Right Thinkers #6: Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821)
“In the sensory as in the higher order, the law is the same and is old as evil: THE REMEDY FOR DISORDER WILL BE PAIN.”
-the Count in The Saint Petersburg Dialogues, by Joseph de Maistre, pg. 274
The political philosopher and polemicist Joseph de Maistre of Savoy was one of the great contemporary critics of the French Revolution and the violent changes it brought to Western civilization. He was also a defiant Catholic at a time when the Church faced harsh opposition from the disciples of modern philosophy. Although Maistre’s theological and philosophical ideas do not always withstand scrutiny, his wit and sheer polemical power make his writings essential reading for anyone interested in the history of conservatism, and he remains a potential role-model for those who would actively oppose the forces of historical ‘progress.’
Maistre has not become, like Edmund Burke, a hero among present-day North American conservatives, likely due to his anti-democratic political philosophy. This is tragic, because a reconsideration of Maistre could provide an antidote for the classical liberalism which is part of conservative discourse in North America, and which has created such political confusion in recent years due to its incompatibilities with social conservatism.
Although I like to avoid using the term reactionary, Maistre can justly be called a reactionary because his entire political philosophy stands as a reaction to the French Revolution, the event that sent him into exile. Maistre saw the French Revolution as exactly the world-changing event its proponents and admirers claimed it to be, but predicted it would spell doom for Europe due to its inversion of Christian European values. In his famous Considerations on France (1796), he writes, “There is a satanic element in the French Revolution which distinguishes it from any other revolution known or perhaps that will be known” (71). I wonder what he would have thought of the Russian Revolution, which contained a still stronger satanic element that bloomed and multiplied and still finds fertile ground today. (I know the term satanic will make some readers groan or blush, but it is accurate.)
In opposition to the flow of popular political opinion in his time, Maistre believed the ideal form of government to be absolute hereditary monarchy. He maintained that sovereignty is “always one, unviolable and absolute” (Study 112), and that this definition holds even in a political system in which power is divided. He cites the case of the English government: “. . . when the three powers which make up sovereignty in England are in agreement, what can they do? Blackstone’s answer must be accepted–EVERYTHING. And what can legally be done against them? NOTHING” (The Pope 140). In other words, when the branches of government reach a final decision, they exercise an absolute authority. Given that sovereignty is always absolute, if we must choose between a monarchy, a republic, or a mixed system, a monarchy is preferable. This is because under such a form of government, sovereignty is centralized in one person to whom it has been granted by God, a situation that of course makes everyone else subjects, thus creating a “kind of equality” (Study 116) that eases social envy (which as we know can poison democratic societies). Instead of trusting in democratic representatives, people can influence their society in a more direct manner by choosing representatives to bring their requests to the king (117), who has a responsibility to consider the needs of his subjects. Elective monarchy is not an option, for as Maistre asserts, “Men never respect what they have made. That is why an elective king never possesses the moral force of a hereditary sovereign . . .” (104).
The second-best form of government, according to Maistre, is a hereditary aristocracy (119). Aristocracy’s other from, elective aristocracy, is synonymous with democracy, and suffers from the same lack of respect accorded to elective monarchy (119). The involvement of the people in decision-making in democratic republics is also illusory, as the people never posses sovereignty. As Maistre writes, “Men count for something in a republic only to the degree that birth, marriage, and high talents give them influence; the simple citizen counts for nothing” (123). Many ordinary voters would agree.
Original sin is the basic fact at the heart of Maistre’s political philosophy. All that is made by human hands is destined to fail if its construction is not guided by God. Thus, all institutions must have religious roots if they are to last (Considerations 72-73). Original sin also provides the basis for Maistre’s critique of constitutionalism. He frankly asserts that “. . . Man cannot make a constitution, and no legitimate constitution can be written” (The Generative 161). Rather, the best societies are governed by principles that develop slowly and are absorbed unreflectively. (For this reason, Maistre would have no interest in the constitutional conservatism that is part of American conservative discourse.) I will not go into it here, but this traditionalism contradicts Catholic ideas on natural law, as natural law, although it may spring from the heart rather than from the head, forms only the basic principles of human law, which can be reasoned about, codified, and used to determine those principles which may be enshrined in written constitutions.
Maistre’s thinking on the nature of constitutions is tied to his conviction that, in his words, “. . . NOTHING GREAT HAS GREAT BEGINNINGS” (158). This general law also applies even to the naming of things: the more grandiose the title given, the more likely it is that the thing will not last. He remarks, “It is forbidden to man to give great names to the things of which he is the author and which he believes to be great; but if he has acted legitimately, the great thing will ennoble the vulgar name and it will become great” (174). Remember that the next time you come up with the ‘perfect’ title for an article! Rock bands searching for a name should also take heed and consider how pedestrian band names like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones were ‘ennobled’ over time.
Maistre’s most profound ideas, religious or otherwise, are those dealing with the interrelated issues of divine providence and sacrifice. Again, these ideas were formed as a response to the French Revolution.
Maistre had to account, from a theological perspective, for the calamity that had befallen France. Obviously, God had allowed France to make a terrible mistake. How could this be? Maistre puts forward the idea that “We are all bound to the throne of the Supreme Being by a flexible chain which restrains without enslaving us” (Considerations 47). To be free, we must be allowed to make mistakes, yet God has larger plans that our mistakes can’t thwart. The destruction of French society, Maistre suggests, may even be part of that plan; there is a reason why God did not intervene. Speaking of the anti-religious sentiment sweeping Europe, Maistre asks, “How has God punished this abominable delirium? He has punished it as he created the world, by a single phrase. He has said: LET IT BE–and the political world collapsed” (The Generative 180).
How, then, can the suffering of the victims of such terrible events be justified? Maistre’s answer is that unjust suffering and death is a form of sacrifice. Those who are sacrificed atone for the sins of all, and as a reward, they will spend less time in purgatory after death–or at least this is the argument arrived at by the characters in The Saint Petersburg Dialogues (261-262). In the dialogues, the Senator states, “The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death” 253). Every war, famine, plague or natural disaster is a form of punishment inflicted upon humanity, with the ultimate goal of saving souls through sacrifice.
Maistre’s ideas regarding sacrifice are especially relevant today. We live in a world steeped in injustice, where very few people have the opportunity to flourish the way God intends. The situation is the same in the First World as it is in the Third World (although I do not mean to minimize the immense suffering of those who live in lands beset by war, famine, or political oppression). We are all–even the ‘privileged’ white heterosexual male–being crushed spiritually by political and economic forces that we can’t fight. We live in an age of sacrifice. If we refuse to sacrifice at least some of our treasured dreams, the sacrifice will be made for us, and it will be a blood sacrifice in the form of global war. As Maistre states, “There is only one way of restraining the scourge of war, and that is by restraining the disorders that lead to this terrible purification” (Considerations 63). A spirit of sacrifice, coupled with a determination to right the disorders in Western culture, is the surest road to peace. Surely, Maistre can function as a guide and source of inspiration as we move forward to that end.
Maistre, Joseph de. Considerations on France [abridged]. Works 47-91.
——. Enlightenment on Sacrifices [abridged]. Works 291-298.
——. Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions [abridged]. Works 147-181.
——. The Pope [abridged]. Works 131-146.
——. The Saint Petersburg Dialogues [abridged]. Works 183-290.
——. Study on Sovereignty [abridged]. Works 93-129.
Maistre, Joseph de. The Works of Joseph de Maistre. Ed. and trans. Jack Lively. New York: Macmillan, 1965.