(1713 – 1784)
No man has received from nature the right to command others. Liberty is a gift from heaven, and each individual has the right to enjoy it. . . Any other authority comes from either the violence of an individual who has seized it, or the consent of those who have submitted to it by a contract between them and the individual on whom they have bestowed [conditional] authority.
-- Encyclopédie Raisonné Volume I (1751)
He knew – running cracked hands
through lice-crimped hair amid the trickling
stench of sole confinement
in the dungeons of the Fortress
of Vincennes – more nuance
was required: that reason must glide
by indirection, worming its way
past brutal guardians of faith
to lodge its lantern
in each individual mind.
He sensed – proud disbeliever,
foe of colonies, sworn enemy
of slave trades –
that glib satirizing plays
were not enough: a comprehensive
summary of human thought
must push beyond plush theater stalls
to where the soul of free invention lies
to liquefy those damp stone walls.
He wrote – as canny editor;
by other names -- dodging
police raids by bright logic trains
that buried in their coded texts
on Switzerland or tradesmen’s feats
hereditary right. Maintained
all rule without consent
is mere idolatry.
Produced three dozen volumes
plus a constitution for
Great Catherine: first line
‘We the People do proclaim.’
But left his most important works
for publication after death
secure that censors could not jail
ideas breaking out of books.
Bequeathed their coruscating light
to ‘future spirits’ – us.
Few pens have made
encyclopedias works of art
or turned their numbered entries
into manifestos that moved hearts:
subverted iron tradition and sparked
risings for which thousands died.
His legacy comes due each day --
to question gilt pronouncements
or trust them; and subside.
First published in Rat's Ass Review, Summer 2019