It was on this date, August 15, 1750, that French writer and political theorist Pierre Sylvain Maréchal was born in Paris. Trained as a lawyer, he found employment at the Collège Mazarin as an aide-librarian. Maréchal was an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Helvétius, and Diderot, and connected with deist and atheist authors like himself, while developing his own ideas anticipating utopian socialism and communism. But after publishing pseudonymously a brilliant satire on the Old Testament, Livre échappé au déluge (Book salvaged from the flood), in 1784 he lost his library position. Forced to make a living by his writing, Maréchal published Almanack des honnetes gens (Almanac of honest people, 1788), which was ordered burned by the French Parlement and earned its author four months in prison. Thereafter, he published anonymously to stay out of jail.
He accepted and enthusiastically supported the French Revolution and was editor of the newspaper Révolutions de Paris. In 1780, Maréchal aimed to replace religion with a cult of Virtue and Faith with Reason in his Fragments d'un poème moral sur Dieu (Fragments of a Moral Poem on God). He was influenced by French astronomer and writer Jérôme Lalande to write the first Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Atheists (Dictionnaire des Athées anciens et modernes), published in 1798, in which for some reason he includes Augustine of Hippo and Blaise Pascal!
It was Sylvain Maréchal who said, “Error and falsehood had their moment of usefulness and served as a brake on an enslaved and ignorant people. But from the moment when a nation becomes enlightened and free it both should and can only be governed by its own laws. When a temple is built its scaffolding becomes useless and harmful: it is taken down. Having reached the age of reason we reject the playthings of childhood. All we now need are public virtues and private morality.”
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, July 1, but in 1899, English-American actor Charles Laughton […]