PRIESTS’ ENTRAILS & PROFS’ FREEDOM
New York City
In her excellent June 27 “Subject to Debate” column, Katha Pollitt attributes to Diderot the phrase “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” In fact, Diderot lifted this formulation from the atheist French priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), who preceded Diderot, and whose multivolume memoir’s subtitle says it treats “Of the Vanity and Falseness of all the Divinities and All the Religions of the World, to be addressed to my Parishioners After my Death to serve Them as a Testimony to Truth.” Meslier’s memoir, Mon Testament, was rediscovered and posthumously published by Voltaire, who frequently borrowed from Meslier, as did Diderot.
Meslier became very popular not only among the intellectuals of the French Enlightenment but among liberal revolutionaries in czarist Russia–an 1819 quatrain by Pushkin nods to Meslier when it says, “with the entrails of the last Pope, we will strangle the last Czar” (this was one of the poems that got Pushkin sent into administrative exile in South Russia by the czarist police). Marx appreciated and quoted Meslier as well–and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they erected a stele in Red Square dedicated to the “Heroes of Liberty,” where Meslier’s name appeared next to that of Spartacus. Louisa May Alcott, too, borrowed the Meslier “entrails” quote (citing Voltaire as its author).
Meslier also wrote, “The real original sin of men is to be born in poverty, in misery, in dependence and tyranny of the mighty one. We must do everything to free them from this disgusting and damned sin.” Indeed. Part of Meslier’s Testament is available online, in English, at www.geocities.com/Athens/7842/jbconv15.htm. By the way, I don’t blame Katha for the misattribution–many dictionaries of quotations erroneously do so as well, although the Oxford one cites both Meslier and Diderot.
In her June 27 column, on Brooklyn College professor Timothy Shortell, Katha Pollitt states that our organization’s Academic Bill of Rights would “empower state legislatures to mandate ‘balance’ in the classroom” and claims that we oppose the introduction of controversial material in the classroom. She is wrong on both counts, which can easily be checked by going to our website at www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org.