderot also borrowed freely from Meslier while rarely giving him credit. One of the most famous Meslier phrases -- that the world's liberation would only be achieved when "the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" -- is frequently and erroneously attributed to Diderot. Meslier also became popular among early 19th century liberal Russian intelligentsia, who made French their second language; Pushkin nodded to Meslier when he wrote an 1819 quatrain that says, "with the entrails of the last Pope, we will strangle the last Tsar." (This was one of the poems that got Pushkin sent into administrative exile in South Russia by the Tsarist police.)

Meslier was also much admired by 19th century American free-thinkers -- extracts from Meslier's Testament were published here in 1833 under the title "Common Sense," and again in 1878 as a book entitled Meslier_superstition Superstition in all the Ages, (right) a version republished many times (both taken, unfortunately, from the bowdlerized Voltaire edition, which had excised much of Meslier‘s revolutionary politics). Marx much admired Meslier, and quoted him. And when the Bolsheviks came to power, and a stele to the "Heroes of Liberty" was erected on Red Square, Meslier's name was inscribed next to that of Spartacus. The rediscovery of Meslier began with the May 1968 student-worker rebellion in France, which adapted many of Meslier's revolutionary formulations to its own purposes.

Now, with this brilliant essay, Michel Onfray fully restores Meslier to his proper and important place in the history of ideas and the history of the left, and New Politics is quite proud to publish it.

I urge you to visit the New Politics website, and read Onfray's essay on Meslier in English, which you may do by clicking here. (For a list of Onfray's books published in French, click here.)

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Meslier is available, and only recently so !, at gutenberg.org. Here's the link:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17607/17607-h/17607-h.htm
- - - thanks Doug for introducing us to Onfray.

Posted by: Axel Ztangi | Mar 12, 2006 11:57:46 PM

Doug, thank you. I count myself as an atheist, reasonably well-read in the literature of reason, and I was unaware of Meslier's Testament. And now I'm looking forward to Onfray's publications in English because, sadly, I've never learned French, either. So, I have to thank you for these two items of interest... because grumbling about my having to face these two areas of my _ignorance_ would be bad form.

Posted by: Brian Siano | Mar 10, 2006 12:16:53 AM

Thanks for altering me via email concerning both Onfray and Meslier. Reading Onfray's essay I had no idea concerning some of the pro-Catholic things Voltaire was involved with! Still, I enjoy Voltaire. I even enjoy some sayings of the Christian wit, Chesterton, for that matter. So does the famous author and skeptic, Martin Gardner, who is a big Chesterton and also H.G. Wells fan. I'll look for Onfray's book when it comes out in English. I'm sure the Secular Web will review it as well.

A few years ago I discovered E. M. Cioran, another writer whose works were translated from the French, like The Trouble With Being Born, and, A Brief History of Decay. I sympathized with many of Cioran's sentiments and arguments even though he took nihilism and feeling mentally isolated to a whole new level. His own Mom apparently said if she'd known he would wind up as depressed as he did, she'd have aborted him. He couldn't sleep and rode his bicycle relentlessly throught the countryside at night to try and weary himself enough to sleep. Cioran in his youth was also, it turns out, pro-fascist, very confident that the Romanian fascist dictator and also Hitler were in the right, and that killing people was right to support such a state of affairs. Then he was drawn to mystical monkish types of Christianity, then to nihilism. Weird the paths we all take. Still, some of Cioran's words are immensely interesting and quotable. Take these for instance:

A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth...Look around you: everywhere, specters preaching, each institution translates a mission; city halls have their absolute, even as the temples -- officialdom, with its rules -- a metaphysics designed for monkeys...Everyone trying to remedy everyone's life: even beggers, even the incurable aspire to it: the sidewalks and hospitals of the world overlow with reformers. The longing to become a source of events affects each man like a mental disorder or a desired malediction. Society -- an inferno of saviors! ...
(from "Genealogy of Fanaticism" in A Short History of Decay)

The compulsion to preach is so rooted in us that it emerges from depths unknown to the instinct for self-preservation. Each of us awaits his moment in order to propose something -- anything. he has a voice: that is enough.

From snobs to scavengers, all expend their criminal generosity, all hand out formulas for happiness, all try to give directions: life in common thereby becomes intolerable, and life with
oneself still more so; if you fail to meddle in other people's business you are so uneasy about your own that you convert your "self" into a religion, or, apostle in reverse, you deny it altogether; we are victims of the universal game...
(from "The Anti-Prophet" in A Short History of Decay)

Consider the polemics of each age: they seem neither motivated nor necessary. Yet they were the very life of that age. Calvinism, Quakerism, Port-Royal, The Encyclopedia, the Revolution,
Positivism, etc....what a series of absurdities... which had to be, what a futile and yet fatal expense! From the ecumenical councils to the controversies of contemporary politics, orthodoxies and heresies have assailed the curiosity of mankind with their irresistible non-meaning. Under various disguises there will always be pro and con, whether apropos of Heaven or the Bordello. Thousands of men will suffer for subtleties relating to the Virgin and the Son; thousands of others will torment themselves for dogmas less gratuitous but quite as improbable. All truths constitute sects which end by enduring the destiny of a Port-Royal, by being persecuted and destroyed; then, their ruins, beloved now and embellished with the halo of the inquitiy inflicted upon them, will be
transformed into a pilgrimage-site....

It is no less unreasonable to grant more interest to the arguments around democracy and its forms than to those which took place, in the Middle Ages, around nominalism and realism: each period is intoxicated by an absolute, minor and tiresome, but in appearance unique; we cannot void being contemporaries of a faith, of a system, of an ideology, cannot avoid being, in short, of our time.
(from "The Decor of Knowledge" in A Short History of Decay)

The great philosophical systems are actually no more than brilliant tautologies. What advantage is it to know that the nature of being consists in the "will to live," in the "idea," or in the whim of God or of Chemistry? A mere proliferation of words, subtle displacements of meanings. "What is" loathes the verbal embrace, and our inmost experience reveals us nothing beyond the priviledged and inexpressible moment.
(from "Farewell to Philosophy" in A Short History of Decay)

Ideologies were invented only to give a luster to the leftover barbarism which has survived down through the ages, to cover up the murderous tendencies common to all men. Today we hate and kill in the name of something; we no longer dare do so spontaneously; so that the very executioners must invoke motives, and, heroism being obsolete, the man who is tempted by it solves a problem more than he performs a sacrifice. Abstraction has insinuated itself into life -- and into death; the "complexes" seize great and small alike. From the Iliad to psychopathology -- there you have all of human history.
(from "Faces of Decadence" in A Short History of Decay)

Or take another famous writer who was funnier and more upbeat than Cioran but no less insightful, Logan Pearsall Smith, who wrote this teeny bit of trivia about [Mental] Microbes:

But how is one to keep free from those mental microbes that worm-eat people's brains - those Theories and Diets and Enthusiasms and infectious Doctrines that we catch from what seem the most innocuous contacts? People go about laden with germs; they breath creeds
and convictions on you as soon as they open their mouths. Books and newspapers are simply creeping with them - the monthly Reviews seem to have room for little else. Wherewithal then shall a young man cleanse his way; how shall he keep his mind immune to Theosophical speculations, and novel schemes of Salvation? Can he ever be sure that he won't be suddenly struck down by the fever of Funeral or of Spelling Reform, or take to his bed with a new Sex Theory?


I have lost interest with age in trying to systematize mankind, or trying to argue for a particular political or social utopia, except in the sense of recognizing humanity is indeed a primate species. We socialize, and we fight over mental territories just as lesser species fight over physical territories; we cling tightly, irrationally, to alpha male leaders; and grow intoxicated by political, philosophical, religious ideas such that you need only scratch someone so intoxicated to start an endless row.

And of course the male of the species continues to insist his patriarchal throne is a birthright and the female body is a thing to gawk at, and that free speech gives all males the right to harrass females with their eyes, hands, or words because females don't have the right to be treated otherwise. Maybe that's why even conservatism has been able to enlist some strong females with advanced college degrees, because libertarianism often degenerates into men assuming a natural right to make females into sexual objects by giving them the "freedom" to listen to male dirty jokes, or the "freedom" to become prostitutes and pin ups. Ah humanity, if only there weren't so many of us using up so many natural resources and spewing forth so much pollution. But it seems nature is on her way to taking care of that, since all creatures that are highly fecundant, and whose wastes piles up, such as bacteria in a petri dish, eventually run up against natural limits sooner or later, be they pollution, petroleum, population, plague, etc.

Too bad we can't all recognize equally well the dangers we all face as a species living, filling, and polluting the one tiny fragile lifeboat in space that we all share. There are no more horizons beyond which we can project our anger and fears without them coming right back at us from the opposite direction since our globe grows increasingly tinnier ever since advances in web-technology, travel, and moving goods.

Recognition of common planetary dangers we all share will probably bring mankind together better than any other single thing. It's easier to bring people together via common fears and dangers than via a common love.

Such a recognition of nature's threats and might thus help bring us together, at least that's the conclusion I've arrived at:

Do You Fear What Might Happen If The World Believed In Evolution?
Long For A Return to "The Good Old Days?"

Posted by: Edward T. Babinski | Mar 9, 2006 7:13:15 PM

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