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(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 Vol. I (1751)

He saw – 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 toxic 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 swift logic trains

that buried in their coded texts

on Switzerland or tradesmen’s feats

analyses demolishing

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 art

or turned their 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

and engraved beliefs

or trust them; and subside.

Version first published in Rat's Ass Review, Summer 2019

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